The Lara Croft we meet in Shadow of the Tomb Raider does not resemble the same struggling young girl we were introduced to back in the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. She’s experienced loss and through it she has matured. She’s felt pain and it has hardened her from within. She is a hunter now, and a very violent one at that.
The story this time around revolves around an end of the world scenario as Lara must race against time to prevent a series of global cataclysmic events all the while fighting to eliminate the threat of the organization known as Trinity. It’s also a bit on the darker side, and the game is fairly quick to establish this tone early in the campaign through a few memorable encounters that are still stuck in my head.
I was also very glad to see that Jonah, a character who has appeared in both the previous titles but was never given enough screen time, has a much greater role to play this time around. He acts both as a moral compass and closest companion to Lara, as we dive deeper than ever before into the motivations and regrets that drive her forward. You truly get a sense of how strong their relationship is, and how much these two characters mean to each other over the course of the game in a way that was never properly conveyed before.
And while the personal interactions between Jonah and Lara and the overall character development is great, the story does tend to fall into some cliché tropes that you can see coming from a mile away. It’s still fairly entertaining, but the writing could have been much better.
The new setting of the jungles of Peru is also a vastly different location than what we’ve seen before, both in terms of it’s visuals and the scope. Areas are divided into large open spaces that are absolutely littered with things to explore, challenges to complete and various exotic animals, such as Jaguars, to hunt.
There are quite a few Crypts to explore, some of which radically shift the usual open-endedness of the game into much more narrow and cramped experiences that were both amazing and nerve-racking at the same. Yet they are still dwarfed by the game’s 9 Challenge Tombs which, unsurprisingly, are some of the most entertaining bits of the entire game. To solve these you need to make use of your wits, your various tools and everything you’ve learned about the game till that point. Honestly, the developers could make an entire game about only exploring Tombs, and I would still play it.
You also get to explore a fair number of underwater locations this time around, that are really not as bad as they sound. They appear both inside caves and out in the open as lakes, and are usually good places to find resources such as gold. They don’t feel like chores, and most of them are quite abundant in air pockets, so you never really have to fret about drowning.
The gameplay is still mostly the same though, albeit with a few minor tweaks. You unlock new abilities for Lara at campfires through the game’s skill trees, which are divided into the Warrior, Seeker and Scavenger branches. Most of the abilities in these are not very different from previous entries, but you do get access to a few of the newer ones as you play through the game such as the ability to see the hearts of large animals while using Survival Instinct, which lets you inflict massive damage on them when hunting.
And you’ll need to hunt and collect resources from the environment quite often, both to upgrade your weapons and to craft outfits that you find throughout the game world. Because the large selection of new outfits offer bonuses such as increased ammo from crates and skin from animals among other things. The outfit system is also layered now, allowing you to mix and match different items on the upper and the lower body slots on top of the regular complete outfits..
Combat is also more or less the same, and revolves around the same four weapon types: Pistols, Rifles, Shotguns and Bows. Using them feels better than ever however, and the game does a spectacular job in pacing firefights out in between sections that encourage the use of heavy stealth, making sure that neither ever starts to feel too repetitive. But still expect to use your Bows the most, alongside a variety of different traps and brutal take-downs, because Shadow of the Tomb Raider leans very heavily towards stealth. In fact, it’s evident from some of the new skills and the foliage heavy world that level design was focused primarily on accommodating it.
Plants found in the world can now also be used for more than just crafting healing items. Certain plants can be used to give yourself advantages such as being able to sense wildlife or slow down time when aiming, which is something that often comes in handy during hunting and encounters with large groups of enemies.
Lara is now also able to rappel off of elevated surfaces and swing using the new Grapple Axe, adding a whole new layer to the way she explores the world, as she swings and builds up momentum to cross gaps in the environment. There are some moments in the game that make excellent use of this feature to provide unique traversal challenges, but I won’t be spoiling any of them here. Just know that they’re amazing.
Also new to Shadow of the Tomb Raider are the Jungle towns that act as hub areas in the game. Here you can purchase a wide variety of items from street vendors such as outfits, ammunition and even brand new weapons, and some NPCs can even be interacted with to unlock points of interest on the map. It is also here that you can take on side-missions, most of which give out meaningful rewards, but are still little more than filler content.
In conclusion, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is without a doubt one of the best games in the entire Tomb Raider franchise, if not the best. It introduces few new ideas and innovations to it’s gameplay, but it’s how those ideas are executed upon that truly matters. It’s far from perfect, but what we do have is a truly exceptional Tomb Raider game.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is out now on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and the PC. It was developed by Eidos Montréal in conjunction with Crystal Dynamics, and was published by Square Enix. This review covers the Xbox One version of the game.
The review copy was provided by the publisher.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an amazing entry into the Tomb Raider franchise, and one that sets a new bar for the series as a whole. Few things about it are new or different, but what we do have is an incredibly refined game.