The new Tomb Raider's freshest idea is the floating of a question: What if all this tomb raiding that Lara Croft does indicates that she is a treasure-plundering jerk who wrecks other people's cultures and, worse, their lives?
Despite the navel-gazing self-reflection that question implies, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not a dreary buzzkill. It's fun and beautiful and is a lengthy adventure full of enjoyable Tomb Raidery things. It's built on the sturdy traditions of the 22-year-old franchise and uses most of the same smart systems for exploration and combat that were introduced in 2013's Tomb Raider reboot and refined in 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Once more you make your way into an exotic location, climbing and puzzle-solving your way through tombs, ruins, and enemy installations. Once more you engage in a combination of platforming, puzzle-solving, exploration, and combat, usually sneaking around with a bow and arrow before alerting a guard and transitioning into outright gunplay. Once more you gradually level up Lara Croft as you attain more experience points and virtual gold to spend on new skills, outfits and weapons.
But maybe, this sequel invites players to ponder, all this snatching of other cultures' hidden artifacts isn't the most enlightened cause.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft ventures from Mexico into the jungles of Peru to outrace a fanatical Christian militia called Trinity in a quest to get some artifacts that could trigger the end of the world. Trinity, an evil and well-armed secret society, are the primary bad guys in the franchise's new chronology, which started with the 2013 reboot. Croft's excesses in chasing down buried treasures are often motivated by the fact that they, too, are hunting the thing in question, often with plans to use it to nefarious ends. The fact remains that at the start of the game, Croft snatches a precious item from a tomb and sets loose a cataclysm of death. Her best friend, Jonah, attempts to reassure her that it isn't her fault, but his words ring false. The fact remains that when Lara Croft drops into town, things break. Hell, half the time she's the one swinging the hand axe.
The question of Croft's moral legacy is floated throughout much of the game, mostly in cutscenes. It also arises in the many conversations she can have with the ordinary civilians whose villages and hidden cities have the mixed fortune of being on the dotted path toward her next desired treasure. It's unusual enough that the game fills its world with people to talk to, greatly expanding players' opportunities to take a break from jungle exploration by heading into town and prompting scripted conversations. It's even more striking that some of these people, and Croft herself, express some doubts about the virtue of her trade.
"It's a shame you're not a tourist," Croft is told early on by a woman in a small Peruvian town that has already been ravaged by an oil-drilling company. "Tourists bring money. Archaeologists just take."
Later in the game, Croft travels deeper into the jungle and discovers a small city called Paititi, which is full of people with their own problems and possibilities. By that point she seems to have grown more aware of her potential for causing collateral damage. "I didn't foresee any of this," she says. "I was expecting an ancient place---artifacts, tombs---I just failed to imagine... people. I was so focused on the trail of clues I didn't even stop to wonder. I didn't mean to interfere... but Trinity is here."
Players can choose to change the game's default language settings so that more of the locals speak their own languages: Spanish or Yucatec Mayan, mostly. They can turn on subtitles to get the translations of what non-English-speaking characters in the periphery of the game's towns are saying or keep them off to soak in the local dialect and the feeling of being an outsider.
The abundance of ordinary people along Lara Croft's latest trek makes the difference in this game, compared with its predecessors. There are stretches of Shadow of the Tomb Raider where Croft explores Peruvian jungle on her own, plunging into tombs and crypts and swinging through some of the most lushly rendered video game landscapes I've ever seen. Those stretches will feel most familiar to those who have played the preceding games, but Shadow starts to establish its own identity when Croft arrives in town and starts chatting with the locals.
In the impressive, massive hub area of Paititi there are farmers and housewives, shamans and merchants, rebel leaders and children, each with stories to tell. Few of these people are hostile to this white British lady who has walked out of the foliage with a gun on her hip. Some are at least wary, some skeptical. Many are also eager to share their own hopes and stresses. With the press of a button, players can hear them out and maybe lend a hand.
All of this chit-chat isn't required to play the game. It's optional and serves as a subtle representation of how little it is necessary in real or virtual life to listen or understand before grabbing the thing you want. The creators of Shadow of the Tomb Raider have beefed up systems for conversation and offer a slew of mostly non-violent side-quests involving townspeople but leave them skippable by those who wish to focus on plunging into tombs, shooting the paramilitary bad guys and following the game's main story through. Players who do only those things, however, will miss experiencing a Lara Croft who is more of a listener and helper, who conceivably can get as much out of hearing a stranger's story as she could finding some buried bauble.
There are at least a few hours of this extra stuff, some of it spread across 13 optional sidequests that provide many of Shadow's best moments, at least for those who will be satisfied with well-written character interaction. A late-game conversation with a blind man provides some particularly elegant insight into Croft's character and is also entirely missable.
For those skipping the civilian interactions, or even for those who don't, the good news is that the jungle gym of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is largely a step up from the already superbly enjoyable Rise. There are a few more tombs in this one, more explorable crypts, tougher puzzles, extended underwater sequences and even some improved stealth combat options utilized for what seems to be a welcome, slight reduction of combat in favor of more classic exploration.
Players who went through 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider will find a lot of familiar material in Shadow. The plot is a continuation, as Trinity and its leaders have now been hounding Croft across multiple games, and in the last one were revealed to be responsible for her father's death. Croft's moveset is mostly the same as it was in the last game, though Shadow respects veteran players' time and doesn't force them to re-acquire returning techniques, such as shooting an arrow across a gap to form a zipline. Old traversal moves are there from the start, though very few new ones are added in the course of the game. The design structure is also the same: players progress through a series of adjacent regions filled with lore, loot, story missions and optional tombs, and can still save and fast-travel via dozens of basecamps.
Some of these similarities may be due to the fact that Shadow was not made by the main Tomb Raider team at Crystal Dynamics. While that studio aided development, this new game was largely developed by Eidos Montreal. The game's scale and level of detail don't make it feel like a lazy production or a carbon copy, but it's clearly built on an existing foundation, and it rarely strays too far from what's already been established.
There are heaps of skills to unlock, some with skill points gained by earning experience, others by progressing in the story or completing the game's optional challenge tombs.
The game distinguishes itself from the two before it by being more focused on interactions between Lara Croft and other people, by upping the count of lore, tombs, and crypts and by being set in Peru, though the jungle setting proves to be a minor liability. Its scenery is gorgeous, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider is nevertheless yet another action adventure set in a jungle, with shades of multiple Tomb Raider and Uncharted games before it. This game's tombs, while sufficiently head-scratching, especially with hints turned off, generally lack the architectural flair that could make them especially memorable. The tropical setting doesn't ultimately lend itself to the aesthetic distinction and geographical ingenuity of Rise of the Tomb Raider's less commonly explored Siberia. There's no tomb in Shadow half as striking as Rise's ship trapped in a frozen waterfall.
More than its predecessors and similar adventures, Shadow of The Tomb Raider is what players make of it. In addition to its wealth of optional, character-redefining side conversations and side adventures, Shadow enables players unusually granular control of how difficult the game is and how much careful observation and exploration is required to progress. Players can tweak three sliders of game difficulty. They affect the toughness of combat against enemies, the amount of hints given by the game when Croft is trying to solve a tomb's puzzles, and the extent to which the game's environment is colored with hints about which ledges and tree branches can be used for climbing. That last one is a revelation, removing the road signs that often make traversal in action-adventure games like this an act of following directions instead of observant exploration. Players who remove traversal hints and the game's other aids will wind up being forced to pay more careful attention to their surroundings, looking and understanding rather than just barrelling through. (For even more immersion, players can switch the default language of many supporting characters from English to their native tongue, be it Spanish, Yucatec Mayan or Nahuatl.)
The microtransaction-laden Expeditions mode from Rise of the Tomb Raider does not return for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. This time, the developers are offering a season pass that will allow players to try variations of existing challenge tombs like the one above as well as get a new tomb per month from October through April.
When the game's difficulty sliders are set to medium or low, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a big-budget thrill ride. It flies by in a blur of cliffs to climb, chasms to cross, levers to pull, and death traps to avoid, along with a slew of high-speed action sequences involving outrunning and out-climbing bad guys or natural disasters.
Played on a higher combination of difficulty settings, everything comes into sharper focus. That's usually to the game's benefit. It transforms from a passing diversion into a welcome test of wits and navigation, set amid a visually stunning environment that has you swinging around mountains, diving through underground rivers and clinging to muddy walls in order to silently spring upon passing militiamen.
A higher difficulty improves the game's exploration and combat. Puzzle-filled tombs become chambers where you have to scrutinize every crack to figure out how to advance. You can no longer assume Croft will mutter hints about the solution if you are stumped for too long. Combat isn't that challenging even when dialed up but, at least at higher difficulties, it requires careful use of stealth and pushes the player to experiment with many of Croft's dozens of unlockable character skills. Unlike other recent Tomb Raiders, encounters with human enemies are blissfully rare. The more common foe is the wild Peruvian environment, which includes more aggressive animals. You can upgrade your bow and your guns, but, fair warning, arrows and bullets don't help with piranhas.
The game's thoughtful script is undermined by the puns used in the titles of challenge missions and Achievements or Trophies. Feel the pathos of people whose village has been ravaged by an oil company. Shoot a red barrel to activate a "crude awakenings" barrel-shooting challenge. Rescue a sad little girl's father named Hakan and get the Trophy "I believe Hakan fly."
Slowing down to play the game in a more careful, methodical way supports the idea of a Lara Croft who is becoming aware of how much she tramples when she goes tomb raiding. It is, of course, still a game, though, with no real stakes in terms of wrecking real cultures. No matter how players roleplay Lara Croft to be a more sensitive adventurer, a lot of the most thoughtful elements of the game are weakened by the gravitational pull of traditional big-budget video game stuff. Many of the aforementioned conversations with civilians, for example, produce new icons on the map. The reward for listening to someone isn't really their story, it's the identification of something new to track down. Even non-violent sidequests about helping people lead to unlocks of new weapons or, in one weird case after an older woman earnestly shares some life philosophy with Croft, the discovery that she's a high-level merchant. Press a button to see what she's selling: oh, just a machine gun, a laser sight, some gear and some ammo. She didn't seem the type.
And for all the sensitivity the game's writing may instill about the nature of spelunking into some other country's caves, the game sure is filled with tombs littered with loot that is all too easy and tempting to pick up. Here's an offering table partway through a tomb. There's a pile of jade on it. Should you press a button to pick it up so it can be sold to a merchant for better outfits that have gameplay-beneficial perks? Who can resist? That seems to be the best way to proceed and win. This is the pitfall of making a game that questions the morality of raiding tombs while still being a game about raiding tombs. At least they raised some questions, though, and give players some leeway to roleplay.
One of Shadow's marketing bullet points is the return of underwater exploration. It's nice to have it in the game, though it doesn't significantly add to the fun.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider begins with a powerful proposition that Lara Croft should feel guilty about the kinds of things she does, and the unintended impact she has on innocent people's lives. This unconventional beginning sets up an adventure that crawls and leaps and dives in many fun and interesting ways. It eventually spills into a more conventional second half that feels like it could be the climax to any Tomb Raider game, dropping any second-guessing of Croft's mission while providing some exciting final scenes. That part is good too, just not as unusual and against type.
For all its adherence to series dogma, a good chunk of Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels improbably fresh. Amid a familiar setting and familiar mechanics, it invites players to explore a familiar sort of story in a different, more thoughtful way. It makes a difference if you listen to people, especially when they're speaking their own language. It makes a difference if you care about their stories.
In this Tomb Raider, Lara Croft again shows signs of renewal, not as the gritty survivor we met in 2013, but as a more complex character who actually talks to the people she meets on her travels and understands the gravity of her actions. Many come to Tomb Raider games for adventure and escape, to visit beautiful places and solve befuddling puzzles. There's plenty of that in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, too. It all depends on how much, or how little, you want to dig and how much you want to play as Lara Croft.