I love the rebooted Tomb Raider games, so I made sure I pre-ordered Shadow of the Tomb Raider as soon as I was able to. The previous two games are fun adventures, with a number of game elements I enjoyed (puzzles, exploration, and interesting plot lines to name a few). I also find the series’ far-fetched take on archaeology pretty entertaining. I have a degree in Anthropology, and I have previously worked as a field technician on a number of archaeology sites, so games about history and culture (even if they’re heavily embellished to the point of being silly) are always going to be my cup of tea. In the days leading up to the game’s release, I was giddy wondering what ancient horrors Lara was going to get herself involved with this time. Now that I’ve had the chance to play Shadow of the Tomb Raider, here’s a look at gameplay and story, what I think is done well, and ways I think it could be improved.
Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider were games that both looked really good. One would expect that two years after RotTR, the graphics would be even better. That is an understatement. I’ve played a few games where the cutscene graphics are really high quality, but the actual gameplay doesn’t quite hold up. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider the transition from cutscene to gameplay is almost seamless. Now, graphics aren’t the most important factor of a game for me. I’ve adored many a game with subpar graphics in the past, and I’m sure I will again. However, for games like Tomb Raider where the awe of the temples or the vast expanses of nature are an integral part of the story, I would expect that as technology advances, so do the graphics.
When it comes to playing the game not much has changed from the previous two. Weapons, climbing, jumping, and healing all feel basically the same. The skill tree got a colourful new update that reminds me a bit more of Assassin’s Creed Origins, which I like. It’s easier to take in all of the possible skills and see where you want to focus. Otherwise, most of what is involved in playing the game feels the same to me. I had hoped there would be some innovative new mechanics in the game; maybe the ability to build or repair things like ladders and machines, or craft new weapons and tools to add a bit of variety. While the game sticks to the standards (nothing wrong with tradition, I suppose), there is one really cool change that will make the game more replayable for me. In selecting game difficulty, there are now options relating to specific game aspects that can be adjusted to personalize how the game plays for you. I enjoy the puzzles and sneaking but I’m not fond of the combat, so I can adjust the difficulty to make the irritating bits easier and the fun bits more of a challenge. Cool! If you watched the latest GameSavvy podcast, you might have heard Tyler saying he doesn’t like when Lara tells him what to do all the time. Now Tyler can turn that feature off, and have fun figuring those puzzles out on his own. These changes are accompanied by better, more adjustable accessibility settings. A number of controller settings and visual settings were added to give people with limitations and disabilities a more customizable experience. Making games more accessible is a trend that I think was a long time coming, and incredibly valuable. While it’s great to talk about accessibility features and hype up the fact that they are present I hope this becomes the norm with games being released going forward, rather than something that makes a game more impressive and noteworthy.
Without giving anything away, I definitely think the story is the highlight of the game for me. It’s a bit more sophisticated than the plot of the previous titles. Some of the story is predictable, and I can anticipate what will happen, but there are also a few new elements that show the characters as complicated people. Lara grows as a person in some points of this game. Jonah starts calling her out on her hero complex bullshit, and she learns that her actions can have consequences that don’t just involve her and Trinity. The villain is a bit more human than just the typical big bad faceless Trinity figurehead, as well. I like facing villains that are morally complex rather than just ultra evil. It fits in well with the shift into a deeper look at the characters that I felt throughout the game. Some of the side quests also offer these looks into the complexity of right versus wrong, and how we justify those things to ourselves.
I do still think there is room to improve. It would be cool to have the ability to impact the game world in some tangible way. Perhaps by the ablution to make decisions like whether Lara leaves artifacts and ruins as she finds them or destroys them/takes them with her. We could choose whether Lara will side with the people keeping ancient locations a secret or share her knowledge with the world. This would have fit in nicely with the focus on moral ambiguity and perspectives. While the new difficulty settings make the game easier to replay, the story isn’t, and I feel like that is always the biggest thing stopping me from playing a game again.
Something I noticed and really appreciated in Shadow of the Tomb Raider was the effort to incorporate more actual history and culture within the fabric of the game. Whether this was at the request of the player community, or a choice made by the writers, I think it’s a valuable and important aspect to have considering most of the history in the main plot itself is made up. It’s an exciting adventure, with a hero racing to prevent a terrible future caused by meddling with items from the past. In the real world, the most exciting part of archaeology is the chance to use the past to enrich and better the future. We set out to learn about other people, whether it’s the history of our ancestors or entirely different cultures. That kind of knowledge is valuable, even when it isn’t being used to stop the plots of ancient evil organizations. It’s fun to play such a stunning game, solve puzzles, scale cliffs, and save the day, but there is also a real world out there full of amazing things to learn about and experience. I recommend everyone play Shadow of the Tomb Raider, because it is a truly fantastic game. I also recommend that when you’re done, you go out into the world and learn something new about the past, maybe even about the actual ancient peoples the game is based on. You definitely won’t be disappointed with either.