Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part review. This portion focuses on the design and gameplay.
If there is one thing that has stood out about the recent Tomb Raider games, it is the exciting and dangerous foreign lands Lara Croft adventures through. After exploring the winter surroundings of Siberia in Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft’s latest adventure takes her to the tropical savanna climate of Mexico’s largest Caribbean island. Racing through Cozumel, players are treated to a devastating prologue in which a natural disaster smashes its way through the Day of the Dead festivities in the small Mexican town, setting up what promises to be Lara Croft’s biggest and most dangerous adventure yet. The ensuing dodging and jumping relies on quick reflexes in order to bypass various obstacles and incoming dangers — nothing new to the series — but the much-improved controls and dazzling visuals in Shadow makes it all the more thrilling. It’s also downright depressing at times, such as when watching Lara swim past drowning victims, or witnessing a boy dangling for his life before falling to his death. Some scenes in Shadow will no doubt send shivers down your spine.
Action Speaks Louder Than Words
Admittedly, the first act of Shadow of the Tomb Raider moves at a slower pace, focusing heavily on exploring, treasure-hunting, and solving smaller puzzles in and around ancient tombs. There’s a lot of walking, a lot of cinematic cut scenes, a lot of chatter, and a lot of time spent collecting materials in order to craft better weapons. Once Lara travels deep into the dangerous Peruvian jungles and arrives in Paititi, the game quickly picks up speed. The second half brings the high-adrenaline action we’ve come to expect, with Lara spending a decent amount of time evading deadly traps, dangling from ledges, scrambling through collapsing structures, hunting treasure, and fighting her way past her enemies. In regard to its gameplay, this is the best the series has ever been, a remarkable achievement that features top-notch animation and stunning environments to discover. If you are like me, you’ll spend a good amount of time snapping photos and taking screenshots throughout Lara’s epic journey.
Silent but Deadly
In the first part of this review, I mentioned that Shadow gives the Uncharted series a run for its money, and that is mostly due to the intense and always exciting gameplay it offers. Throughout her journey, Lara will acquire various weapons, starting with a bow and a handgun, until she eventually ends up carrying an assault rifle and a powerful shotgun. You’ll be given plenty of reasons to use everything in her arsenal, but if you are like me, you’ll prefer taking out the bad guys as quietly as possible. You see, one of the biggest changes in this entry is the emphasis on stealth combat. I spent the majority of the game relying only on Lara’s bare hands and bow to kill most of Trinity’s goons. In fact, I only picked up my handgun for the first time when I was well past the halfway mark. Shadow encourages players to hide in the shadows, take cover in long patches of grass, crouch behind objects, or strike from a distance by relying on archery skills. In addition, Lara can now cover herself in mud to further camouflage herself, and attack enemies by sidling along walls. If that isn’t enough, she can also use her tethering abilities to string a rope around an enemy’s neck from a tree and hoist them into the air, choking them out. Every so often, Lara will also make use of her bow and arrow to create zip lines in order to get from one platform to the next.
Rise of the Tomb Raider made heavy use of Lara’s arsenal, adding skills and a crafting system that allowed her to become more efficient in combat, and this game is no different. Lara’s skill tree now includes the option to craft arrows, and there is a skill system designed to help out in three areas: seeker, warrior, and scavenger. Not to mention, the game also features an herb-crafting system where healing, defense, and combat enhancement items can be made at any given time. With plenty of new fighting techniques and new weapons (including a poisonous arrow that causes your enemies to panic), Shadow features the most intense combat of the entire series, bar none. Call me crazy, but the variety of ways to ambush your enemies sure beats Nathan Drake’s constant use of firearms (personally, I’ll always prefer a bow and arrow over a gun). More importantly, none of it ever feels overwhelming; even newcomers to the series should have no trouble understanding how to use and upgrade each new ability and weapon Lara acquires.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment is the creation of Paititi, the jaw-dropping small Mexican town located in the jungles of Peru. Paititi acts as a hub area where you spend the vast majority of your time interacting with the indigenous society and learning about their culture, history, and folklore. Never before has a location in a Tomb Raider game felt so alive. Players can freely wander around, talk to select NPCs, listen to their stories, and watch their daily lives unfold. If that isn’t enough, Shadow‘s options menu allows you to choose to have the game’s NPCs speak their native tongue, including Quechuan, Yucatec, and other Mayan dialects. The meticulous attention to detail must be applauded. It is here where you will find a vast majority of side quests, which are well worth your time exploring.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also features some of the best puzzles in the series. Its side quest missions, optional crypts, and nine hidden tombs are extraordinary, challenging, and more importantly, they always feel fresh. It should be noted that I’ve read many people complain that the puzzles are far too easy. Shadow allows players to customize the difficulty level of combat, exploration, and puzzle solving independently of each other. Therefore, I recommend tweaking the settings accordingly to avoid this problem — otherwise, the game will hold your hand and pretty much tell you step by step how to solve each puzzle. After my initial playthrough, I wound up only completing 75% of the game, and to my surprise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider offered more puzzles to solve and tombs to raid after the credits roll.
Last but not least, I can’t end without mentioning the incredible score by Montreal composer Brian D’Oliveira, who spent three years travelling through dark corners of the Amazon and remote Mexican villages collecting the rare instruments used to compose the soundtrack. D’Oliviera (who grew up in Venezuela playing the Peruvian flute) said it was a dream to be able to bring the sounds of Latin American communities to millions of people. His hard work has paid off in spades; the soundtrack to Shadow is among the very best of the year — maybe the decade.
The story has its flaws, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider sets out to develop Lara Croft’s character as best as it can. Over the course of three games, we now have a better understanding of her past, her present, and a hint at what the future can bring. Each game has seen Lara evolve and become the legend she is said to be — a fierce warrior, brilliant archeologist, and courageous adventurer with a troubled past. And Shadow isn’t afraid to show her flaws.
As a game, the graphics and setting are beautifully rendered, the controls are tight and fluid, the combat is gratifying, and the puzzles are challenging enough without ever keeping the players away from the main mission for too long. As a whole, this trilogy is one of the finest video game series to date. As an action-adventure, a coming of age tale and a reflective story about obsession, Shadow of the Tomb Raider may be the best in the trilogy, an action adventure against which all future entries must now be measured. It is also one of the year’s best games — and the series has now approached the level of quality we’ve come to expect from Uncharted.