Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a thrilling con­clu­sion to Lara’s ori­gin tril­ogy.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Andy Kelly

It’s in the mo­ments of quiet spec­ta­cle where Shadow of the Tomb Raider is most com­pelling. Emerg­ing from a dark, claus­tro­pho­bic cav­ern into a grand Mayan tem­ple glit­ter­ing with gold and jade. The im­mense stone face of some for­got­ten de­ity loom­ing omi­nously over you. A vil­lage rest­ing in the shadow of a vast, dor­mant vol­cano. An­cient mech­a­nisms whirring to life as you awaken a slum­ber­ing tomb. It’s a world that aches to be ex­plored. Nor­mally when Lara Croft finds an ar­ti­fact, it’s a re­ward for sur­viv­ing a treach­er­ous, knife-edge jour­ney through a trap-rid­den tomb. But the or­nate dag­ger she plucks from a stone pedestal early on in this game is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent story. It trig­gers a se­ries of dev­as­tat­ing cat­a­clysms, in­clud­ing a flash flood that destroys a whole city, and she trav­els to the jun­gles of Peru to try and stop the apoc­a­lyp­tic prophecy she un­wit­tingly helped ful­fil.

And it’s here where she finds those in­cred­i­ble tombs, tem­ples, and tow­er­ing trib­utes to the gods. The sense of place and scale in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is fre­quently as­ton­ish­ing. The places that Lara vis­its feel gen­uinely an­cient, mys­te­ri­ous, and dan­ger­ous. Ev­ery crypt, cham­ber, and cor­ri­dor is dec­o­rated with de­tailed mu­rals and elab­o­rate carv­ings. These exaggerated, dra­matic struc­tures could never ex­ist or stay hid­den in re­al­ity, of course, but their size, com­plex­ity, and the­atri­cal­ity give the game the feel of a pulpy adventure story. It’s an­cient his­tory as taught by In­di­ana Jones, not Si­mon Schama. As well as look­ing im­pres­sive, these ru­ins also give you in­tri­cate, room­sized puz­zles to solve. These show­case some of the game’s best de­signs, and al­though the so­lu­tions are never that dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out, the feel­ing of crack­ing these mas­sive puz­zle boxes is hugely sat­is­fy­ing. One in­volv­ing a ro­tat­ing pil­lar in a sky­scraper-sized cham­ber, where you use ropes and wind-pow­ered ma­chines to make your way to the top, is par­tic­u­larly en­ter­tain­ing. But the smaller in­ter­ac­tions are fun, too, and have a nice feel­ing of phys­i­cal­ity: Things like de­ci­pher­ing hi­ero­glyphs, nav­i­gat­ing un­der­wa­ter labyrinths, ro­tat­ing chutes to guide streams of water, or ig­nit­ing pools of oil.

If Shadow of the Tomb Raider was noth­ing more than a se­ries of beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tions filled with puz­zles, I would have been happy. But the pres­ence of Trin­ity, a vil­lain­ous, ar­ti­fact-hunt­ing para­mil­i­tary group, means Lara has to get her hands dirty in com­bat from time to time. Thank­fully, stan­dard fire­fights are kept to a min­i­mum, and most of these en­coun­ters in­volve smear­ing your­self in mud and creep­ing around chok­ing peo­ple like a tiny, posh Rambo. The amount of cover pro­vided is too gen­er­ous at times, but there’s some­thing grimly em­pow­er­ing about skulk­ing through the mud and silently killing off guards as their bud­dies au­di­bly panic.

Stealth is, in gen­eral, much bet­ter than in the pre­vi­ous Tomb Raider games. If you’re spot­ted an alert me­ter above an en­emy’s head will start to fill up, but if you man­age to break their line of sight and hide be­fore it does, you’ll be safe. And there are a few neat ways to screw with the AI, too, in­clud­ing the wildly en­ter­tain­ing fear ar­rows. Fire one of these poi­son-tipped ar­rows at an en­emy and they will start hal­lu­ci­nat­ing and madly fir­ing their weapon at any­one nearby, friend or foe, be­fore col­laps­ing in a con­fused, sweaty heap. You can also hide in the trees and string en­e­mies up in the jun­gle canopy with a rope. Lara is ba­si­cally Bat­man and the Preda­tor rolled into one now, which jars a lit­tle with the game’s ef­forts else­where to paint her as a flawed, hu­man char­ac­ter.

Ev­ery crypt, cham­ber, and cor­ri­dor is dec­o­rated with de­tailed mu­rals

KEEP­ING PACE

All the way through the pre­vi­ous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, I groaned ev­ery time I had to slog through yet an­other bor­ing gun­fight. But in Shadow the ac­tion set­pieces are well spaced out and, with a few no­table ex­cep­tions, al­ways en­ter­tain­ing. Play­ing it like a reg­u­lar third-per­son shooter is much more dif­fi­cult now, even when Lara up­grades her arse­nal of weaponry with shot­guns and as­sault ri­fles, mean­ing stealth is usu­ally the best

op­tion. There are some low points, though. An en­emy in­tro­duced later on in the game turns it into a brain­less, te­dious shooter, loudly tele­graphed by the abun­dance of shot­gun ammo lit­tered around the level. And the un­der­wa­ter stealth sec­tions where you have to hide from shoals of hun­gry pi­ra­nhas are as bad as they sound.

The world is large and in­ter­con­nected, with ar­eas that are in­ac­ces­si­ble un­til you lo­cate a cer­tain piece of gear, and you have the abil­ity to fast travel be­tween camp­fires you’ve lit along the way. There are also a few at­mo­spheric hubs, in­clud­ing a gor­geous, lively mountain city called Paititi. The world­build­ing in these re­gions is fan­tas­tic, and wan­der­ing around talk­ing to peo­ple (and pet­ting lla­mas) is a pleas­ant change of pace from all the stealth and set­pieces. You can pick up side mis­sions here, too, help­ing lo­cals with their trou­bles, but I never found any of them to be that in­ter­est­ing.

The writ­ing in the side mis­sions is dis­ap­point­ingly flat and life­less, and I found it dif­fi­cult to get in­vested in these peo­ple’s var­i­ous prob­lems as a re­sult. And the tasks them­selves are rarely more than: Go there, do this, then come back here for a pat on the back. This could’ve been an op­por­tu­nity to flesh out the world, its cul­ture and its peo­ple, but it just feels like tacked-on busy­work. The re­wards are good, how­ever, so I found my­self tak­ing the time to do them, just to get Lara a nice new pair of stat-boost­ing trousers. Yes, the game has a loot sys­tem, and no, it doesn’t need it.

There’s a lot of stuff to do in Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Killing an­i­mals to craft new out­fits, scav­eng­ing for ma­te­ri­als to up­grade weapons, un­cov­er­ing hid­den crypts. But it’s the chal­lenge tombs—big, fun, self-con­tained en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles with a prize at the end and a story to un­cover through diaries and arte­facts—that re­main the most grat­i­fy­ing and worth­while of the game’s over­whelm­ing number of op­tional ac­tiv­i­ties.

Over the course of three games, Tomb Raider has de­vel­oped its own dis­tinct vis­ual lan­guage. If you see a pock­marked wall, you know you can use the climb­ing axe on it. A smear of white paint in­di­cates a sur­face that can be climbed or grabbed. An ob­ject wrapped in rope can be pulled down or teth­ered to some­thing. This gives the game an un­de­ni­able flow, be­cause you im­me­di­ately know what to do when you see one of these cues. But it can make ex­plo­ration feel in­or­ganic and pre­scribed, al­most as if you can see the level de­signer plac­ing each ob­ject. How­ever, a wel­come new fea­ture in Shadow is be­ing able to re­duce or com­pletely re­move some of these el­e­ments, mak­ing ex­plor­ing and puz­zle-solv­ing much more chal­leng­ing.

Swim­ming plays a big­ger role in Shadow, with the ad­di­tion of air pock­ets al­low­ing for longer un­der­wa­ter sec­tions. Tombs will of­ten have sub­merged ar­eas, forc­ing you to dive to dis­lodge jammed ma­chin­ery or lo­cate items that have fallen into the depths. Lara has a large skill tree to work through, and spend­ing points on in­creas­ing her swim­ming speed and breath­ing ca­pac­ity makes go­ing un­der­wa­ter a lot more en­joy­able. You can also at­tach a rope to a climbable sur­face and rap­pel down from it, or use it to swing across a gap. Jump­ing can feel a tad weight­less and im­pre­cise, but the sheer number of ways to tra­verse the en­vi­ron­ment makes up for it. Stand­ing at the bot­tom of some mas­sive struc­ture and won­der­ing how you’ll get to the top is al­ways an ex­cit­ing mo­ment in Tomb Raider, and there’s a lot of that here.

KILLER IN­STINCT

Lara is a more ca­pa­ble, con­fi­dent hero this time around, but she still has mo­ments of self-doubt and frailty that man­age to give the story some heart. This is cheap­ened slightly by the grue­some guer­rilla vi­o­lence of the com­bat, where she mer­ci­lessly stabs, drowns and shoots peo­ple with nary a glim­mer of re­morse or dis­gust. But hey, this is a videogame. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is unashamedly a block­buster, with a se­lec­tion of ac­tion set­pieces— flee­ing an ex­plod­ing oil re­fin­ery, hopping across de­bris in a flooded city—that are ter­ri­bly ex­cit­ing, but not very in­ter­ac­tive. And that’s com­pletely fine, be­cause there’s enough agency else­where in the puz­zles, stealth, and ex­plo­ration that I can for­give those mo­ments where the game slides its way into full-on ab­surd Hol­ly­wood non­sense mode. Even at its dumb­est, the lav­ish pro­duc­tion val­ues make this stuff a thrill to watch.

The bal­ance of ex­plo­ration and ac­tion has al­ways felt a lit­tle off to me in this mod­ern in­car­na­tion of Tomb Raider, lean­ing a lit­tle too heav­ily to­wards the lat­ter. But Shadow shows im­pres­sive re­straint, rarely us­ing com­bat as a crutch and fo­cus­ing more on what makes this se­ries spe­cial: Namely, raid­ing tombs. And the tombs here are un­doubt­edly the star of the show, and some of the best in the se­ries. The feel­ing of tres­pass­ing in an an­cient, cursed place is pal­pa­ble, and hear­ing the stone door scrape open when you fi­nally solve that puz­zle is al­ways a sat­is­fy­ing feel­ing. And it’s these mo­ments, not the ex­plod­ing re­finer­ies, he­li­copter bat­tles, or ex­pen­sive cin­e­matic set­pieces, that make Shadow of the Tomb Raider worth play­ing.

Lara is a more ca­pa­ble, con­fi­dent hero this time around

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