STAFF REVIEW of Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One)

Friday, September 21, 2018.
by Chad Goodmurphy

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Box art Next to Mario, Lara Croft is arguably gaming’s most well known character, not to mention its strongest female mascot. From low poly beginnings, she’s matured into one of the deepest and most recognizable major players within this industry, and for good reason. It’s both commendable and impressive, not to mention nice to see. After all, it’s hard to dislike or not cheer for a character like that.

Lara began her digital life and interactive archaeology in October of 1996 and has remained within the upper echelon of popular culture ever since. Sure, there were some missteps along the way, but things are now as good as ever for the British heroine.

After some middling adventures, Lara received a makeover and a reboot in 2013, and was revitalized in the process. The result was the best Tomb Raider game to date, in this reviewer’s opinion, as well as a very good sequel in the form of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now, that rejuvenated version of Ms. Croft is back with her third outing, that being the Mayan influenced Shadow of the Tomb Raider. A game that was co-developed by Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics, with publishing duties being handled, once again, by Square Enix.

Following expeditions to the ancient island of Yamatai and a trek to the legendary city of Kitezh, Lara now finds herself in Mexico. There, she’s hot on the heels of one of Trinity’s major players, as well as one of the Mayans’ long lost treasures. What she doesn’t know, though, is that her actions are about to set something potentially catastrophic into motion, that being a large and dangerous pattern of storms that threaten to destroy our world.

Once the shit hits the fan in Mexico, things transition to Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s main environment, that being the Peruvian jungle. There, Lara and her friend Jonah must do whatever they can to track down, find and utilize ancient relics that tie into the clues they’ve discovered. It’s never been easy, though, and continues to be difficult here, given that Trinity is once again after the same things. By that, I mean a specific mountain range, a lost city and a special silver box, among other trinkets.

This story starts with a bang, but doesn’t always have the depth and memorability it needed to be great. That’s okay, though, because the gameplay makes up for a lot of that. There are also still enough visceral and impressive moments to make this a Tomb Raider game that is well worth playing.

One of the major downsides of this narrative comes in the form of its villain, who’s not nearly as interesting as he should’ve been. In ways, he’s more like a paint-by-numbers baddie than a memorable adversary, though he does a serviceable job. The other is that it often feels as if Shadow of the Tomb Raider (and its heroes) forget that the end of the world has, at least potentially, been set into motion. The game dawdles at times, and has some pacing issues that keep it from being great.

Although some major things happen in Mexico, Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t really open up until the pair venture to Peru and make a scarier than expected entrance into the South American country’s jungle terrain. There, a rather large and visceral world becomes available for exploration, complete with the things that one has grown to expect from this series: hidden caverns, dangerous challenge tombs, crypts, relics and opportunities to both hunt and craft. Needless to say, Lara is in her element, even if said element once again pushes back and puts her through hell.

As the two explore Peru on a hunch, they come across a small village where NPCs need their help with corrupt employers and other issues. Afterwards, they make their way to what is the game’s main hub city, that being the legendary lost Incan city of Paititi, where the Cult of Trinity is up to no good. There, they team up with rebels, a few of whom become pretty major players within Shadow’s narrative. This is just the second of three village style hubs, however, and all of them offer a good amount of side content to tackle .

In addition to the side quests, tombs, caverns and everything else listed above, these areas are also full of collectibles, much like the jungle itself. These come in familiar forms like documents, journals and maps, and can also be found as locked chests and underwater caches. While searching for them, you’ll also come across a wealth of scrap and other materials, which can be used to craft different types of arrows, upgrade weapons and create special outfits that you’ve found the blueprints for. Interestingly, these clothing items offer benefits, like an increased chance of coming across rare animals, the ability to gather multiple flowers from one plant, or a decreased enemy alert level during stealth.

Gameplay-wise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is quite a bit like its two most recent predecessors, meaning that it’s full of Uncharted-style climbing, rugged terrain and environmental challenges. Lara must use her wits, as well as discovered and purchased tools (like a rope expander, a rappel line, a sharp knife and climbing spikes) to get in and out of some very dangerous locales. Thus, there’s lots of rock climbing, plenty of jumping, and a ton of swimming to look forward to, not to mention a multitude of deadly traps that await each and every misstep. This third entry doesn’t restrict you as much, though, because it provides rope arrows and Lara’s trusty pickaxe rather early on.

What’s evident, however, is that the development team wanted to bring the series back to its roots a bit, by making this more about Lara versus Nature than anything else. There’s still a decent amount of combat to be found, but not as much as in previous games. This news will please some and bother others, but that’s to be expected.

Making it more about the environment has lead to deeper and more involved challenge tombs, some of which are annoyingly locked until you find specific items (like a rope expander or a shotgun, which can be used to destroy wooden barricades). They’re more puzzle heavy than before, and the same is true of the game as a whole, which wasn’t something that bothered me even though I’m not crazy about puzzles in video games. Sometimes they’re great (and they are done well here), but that’s not always the case, and getting stuck on one can be a real annoyance.

Some challenge tombs are hidden behind a pay wall, with that being the season pass. I’m not exactly sure of how they’ll be added in, but it’s worth noting. Also worth mentioning is the fact that combat, puzzles and exploration difficulties can all be separately set. If you want challenging combat, set that to hard because normal is really quite easy. Meanwhile, if you want easier puzzles, you can set it so that's the case, or even make them more difficult. Meanwhile, those who would like to explore without prompts (of which there are many, as Shadow of the Tomb Raider likes to hold your hand on its base difficulty), you'll want to change the exploration difficulty level. This can eliminate white paint on climbable walls, and does away with other prompts, making it so that you actually need to suss out where to go next.

The most notable change, though, is a greater emphasis on swimming. Lara can now dive into and thoroughly explore many caverns and lakes, and will find lots of interesting things if she does so. This includes lost treasure, hidden relics, sunken chests, water-borne plants and runs of golden ore and jade. The latter two are especially helpful because they can be sold to merchants who, despite living in the middle of lost cities, sell SMGs, rifles, silencers, bullet spreaders and larger clips.

This focus on swimming plays out throughout Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and makes for some pretty engaging moments. Lara may be able to hold her breath for an incredibly unrealistic amount of time, but she’s not immune to underwater danger in the form of deadly piranhas and constricting eels. She must also spend extra time, effort and breath to worm her way through small crevices.

Due to the piranhas, underwater stealth is a thing. Is it a good addition? Not really. It’s there, though. As such, players must watch for schools of the toothy bastards and swim into long grass in order to hide from them. It’s kind of annoying and doesn’t always work well, so don’t expect a lot from this mechanic.

Speaking of stealth, it’s important to note that, once again, combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider promotes being stealthy and rewards players for doing their best in that regard. Thus, there’s lots of tall grass to hide in, quite a few bottles and gas cans to throw (as distractions), and even some mud to get dirty in. Said mud can make Lara harder to see, as she creeps along overgrown and muddy walls, which hide her from enemies.

These stealth mechanics can be combined with new plant-based ‘potions,’ which allow Lara to heal or heighten things like her endurance and her awareness. Crafting and using a focus potion, for instance, will allow you to slow down time while aiming, thus creating the opportunity for some pretty badass shooting. Meanwhile, heightening Lara’s awareness can highlight places to dig for treasure, or even plants that can be picked up. One can also still press the R3 button to turn on survival awareness, which highlights enemies and stealth opportunities. Soldiers, cultists and creatures who are highlighted yellow can be taken out without worry, whereas ones that are tinged red are in the view of others who will react if they see anything fishy happen.

Outside of this, the game mostly plays like those that came before it, with the same types of weaponry at one’s disposal. Shadow does introduce a neat type of arrow, though, which can be used to poison enemies and turn them into friendly fire machines. These arrows are made with poison from bugs that Lara can pick up and harvest from.

Strangely enough, however, there aren’t as many animals to hunt as one would expect. Early on, you’ll encounter jaguars who attack and end up becoming minor boss battles, and will also see boars, birds, rabbits and monkeys that can be skinned. The thing is that, as you progress later into the game, the opportunities for hunting seem to lessen quite a bit. Animals aren’t as prevalent, and being that a lot of time can be spent in the city/village hubs, it’s somewhat understandable. I was somewhat disappointed by this, though, because they didn’t appear as often as before during missions either. I love animals in real life and could never hurt one, but I admittedly enjoy hunting, scavenging and crafting with those materials in this type of game, and in Far Cry.

That’s not to say there are no animals and there’s almost no hunting. That isn’t the case. It’s just that there are long periods without much of it. Then again, maybe it was how I played, since I took my time and did a lot of side quests within the hubs. One of the ladies in the third hub also did send me out to deal with a wolf problem, because kids were trying to play with them as if they were dogs.

We obviously reviewed the Xbox One version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and did so using an Xbox One X console. Thus, we were able to decide whether to play the game in high resolution mode, or in one that promoted a higher framerate instead. I spent a lot of time playing on the latter, which ran very well and looked quite good, then switched to the higher resolution mode later in the game. Whereas things had often looked great before that, they really popped once I made the change. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a simply stunning game at times, and heightening its resolution makes it really stand out. Still, it’s not perfect, nor is it the best-looking game out there. Sometimes the character models can look a bit plastic-like, in terms of textures, and things aren’t always constant when it comes to those details. I found that Lara looked absolutely amazing in some scenes, but then didn’t look as good later on.

There’s a segment which takes place outside of a refinery, and that’s one section where the game really shone. The fidelity, the detail, the action and all of the related explosions really impressed me, much like some of the jungle scenery did. At times, it was hard to believe I was playing a video game, thanks to some postcard quality vistas.

While Rise of the Tomb Raider had crashing issues, I’ve yet to experience any real problems with Shadow. Rise would crash every time I tried to play one of its DLC experiences, but this game hasn’t at all. It isn’t as smooth on the higher resolution setting, however, and also suffers from screen tearing throughout. I quite frequently saw it at the top of the screen, for whatever reason.

As you might know, Camilla Luddington (Californication, Grey’s Anatomy) resumes her role as twenty-something Lara Croft within Shadow of the Tomb Raider, after providing her vocals in both the 2013 Reboot and Rise, itself. She does a great job yet again, and really makes Lara feel like a believable character; something which is aided by some strong writing. Rumour is that this could be her last time as the iconic heroine, but here’s hoping that won’t end up being the case.

The rest of the audio is also top notch, thanks to great sound effects that are made up of realistic natural sounds, loud gunshots and boisterous explosions. I was especially impressed by some of the popping sounds that I heard as I swam through underground chasms, because they simply sounded so lifelike.

Overall, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a winner. Then again, that was to be expected given how good the games that came before it were. While this one isn’t as tight, memorable or great as either Tomb Raider 2013 or Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s a very good game and one that you won’t want to miss.

**This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game. We were provided with a review code.**

Overall: 8.4 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.6 / 10
Sound: 8.8 / 10


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