Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release surprised me as I hadn’t really kept track of where the next instalment was at. You’d think then that I’d have no big expectations for it but reading back over my reviews though I think they were set high given the previous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, rated up there among many of my favourite games of that year. This is always a challenge for follow up titles and it seems that unfortunately the developers just weren’t up to the task this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to like in the newest Tomb Raider game, but like many other long running AAA titles they’ve stumbled and they’re going to have to shake things up considerably if they want the IP to be successful.
Following almost directly on from the events at the end of the previous game we find Lara and Jona tracking down the leaders of the Trinity cult. They track them down to a town in Mexico where they discover that they’re looking for an ancient artifact that can bring about the remaking of the world. Lara then finds her way into an ancient temple and steals the Dagger of Ix Chel, one part of the two things needed to accomplish this. Shortly after however she’s captured by Trinity who take the dagger from her, informing Lara that she’s just begun the end of the world. You then follow Lara’s quest to find the other half piece, the Silver Box of Chak Chel, so she can stop Trinity before they remake the world by purging everyone from it.
I can strongly remember Rise of the Tomb Raider opening with a wide sweeping in-game cinematic that was absolutely stunning, showing right from the start that it was a visual marvel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider by comparison doesn’t, feeling decidedly last-gen with its muted colour palettes and tendency towards tight, closed in set pieces. Now I’ll admit that it’s quite possible some of this is due to the limits of the hardware it’s running on, given my PC is nearing 4 years old at this point, but even looking back at my old screenshots they just look so much better than the ones I have here. Rise of the Tomb Raider still has its moments, some of them which can be improved dramatically by using the built in photographer mode (not used for any of these shots), but on the whole it feels like a step back in visual quality. Given that this was supposed to be the biggest budget Tomb Raider game yet, up to $100 million possibly, it does make me wonder why the graphics took a bit of a back seat.
Where Tomb Raider reinvented, Rise refined and Shadow, unfortunately, simply copies most things wholesale from its predecessors. The game play will be familiar to those who’ve played the previous two instalments with a handful of new mechanics being thrown in. You’ll start off with a lot of abilities now I vaguely remember requiring skill points to unlock previously, many of which were necessary quality of life improvements. The upgrade and crafting system is much the same, requiring a mish mash of different items gathered from both humans and beasts in order to get the best items the game has to offer. There’s also a bunch of outfits and other weapon types available for you to find if you’re into exploring every inch of the maps that the game has to offer. Many other reviews have criticised the game for becoming stale and it’s a valid point as Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t bring enough new things to the table to make it feel truly distinct from its predecessor.
The stealth/combat is almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider with really only two new notable mechanics: covering yourself in mud and hiding on leafy walls. They’re introduced early but they don’t really make much of an impact in how combat plays out. It’s only towards the end when the enemies get infrared goggles does the mud mechanic make some sense but even then it’s not a huge change in the way stealth sections play out. So the combat flow follows the same pattern that a lot of games do: stealth around and take out as many enemies as you can before you inevitably trip up and have to go full gunslinger mode. There doesn’t appear to be much (if any) penalty for just shooting up everything in sight either so if you’re not really a fan of the stealth sections then you can simply blast right past them all. This would be more glaring if there was the same amount of combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as there was in previous games but I probably spent less than half of my total game time in combat.
There’s definitely a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around with a lot more of the environments explorable. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make that most annoying choice of showing you parts of the map you can’t access until you get a certain item, something which always gives me the shits. This was especially annoying given that the fast travel system never seemed to be available for me, preventing me from going back to places even after I had unlocked the requisite gear. There also appears to be some gear that you don’t get from completing the campaign missions as well (the rope ascender being the first that comes to mind) and I never saw it at any vendors either. So I’m not sure what happened there but even at the end of the game I didn’t have all the tools I needed to explore every part of the game. I’ll admit that towards the end I was starting to lose interest quickly so I might have missed some important side quest or some such which might’ve given me those tools I needed. Still my point stands: showing a player somewhere they can explore but forcing them to come back later is crap and I don’t like it.
Progression comes at a pretty steady pace throughout the game with basically every action you take giving you XP. There’s still a lot of skills which aren’t particularly useful and some that honestly shouldn’t be there at all. For instance the one that allows you to buy bigger resource bags from vendors feels a bit shit, it should just increase the one you have already. In fact the steady levelling is offset somewhat by the rather high cost of items bought from vendors and the fact that you have to buy the lesser version of something before you can buy the bigger one. Had I known that going in I might’ve been a little more strategic with how I spent my cash. Still it’s not like anything I bought from the vendors make a great deal of difference to how I played. The different bows and other types of weapons all feel basically the same, none conferring any real advantage or disadvantage over the other. Indeed you’re probably best placed just fully upgrading the defaults as you won’t really need much else.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a few rough edges, most notably in the platforming sections when Lara doesn’t respond to inputs as you’d expect her to. Quite often I had her leap in an unintended direction because I wasn’t angled in exactly the right way, causing her to leap to her doom. There’s also a few sections which, for some reason, instantly kill you when they shouldn’t, like the big tower which you can explore if you take one path down but will die instantly if you jump to it (even though it’s a fully survivable jump). The aiming also feels a little unrefined with a lot of shots that should have connected whiffing their target completely. None of this is game breaking but it does feel a little more rough than an AAA title like this should.
The story dives deeper into the Lara’s family history and the ties it has to the Trinity organisation which is, on the whole, not bad. It does jump around a fair bit with events unfolding a bit too fast which makes some plot points a little unbelievable. This has nothing to do with the mystic elements either, more you have character relationships developing too fast, events taking place in weirdly accelerated time frames and a lack of moments to let the story breathe. Indeed a lot of the flavour of the game is hidden in the collectibles which are all fully voiced but will only play if you stay in the inventory screen. It’s a big missed opportunity to have them playing in the background as you walk around as some of them are quite interesting. It’s not like they didn’t do that for other parts of the story too, like when you sit around the camp to upgrade your skills and Lara will either chat with people that are around or go through her internal monologues. Overall I think the story was probably one of the stronger elements of this instalment, it was just let down by the so-so game play.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a fine game by any other standards but it seems small compared to the shoulders of the giants it stands on. The game feels like a step back for the series as a whole, with a lack of innovation and refinement in nearly all aspects of the game. It’s still very much the kind of game that rekindled the IP over 5 years ago, which might be great for some, but I’d want to see a lot more for the kind of investment the developers have made in it. To be fair it would’ve been hard to continue going from strength to strength, the weight of the hype train always weighs heavily, but for this reviewer Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels to be the weakest in the series. I still have hope for the franchise but at this time of year, when competition for a gamer’s attention is never greater, these kinds of missteps can be lethal.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.
The gold standard for stealth game play has, and probably always will be, the original Thief series. It wasn’t that it was one of the first games to get stealth mechanics right, I believe that title belongs to the Metal Gear series (even though I’ve never played any of them), more that the blend of mechanics, cues and emphasis on finesse rather than force made the series stand out amongst its peers. It’s been a very long time between drinks for the series though with the last title, Thief: Deadly Shadows, being released almost a decade ago. The latest instalment, Thief, is an attempt to reboot the series for a modern audience something which may be at odds at the long time fans of the master thief Garret
After taking a job from Basso, Garrett’s only friend and contact for all this nefarious and underworldly, you find yourself atop a glorious manor accompanied by your former apprentice Erin. However something doesn’t feel right about this particular job as you witness something strange, an otherworldly ritual that shakes the very world. You’re just about to pull out when Erin, who was watching the ritual from on top of a glass dome, falls. You try to save her but it’s too late and she falls down right into the middle of the ritual, disappearing from sight. Suddenly it’s a year later and you have no recollection of what has happened.
Thief certainly impresses graphically as all the environments pack in an incredible amount of detail, something which is key to the core game play mechanics. There’s atmospheric and lighting effects everywhere which can turn some of the most dull environments into wonderful screenshot bait. Having said all that I feel like it could’ve been better as whilst they’re definitely on the upper end of the scale there are some sections where it’s obvious that sacrifices had to be made for the large number of platforms that were targeted. This did mean that I rarely had any performance issues but I’m usually happy to sacrifice that for a little more eye candy.
Unsurprisingly Thief is a stealth game, one where the objective of your current quest can be completed in a variety of different ways. The tools you have at your disposal are wide and varied, ranging from tools that will help keep you concealed to weapons of massive destruction. There’s also two different upgrade systems that allow you to tailor Garrett’s abilities to your play style of choice allowing you to become the master of the shadows or a brutal predator that lurks around every corner. Indeed whilst Thief’s pedigree is in stealthy game play either play style seems viable, even a mix of both if either one of them starts to wear on you.
In terms of retaining the trademark feel that all Thief games have this latest instalment does it quite well. Whilst the environments aren’t exactly massive open world sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed there’s enough back alleys, secret pathways and rooms with tantalizingly locked doors to make the maps feel a lot bigger than they actually are. Thief certainly rewards players who take the time to go over everything with a fine tooth comb which I’m sure a lot of players will find rewarding. On the flip side it never feels like this is a necessary part of the game as you’ll find more than enough resources to keep you going if you just meander off the beaten trail once in a while. Whilst this might annoy the purists the inclusion of a custom difficulty mode turns this optional but rewarding task into a necessity, something which should keep them at bay.
The combat in Thief is understandably lacklustre, mostly because it’s obvious that out and out fighting isn’t the game’s preferred way of completing objectives. This is in stark contrast to other similar stealth games of recent memory (most notably Dishonored) where both paths were somewhat viable. You’ve still got the choice of killing or knocking people out to achieve your objective but should you find yourself discovered there’s really no way to get yourself out of that situation without finding a nearby hidey hole. I don’t necessarily count this against Thief as out and out combat is not what the series, nor the genre itself, is usually about. The option is there but its a blunt instrument in comparison to all the other tools you have at your disposal.
The stealth, on the other hand, is quite marvelous. With the highly detailed maps peppered with vents, corridors and passageways it’s guaranteed that every obstacle you encounter has multiple ways to bypass it. Indeed every time I found myself struggling with a particular section it was always because I wasn’t noticing the alternate path that was right before me, opening up options I didn’t know I had previously. There are some situations where trade offs have to be made though which can lead to some frustration but realistically it’s just about making the choice that’s right for your particular playstyle.
The game is well executed for the most part with no major bugs or glitches to report however the control scheme does feel a little bit awkward. Using the lean out ability can be a real exercise in frustration, especially if you wanted to pick something up from a chest or box instead of peeking around it. The same can be said for cancelling things, which can be right click or another key, leading to some heat of the moment confusion. Additionally dropping off a rope can’t be done with space if there’s no nearby ledge and instead must be done with X. It just feels like the interface lacks consistency and makes the more routine parts of the game harder than they need to be. This is somewhat excusable in survival horror games but it’s also one of the reasons that I have a tendency to dislike that genre.
Thief’s story is decidedly middle of the road sharing some similar threads to those of previous instalments in the series (secret society conspiracies laced with bits of magic) but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. The initial build up in the opening scenes is far too short for us to have any emotional investment in the main characters and seems to rely on our previous experiences with the series to derive most of its impact. It simply doesn’t work as the vast majority of people playing this game haven’t been involved with the Thief series for the better part of a decade and much of the detail is lost to the ages. I’m a firm believer that a good story can make up for nearly any shortcomings that a game might have but unfortunately for Thief that isn’t the case and it’s lucky that it’s so strong mechanically.
F or a series that hasn’t seen a release in 10 years Thief delivers a solid game play experience, modernizing many mechanics without incurring the usual penalty of simplifying them too greatly for mass adoption. Thief doesn’t rely heavily on its pedigree in order to deliver a good experience, being able to create its own distinct identity through it’s well executed game mechanics. Unfortunately the story is the giant black mark on an otherwise highly polished experience, leaving this and many other reviewers wanting. Still it’s hard for me to recommend against playing Thief as it really is a solid game, just don’t play it for the story.
Thief is available right now on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.995, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Thief difficulty with 11 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.