Version Played: Xbox One (Xbox One X Enhanced) – also available on PS4 and PC
Lockdown is a funny thing. I wouldn’t normally have had the time to work my way through a single Tomb Raider game in a reasonable period of time, let alone an entire trilogy. Yet that’s exactly what I’ve been able to do over the last few weeks.
As mentioned in my previous reviews, I’ve never really been a Tomb Raider fan. I tried to play the original games and always got bored; they never grabbed me. So despite the fact that an awful lot of people have complained that Square Enix’s reboot trilogy – which kicked off way back in 2013 – lost the feel of the original games, that was fine with me, as I was never particularly interested in them to begin with.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the final part of the ‘new’ trilogy and pretty much completes Lara’s journey from idealistic, naive explorer to the kick ass, deadly Tomb Raider that we knew before. In narrative terms this is the case, at least; she seemed to be perfectly capable of brutally murdering enemies within her first few hours of being stranded on an island in the first game.
So the third game begins with Lara and BFF Jonah (their warm, affectionate and entirely platonic relationship is a particular high point in this game) in Mexico, having tracked a cell of paramilitary organisation Trinity there. Before long, Lara has unwittingly kicked off an apocalyptic tsunami in the first of the game’s big action set pieces. With Trinity involved in a plot to complete the sequence of cataclysms that Lara sets in motion and reshape the world in their image, its up to Lara and Jonah to stop them.
First things first: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an astonishingly beautiful game. It’s set in and around various South American locations; the switch to warmer, sunnier climes from mostly cold and icy environments in Rise of the Tomb Raider is very welcome, allowing for a richness and colour in the game that isinstantly more appealing. The level of detail in the jungle – both from a visual and audio sense, is nothing short of jaw dropping at times.
Playing on an Xbox One X gives the option of playing at a higher resolution with more detail or with less detail and a much smoother framerate; I opted for the higher resolution, as the higher framerate (as impressive as it looked in motion) felt a little smudgy in comparison.
From a gameplay point of view, the game once again excels – for the most part. Exploration has been opened up with more options (such as rappelling from cliff faces or rocky overhangs) and equipment. Underwater exploration has been expanded and is – mostly – excellent (the piranhas are extremely annoying, however). Though there’s less of the on-rails style sections, they’re here – though there’s not a QTE in sight, thankfully. Clever environmental puzzles in tombs are here too – and they’re probably the best in the series so far, with some satisfying challenges that are incredibly varied in nature.
Combat is the star of the show from a gameplay perspective, with frequent sequences that give you a real freedom in how you eliminate opponents. With a wealth of new options available for stealth, including covering yourself in mud and hiding in foliage against walls, for example, it’s just as satisfying (if not more so) to take your time and plan how to take down enemies one at a time, as it is to stage all out assaults using the variety of weaponry that you’ll eventually have at your disposal.
There’s lots of different resources to find and use in crafting items, weaponry and even outfits for Lara, some of which confers bonuses to her stats.
Which leads me to another point; the skill system seems much bigger and more varied this time around, with some extremely clever skills available the more you venture along the three different skill trees. A favourite of mine was the ability to booby trap enemy corpses with distractingly beepy proximity bombs, which lure enemies and then detonate when they get too close, killing them. Setting up chains of exploding corpses, one at a time, to take out enemy camps, is incredibly fun and never gets old.
The story is great, too. Though the narrative and dialogue suffers a bit in comparison to the first two games, due to the loss of Rhianna Pratchett. That said, the main storyline has some excellent moments – though the majority of these occur at the beginning and end of the game (with an excellent, playable flashback to Lara’s childhood that occurs fairly early on).
Which is a problem; the second act of Rise of the Tomb Raider suffered from a bit of bloat, in which the narrative felt like it came to a screeching halt in one of the game’s many hub areas – and the exact same thing happens in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, albeit on a much larger scale. Though the various hub areas are brilliant in their scope and detail (not to mention their authenticity in terms of the way they represent the cultures in the game), the side quests and smaller events just bring the story to a crashing halt, for far too long. Trinity almost feel like an afterthought for much of the game’s running time and are shoehorned awkwardly into the game’s second act.
Side quests and collectables are extremely numerous in volume, but – tombs aside – are generally fairly dull to complete and collect. There’s just so much here, so getting 100% completion is something that will take quite some time if you even have the will to get through it all.
If I sound like I’m being negative about the game, I must stress that I enjoyed it a great deal. Despite spending an awful lot of time in lost cities populated by sensitively represented cultures (in a clever touch, you can set the audio to have characters speaking in their native tongues, translated into English via subtitles), while the story fell by the wayside, it was still great to play. I just feel that the game suffered from a wealth of content that affected the urgency and potency of the main story, which begins and ends so satisfyingly (there’s also an initially weird divergence into horror territory in the middle of the game, which feels like a bizarrely out of place diversion until it does actually pay off in the final act). Though this non-campaign content does add a huge amount of value to the game, there’s something to be said for the tight story focus of the first Tomb Raider reboot game, which didn’t pad out its running time with fetch quests or city hubs.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a great end to the trilogy; however, I wish it had more faith in its core story, rather than trying to be another open world, RPG-lite filled with quests and stuff to collect. There’s no doubt that, when you’re progressing through the story – which has some absolutely brilliant developments over the course of the game – it’s superb, but the design seems to be pulling in two directions and unfortunately, the overall experience feels needlessly padded.
That said, I genuinely do feel somewhat sad that I can’t just pick up and play the next game in the series, having worked my way through the three games that comprise the trilogy in quick succession over the last four weeks or so. I’m very keen to see Lara’s next adventure unfold, especially as the level of detail in the beautiful environments and general visual fidelity is likely to be a huge advert for what our next gen machines can deliver.
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