In the shadow of boredom
Lara Croft has traversed many kilometres in her existence. First, she presented herself to us in her blocky form in 1996, but as the polygons got more rounded in the later games, it ultimately led to her demise, in the form of barely playable catastrophe named Angel of Darkness. Originally, AOD was meant to become this grand trilogy, but Eidos had to scrap the rest due to bad sales and low quality of the game. Lara has pretty much disappeared from our sight after this terrible ordeal.
Meanwhile, Eidos was thinking on how resurrect our popular heroine and ordered Core Design and Crystal Dynamics with something exciting. Both studios produced a prototype of an anniversary version of the very first TR, but Core has not learnt its lesson. According to the leaked footage, they were clinging onto the old 3D control scheme, where Lara is basically stuck to the ground and has to slowly turn to switch directions (famously known as the tank controls), while Crystal has shown much modern approach to gameplay. They have moved the emphasis from hanging onto the ledges into automatic grabs and climbing. What has happened after, is history. Legend, Anniversary and Underworld were a successful reboot trilogy, however, failed to reach the success of the original TR.
2013 has brought us yet another reboot of the brand, again in the reigns of CD. This time, they have shown us a much more vulnerable side to Lara, stranded on a mysterious japanese island, her very first adventure with a new group called Trinity in her way. While this part contained a lot of shoot-outs and almost no tombs, the game was widely well received equally by most players and reviewers. After this success, we were given Rise of TR, which gave us a breath taking introduction in the mountains and beatiful Syria and Siberia. Some aspects got better, some worse, but as Crystal was working on the new Avengers game, the next TR game was given to the hands of Eidos Montreal. This for me was the first warning sign, that maybe I should wait for reviews first. So what could have possibly gone wrong with Shadow of Tomb Raider?
We have more tombs, less action and still, the game does not function well on its own. It is difficult to pin-point which aspect Montreal has failed on, but everything which made the previous two games fun such as exploration and discovery of new weapons and tools is just midlessly thrown into the game. I had no sense of Lara herself being motivated or growing throughout the adventure. Yes, you still discover the old forgotten cities and temples, but it does not have the same drive as in the previous titles. You´ll definitely won't be making the infamous sigh which Lara cheesily produced before which is a bit of a surprise as I have seen many reviews giving this game a 9/10. Another thing which made me scratch my head was the arsenal of weapons Lara can get. It feels redundant as there is no reason to buy or upgrade any other weapons besides the ones you find. SOTR suffers overall due to poorly thought out level design and while technically it is well made, it is missing the playfulness of the previous games.
The first big change that you'll notice is the unlocking of the abilities. The skill tree is now shown across the whole screen and you don't need to switch between three categories anymore. On one side, it is a good change but now the icons of the main categories are covering up half the screen for no reason and the actual skills are laid out in a grid like system. In the end, I've found it more confusing than useful. The worst thing about the skill tree is its efficiency. Besides some of the basic first skills you unlock automatically during the story, most of the skills are unneccesary like certain prolonged effects of berries or survival instict upgrades. The only one which was worth investing into was holding your breath for longer period of time (which you get for free anyway in one of the challenge tombs), the rest you can completely forget about as they barely do anything interesting.
One of the new additions in the game is the ability to dress into costumes with separate top and bottom parts as you can now combine different outfits together. Some of them possess certain attributes such as the hide from jaguar which makes you less visible to enemies and the boots from animal skin are less noisy. It is a nice addition but again, it didn't really matter in the end. In one of the hub cities you will be actually forced to wear a tribal costume, which wouldn't be such an issue if you were not in it for almost half of the game. This undermines this whole new system of combining these outfits, so most of them you won't be able to wear.
Swimming in the previous games was mostly focused on the surface but Shadow has finally added submerging fully and it is quite well presented. Lara will get to chance to swim a lot and you will find underwater passages quite often. You can speed up your swimming underwater as many times you might be pressed for time to find an air bubble to replenish your air supply. There are also eels patrolling some routes so you need to be careful and hide in the weed to avoid them. It is a bit of a shame that breathing the trapped air animation is exactly the same every time.
I didn't like such prominent focus on combat in TR 2013 and Rise, especially the passages where you could not avoid and the game made you into Rambo. In Shadow, you can count these on your hand. On one side, I find it nice that the authors listened to the complaints but now we fell into the exactly opposite extreme. The spaces where Lara is facing Trinity soldiers are a lot tighter and in some moments you have to use your knife and stealth approach only. Interesting addition is applying mud to your face and clothing, so Lara can blend in with the environment a lot easier without being seen. Stealth kills are a fun to perform but Shadow suffers from the corner syndrom (so typical for AC series), so all you have to do is to be stand against the wall and press a button to kill all the unsuspecting enemies. I am glad that they have added more ways to kill the enemies but it could have been better and more freely incorporated with the rest of the game.
Some enemies (most of them towards the end) are wearing helmets, making headshots practically impossible without alerting everybody around, which is not fun if you enjoy using the bow. Another new gadget is the thermal goggles, which some enemies start using later on and only if you cover yourself in mud you won't be seen when hiding in vegetation. However, there is an issue when trying to aim for when enemies are up close. The target reticular is a bit big and it can be difficult to shoot things in front of you. I have also noticed a strange way Lara equips the shotgun which miraculously just jumps straight into her hands which looks quite jarring.
Overall pacing of the game is uneven and after a pretty hectic beginning, all goes to a halt. Which, as such, is not a bad thing but when the game offers you two pretty big hubs to explore and there is no combat, everything slows down too much and you find yourself doing the boring sidquests in the hope of receiving something of value. Nope, sometimes you get a piece of outfit, sometimes just a mark on your map where a rare animal is or a challenge tomb is hidden. Things you can find easily yourself as the maps are very restricted and linear. TR 2013 had its charm in its uncharted island and Rise in its superb snow effects and they both have what Shadow is lacking – variability. Yes, both of these ran out of steam about halfway through, had too much action, explosions and had predictable story but at least the gameplay as such was still fun and environments were interesting to look at.
With a game titled TR I would also expect minimum bugs. I was especially looking forward to the fight with the jaguars. The music got more intense as I was drawing near the jaguar's nest but as soon as I got there, something was off. I found my foe crouching in the grass in the middle of the arena, just standing still, occasionally letting out a roar. Confused, I started to fire arrows into its back but the beast did not care at all. Only after I walked really close, it suddenly shot out of its position directly into a… wall. Luckily, the animal came to its senses and started attacking but the whole excitement of this fight evaporated. I haven't seen this bug since but it was a big letdown to see this within the first two hours of the game. Another issue happenes when you play the game under DX11. For some reason, as soon as you enter the first cave in the game, there is a horrible stutter, making it impossible to play. Only setting the game on a higher priority in the task manager remedied this but previous titles did not suffer from this problem.
Graphically, Shadow is on a similar level as Rise, there are not many major improvements. At the beginning I was enjoying walking in a deep mud and quite dense dark jungle enveloped in a light mist. All of the atmosphere was gone as soon as the sun came up and the whole feeling of being stranded kinda dissipates. Some views in the game are still nice but in comparison to its older siblings, I had barely pressed F12 besides getting a few screenshots for this review. Maybe it is due to jungle for not being as interesting during daylight as darker environments. Unfortunately, the music is again forgettable. I guess the days of iconic melodies from the nineties are long gone now and replaced with a bunch of repetetive tribal motives. Less is sometimes more and I would have enjoyed the silence of Lara's footsteps and occasional mysterious cries or squeals coming from the depths of the tombs instead. The constant drumming can get irritating when you are trying to focus on climbing or just absorbing the atmosphere around you.
The story of TR was never its strong point. Even going back to the oldest TR games or the previous trilogy, the story was always the weakest part. It is a bit confusing why is it such a hard thing to craft a more compelling story than the premise of finding an artifact and get home. Even employing Rhianna Prattchett for TR 2013 did not help much but it at least they gave us a backstory on the various Endurance crew survivors through logs and camera footage. Rise had a bit less of it but Shadow completely gives up pretending to make you care. In the beginning, Lara is trying to cope with her deed which caused a major cataclysm, costing hundreds of lives by stealing a sacred mayan dagger from its final resting place. This apparently puts a whole prophecy in motion which will ultimatley lead into the destruction of the world if Lara does not prevent it. She regrets the whole ordeal for like few minutes, shouts a bit at her companion Jonah and then goes back to the peaceful exploration of the cities and fetching side quests. Any sense of urgency is just not present well here. Trinity are forgettable as ever together with their leader whose motivations do not make much sense.
The only moment which stuck in my mind was when Lara finally gets angry with everything and there is a cool scene of her rising up (those who played know exactly which one), but there simply isn't such an iconic moment till the end of the game after this. The finale was a letdown as well. You just run to the end of the level while things explode and helicopters can't hit you if you keep moving (because plot armour) and the final confrontation is just completely emotionless. Even when the devs had a chance to make a meaningful impact, everything is suddenly all okay. There is just no progress, no lesson learned and Lara just moves on as if nothing happened, just another day with an a new artefact in her possession. The post credit scene does not give us any resolution or a hint of what is Lara up to next. That is not until you witness the alternate ending which got released with the game by accident and that gives us a lot more closure just by adding two little nods to the old games.
The game is also a lot shorter, almost twice as short as Rise of TR, which came as a bit of a surprise. I was expecting a longer experience, but on one hand I was happy that I didn't have to play more of this game due to lack of fun factor. It was supposed to be the pinnacle of the new reboot series but instead, it fell short. I can feel that the authors tried to play it safe while not changing too much and just adding bits and pieces here and there but in the end, it just felt hastily tacked on and without much cohesion. Possible explanation could be the DLC packages and first one called the Forge will add a new area and a co-op mode. However, not even NG+ mode will save it for me and while I felt that I wanted to replay TR 2013 and Rise again, Shadow left me with a bland aftertaste. Alas, I've just found the game boring as a long term fan of TR series. There were simply a lot more things I didn't like about it. I can just hope that the authors will improve upon their mistakes, that is if Square Enix will even give them the next game after questionable quality of this . As it stands now, it is a pale shadow of the Tomb Raider legacy.
- uninteresting characters and story
- jungle becomes a chore after a while
- boring gameplay
- fetch sidequests
- barely any action
- unnecessary skill tree
- linear progress
+ more tombs
+ some locations look good
+ underwater swimming
+ mud camouflage and stealth