Shadow of the Tomb Raider: hands-on with Lara's next adventure

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When it’s released in September of this year, Shadow of the Tomb Raider will mark the culmination of Lara Croft’s origin story which was rebooted by Square Enix almost five years ago. As the trilogy reaches its end, Lara’s fight against the evil Trinity organisation moves to South America, where she must race to put a stop to the apocalypse set in motion by Mayan artefacts.

We had the chance recently to play the first hour of the game and we have maximum thoughts with minimum spoilers just for you.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is, as you’d expect, the best looking Tomb Raider game to date. Graphically it hasn't moved much beyond Rise of the Tomb Raider, but the environments we saw in our first hour alone were more varied and stunning. The series isn’t exactly known for having a living thriving world, but the vistas, set pieces and level design are consistently excellent and this time around it looks like things will be no different.

At one with the environment

While the game’s jungle is the perfect chance for Lara to work with her environment, using the trees, mud and vines to stealthily take down her enemies, the fantastically realised tombs she explores continue to showcase how even abandoned ancient spaces can feel more foreboding than soldier-filled clearings.

In our first hour, we went from stealthy spying in a densely populated town, to solving puzzles in a cavernous tomb, to assassinating our way through a well-guarded dig sight before finishing things off with an intense shootout. Oh, did we mention the underwater exploration that had us holding our breath for an inadvisably long time? Or the rushing tsunami scene that put our reaction times to the test? 

Tense underwater moments will leave your face purple

Tense underwater moments will leave your face purple

Yes, the opening hour of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a busy one but it’s exhilarating and the pacing between puzzle solving and all-out action felt just right. 

Although it has a new setting and a new story, the actual gameplay in Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t vastly different to previous instalments. Anyone who’s played previous games will be immediately familiar with the controls and all the combat, stealth, exploration and puzzle solving elements remain and work just as well. There are a couple of nice refinements like using vine covered walls to hide and wall rappelling but nothing utterly groundbreaking. 

The death scenes that would make even the most hardened gamers grimace and look away also remain. We know they’re not quite Mortal Kombat but there’s only so many times you can watch and listen to Lara being impaled before you have to take a step back. 

The more incredible the level design, the greater the chance of being impaled

The more incredible the level design, the greater the chance of being impaled

Regardless, the formula for Tomb Raider has worked well so far and as the adage goes: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

One thing we would like to see fixed before the final game is released, however, is the camera. In our time with Shadow of the Tomb Raider the camera controls seemed to veer wildly between too responsive and frustratingly resistant which made aiming and looking around environments something of a challenge. 

Facing the consequences

The first hour of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is possibly the least isolated Tomb Raider experience we’ve had in years. Lara’s adventure starts off not on a remote island or a desolate Syrian desert, but in a busy town in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos. 

There are ordinary happy people around her, we get to see her politely move through the crowds and interacting with people with warm kind words. She even stands in front of a warm dish of food and declares that the delicious smell is making her hungry. It shouldn’t be a revelation but it is.

Although this opening scene acts as a frame for Lara stalking the leader of the evil Trinity organisation, it offers an altogether more human view of her and sets up the fact that Lara isn’t fighting in isolation any more. She isn't just saving herself, she’s saving the world. 

Lara mixing with people. Unsual

Lara mixing with people. Unsual

Eidos Montreal could have just jumped straight into the action of Lara breaking into Trinity’s dig site in an ancient tomb which follows. Or it could have made this opening segment a passive but beautiful cutscene. Instead it gets you to play through it for yourself and this strikes us as a deliberate and effective decision. 

We’d heard before we got to try the game that this time around you’d see that Lara’s actions in Shadow of the Tomb Raider will have more serious consequences than ever. We dismissed this at first but it becomes very apparent in the first hour of the game that this isn’t an exaggeration. 

We won’t spoil exactly what happens but there’s a moment during a particularly rapid and frantically paced set piece where the game slows the action to hammer home how Lara’s actions in Shadow of the Tomb Raider will affect innocent people. It’s not only faceless enemies that are at risk any more and it adds a sense of purpose and significance to Lara’s actions that we hadn’t really realised we’d been missing in the previous releases.

Facing flaws

Across the games we’ve seen Lara come into her own both physically and mentally. In the 2013 Tomb Raider, Lara must learn how to survive, acquiring tools and skills as she goes. When Rise of the Tomb Raider rolled around, we didn’t have to go through that all over again - Lara was more confident in her actions and already had a good deal of her equipment in from the off, though she perhaps still had some of the naivety that allowed her to be taken off guard by her enemies. 

Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with a confident assured Lara who’s one step ahead of her enemies and has all of her tools and equipment ready to go at a moment’s notice. In the opening scene we see her explaining a revelation she’s made to Jonah with passion and intelligence. At no point does Jonah interject with a solution of his own - in fact, a couple of times Lara has to dismiss his incorrect suggestions - and it shows perfectly just how good Lara is at what she does. And perhaps how bad her people skills have become.

However, the opening hour of Shadow of the Tomb Raider highlights that while the events of previous of games have made Lara stronger and more capable, they’ve also changed her in less favorable ways. 

Lara sees her fight against Trinity doesn't impact just her

Lara sees her fight against Trinity doesn't impact just her

Lara’s alienation from the wider world has made her more able to focus on the bigger picture, certainly, but her detachment and determination come at a cost. There’s actually a moment where you encounter a villain after a particularly significant moment and we could have sworn he was going to tell us that he wasn’t angry, just disappointed. He didn’t, but that’s a good indication of where we are in Lara’s character arc. 

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider we’re seeing signs that Lara is fallible in ways that aren’t physical. Previous games may have had Lara overcoming her fears to finesse her survival, combat and tomb raiding skills, but what we’ve seen from Shadow of the Tomb Raider so far suggests we might start to see her overcoming far more personal shortcomings. She's selfish, angry, petulant and sometimes unlikeable. But that in itself is likeable in some ways and we'll be interested to see if Eidos Montreal carries this off. 

It seems apt that as the climax of the trilogy, Lara’s adventure in Shadow of the Tomb Raider could simultaneously be her most personal and externally impactful to date. This is the culmination of making Lara a well-rounded character and it has the potential to have a lasting impact on the perception of her as a heroine. 

Use the environment until you have to break cover. Explosively.

Use the environment until you have to break cover. Explosively.

High hopes

Rise of the Tomb Raider was a woefully underappreciated game when it was released, and it’s widely accepted that this was in large part due to its timed exclusivity for Xbox. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has no such problem and on September 14 it’ll be available across all platforms so already it has a better chance for success. 

If Shadow of the Tomb Raider manages to retain the pace and tone of its first hour across the entire game (and fixes that camera) we think it could be great. Certainly, it's very safe and doesn't depart from the rest of the series to a great degree but that's not the worst thing in the world when the previous games have worked well. 

Can't wait to see more? Check out the brand new trailer for yourself below: