In gaming, the characters we play are important to us so many ways. We can see them as someone we would like to be in different reality or maybe we would love to handle our problems in the same way they would. There have been days when I would love to ‘do a Kratos’ as someone cuts me up on the motorway or wield Gordon Freeman’s gravity gun when someone is double parked at the supermarket. Projecting our sense of self onto fictional characters is as old as Adam and why many of us can get a little overly protective of our favourite gaming icons. Lara Croft started her gaming life as one half of gaming duo, she was to be the female alternative character in the original design, but due to the extra work of animating two characters in all the cut scenes, one of them had to go. Toby Gard, who was responsible for the creation of Lara had noticed how many gamers loved to choose female characters in fighting games and so went with the female lead. It is worth noting that he didn’t see Lara’s sex as something to be exploited and didn’t approve of the way her sex appeal was marketed in the sequels.
Regardless of whether you approve of Lara's journey to present day or not, her image has been a core element for the series. She is an attractive young woman and many of the early games used tight-fitting clothes to appeal to a gaming market, which was seen as predominantly young men. It has since been reported that the teams working on Tomb Raider games in this middle period felt burnt out on the franchise: something had to change.
In 2013 the reboot titled simply ‘Tomb Raider’ was released and was also seen as something of an origin story. This new Lara still had many of the previous elements intact including her drive for adventure and a knack for getting into tricky situations. Thankfully, Crystal Dynamics had decided to ground Lara in a more realistic tone, she was now less about showing off her thighs and more about showing her humanity. This was when I remember sitting up and paying attention to the series again.
The way Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes care of business is essentially split between three modes of play (with some slight crossover here and there). You have the open hub areas where you can pick up side quests, chat with locals and access merchants. You have the exploration areas where you can gather resources, find hidden tombs and hunt the wild creatures of the world. You will also inevitably come across combat areas that are specifically set up to take advantage of Lara’s new stealth abilities. There will invariably be a mud patch near the start, a few trees to perform rope attacks and then a whole lot of conveniently placed cover for Lara to get close to her enemies and take them down (by hitting F). A skill you will use a lot is her 'survival view' which highlights a whole manner of things including enemies and cover. It is quite possible to F your way through most combat zones with the occasional action area where going full Rambo is required. Combat can be lots of fun and if you play with the various tools you can change things up a bit. I did like how Lara can swim near guards and drag them underwater, I really wish this had been used more than it was. Unfortunately, for the most part, these combat areas don’t provide much challenge and even right at the end sequence, I was performing the same kills on the same enemies I had been fighting right from the start.
As you play you will accrue experience which will cause you to level up and gain skill points. These can be spent on skills in the usual fashion. The skills are divided into three distinct areas like in the previous game. Most of these skills come down to subtle improvements: less fall damage, carry more ammo or occasionally a more meaty ability. There are some nice skill upgrades to be had in the challenge tombs which is at least some incentive to backtrack and find them. The big problems for me isn't the combat itself, which can be entertaining, but more that the game never really lets you off the leash. No sooner was I enjoying my newly found weapons and hard-earned skills, it was over and I was heading to the next area.
Killing me softly
One of the most difficult aspects of creating a likeable character in an action game comes down to a question, ‘how can we justify the killing?’ I remember this being one of the most talked about aspects of the reboot: that Lara seems to transition very quickly from vulnerable girl having to defend herself from attack - to hardened killing machine that would make Thanos blush. It’s a difficult conundrum to figure out, I’m sure most reasonable gamers wouldn't expect each kill to be justified with a five-minute preamble. Interestingly, right at the start of the game Lara inadvertently sets off an event which literally kills an entire village and its surrounding areas. As I was swimming through the corpses of the people who had just drowned (thanks to Lara's sticky fingers) I remember wondering if she would be made accountable for this scene of mass devastation. This reckoning never came and so instead it felt like this opening tragedy was only there for the shock value.
I’ll be honest and admit that until this month I didn't know this was going to be the last game in this rebooted series, effectively making this the last of a trilogy. That makes me sad because while I thought the first two games were really building momentum, this game falls flat in so many ways. I just can’t shake the feeling that the writers didn’t quite know how to wrap this story arc up and so just stuck with a safe ‘end of the world’ cliche. Trinity, the shadowy organisation that is Lara’s main adversary, is yet again behind the nefarious plot to bring about the apocalypse. Even Lara herself doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything from the previous two games and instead starts this adventure like an impetuous child having a temper tantrum. Thankfully Jonah is on hand to give her an emotion slap across the face and remind her that “not everything is about you Lara”.
We do get to see some flashbacks into Lara's past but these end up being nothing more than emotional anchors that provide links to the current villain. The narrative does get a few things right though. Once Lara has her little meltdown she does become far more likeable and seeing the relationship between her and Jonah develop is great. I think the voice actress Camilla Luddington does a fantastic job of getting Lara’s personality across and it has to be said that she even resembles Lara in the looks department as well. There is one sequence where you must play through one of Lara's childhood memories in the Croft Mansion. I must admit that I initially rolled my eyes but this turned out to be a very enjoyable and actually a well-made part of the game.
Unfortunately, there are some sequences in this game that go beyond ridiculous and/or just don’t make any sense. We all know action heroes can take a few more hits than the average Joe but being mauled for twenty seconds by a big cat would be fifteen seconds longer than it needed to snap your neck. Then for reasons that are never really explained, said apex predator gets confused by a bit of mud and decides to give Lara a pass. After a good rub from Jonah’s magic cloth, Lara is good to go. We also have scenes where thirty plus guards are firing automatic weapons (including a high calibre machine gun from an attack helicopter) at her while exposed on a tower and yet miraculously not one bullet connects. I know these games require a good imagination but it when you take that suspension of disbelief too far it becomes laughable and ruins the immersion.
Smash and Grab
It’s been a series joke now that Lara spends more time wrecking the ancient tombs she finds than actually curating the valuable artefacts within. This is because the games core drive is about action platforming and combat. The first game in this trilogy was received very well by critics but one aspect that I thought was lacking was how the hidden tombs felt like they had been stuck in with gaffer tape. These tombs were separate places that Lara could visit if she had the time, whereas in Rise of the Tomb Raider they were meshed into the environments with far more care and context. In one instance I remember coming across a huge ship that had been washed down a rocky ravine, this was now a tomb and I remember thinking how cool it was. In Shadow we now, unfortunately, see this great integration take a step back because once again, the placement of tombs feel far more generic and standard. That is not to say they are not fun, they are very satisfying to work through with some good ideas for tomb mechanics. I will say that if you were one of those fans who didn't really care for Lara’s newfound bloodlust, you will find that Shadow is more orientated to the Tomb Raiding elements of old
The first time you play Shadow of the Tomb Raider you will come across obstacles that need a specific piece of equipment to pass. I think this Metroid-style approach can work but only if the games reward philosophy fits. You see, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, most rewards come in the form of resources, which in turn allow you to craft new weapons and gear. Where this breaks down is fact that the game is so easy to beat I never felt the need for any advanced equipment or better skills. So my incentive to travel back to the first area with my new knife or better axe isn't really there. I’m not really sure why the game is designed like this unless the idea is that I play through the game again in plus mode?
The way Lara traverses hasn’t changed all that much from the first two games, apart from an extra few tricks up her sleeve. She can now use some climbing shoes she finds to negotiate surfaces that are facing down. Rappelling makes a return and Lara can now swing once she has let enough rope out. She can also now cover herself in mud (Predator style) and hide in wall foliage. This is fun but makes pressing that F key even easier than before. Getting Lara across death-defying climbs and navigating trap infused crypts is Lara's bread and butter. I really do love the way she clambers about and this at least is some of the best we have seen in the series.
Is it PC?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a good looking game, even stunning in some places with a very high production value. There are many cut scenes that help tell the story and the CGI work here is as good as it gets. The actual in-game graphics are a more mixed affair. When falling from a height Lara looks awkward, almost like she is floating to the ground or that the landing animation just doesn’t kick in. Other animations also seem off, like when she is using her hands to shimmy across a ledge. yet in other instances, Lara is very well animated and I particularly like how she will enter some of the more impressive locations and pass comment on them. While I’m being critical I also have to mention the shotgun: this has to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen in a game. It just feels like I’m firing toy gun which just doesn’t seem to connect to the enemies as it should. Thankfully the bow does feel great to use and fast became my go-to weapon.
One of the stand out themes in the game are the underwater areas, they are consistently beautiful and interesting. I adore underwater exploration in any game and the design team have used swimming to great effect here. My only slight complaint is that we could have done with a few underwater particle effects/bubbles because Lara can sometimes look like she’s just floating in a blue cave. You must use air pockets to stay alive, hide in reeds or avoid being attacked by dangerous creatures and all while you are keeping your bearings. There are sometimes areas where you must squeeze through tight gaps to reach your next gulp of air and I would sometimes realise I’d been holding my breath with Lara until we reached the other side. This is very good level design and I hope we see it in more games.
It is unfortunate that for the majority of this game Lara is in the jungle. While you do make your way across a fairly large map, the game's story takes place in pretty much the same type of biosphere. The jungle does look good, with plenty of nice touches like deformable mud and beautiful lighting effects. However, I do think if we had been treated to a few different locations (that actually look different) it would have helped give the story a better sense of perspective.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a success in terms of performance on PC. Even on my ageing rig (hurry up April so I can be awesome again) it manages to handle the game in 1080p with all the settings at max. I am running on an overclocked i7 4.3, with 16 GB of DDR3 and a 980 GTX. The graphical settings are aplenty and I also love how scalable the UI can be. You can actually turn off the environmental hints that guide Lara through the game and this was a surprisingly fun way to play. You can also mess with the text size of subtitles, change the languages spoken by natives and there is, of course, a decent photo mode (which I love). I played the entire game with a mouse and keyboard with not one problem. Overall this is a very good PC port and I only saw one graphical glitch in which Jonah's arms vanished: maybe that bug did more damage than we thought?
Looking back over my review of Lara's last outing in this series, I feel like I’ve been very critical. While everything I have called out here is true it must also be said that Shadow of the Tomb Raider can work very well and I have had a lot of fun playing through the many set pieces. It is just such a shame that the story is a cliched mess which ultimately hands over the reigns to a frantic chase sequence (which is excellent) and an appallingly tepid boss fight. There is also some of the worst pacing I’ve seen in a long time, with a bloated and boring middle section to the story. As I have covered the combat, while well delivered, is far too thin on the ground to give Lara chance to spread her wings. Even the main villain becomes a walking cliche that adds nothing to the story other than a target to wrap the paper-thin plot around.
When I look back at the how good the opening game to this trilogy was and how much potential there was for stellar series of games, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a huge disappointment that ends the trilogy with a deafening thump. There are so many aspects of this game that could have been better and I do wonder if ailing game sales have equated to a ‘just get it finished’ mentality. If you have followed Lara on her journey thus far I would still recommend you pick this game up, if nothing else for sake of closure. I would not, however, recommend you pay full whack for it and instead wait for a sale. I do suspect this isn’t the last time we hear from Lara Croft.
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