Shadow Of The Tomb Raider Review
I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, I prefer the Tomb Raider Reboots to the Uncharted series. As much as I like the Uncharted series and its super high quality polish, there’s something about the TR Reboots that I like even more. Whilst I’m sure both characters have collectively walked away from more skin-of-your-teeth situations than every real adventurer in history combined, Lara feels as though she earns her escapes by her own means, and not through sheer dumb luck. At least, that’s how I see it.
The first game of the reboot trilogy dealt with Lara becoming a survivor. A regular girl, thrown into an unreasonable situation, having to deal with what the island threw at her. She rose to the challenge (see what I did there?), and succeeded in becoming the person she was always destined to become after a long lineage of titles effectively telling us what was coming next. This 3rd title deals with what would happen, if she continued to become obsessed with this lifestyle, and what path that would lead her down.
A good analogy for a lot of us really, where obsessing over something can have toxic effects for both ourselves and those around us. The intense pursuit of something that calls out to us, and makes us feel that we have purpose and meaning, or at the least the seductive promise held by it. Whether or not we attain that goal or reach the place we want to be, it will have a cost, and it’s one that Lara is completely unaware of. Jonah continues to warn her and pull her back into reality with a few checks here and there, but she’s not listening very closely, obviously. Hence we have a story.
This was both my favourite game of the trilogy, and my least favourite for the same reason. I both like and dislike the game for its focus on stealth. In a very heavy-handed manner, the game makes it clear at every opportunity through enemy placement, Lara’s starting position, and numbers of enemies, that stealth is the preferred and more sensible option (especially on the harder combat difficulty). Thankfully, the game’s difficulties can be adjusted separately, meaning you can opt for hard puzzles and easy combat should you so wish. This focus on stealth however brings about attention to problems the game has that you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Enemy patrols and flawed lines of sight, mean that you will get away with some stealth kills and movements that should have exposed you, yet what seems to be clean cover to execute someone, is actually going to give away your position. For example, killing a guard on corner will only partially move his body around behind the wall, but his feet will still stick out around the corner and alert nearby guards to investigate. Useful if you know it will happen, as you can wait for a nearby patrol to veer off to investigate whilst you sneak behind them for a kill or an easy getaway, but annoying if you don’t.
The game’s internal messaging is conflicted as a result. I have an arsenal of 4 assault rifles, 4 pistols, 2 shotguns, and my 3 bows. I’ve been searching random tombs for upgrades and resources to modify them, and then I’m only given a dozen (give or take) real encounters to use them. The game is signalling me with various weapons and modifications that these are somehow important, but then heavy-handedly coerces me into using stealth as the preferred option. It’s a juxtaposition that irks me a lot, as I spent time and effort upgrading these weapons, only to be told that I shouldn’t actually engage with weapons directly, from various nudges throughout the game’s design. Stealth is a welcome change, I just don’t want to be strong-armed or guilted into using it. All the action (in terms of fighting, not scripted set pieces happening around you) seems to be saved for the final 20% of the game, and a brief moment in the middle.
So for better and worse, stealth is the preferred option for the game, and it doesn’t try to hide it. With a lowered encounter rate, and the game hitting you over the head through Lara’s initial starting position and overly obvious patrol patterns and vine/bush placements, it’s really a no-brainer to opt for stealth as it’s sometimes quicker, but always less challenging (especially on the Hard difficulty which I played on). This does give the game a chance to shine in one area however, which is A.I. It falls a little short where I mentioned that guards’ reactions are not always on point, with the lack of reaction during moments where I clearly entered their line of sight, or did something that should have alerted them. However, there are moments where the game showed promise.
Just before I finished the game, I took out a guy called Morgan who was talking to someone briefly beforehand. Afterwards, one of the guards asked “Hey, Morgan went quiet all of a sudden, where is he?” and they all scrambled around looking for him. I’ve stumbled into at least 2 other situations where this kind of thing happens. Is it a common occurrence within the game, or just a couple of scripted moments where the designers anticipated the player’s movement patterns and actions? Hard to say. If it’s authentic however, it’s a nice detail that’s appreciated and genuinely took me aback for a moment. Not many games personalise the enemies with names and minutia such as this. It was cool to hear and see amongst many other small behaviours such as trying to flank the last known position Lara had before vanishing, and flushing her out from cover with grenades.
The narrative also makes an attempt at personalising the enemies a little towards the end, where the antagonist questions Lara (Uncharted style) whether she is any different from what they are, having killed so many to attain her own ends and goals. It’s played off as such a dramatic and profound moment, but its effect is muted heavily somewhat by the fact that most of us have already experienced this angle/perspective in the Uncharted series. The same could be said about Lara’s obsession of pursuing this lifestyle, as it’s the exact same narrative Nathan faced in the final game of his own series. Tad bit of Deja Vu here once again from the Uncharted series, and I think it’s partially due to half-heartedness rather than ignorance. It’s a shame, because Lara has the capacity to become much more than what Nathan was, but continues to try and follow in her big brother’s shadow. There’s simply no need, and she could pull it off better if she tried honestly, as there’s much more to work with. Could be a result of outside influence/interference from the men in suits, but who knows? I’m just disappointed that she retreads the exact structure of Uncharted 4 here, and more or less hits the same narrative beats, but with a different coat of paint.
The environments are beautifully detailed of course, and are the biggest highlight the game has. It’s a shame nothing too interesting happens in them. Whilst the story is very good, and I like the themes presented, I didn’t feel compelled to watch every single story moment. Most were good and I was engaged with what was happening, but too many times have I sat and felt like I’ve just watched this moment played out too many times already within the same game. I felt like the direction should be taking us to a new story beat and characters should develop and change ever so slightly, but ultimately they remain stuck either feeling sad, complaining, or a confused mixture of both with some regret. It’s a singular tone that remains for the whole story from beginning to end unfortunately. Little is done to really do something interesting with it after establishing those tones, beyond a very brief monologue post-ending from Lara back in her mansion. The revelation came a little too late, and far too soft, being mostly underplayed. There were plenty of earlier opportunities to further expand and explore this theme of unhealthy obsession and climbing out from within that darkness. For instance, Lara could have chosen to give up everything and go home (a brief moment does show her considering this option, but Jonah talks her out of it almost instantly), and a few events could have compelled her to come back and try once again. Instead, we’re just teased with a brief contemplation of it, and a few seconds later, she’s reeling off clues again and trying to figure out where to go next. Many missed opportunities for some really heart-wrenching, tough decisions for Lara to make. Before anyone suggests her so-called sacrifice at the end to avoid temptation, that doesn’t really fit within the rest of the theming, and feels more like tying up a loose emotional end than having any relevance to this game’s narrative in particular. A little forced and comes out of left field.
The apocalypse brings about some great set pieces. Mudslides, Tsunamis, Volcanic Eruptions; very epic stuff. You’re a very small part of a much larger problem on a grander scale compared to yourself. The enemies have a decent motive that seems justified and isn’t all too unreasonable to go along with. It isn’t a simple “I’m evil and want to destroy the world” kind of situation which is nice to see continued as it was before. It’s a moral grey area for sure, but one you could debate on in favour for the enemy lead. Alongside regular exploration, the apocalyptic escape sequences and side missions are what will occupy most of your time.
There are some other minor distractions such as various challenges (find these objects, or shoot down these etc.) and of course the tombs/crypts return, but the weapon rewards etc. feel pointless due to the focus on stealth I mentioned before. A few of them are genuinely tricky with some good puzzles. Fortunately if you’re not a fan of puzzles, you can turn the puzzle difficulty down to Easy, separate from the combat difficulty. Hunting doesn’t seem anywhere near as important now, as you can find the hides you need simply by looting tombs and crypts, and I didn’t use any herbs beyond the healing ones occasionally. These mechanics felt outdated and lacking purpose at this point, and were simply present because they have been up until now. Forced inclusion for the sake of consistency, without practicality.
Audio and music are the best of the series. Though a few sound effects seem to lack the impact of previous titles, it’s one of those good games you could technically play with your eyes closed, and still be able to imagine what’s going on (a common test I carry on when reviewing sound in games). There’s plenty of visual signposting too to guide you, though on the hard difficulty, these assists are severely limited. On Regular and Easy difficulties, walls that can be clambered are painted white, and certain objects have some sort of visual information to go by. On Hard, these paint marks are removed, and things are much harder to make out.
It all came to a head when I was on a wrecked ship searching for treasure in an optional tomb/crypt. I was stuck in the back of the ship, unsure of how to climb up to another climbable wall that was being illuminated by the game’s lighting to hint at my next destination. After a few minutes of searching and failing to grapple up there, I watched a YouTube walkthrough video on how to do the ship. In the dark rear corner of the ship, there was a board of wood sticking out. Something you would think is simply decoration, was actually a special one-off-use model specifically to allow Lara to climb just this one time in a unique and special manner. It looked identical to the rest of the ship, and only jutted out ever so slightly. Honestly, it looked exactly like every other piece of the wrecked ship, and there are a few moments like this where playing on the harder difficulty has some drawbacks. Since all of the YouTuber’s Shadow Of The Tomb Raider videos had around 10k views each and the shipwreck video had around 160k views, I’m going to assume I wasn’t the only one with this problem.
There were also some other moments during action-escape sequences, where I simply tilted the stick in a direction, and assumed Lara would climb something useful. I wasn’t 100% sure if where I was trying to go had anything climbable, so a few ill-designed models such as ones in the oil rig section, or strange wooden structures with messy board patterns, were sometimes climbable whereas other surfaces which looked obvious to climb, were not. The inconsistency is not a problem normally, but there are a few moments where you do double-check yourself and question whether it’s doable, intended, or just a red herring.
So Shadow sits in a strange position for me as a result. On one hand these changes I’ve mentioned are great and gave me a very unique and different experience than what I had previously, and I enjoyed the change. On the other hand, I feel as if these changes were somewhat forced on me, offering the illusion of choice, but really I was obliged to opt for stealth (especially on Hard unless I was prepared to throw around explosives like a mad-man). Those uncomfortable changes are also apparent in the story to a degree, and within the visual design of the game itself. Eidos Montreal were the main developers this time around, instead of Crystal Dynamics. The changes I’ve mentioned really do feel like a result of a different developer being involved, and it’s mostly good, but detracts from the expected experience also in other ways. It was refreshing at best, and jarring at worst.
If you’re coming in as a fan of the first two games, I think you’ll be mostly happy with what’s in store for you here. Less focus on combat, a different style of storytelling, and generally just an overall change of tone, makes this a far more interesting experience than had it just been more of the same from the first 2 games. Just like Lara’s obsessions, these changes have come at a price, but one worth paying to experience another style of these games that works in equal measure, just a tad disappointing and irritating in a few ways. Currently the metacritic score sits at 75, which I feel is more or less appropriate. Personally I’d rate it a little higher, maybe 80, but it would depend on how you receive the change in direction and tone, so your mileage may vary. Personally I enjoyed it a lot, and reminds me why I prefer the series over Uncharted. However, I did go back to play the first two games on New Game+, and I won’t be doing the same with Shadow.
Long story short? I bought it for almost half price on sale, finished it once on Hard, and uninstalled it. A very good game, but with so much lost potential stopping it from ending on an extremely high note.
Images Taken From: https://tombraider.square-enix-games.com/en-gb/media/images