Shadow Of The Tomb Raider

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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

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