Lara Croft’s third adventure of the ‘Survivor Trilogy’ sees our youthful heroine visit South America on the trail of the evil Trinity organisation and get caught up in a plot involving hidden cities, lost Amazonian tribes, apocalyptic death cults and a search for her own self.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the second sequel to Crystal Dynamics’ successful 2013 rebootand despite a distinctly new horror tinge, and a shift away from the character’s traditional weaponry of two pistols to a bow and arrow,the survivor trilogy has been a return to form for the long-running franchise. 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider built on the success of the first game, and anticipation was high for this third game in the trilogy.
The jungle setting allows the developers to go to town on making a lush-looking game, with excellent foliage, lighting, rock and water effects as well as terrifically animated animals. There is no doubt that visually, this is a really good looking game.
Which makes it a crying shame that Lara herself seems to have taken a step backward in the visuals. The two previous games have delivered a richly detailed Croft, both in cutscenes and gameplay. This latest incarnation appears to have a much more detailed facial mesh – she’s able to smirk and also appears to chew the inside of her cheek occasionally – but the skin and texture on the PS4 version tested seems waxy and a bit plasticky. Also Lara’s interaction with her environments is non-existent. For example in Rise of the Tomb Raider, snow would catch on Lara’s clothes and hair, mud would attach itself to her clothing and if she went for a swim, she’d appear wet, hair and clothes darkened and glistening. In this new game there is none of that outside of the new stealth gameplay mechanic (more on that in a bit), but all the animation routines are still there. For example, when Lara surfaces after a swim, her hair looks bone dry, which makes the cute ‘wringing of the pony tail’ animation seem a bit … silly.
Gameplay has been tweaked again, with three individual challenge levels for puzzles, combat and navigation. This makes the game really tunable to how you want to play and is a welcome addition. Also in this game gunplay and combat is reduced from the previous versions. Make no mistake our vulnerable, sensitive 20-something adventurer still ends the game as a prolific mass-murderer and butcherer of endangered species, but the addition of combat areas with lighting, ledges and hiding places encourage a more stealthy style of play. They are almost Hitman-esque puzzle pieces and can be really fun to play several times. Another key part, though less successful, is the hiding mechanic where you find a mud area and Lara smears herself in the glop, which enables her to be less visible against certain types of wall. This does make the stealth sections easier, and is essential on the more challengining levels, but it does feel a bit artificial and clumsily added.
Much more successful is Lara’s new rapelling axe, which allows her to descend by rope from rock walls and swing under overhangs to reach impossible ledges. This makes for a more vertical game than the previous ones and the level designers have clearly enjoyed their new toy. As ever the excellent camera nudges and guides you as to the next direction and the ever-helpful white paint is still present, though less comedically obvious than in previous versions.
Another major improvement is the number of tombs for Lara to raid. There are an awful lot more than in both of the previous games and among them are some of the best puzzles in the twenty-year old series. Brilliant, intricate setups of jumps, levers, time limits and environments that use water, light, rocks, hidden limitations and clever restrictions to deliver really great challenging and occasionally thrilling mini-quests.
Which thankfully takes our mind off the so-so main story which seems dreadfully underwritten and, in places is completely implausible. Almost all the main characters, including Croft, are painfully thin in their characterisations. In fairness, I am reviewing at 50% complete and the previous games have got stronger into their third act so things may improve, but for now the loss of writer Rhianna (daughter of Terry) Pratchett is being keenly felt.
All of which adds up to a game that is … good, but there is a feeling that it should have been better. For every excellent puzzle, there’s really shoddy writing; for every blockbuster moment, there’s some poor rendering; for every rappeling axe, there’s a puddle of mud. All of which adds up to a game that just scrapes a recommendation but with a bit more attention, and a bit more care, should have been a five star must buy.