God, I’m disappointed with Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. Not because it is particularly bad (it isn’t), or because it’s an almost exact carbon copy of Rise Of The Tomb Raider (it is, even down to the plot), but because I really think this incarnation of Lara Croft would be a much happier woman if she gave up the sham cover story of stealing ancient artifacts from their rightful owners and just accepted the fact that she really, really likes killing people.
I hammered on this point again and again in my Rise review, but Shadow really does push it to the point where it’s no longer a joke and is actively frustrating. Maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to me as much if there hadn’t been pre-release publicity about how Lara was finally going to “become the Tomb Raider” (as if the two hundred people she killed in the first game somehow weren’t enough to instantly qualify her). Maybe it wouldn’t have been such an issue if the Steam page didn’t have an embedded video of a mud-covered Lara stalking some generic mercenaries through the jungle like she was the fucking Predator. That made Shadow look interesting! It’s always bugged me how none of these games acknowledge just how lethal their protagonists are; I played through all of the Uncharted games last year and it was pretty ridiculous how the dichotomy between “Nathan Drake, devoted family man” and “Nathan Drake, Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse” was never explored or even mentioned. I was up for playing a game that stopped tiptoeing around the issue, finally embraced the reality that Lara Croft is the deadliest woman alive, and treated her with the respect she deserves.
Instead I got yet another installment of the reboot’s tiresome, wishy-washy, uncertain Lara Croft who has received almost no character development over the course of five years and three games. This Lara Croft — the one who shows up for the cutscenes — is severely at odds with the Lara Croft that I’m actually playing, the one who indiscriminately slaughters her enemies in a variety of horrible ways in pursuit of ancient artifacts. The playable Lara isn’t a very nice person, but she’s at least competent. She’s at least sure of herself. And it says a lot about the quality of Shadow’s writing that I would much rather have this deranged serial killer as my main character instead of a woman who contracts severe cases of Plot Stupid whenever the writers have backed themselves into a corner and need some way to continue to the next set piece. I’m just so tired of games where I spend forty-five minutes doing a bunch of platforming and puzzle solving to retrieve some artifact, only for the game to switch to a cutscene in which the protagonist suddenly regresses to a helpless infant while the villain swoops in to steal the MacGuffin. If there were any consistency with the character I spend the majority of my time with in the game she’d have shanked all of them before he’d gotten ten seconds into his tiresome monologuing and would have strung him up from the nearest tree, and to have to sit there while the developers tell me the last hour of gameplay was effectively a waste of my time makes me hate Lara, it makes me hate the story, and it doesn’t exactly get me thinking too kindly of Eidos Montreal, either.
I really wasn’t kidding when I said Shadow is a copy of Rise Of The Tomb Raider. It follows the same plot points almost beat-for-beat: Lara is in pursuit of a magical artifact (again) but gets interrupted by a Generic Secret Society called Trinity (again). In her pursuit of Trinity she gets stranded in a remote wilderness (again) and finds a hidden city whose inhabitants mysteriously speak perfect English (again). She makes friends with the city’s leaders and goes spelunking around various tombs to try and find yet another artifact (again), and encounters a group of Generic Monsters who live underground and who are tasked with protecting the artifact (again). Finally, after finding the artifact (and promptly getting it stolen in a cutscene) she faces off against the leader of Trinity in a terrible bossfight (again), and then there is a spectacularly idiotic ending cutscene1 in which she demonstrates she’s learned absolutely nothing from her tomb raiding experiences. Now, obviously this is lazy writing – it would be foolish to expect anything else from a Tomb Raider game — but I wasn’t prepared for Shadow to plumb quite such depths as it ends up doing; it is, in fact, the worst writing I have seen in a videogame since Splinter Cell: Blacklist, complete with a villain who might as well be called Dr Not Appearing In This Game for all the presence he he has during its 20-odd hour length, since he only ever shows up when the writers need him to take something of Lara’s, or for the end bossfight. Probably the worst indictment of Shadow’s writing is this: it makes Rise’s plot look competently written, and the original Tomb Raider reboot looks like fucking Proust when you sit it next to Shadow.
Gameplay-wise Shadow is, again, almost exactly the the same as Rise. It’s traded the snowy climes of Rise for the Peruvian jungle, and there’s a new mechanic where Lara can cover herself in mud to conceal herself from enemies with thermal goggles. This is a perfectly decent addition and having Lara burst out of a mud-covered wall to stick a knife in somebody’s ear is very entertaining for the, oh, call it two times that it’s actually used in the game. There have been some other additions to her repertoire of war crimes, such as:
- Going full-blown chemical weapons by manufacturing poison gas grenades.
- Booby-trapping corpses with IEDs.
- Firing a rope arrow through somebody’s chest and stringing them up to a tree as a warning to the others.
- Splitting out some of the skill tree abilities from Rise (such as bullet time when aiming a weapon) to a set of craftable hallucinogens that she can ingest using the D-pad to jack herself up during combat.
All of which are things that totally normal human woman Lara Croft would do, and not a drugged-up mass-murderer whose insatiable bloodlust is driving her to methods that would get her put on trial in the Hague if the civilized world were to ever learn about what she gets up to on her little field trips.
Still, Shadow is fine in terms of gameplay, I think. It cannot help but be fine, seeing how little has been changed from Rise, which was itself a perfectly fine game; Eidos Montreal even do something a little bit smart by taking just two hours to bring Shadow Lara’s moveset up to almost full parity with what Rise Lara had at the end of the game (rope arrows, grapple axe etc.), which does a lot to minimise the classic Metroid problem of having the main character lose all of her armour and equipment at the start of each new game. It also attempts to put a little less emphasis on Lara’s murder habit by having fewer encounters with human enemies compared to Rise — but this ends up backfiring, because it doesn’t particularly tone down the amount of combat at all. It just means that most of it is now Lara versus those Generic Monsters2, who are far less interesting to fight because they just run at you and try to slash you with their claws. There’s no opportunity for stealth in these monster-battling segments, meaning that most of the new stuff that’s been added — such as the mud and the tree kills — ends up being underused.
And because the new features aren’t given much of a chance to shine, Shadow ends up coming across as rather more derivative than it would be otherwise. It doesn’t just feel like a copy, it feels like a copy of a copy, like more has been lost in the translation from Rise than there really should have been. The platforming is back, but there’s no new spin on it; Lara climbs the same collection of pitted rock faces and shit-covered3 ledges as she does in the previous two games, and it’s strictly a way of getting from A to B. The challenge tombs are back and they follow the same formula as Rise — a platformy bit to get into the tomb, followed by a puzzle of some sort — but they follow it a little too closely, to the point where every tomb feels exactly the same. There’s no Byzantine galley encased in ice here, no yawning chasm pulled straight from the ending of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Just a set of recycled assets and puzzle elements that barely tickle your critical thinking bits; there was only one tomb that took me more than two minutes to figure out, and that was because it was so overwhelmingly brown my visual cortex hadn’t managed to parse a water wheel as actually being a water wheel. It’s all a fairly adequate experience when you actually play it, but it feels like “adequate” was all Eidos Montreal was ever aiming for. Because it appears to have no ambition to be anything more than a rehash of Rise, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider comes across as an exercise in calculated mediocrity.
That’s probably a little unfair on Eidos Montreal. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider has an extremely odd narrative structure that has all the hallmarks of something that’s been the victim of an overambitious deadline and which has been hastily assembled out of whatever gameplay segments happened to be deemed completable by the time that deadline rolled around. Its two best bits feel horribly out of place both because they’re atomic segments that have been spliced in mid-story that have almost no effect on the narrative, and because they display significantly more imagination than the entire rest of the game put together. The first is a flashback to a young Lara solving puzzles in Croft Manor, which is lent some charm by her ongoing narration of what she’s doing as an adventure with herself in the starring role, but I found the second more intriguing because I suspect it’s more along the lines of what the whole of Shadow would have been if Eidos Montreal had had their way. It involves Lara getting ambushed by Trinity and temporarily losing most of her equipment, and what was interesting about this was that she finally lost her self-restraint as well. What follows is a fantastic half hour sequence where Lara kills her way through the entire Trinity search-and-destroy party, butchering dozens of goons without a single iota of pity or remorse and generally acting the way I’ve been wanting her to act for at least one and a half games now. Towards the end of it Trinity throws armoured cars and helicopter gunships at her and it barely slows her down, and it’s at this point that their morale shatters and they start outright panicking, which is the first and only time in the entire series that anyone has ever had an appropriate reaction to fighting Lara Croft. Scripted as it is, combat-heavy though it might be, it feels like a sequence from a much better game, and one that I would have been far more interested in playing.
And then, when Lara is standing atop the wreckage of an oil refinery surrounded by dozens of corpses and the shattered hulks of the war machines that tried to stop her, her companion and serial enabler Jonah arrives like he’s just stepped out of a taxi and isn’t happening upon a scene of indescribable slaughter, which is cutscene Lara’s cue to show up again and have a thirty second emotional breakdown before carrying on like the whole episode never happened. From this point onwards Shadow’s colours are firmly nailed to the mast of Just Being Average. It largely succeeds in this. Like I said in the opening, it’s not a bad game. I’ve played enough bad games to know that Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is not one of them; even in its weirdly disjointed final form it has enough intrinsic competency to be moderately engaging throughout most of its 20-hour length, if you’re into the kind of thing that it’s doing. The problem is, if you are into that kind of thing then I don’t understand why you’re not playing Uncharted instead; unlike much of the gaming media I don’t worship the ground Nathan Drake walks on and I think the series is incredibly flawed4 for something that’s held up as one of Sony’s flagship franchises, but there’s no getting around the fact that Uncharted 4 does everything Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is doing but better, and it did it first5. Not to mention the fact that Rise Of The Tomb Raider did everything Shadow did better, and first. If you must play a third-person platforming-puzzling adventure game with extreme quantities of increasingly bloody killing, I’d play (or replay) one of those instead.
- In fact the whole last hour of the game is just offensively bad. ↩
- I distinctly remember fighting these guys in the first Uncharted, and even then they felt like the laziest, most unimaginative enemies possible. ↩
- I’m not sure who came up with the “Let’s cover it in birdshit” universal marker for climbable ledges first, but I think that if they’d known it’d be adopted by just about every modern game with platforming elements they’d probably have thought twice. ↩
- Especially Uncharted 3, which goes past merely being “flawed” into being “absolutely irredeemably fucking awful”. ↩
- It also has the most impressive salad consumption animations I’ve seen in videogames to date. ↩