Release Date: September 14, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Eidos MontrealPublisher: Square EnixGenre: Action-adventure
The rebooted Tomb Raider series’ third entry, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, continues the franchise’s run of success, marrying pulse-pounding action and challenging puzzles with a staggering, double-take worthy audio-visual presentation. The foundation laid by Crystal Dynamics in the first two titles is further refined and built upon by Eidos Montreal, who aided in the development of the previous games but has now taken the reins as lead developer, with Crystal Dynamics, which is currently working on a new Avengers game, lending support. The swap in leadership couldn’t have been more seamless–Shadow maintains the spirit of its predecessors while introducing enough new elements to keep returning players on their toes, and by almost every measure, this is the most polished — and perhaps best — Tomb Raider game to date.
Shadow completes a three-game character arc for Lara Croft, who is again voiced by the extraordinary Camilla Luddington. The first game introduced us to a young Lara, a frightened, neophyte survivalist left shriveled and traumatized when forced to take her first human life. Rise of the Tomb Raider saw her cope with PTSD and uncover the truth behind the death of her father, and Shadow completes her transformation as we watch her master her skills and confront her inner demons, grappling with an intoxicating notion of “destiny” that haunts her dreams and pushes her ever closer to the fringes of sanity.
While narrative and character development seem less central to the experience than, say, the Uncharted series (whose DNA is inextricably linked with Tomb Raider’s), storytelling still remains a driving force in Shadow, and watching Lara come into her own and overcome the ghosts of her past is compelling from beginning to end. Her relationship with right-hand man Jonah (Earl Baylon) is handled particularly well, with the kind-hearted Kiwi acting as a voice of reason and compassion, anchoring Lara when her hubris and pessimism threaten to consume her.
The game is set in the teeming jungles of Latin America, with Lara combating both the environment and cultist paramilitary group Trinity, who return from the previous title to again stand in our heroine’s way. Lara’s now a far more confident (almost cocky) and zealous adventurer, and her single-mindedness leads her to inadvertently unleash a series of apocalyptic disasters on thousands of innocent people. There are undercurrents of socio-political commentary throughout the main story, which focuses on subverting the white savior trope, capturing in horrific detail the inherent terror of catholicism, and exploring the fickle nature of nationalism.
As in previous games, the map is hub-based, divided into a handful of open environments littered with smaller, focused challenge areas. But Shadow boasts the series’ most expansive hubs yet, with rolling hills and bustling jungled communities populated by roaming animals and chatty villagers, who more often than not reveal hidden items on the map or open opportunities for side missions. Exploration is especially engrossing here, as there’s seemingly something new to uncover inside every nook and cranny of the game world, from forgotten treasures to instinct-amplifying, consumable plants.
Traversal has always been a key component in Tomb Raider games, and it’s more fluid than ever this time around thanks to new mechanics like improved swimming controls (and expanded underwater areas to make use of them) and the ability to rappel down cliff walls. While climbing and scampering isn’t as robust as the systems you’ll find in Assassin’s Creed or Insomniac’s Spider-Man, exploring the various environments still feels incredibly streamlined and efficient, which allows you to focus on sussing out puzzles without the added, unnecessary stress of fighting with floaty controls.
Combat is more of a mixed bag. Controls are snappy and responsive when engaging enemies, but certain encounters can become frustratingly frantic and chaotic. The camera’s proximity to Lara is so tight that battling more than one enemy more often than not results in getting whallopped by grunts lunging at you from just off-screen, whose pre-attack telegraphing animations happen completely out of view, giving you little to no time to dodge effectively. To make things worse, projectile-launching enemies have infuriatingly accurate aim, which, when combined with the camera issue, can make for a truly un-fun experience.
Stealth gameplay, on the other hand, is much richer and well balanced this time around. Lara’s been given the invaluable ability to re-enter stealth mode after alerting enemies by breaking their line of sight. She can also cover herself in mud and blend into mossy rock walls, which not only looks cool (she appears genuinely camouflaged when muddied) but opens up myriad opportunities to off wandering baddies quickly and discreetly. Verticality is a key element as well; preying on trinity soldiers from the treetops and stringing them up with a grapple line a dozen feet off the forest floor is endlessly enjoyable.
Skills unlocked via the game’s skill tree open up Lara’s repertoire in inventive ways. Highlights include the ability to plant proximity grenades on fallen enemies, stealth kill multiple enemies at once, and craft fear arrows that cause enemies to turn on each other. Eidos Montreal does a good job of creating a sense that Lara is more adept than ever before, which speaks to her growth as a warrior-survivalist but also reinforces the narrative that she’s matured as a woman.
Challenge tombs are more numerous than in previous titles, with each one presenting a carefully curated set of obstacles, whether it be a physics-based puzzle, an infernal obstacle course, or a gauntlet of swarming enemies. The platforming puzzles, in particular, are tremendously well designed, and on many occasions, a puzzle’s solution will be hidden in plain sight. The “a-ha!” moment of finally unlocking the trick to a puzzle being some of the game’s highest highs.
Gameplay is mostly rock-solid and enjoyable all around, but Shadow’s true wow-factor lies in its graphical prowess and immersive sound design. The game’s lighting is staggeringly good, especially when traversing the leafy hub environments in broad daylight. The glow of the blistering South American sunlight is fantastic, and outdoor scenes look truly spectacular on 4K displays. Each locale is richly detailed, with geometrically complex scenery that loses very little fidelity even upon close examination. Jungle vegetation is a highlight, too. Plants, vines, and trees arranged realistically and densely, to the point where at times it feels like the foliage is crowding in on you, threatening to swallow you whole.
Of course, one of the defining characteristics of the current incarnation of Tomb Raider is the focus on cinematic set pieces that send Lara hurtling toward certain doom, and these moments are more spectacular and thrilling than ever. An early sequence sees Lara swept away in a flood through Mexican city streets, scrambling to keep her head above water as innocent people perish left and right. It’s a graphical tour-de-force, but it’s the emotional element of Lara’s inability to save the lives of the innocent bystanders (who fall victim to a flood that she caused) that really makes the experience feel special.
Perhaps the most supremely impressive aspect of the visual presentation is Lara’s character model, which was already terrific in previous titles but sees a noticeable bump in detail and expressiveness here. Her animations are smooth as silk and respond to player control inputs without appearing jerky or unnatural. Little details, like the way she follows points of interest with her gaze, look startlingly real. The tertiary animations of her tools and weapons jingling as she runs, or the lifelike scrapes and bruises you see on her elbows as she carefully shimmies in and out of tight openings in rock faces, really help to ground Lara in the game world and make it feel like she’s truly interacting with and changing her surroundings.
By the same token, the most noticeable hitch in the visual presentation is Jonah’s character model. While Lara is exquisitely designed, organic-looking and is easy to envision as a real person, Jonah’s model has an overly symmetrical, create-a-character look to it that simply doesn’t look as expressive and lifelike as Lara’s. NPC’s look even more manufactured, which is completely forgivable given the scale of the presentation, and the main villain’s model actually looks almost as good as Lara’s. But the iffy quality of Jonah’s is the most noticeable because he’s such a pervasive presence in the story and shares more scenes with Lara than any other character.
Thankfully, Earl Baylon’s performance helps breathe life into Jonah, and Camilla Luddington’s take on Croft is as sharp as ever. There’s quite a powerful emotional core to this final leg of Lara’s coming-of-age story, and the British-American actress nails every moment of anger and heartbreak, without fail. She’s really doing some of the best voice work in video games today.
Eidos Montreal’s audio designers do a fine job of supporting her performance and the dazzling visuals with tasteful sound that envelops but doesn’t ever feel invasive or distracting. Caves are echoey, prowling animals can be placed spatially without visual cues, and the sound design is the absolute key to making the otherwise unremarkable underwater sequences genuinely thrilling.
Sound plays a major role in the developer’s approach to the semi-open world presentation as well. The sprawling mountainside village of Paititi (the game’s largest hub area) comes to life thanks to ambient natural sounds and smatterings of locals’ chatter. Wandering around the village can become a bit of a chore when carrying out some of the game’s more uninspired, thinly-veiled fetch quests, but sometimes the game looks and sounds so good that taking a simple stroll can be engaging enough.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an excellent game, and it’s heartening to see Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics’ trilogy capped off so brilliantly. There’s no game mechanic or concept introduced here that’s revolutionary or transformative for the series, but the truth is that the current Tomb Raider formula still holds up. If you look at the three games as a cohesive, larger experience, the fact that the developers were able to maintain such a high level of quality throughout the rebooted franchise’s lifetime is an impressive feat indeed.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.