Shadow Of The Tomb Raider
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer Eidos Montreal, Crystal Dynamics Publisher Square Enix Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
For every Rise there must come a fall. And so to the final chapter of what has ultimately amounted to a three-game, 40-odd-hour origin story. The 2013 reboot sought to reinvent Lara Croft, with some success; two years later, its follow-up fine-tuned the formula despite narratively treading water. Sadly, the series has succumbed to difficult third-act syndrome: this flounders badly on both counts, with its story in particular plumbing the depths. With hindsight, the keen pre-release focus on Shadow’s aquatic exploration should have set alarm bells ringing: if a game is having to advertise underwater sections, you know it’s in trouble. So it proves.
It begins in literally catastrophic fashion. Croft, despite repeated warnings, steals a Mayan dagger (ostensibly to protect it from returning villains Trinity) and triggers an impressively staged tsunami, the first sign of an impending apocalypse. Having presumably cost – at a low estimate – hundreds of lives, she’s naturally keen to try to put things right by finding another important artefact. Her quest brings her to the lost Incan city of Paititi, which inevitably isn’t lost for very long, and a local tribe with whom she ingratiates herself implausibly quickly.
Natural disasters aside, we’re on reasonably familiar ground, then – and when Croft gets on with what she does best, the game hits its stride. Inside these crypts, caves and mausoleums, masonry crumbles, rotted wood snaps, levers creak and wheels grind. There’s little here we haven’t encountered before, give or take the odd shoal of piranha, but there’s some of that old Indiana Jones thrill of seeing and hearing these ancient contraptions coming back to life, even as they’re falling to bits. The sound designers are the unsung heroes: from the deep rumbles and clunks that let you know you’re getting somewhere to the oddly satisfying scrape of Croft’s climbing axes across pitted stone, everything conveys a sense of effort. Not that it asks much of the player in return. Puzzles are really quite simple and often disappointingly short, with the best ones hidden in optional tombs away from the critical path.
Even here there are problems. From the off, you might notice a subtle change in how Croft feels to control. Traversal is never quite as snappy as it needs to be, seeming more forgiving in places but markedly less precise in others. It gets small things wrong just often enough to be annoying: you’ll be happily clambering up a cliff when Croft will inexplicably fail to latch onto a handhold, while her grapple sporadically fails to trigger for no good reason.
Though it intrudes less frequently here, Shadow’s combat has its own issues. Croft’s fragility, even on the lowest difficulty setting, is incentive enough to prioritise the slow-and-sneaky approach. But despite an upgrade tree that gives you an array of tools and methods to take down Trinity’s goons, the stealth set-pieces are oddly prescriptive. After the first couple of easy kills, you’ll invariably encounter a guard or two who never move, forcing you to either take one very specific route forward or go loud. There’s a terrific pistol which makes your endless foraging for crafting parts just about worthwhile, though even when fully upgraded, it runs out of ammo alarmingly quickly against the lategame troops with their armour and thermal visors.
Sometimes you’re not given the option, such as in a dreadful early encounter with a jaguar, and a sequence involving a shotgun and a feral subterranean tribe: all bent backs, bow legs and unearthly shrieks. It’s not the only one, and it’s a shame that even in some tombs you aren’t able to pack away her guns. Combat clearly has its place in a contemporary Tomb Raider game, but accepting what the series has become is also to acknowledge that it has lost some of its original identity. There’s no escaping the fact that, from fast-travel campfires to its hunter-gatherer systems to its brutal melee takedowns, this has become a blockbuster like, well, every other.
Still, for the most part it’s put together with a degree of competence. The same cannot be said for the storytelling. Even by pulp standards, the plot is preposterous, yet it takes itself extremely seriously. It’s most glaringly apparent in Camilla Luddington’s onenote performance as Croft: the actor delivers her lines – even down to the puzzle hints – with an unwarranted solemnity. Then again, any actor would struggle to salvage a script with so many holes and contrivances. The story collapses under the slightest scrutiny, from the tribal rebellion that can apparently only begin when Croft gets there, to a flimsy disguise which somehow allows a pale-skinned English woman to walk among local cultists without arousing suspicion. And talking of blending in, the notion of Croft ‘becoming one with the jungle’ is all but ignored for vast stretches. Eventually the idea is resurrected, with a late-game revelation prompting a ludicrous episode where Croft is consumed by anger, indicated by a temporary switch to more industrial language and a scene of savagery which passes without further comment.
An unexpected detour which sees Croft briefly shift her attentions from Mesoamerican to Christian iconography seems to allude to her as some kind of Christlike saviour. But she’s not the Messiah; she’s a very naughty girl. Indeed, there’s little sense that she’s learned anything or grown in any meaningful way by the endgame reckoning. When the apocalyptic climax arrives, it’s strikingly staged, a glimpse at a violent nightmare of its lead’s own making. But by then any sense of coherence has long since left the building. Disjointed and directionless, Croft’s descent into darkness is, shockingly, one hell of a mess.
There’s no escaping the fact that this has become a blockbuster like, well, every other