Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review: More of a Great Thing

When publisher Square Enix and developer Crystal Dynamics announced that they were rebooting the beloved Tomb Raider series, fans were rightfully worried. After all, this is Lara Croft we're talking about, a video game icon and a title that has inspired a legion of successors. But through all the skepticism, Square Enix delivered a new improved Lara, one that was equal parts tough and vulnerable and placed her in seemingly insurmountable odds. She, like us were trying to find her place in the world, it just so happens hers is raiding tombs and stopping supernatural horrors from wiping out the world.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One), the third entry in the series, gives us a Lara who's fully in control of her badass skill set. A Lara that can run and gun with the best of them, stealthily dispatch enemies and explore long forgotten crypts better than anyone. And thanks to Crystal Dynamics attention to detail, neither the adventurer nor her world (a lush jungle) has never looked better. But for better or worse, Lara's story is a cautionary tale of when passion gives over to obsession.

Back in the Kit Kat Again

The third entry in the Tomb Raider reboot picks up two months after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Lara and her trusted friend Jonah are hot on the trail of Trinity, a shadow organization similar to the Knights of Templar, looking to reshape the world in its image using ancient relics. Through dogged determination, Lara and Jonah trail Dr. Dominguez, an archaeologist whose is an expert in early Mesoamerican cultures who is also a high-ranking member in Trinity.  

In her efforts to defeat Trinity and avenge her father, Lara inadvertently sets the stage for the apocalypse. In a race against time, Lara must right her wrongs, without turning into the people she despises the most.

Pretty as a picture

Before you delve into Shadow, the game gives you a choice of how you want the game to be rendered. You can either go the high framerate route and get 60 fps on your PS4 or Xbox or choose high resolution and ogle the hell out of the gorgeous graphics such as the fine hairs of an attacking jaguar or the intricate design of Jonah's tattoo. While I definitely appreciate higher frame rates, I went with the high resolution option to see the game in all its glory on my 4K television and an Xbox One X.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider - The End of the Beginning Trailer

But if you want the best of both worlds, you'll want to check out the PC version of the game, which will be one of the first games to feature Nvidia's Ray Tracing technology, which is available in the new RTX-series GPUs. And if you're taken with a particular vista in the game (trust me, you will be), you can employ Nvidia's Ansel mode to snap a picture or photography mode if you're playing on a console.

Guerilla Warfare

Shadow of the Tomb Raider employs the same mechanics as the first two entries in the reboot series. It's a mix of sneaky stealth kills and third-person run-and-gun action. Now that we're in third-entry of the reboot, Lara has fully embraced the "kill or be killed" mentality. For my first kill, I performed a Stealth Takedown, stabbing my enemy in the stomach and finishing him off with a slice to the neck. Bow and gun mechanics are pretty much identical to the past two games, although the aiming seems a bit smoother.

But Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics did add some new elements to the combat, the most exciting of which is the implementation of camouflage. Lara can smear herself with mud to blend into the mud-caked environment around her, which sort of reminded me of a low-fi version of Solid Snake and his OctoCamo in Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns of the Patriots. You can also use the thick bush and vines in the jungle settling to strike from the shadows. The foliage can also be used to hide from your foes as I learned in an underwater cavern as I laid low in a patch of seagrass to avoid a school of ravenous piranha.

Unlike the previous titles, Shadow gives you the ability to break and re-enter cover as necessary. It allowed me to truly take control of my combat strategy, letting me be as stealthy or as in-your-face as I wanted. Although armed with fear and poison arrows, I prefer the silent, but deadly approach to combat.

Challenge Tombs: Not for the Faint of Heart

In between attempts to cancel the apocalypse, Lara finds some time to pillage some tombs. The game is lousy with tombs and crypts, provided you're willing to go off the beaten path once and awhile. But when you inevitably stumble across one of these hidden sepulchres, be aware it's trying to kill you, particularly the Challenge Tombs. Decorated with skeletons doused with garish yellow paint, Challenge Tombs want to add Lara's corpse to their collection.

The tombs are a mix of puzzles, climbing and devilish booby traps waiting to drop you or impale you on something sharp.

From gathering more resources, enabling better shooting and unlocking a variety of stealth kills, you can mold Lara into your ideal play style.

And if that wasn't enough, the game ratchets up the foreboding music only for it to suddenly transition to the otherworldly hisses and screeches of something that may or may not be stalking you as you make your way through the necropolis.

Want to ramp up that low-key terror even further? Read the various journals and notes strewn around the wrecked campsites and take a good long look at the blackened, twisted bodies littering the way to the treasure.

All this fear and loathing pays off big if you manage to reach the end of the tomb. In addition to special gear and treasure, there are some skills that can only be unlocked by tackling the tombs. But before you go on a raiding session, make sure you have the right equipment -- your survival depends on it.

MORE: The 15 Best Tomb Raider Games

If you're looking for more tombs to plunder after you've finished the game, the season pass will deliver seven additional Challenge Tombs.

Awkward as hell

So far, we've seen Lara develop from a wide-eyed adventurer into the gritty tomb raider we all know and love. But in Shadow, you get to see a whole new side of Lara, the side that interacts with people other than Jonah, other important tertiary allies and main villains. And wow, is she freakin' awkward. Yes, I understand she feels super guilty for unleashing the Mayan apocalypse upon the world, but Lara's people skills leave something to be desired.

I cringed as Lara seemed to struggle with conversation with the people of Paititi. She never seemed comfortable engaging, with stilted, nervous dialogue whereas Jonah has the gift of gab. Call me overly woke, but I couldn't help but wonder if it was a case of Colonizer syndrome. There's even a point where Lara sort of defiles an important artifact and leaves Jonah to deal with the fallout -- awkward. Speaking of Jonah, I definitely appreciated when he reminded Lara that not everything is about her.

Similar to Rise of Tomb Raider, when she's done exploring tombs and thwarting Trinity's machinations, Lara returns to a hub world -- in this case, the hidden city of Paititi. While you're exploring Paititi (which is the largest hub world ever executed in a Tomb Raider title), Lara will have the ability to talk to some of the non-playable characters, which can yield side missions or clues to hidden tombs and other secrets.

MORE: Shadow of the Tomb Raider Pushes Lara Croft to Her Limits

And in another first for the series, Lara can actually purchase items from merchants. And while it's nice having the ability to simply buy arrows and resources, I'd recommend saving your precious gold ore for bigger purchases like weapons, accessories and outfits.

Climbing the Skill Tree

Lara's already pretty badass, but a few extra moves never hurt anyone, with the exception of Trinity soldiers, supernatural entities and a jaguar or two. The three-tiered skill tree makes a triumphant return in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and is full of plenty of helpful abilities that will help you rain on Trinity's parade. This time around the Scavenger, Seeker and Warrior trees has Mesoamerican-influenced names to match up with the game's theme.

From gathering more resources, enabling better shooting and unlocking a variety of stealth kills, you can mold her into your ideal play style. I like a stealth-scavenger build out, so the majority of the skill points I earn are allocated to those trees.

High resolution mode let me ogle the hell out of the gorgeous graphics, from the fine hairs of an attacking jaguar to the intricate design of Jonah's tattoo.

My favorite skill so far is the Arkham Knight-reminiscent stealth rope hang, which allows Lara to shoot an arrow at an enemy combatant when she's above them and jump down using her body weight to hang them. However, I do make sure to buff Lara with some Warrior skills as they offer skills like better aim which definitely comes in handy.

Upgradable Fashion

All that hunting, mining, skinning and scavenging aren't just mindless chores. Just like in the other Tomb Raider titles, you can upgrade your various weapons whether they be pistols, shotguns, rifles or your trusty bow with all that bric-a-brac. You can also stitch yourself an outfit or two from the skins and cloth you'll obtain along the way. And just like in Rise of the Tomb Raider, some clothes have passive benefits such as silencing your footsteps, increasing your scavenging yield and ammo capacity.

Bottom Line

Lara has come a long way since the franchise's 2013 reboot. Now a fully-realized Tomb Raider, she's smart, capable and athletic -- everything you want from a video game hero. Square Enix has created an absolute gorgeous game and I encourage you to explore every nook and cranny. Building upon the strong foundations of its predecessors and taking cues from its modern contemporaries, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an fun, exhilarating romp that delivers polished gameplay throughout. I'm thoroughly excited for the next installation of Ms. Croft's adventures.

Credit: Square Enix

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