Early Impressions: SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER
Even though Lara Croft was the first in gaming to popularize looting ancient ruins, most people you ask will agree that crown has since fallen to Nathan Drake; as such, Croft’s more recent adventures have unavoidably been compared to those of Sony’s golden boy. From Lara’s new penchant for firearms and high-octane chases that feel more in line with Uncharted than Indiana Jones, to stealth and crafting systems taken directly from THE LAST OF US, it’s easy to see why the rebooted Tomb Raider series, successful as it is, lives in the shadow of its own successors.
All of that could change soon, however. I recently got my hands on a beta build encompassing the opening hour of the upcoming SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER at the game’s LA reveal event, and suffice it to say that I have never had this much fun with the new series. With developer Crystal Dynamics handing the reins over to Eidos Montreal, the new Tomb Raider appears to be doubling down on its strengths, and even in its early stages, this re-dedicated focus is immediately apparent.
SHADOW opens on the island of Cozumel, Mexico, amidst celebrations for the Day of the Dead. For quite a while now, Lara and her indefatigable companion Jonah have been hunting Trinity cells across Central America, seeking clues as to what the villainous organization has been planning. Their latest lead takes them to a Trinity dig site, where archaeologists have uncovered a lost Mayan temple of Kukulkan. After sneaking through the festivities and no small amount of spelunking, Lara infiltrates the shrine and recovers a ceremonial dagger.
Unfortunately, most temples weren’t built handicap accessible back in the day
With that bit of appropriation out of her system, Lara fights her way out of the site through several waves of Trinity goons before encountering the group’s new leader, Dr. Dominguez. The doctor reveals that according to a recently translated prophecy, the dagger’s internment had been keeping the world in harmony, and that its removal has set in motion the Apocalypse. Right on cue, a tsunami begins to ravage Cozumel. Caught in the tidal wave, Lara braves a perilous gauntlet through the flooded streets before reuniting with Jonah on high ground. With more disasters looming on the horizon and Jonah castigating her for her selfish actions, Lara races off alone to find the fabled Silver Box, the only object which can restore balance to the world.
If nothing else, Lara’s mission is shaping up to be more dire in SHADOW. The stakes of the last two games never really went beyond “prove Dad right,” so it’s good to see Lara saving the world for a change. I wish this same development extended to our heroine herself: the girl’s emotional states are limited to a) effusing about ancient craftsmen and b) falling off of cliffs. Reps from Eidos Montreal promise that SHADOW will see Lara both become the “legend she was meant to be,” and while that may be true, there has also been very little so far to suggest that her personality will expand beyond that of an encyclopedia.
An incredibly well-armed encyclopedia
Eidos also claims that this latest version of Lara will be an “apex predator,” and I can at least vouch for that. Lara is more of a joy to control than ever, both in and out of combat. In addition to tighter gunplay, Lara’s new rappelling gear provides more options for traversal during the mountaineering segments, while underwater controls have been expanded to allow for full dimensionality of movement in submerged areas. While the upgraded climbing and all-new aquatic gameplay is promising, it’s the overhauled stealth system that has me most excited.
Much like Lara, Tomb Raider has proven twice now that it excels at taking mechanics from elsewhere and improving on them. While in the past this largely saw influences from rival Naughty Dog titles, the well SHADOW chiefly draws from appears to be Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series. The dark, overgrown jungles of this iteration not only offer new ways to dispatch enemies (a gameplay reel after the demo teased the use of snares that could drag unwitting patrols into the canopy), but also the ability to melt back into the dense foliage.
During one firefight, I was able to round a corner and leap out of sight. My enemies followed and opened fire on where they had thought I was, unaware that I had already circled back behind them for an ambush. This was done without any of the tacky “last known position” markers seen in Splinter Cell and its ilk, which made my evasion feel all the more clever. Most action games (previous Tomb Raiders included) utilize stealth the same way a pool player would use a break shot, more of a one-use gimmick than a viable tactic. SHADOW’s freedom to switch between quiet and loud approaches on the fly isn’t just a shot in the arm for the genre: it might finally be what Tomb Raider needs to start casting a shadow of its own.
The ultimate game of whack-a-mole
I’ll admit that I haven’t been too hyped on Tomb Raider since its reemergence. There is only so much you can accomplish with polish when so many other games are experimenting, and succeeding, with ambitious new ideas and experimental systems. I wouldn’t go so far as to call what I’ve seen of SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER “revolutionary,” but it’s fresh enough to make a convert of me yet. Only time will tell if Eidos will leverage these new concepts to their fullest potential, but it’s safe to say that I am definitely looking forward Lara’s return in September.