OXM too k an explo ratory trip to Eidos Mo ntreal to get up clos e with Shadow Of The To mb Raider and talk to the team about Lara’s new, terrifying adventure
Fear. It’s been at the core of the Tomb Raider series since the reboot in 2013, but this time, the team at Eidos Montreal are taking things up a level. Fear is at the very core of Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, and the result is a game that will not only challenge your skills – it will test your nerve. This is the final entry in Lara’s origins trilogy, and the team plan to go out with a bang. We headed over to their Montreal studio last month to see what the team has been working on, play the game and ask them about their vision for this explosive finale. The result is a game that will feel familiar to fans of the series, but that shows clear evolution in narrative and style.
“You’re always asked what is your game in a sentence,” explains Dan Bisson, Shadow’s creative director. “At the time, the head of Eidos Montreal and the head of Crystal Dynamics challenged me to pitch in one word. My answer was ‘fear’.” It seeps into everything – the world around you is scarier, the tombs are more terrifying, and Lara herself is a figure to dread.
That starts with Lara’s new abilities, weapons and skills, all of which reflect the game world. This time, Miss Croft is journeying into Mexico and Peru, following clues that lead to ancient Mayan and Incan ruins buried deep in the jungles of South America. The team also teased a huge hub world – the biggest hub they’ve ever made – for Lara to explore. Everywhere you go, the world is looking to kill you; Lara and Trinity are like a virus here, and the jungle is doing its best to push them out.
However, as you progress, Lara will begin to work with the things that the jungle can provide. That means taking cover and shimmying through undergrowth, clambering into the canopy to find materials, and ambushing unsuspecting enemies. New wildlife will appear, including big cats. And Lara’s weapon upgrades will use materials she finds in there, too.
“What I love and what makes sense in the Tomb Raider universe is, like, you’re not going to find a bazooka against a tree,” laughs gameplay director Vincent Monnier. “Everything has to make sense. You’re using your environment, and that’s what makes you different to the Trinity guys, who are out of their element. You’re clever enough to take this, and craft something that’s really cool. The way [her arsenal] evolves is almost primal, rather than technical or militarygrade things.”
That arsenal – the pistol, shotgun and rifle all return, along with the trusty bow – is backed up by a range of new abilities. Aside from climbing trees and pressing against leafy surfaces, Lara will be covering herself in mud, Predator-style, to hide from Trinity goons, and will now be able to hang from ropes to access new areas below those famous white cliffs.
“We had her muscle up and toned her muscles to ensure that she could do things in traversal that she couldn’t do with the frame she had on Rise and Tomb Raider,” says Bisson. Lara can abseil down surfaces if needed, too, and even run along the cliff, while hanging from the rope, before jumping off to another surface. Sounds familiar, right? “These [moves] are kind of about nostalgia at the same time, but you can see that she’s much more capable,” says Bisson.
Underwater exploration has also expanded this time around. Rise had some brief underwater sections, but in Shadow Lara will be exploring underwater cave systems, and diving deeper into the earth than ever before. While Rise had you ascending, and getting closer to God, in Shadow, the opposite is true – it’s a game about descending down, exploring the depths and the darkness that lives there. Hey, we said it was all about fear, didn’t we?
The team were eager to explain that this fear extends to the tombs that Lara will explore in Shadow, too. “The tombs have evolved even more from Rise – I worked on the tombs in Rise. Fear is really the core lens for the game, so what we’ve done is we’ve
“We had her muscle up to ensure that she could do things she couldn’t before”
“What we’ve done is we’ve made sure that everything is actually terrifying”
made sure that everything is actually terrifying,” says Monnier. “It’s not only the way you go, but what you see. The puzzle and the physical elements are designed to actually kill you, so when you manipulate something it’s not only solving the puzzle. You have to be clever, you have to look around and say, ‘okay, should I be touching that right now, or should I secure something?’ and that’s what I love.”
We only saw one tomb in our playthrough, and to be honest it wasn’t all that terrifying. It featured a simple puzzle involving moving, weighted platforms and a cart that we had to use to knock a new route into place. It was classic Tomb Raider, and really we were left wanting a little more – it all felt a little too familiar. Still, we only played through a section at the very start of the game – this is really just a taster for what the rest of the game will offer. What was scarier was the route in and out of the tomb itself. After dangling down over a rock that looked like a skull we entered a dark corridor with odd decorations hanging from above. The wind was rushing in through cracks in the rock, darkness surrounded us, and we’re not ashamed to admit we were a little freaked out.
As it turned out, this was partly thanks to the creepy sound design, as audio director Rob Bridgett later explained. “One of the things we’re doing is using a musical score that isn’t what you’d traditionally expect here. We’re using a lot of South American instruments and textures. We also found that a lot of those sounds also work in the context of a sound effect. We can put some of those sounds in a tomb, and have them as actual sounds in that space. So we hope the player is unsure about what is sound and what is music, and there’s a feeling of fear and uncertainty.” Rob, let us tell you now: you’ve bloody nailed it.
Of course, this wouldn’t be TR without a few jump scares, and that’s another element that Bridgett has worked on. “Building to a moment like that, you have to make it quiet gradually so you don’t notice before something like that happens, so it feels bigger when it does occur,” he explains. “There are a lot of things like that where we’ve worked with the narrative, and worked with the flow and the game design to craft those moments and make them feel more intense.”
The same goes for the story itself, and the emotional beats that the team are trying to hit. The section we played begins with Lara and Jonah (yep, the loveable guy is back) having a beer in a small Mexican town during Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. The pair are following the research of Lara’s father, and Trinity are also in the area. We start by exploring the town and looking for clues, and oh my god it’s one of the coolest gaming environments we’ve seen in a while.
It’s dusk. The town is filled with people talking, music playing and friends dancing in beautiful orange torchlight. The attention to detail is incredible, and the world feels real. We could’ve explored this tiny area for
an hour, but soon we spotted a Trinity agent, and the mission took priority.
Still, when was the last time you watched Lara Croft looking relaxed, laughing with a friend and having a beer? It feels like a slow start, but there’s a very good reason for that – like the gradual build to a jump-scare, this is the calm before the storm. “In order to make something scary onscreen, you have to have these lighter moments as well. These moments that are emotionally very different to that, just so you can feel it,” muses Bridgett. “You’ve got Jonah and Lara having a very relaxed conversation and getting excited about something. They’re in this safe marketplace, and the music is very happy and positive, and you almost need that in order to go to where we take it. You need these moments of light in order to give you that darkness.”
And boy does it get dark. Fast-forward back through the marketplace, down into the skull rock, through the creepy cave and across the weighted platforms. After solving that first puzzle, Lara finds a dagger on a stone plinth. She’s unsure whether to take it, and Jonah tells her to leave it, but when she hears Trinity closing in, she grabs it. Bad idea. The tomb starts shaking, and Lara turns around to see paintings on the stone behind her depicting the Mayan apocalypse, marked by four natural disasters. Uh oh. Did Lara Croft just trigger the end of the world? No time to find out. Run!
After exiting the cave, we come across more Trinity guards, and a very familiar shootout scenario plays out. There isn’t much new here – on-the-fly crafting is still A Thing, and shooting red barrels makes a very pretty explosion. It’s classic Tomb Raider, without much of the evolution we expected. Again, this is the start of the narrative, and more importantly this isn’t in a jungle, so we didn’t get to play with any of her Arnie-inspired abilities.
Unfortunately for Lara, despite us easily taking out the goons, she’s almost immediately overrun by more of Trinity’s henchmen, along with their leader – Dominguez. He asks Lara for the dagger, and a mysterious (and probably apocalypse-stopping) box, but when he realises she only has the dagger, things get a little weird. Dominguez blames Lara for causing the apocalypse, and storms off saying he’s going to have to fix her mess. Wait. Are Trinity… goodies?
Turns out the Mayans really don’t mess about, because at this point the first disaster – a flood – hits, sparking one of the biggest set-pieces of any Tomb Raider game to date. We are washed down streets that have turned to rapids, dodging pylons and grabbing car doors to slow down. We swim past the corpses of locals in submerged shops in a fantastically eerie and heart-wrenching scene. We leap across rooftops as trucks wash past, destroying things as they go, until we breathlessly reach Jonah. It’s quite an introduction.
The end of our demo sees Lara desperate to follow Dominguez, reclaim the dagger and save the world. After all, she caused all this… didn’t she? “She’s really forced to confront her own complicity, and the question of how you can be complicit in something when you always had good intentions,” script writer Jill Murray tells us. “I think that’s endlessly interesting to explore.” Jonah is more concerned with helping the injured survivors, and the result is an emotionally-charged scene that sees Jonah roar, “NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU!”
“When you see what Dr Dominguez is saying, it’s like they both have honourable intensions, it’s just the methodology that is wrong,” explains Jason Dozois, Shadow’s narrative director. “Jonah’s point of view is just questioning ‘ are you responsible for this? You don’t know that, it’s just what someone said to you.’ To me it’s great drama because everyone thinks they’re right to an extent, but they’re all slightly wrong.”
This emotional scene rounds off an action-packed segment, leaving us with a clear indicator of how the rest of the game will shape up. Camilla Luddington returns as Lara, of course, and through a combination of script and performance capture the team hopes this will be the most powerful, believable Lara we’ve seen yet.
“When we wrote the scenes this time, we tried to leave a lot of room for the actors to perform,” says Murray. “You can only take the script so far on the page and at that point it’s the actors that bring life to it – but in order for them to bring life to it, you have to let them practice their craft.”
Dozois agrees. “We also worked very closely with the performance capture director, who was actually a member of our team as opposed to being hired as an outside,” he says. “Together we helped structure the story so when you go and shoot, you have that freedom to work with the actors, and maybe improvise a line to take the scene further. The one on the rooftop is one that came back with an excellent result. We thought it was a great scene, but when you see that take and what Jonah is doing, it’s such a powerful moment. Camilla’s face when they captured that, that’s her natural, surprised reaction to that take, and that comes off so well. We knew it was something very special.”
It’s a fitting end to our day with Lara’s next adventure. We’re left with plenty of questions, and a huge desire to see more. We’re still yet to see the updated crafting, combat and stealth that the team is promising, or what ‘becoming one with the jungle’ really means. There’s still plenty that they couldn’t say – which means the next few months will be most interesting. Stay tuned to OXM for more on the final segment of Lara’s origins trilogy.
“When we wrote scenes we tried to leave a lot of room for the actors to perform”
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BE LOW Shadow’s gameplay feels quite familiar – we’re hoping for more next time we see it.
below This is just another bad day for Lara. That lady just cannot catch a break.
AB OVE Who needs guns when you’re a badass with a bow.
BE LOW With so many skulls around it’s no surprise this turns deadly.
LEFT Wading through murky water is tame for Lara.
above The team used the extra power of the Xbox One X to push the graphical performance to the maximum.