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.
Tomb Raider’s reboot of 3 years ago was a successful one, reinvigorating a franchise that had been sidelined by newer IPs in the same genre. Indeed it was the first Tomb Raider game I had played in many years as the bug ridden Underworld was simply unplayable. The reboot was enough to spark my interest in the IP again and since the sequel was announced about a year later I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The (thankfully short) timed exclusivity to the XboxOne was a little annoying, since I had to dodge more reviews and articles than I usually do, but finally last week I spent a good chunk of time playing through the latest Tomb Raider.
Rise of the Tomb Raider begins about a year after the events in the preceding instalment. Lara, after witnessing many supernatural occurrences on the island of Yamatai, seeks out answers in her father’s research notes. There she finds his white whale: the lost city of Kitezh which supposedly holds the key to immortality. Her quest sends her to Syria where she seeks out the lost tomb of an ancient prophet linked to the legend of Kitezh. It’s there however that she comes face to face with an organisation called Trinity: an ancient order dedicated to seeking out the supernatural and taking it for themselves. Lara is undeterred however and travels to Siberia where she believes the lost city of Kitezh resides.
The production values of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally high with every aspect of the game above the standard I’ve come to expect for AAA titles. Visually it is incredibly impressive with the environments being rich and detailed, ranging from wide open valleys to deep cave systems. There’s no one thing I can point to that really makes it so well crafted, more it’s the numerous small details like the trails you leave in snow or the way Lara’s gait changes after she’s had a fall. Unlike the previous instalment (which suffered from inflated expectations due to it following Crysis 3) Rise of the Tomb Raider felt impressive from the very start, a rare achievement in today’s torrent of AAA titles.
Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the same core game play that its predecessor did, being a combination of 3D platformer, 3rd person shooter and semi-open world exploration. The platforming functions pretty much the same as the last one did, giving you the same leeway when it comes to grabbing ledges or landing that jump perfectly. The 3rd person shooter mechanic functions largely the same although the upgrade system allows you to unlock some rather cool abilities that can change it dramatically. The semi-open world stylings mean that there’s much more to the world than just the campaign missions and, should you go exploring, you’re quite likely to be rewarded for your efforts. Overall it’s not a massive change from the previous Tomb Raider game and honestly, with the extra layer of polish this game has, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
The puzzles and platforming sections are frequent but are, for the most part, easy enough to understand and complete without being too frustrating. In the beginning, with a limited number of mechanics at your disposal, it’s pretty easy to see how things need to be done. The difficulty starts to ramp up when you’ve got several other potential mechanics at hand, some of which aren’t explained as well as they could be. Still there was only one time when I find myself reaching for a walkthrough guide as all the other puzzles could be solved in a manageable amount of time. The platforming was a little less satisfying however as, whilst you have some leeway, it can be a little finicky about when it will pull you right or just let you fall to your death. Once you’ve worked out the quirks though (like not hitting jump if Lara is still shimmying across something) you can make up for those little quirks.
Combat, again, feels largely the same with the game favouring head shots and thus any weapon that allows you to make them rapidly. The bow once again is the stand out weapon especially once you get the skill which does automatic head shots on up to 3 targets at once. Similar to its predecessor though there comes a time when the enemies start wearing helmets and you’ll have to land several consecutive head shots to take them down. This time around however it doesn’t feel as cheap as it did before as the increased number of stealth options provides much more opportunity to take out the heavy hitters before dealing with the rest of them. Overall the combat feels a little more streamlined with a little bit more variety on the side, should you wish to make use of it.
The skills, upgrades and crafting system is back with a few improvements to keep the pace of the game up. You can now craft arrows, other special ammo and healing on the fly if you have the required materials to do so. The mechanic of finding parts for major upgrades is still around and if you want those weapons you really will need to go exploring to complete them. The skills are interesting as early on I went for the additional XP traits something which meant that I was levelling up maybe every 20 minutes or so. Probably about halfway through the game I had all the skills I could ever want and so from there I was just unlocking things that were mildly interesting. It certainly helped to keep driving me forward as there was always a sense of progression but it did seem like I was maybe completing things a little faster than was probably intended.
Like its predecessor there are few rough edges on Rise of the Tomb Raider although none of them are particularly game breaking. You can quite easily glitch yourself through terrain if you roll, jump or sprint near say a set of stairs or similar. I had more than one occasion where I found myself stuck in between trees or falling forever when I jumped into a particularly cramped area. There’s also the aforementioned finicky-ness of the platforming system but once you know its limitations it’s a little easier to work around. Thankfully though many of the combat related issues are long gone although some of the enemies do seem to do wildly different amounts of damage during the same encounter.
Rise of the Tomb raider brings a much more developed and polished plot, one that dives further into the backstory of Lara and the Croft family. Thankfully the torture porn has been dialled back somewhat, instead focusing more on the trials and tribulations of Lara trying to come to grips with her father’s past and the impact it’s having on her current situation. The introduction of a big bad “thing” in the form of Trinity is a not-so-subtle hint there’s going to be several sequels to come but they at least function decently as an antagonist. Indeed they’ll likely be the focus point of the next instalment as they go after the next supernatural artefact that they’ll use to take over the world. The supernatural themes are better done this time around be less wrought and more subtly woven in the larger narrative. Indeed it seems that the writers behind this instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise have matured significantly since they wrote the last plot.
Rise of the Tomb raider accomplishes what many sequels don’t: improving on their predecessor whilst still retaining the core aspects which made it great. The production value is extremely high with attention paid to every little detail. The game play is as solid as ever with several streamlining changes that keep the pace of the game up for its entire duration. It might not be the picture of perfection with a few rough edges still poking through but overall the experience is so well polished that it’s easy to write off those few moments. For both fans of the Tomb Raider IP and those who just love a good action game Rise of the Tomb Raider is well worth the asking price.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, XboxOne, Xbox360 and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I have something of a soft spot for the Tomb Raider series. It was all the way back in 1996 when I first encountered it, my hand-me-down computer barely able to run it due to the intense 3D graphics that weren’t exactly common at the time. Combine that with the platforming and lets be honest here, even though Lara was low poly she was in fact female, you had a game that served to capture my attention for far longer than any other game managed to do. However after the next couple iterations in the series I found myself attracted to other interests, and the rest of the Tomb Raider series was left unplayed. The reboot piqued my interest however as whilst Lara was an interesting character in her own right her origin story was never quite fleshed out, at least not my satisfaction.
Tomb Raider begins dramatically with you aboard the ship Endurance which is headed towards a small island off the coast of Japan in search of the old Japanese kingdom Yamatai. Before long though your ship is ravaged by a severe storm, cutting the ship in half and stranding everyone on the nearby island. This would be bad enough but the island is inhabited by a group of mercenary/cultists who capture you and your friend. Thus your transformational journey begins and it’s not long before the naive archaeology graduate turns into the Lara Croft we’re all so familiar with.
Coming off the graphics high that is Crysis 3 had me a little disappointed with the graphics in Tomb Raider, at least initially. I had turned everything up to its maximum which made it look pretty decent by comparison although it seems my graphics card is starting to show its age as it struggled to render most scenes, especially the more open world ones. However comparing it directly to Crysis 3 isn’t exactly fair as Tomb Raider isn’t designed to be a graphical marvel and in its own right it’s actually quite spectacular. Judging by the number of screenshots I snapped during my initial play through I’d have to rate it above most games that have come out recently and put down the initial disappointment to my disproportionate expectations.
Compared to the Tomb Raiders of yore the modern day reboot is a cornucopia of different game mechanics. The core is still your bog standard 3D platformer with many sections involving you running, jumping and climbing over everything to get to the next objective. Combined with that however is your Gears of War style cover based 3rd person shooter as well as a crafting system and large environments that hide all sorts of treasure should you be willing to look for it. For those of you who’ve played any of the Uncharted series you’ll be familiar with the majority of the game play right off the bat as they both play similarly, albeit with their own twists on certain ideas.
Whilst there’s a certain level of satisfaction to be had when you get a platforming section just right the first time around I have to say that it usually isn’t my favourite part of games like this. This probably comes from the early days of 3D platforming where you needed razor-like precision in order to make most jumps which was arguably where the challenge came from in most of those early games. Thankfully however Tomb Raider is a little more forgiving in that department as whilst none of the jumps are particularly hard should they be at some weird angle that’d only be achievable after 20 attempts your leaps of faith will actually be corrected ever so slightly should you make it in the correct direction. If you bollocks it up completely there will be no saving you but this little feature certainly made my platforming experience a lot better than it has been in the past.
The cover based shooting is also, for the most part, fluid and satisfying, providing you with ample challenge no matter what your weapon of choice might be. Like most shooter based games I tend to prefer one shot kill weapons (as I tend to panic when in spray and pray mode) and thus favoured the bow for the majority of the game. This was a viable strategy for about 60% of the game until they started wearing face masks which meant one shot kills were no longer possible, even with a fully upgraded bow. If I’m honest that kind of pissed me off as I took pride in being able to hit headshots while under heavy fire and the removal of that mechanic seemed like a really cheap way to ratchet up the difficulty. Of course it didn’t really do that since I just switched to the rifle, but it did make me wonder why I’d bothered upgrading the bow all the way when its intended purpose no longer existed.
Crafting works by gathering salvage from crates and enemies which you can then use at camp to upgrade your weapons. Not all of the upgrades are available to you instantly however and in order to unlock them you have to find additional weapon pieces that are scattered randomly throughout the environment. If you’re a min-maxer like me you’ll often find yourself with a huge excess of salvage as there’s no real point to upgrading every weapon but you’ll still have enough to keep all bar 1 of them at maximum without too much trouble. The same can be said for the skill point upgrades as past a certain point the additional skills will likely not fit into your style of play but you’ll be force to spend them in order to unlock the next tier of skills.
The experience/level system is a mixed bag where some upgrades are almost essential, others improve parts of the game that were tedious and the rest are simply not useful in the slightest. The cartography upgrade for instance, which identifies relics, books and caches through walls, takes out a lot of the pain of finding things which are almost not worth seeking out otherwise. The animal tracking upgrade however is rather pointless as you spend a fair chunk of the game no where near any animals. Indeed it seems that whilst you can sort of play the game in your own way your talent selection won’t be significantly different from anyone else’s, due to the next tier being locked until you spend the required number of skill points. It’s not exactly a terrible thing but it does make me feel like I’m wasting points on things I’ll never really use which just doesn’t sit well with the min-maxer in me.
I’m not one for exploration in most games, it feels like a cheap way to make the game go for longer, however Tomb Raider made it a lot easier with use of the survival instincts mechanic which highlighted areas of interest. They also made the optional tombs short and succinct, with the rewards for doing them being well worth your time. It was a really refreshing experience and unlike many other exploration type games I didn’t finish this one feeling like I had ignored the vast majority of the game because I didn’t want to play the cat and mouse game with the designers. I hope other games take note of this as it really was one of the stand out features of Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider is not without its bugs and glitches, one of which is demonstrated above. As you can see on the left hand side there are walls there preventing you from getting in, however turning slightly makes them disappear, along with several other items in the room. This is in addition to other bugs like events not triggering which then leaves you stranded or results in you dying, ledges that look climbable but aren’t and the targeting reticle lying about having an enemy in your sights. These are all things that can be worked around and none of them stopped me from finishing the game but they did mar an otherwise highly polished experience.
Of course this whole reboot was done to tell Lara’s origin story of how she transformed herself into the grizzled Tomb Raider we know and love. In some respects Tomb Raider showcases this brilliantly with Lara struggling to come to terms with a brutal world that she survives in. At other times however it devolves into a PG rated torture porn where Lara is beaten, injured and brutalized in every conceivable way. It starts off being shocking but quickly wears thin as the writers attempt to hammer home the idea that she’s a naive girl that’s being rapidly transformed. It’s a passable story overall, even if the mysticism was a little overwrought, but hopefully future instalments will forgo the torture in favour of something a little more meaty.
Reboots are always a tricky thing to get right as you’re taking a well established universe and essentially redefining it in an attempt to reinvigorate (and hopefully extend) the fan base. For something as long running as Tomb Raider this is no small risk but thankfully I feel that Crystal Dynamics has done a great job, producing a game that wouldn’t be out of place even if the franchise didn’t have such a long history. It’s by no means a perfect game, plagued with a so-so story and bugs by the handful, but it certainly does the IP justice whilst giving them a firm platform from which they can build on.
Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $69.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 9.6 hours played, 74% completion and 32% of the achievements unlocked.