Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider stands as the best in a trilogy of excellent games.
Tomb Raider is a long running, but very interesting franchise. Across multiple generations, it has captured the hearts of gamers worldwide. Despite being so successful over the years, Tomb Raider has had its share of ups and downs. Remember Angel of Darkness? It seems that Lara Croft is a survivor in every sense of the word.
This didn’t happen by accident. A few years ago, Crystal Dynamics took everything we knew about the Tomb Raider franchise and rebooted it with an excellent action-adventure rebirth for Lara Croft.
A new trilogy was born, and the fervor for Tomb Raider was renewed once again. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the culmination of everything that came before, in terms of its story, and a healthy sampling of the recent trends in modern Triple-A game development.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a third-person action adventure. You play as Lara on her quest to stop Trinity, a militaristic faction of ne’er-do-wells, from causing destruction and ruin on a global scale.
You will platform through deadly tombs, sneak in the shadows and pick off armed mercenaries, hunt wild animals and spelunk for crafting resources. Everything you discover, kill, or scavenge gives you XP that can be used on a rather large skill tree.
Nothing in that description is revolutionary. None of it is even novel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t add anything new to the third-person action-RPG genre at all.
That fact does nothing to impact how incredible this experience is to play in any way, shape or form.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an evolution of the mechanics the previous two entries in the franchise implemented. Everything about them is back, bigger, and more refined than anything before it.
Challenge tombs and Crypts are varied, long, and satisfying to discover. Puzzles and environmental exploration feel rewarding to play through, and the combat has never felt better.
Shadow starts a handful of months after the conclusion of Rise and takes it’s time to really ramp up the action. Shadow of the Tomb Raider spends a good chunk of time upfront with its story and character building.
Lara, and her trusted companion Jonah, played by Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon respectively, bring a layer of care to these characters that is a clear step up from the previous games.
I’m not knocking the previous games’ story, but the improvement to their performances, especially in the quiet moments, really takes off in exciting ways. Jonah is a great supporting character, who helps Lara, but also challenges her stubborn mentality and eagerness to jump into trouble headfirst.
Their relationship leads to some of the most tense, exciting and rewarding story beats in Tomb Raider history. Their relationship feels real. When they argue, it feels bad. As a player, I didn’t feel right, and the discomfort was something I never expected from a Tomb Raider game.
The rest of the story is also well done, with new and old characters all adding and contributing to the conflict between Lara and Trinity. Huge moments that play into the history of the franchise, and lead to exciting new directions, will satisfy old-school Tomb Raider fans and new fans just looking for a well-made and entertaining action-adventure game.
In terms of the gameplay itself, refinements have been implemented across the board. Every gameplay function from the previous two games return, with a layer of polish that really pushes it to the next level.
Stealth and gunplay in particular have seen some big improvements. Stealth is completely viable, with many new tactics for Lara. Some of the developers must have watched Predator on repeat, as one of the new tools you have is the ability to coat yourself completely in mud. She is then able to blend in much better with her tropical surroundings as she picks off her targets one-by-one. She can even string bodies up on trees in true Predator fashion and really make people terrified. Causing this reaction in your enemies changes up how they behave, much like Rocksteady’s Arkham series of games.
If you manage to alert the enemies, you can go back to hiding and lose them. Enemy AI is much better and believable; when they lose Lara, watching them freak out and shoot wildly into the canopy is always a fun time. The new AI routines, Lara’s increased stealth capabilities and the actual feel of the shooting itself, makes all of the combat much more satisfying to take in.
Previously, I felt like the combat was merely passable. Nothing terrible by any means, but nothing I would care to engage in again once I finished it. This time, the combat stands equal to the rest of the Tomb Raider experience, and some scenarios I would restart just to see if I could complete the entire section without being detected.
While the story and combat are much improved this time around, one of the best parts of the previous games, Challenge Tombs, are back and bigger than ever. Each one is memorable, and they are much more varied and numerous than ever before. They all feel fun to discover and playing through them gets addictive quickly.
Even better are the rewards – many skills are unlocked only by completing Challenge Tombs. These skills are always extremely useful, so the payoff in terms of resources and the expanded toolset are always worth the extra effort.
In terms of scavenging, Shadow is a collector’s paradise. Many in-game skill unlocks and tools are available to the player, if you have the urge to collect it all. Various maps and skills will help reveal the entire map, so no secret can stay hidden for too long. The base camp fast-travel system returns and is useful for going back to older areas when you want to get a certain material or animal in order to complete a new crafting upgrade.
Hub areas also make a return, and like everything else, have received many significant upgrades. They are full of people, flavor dialogue and side quests that help Lara round out her arsenal. If you don’t feel like burdening yourself with their problems, the next major story mission is always right there, so you never need to indulge in side quests to complete the story if that’s not what you want to do.
Bringing all of the aspects to life are the game’s absolutely incredible visuals. Every location is dense and full of detail, from the streets of Mexico, to Mayan temples and underwater environments. The cut scenes all feature excellent character models that bring everything to life in a big way. It’s easily one of the best-looking games I have ever played.
Shadow also features a robust photo mode, so I can imagine some players will spend hours capturing the perfect shot on their adventures into the wild.
There are a handful of issues with the game, but none that really bother me, outside of nitpicks. Even when Shadow commits gaming’s most painful tradition – mandatory stealth sequences, it wasn’t too painful. A couple of times you will be forced to complete a stealth sequence where getting detected results in a game over. On top of that, they double down on how terrible that idea is by making them take place UNDERWATER. In reality, these sequences were always over very quickly, but they are so unnecessary I struggle to see the value of adding them into the game at all.
Also, like I said previously, this game, while excellent, doesn’t do anything to move the genre forward in any meaningful way. I’m not knocking this game for it, it’s just something I thought to myself while I was reflecting on my time with it.
Special attention must also be paid to the various options the game offers the player. On the Xbox One X, which is the version I reviewed, you’re offered the choice of 4K or 1080p and 60 frames per second. Either mode runs fantastic, with only a handful of moments where I noticed a performance hiccup. If you want the complete breakdown, check out our very own NX Gamer’s complete technical rundown.
In addition to the visuals, many other options are present. New Game Plus is back and better than ever, which allows you to further advance in one of the skill trees and really specialize in a skill set you like. Accessibility features are also welcome, allowing you to hold a button instead of mashing, or tilting the analog sticks instead of cranking them to solve various in-game QTE’s.
They even have a sound immersion option. When toggled on, the natives will speak their native language.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider stands as not just the best game in the entire trilogy, but one of the best action-adventure games period.
Overall, I absolutely recommend Shadow of the Tomb Raider – a clear Game of the Year candidate for me.