We’re coming to the end of the beginning of the rebooted Tomb Raider, with Lara Croft set to come of age as a seasoned, responsible, wise and caring adventurer and archeologist. But her path to reach that status is fogged by her father’s death, Trinity’s nefarious schemes across the world, and her own folly. It’s really upping the stakes once more.
The simple fact of the matter is that Lara isn’t much of a people person – after so many harrowing incidents in her life, is that really so surprising? It falls to Jonah to be the more relatable, human face for their adventure early on, whether it’s in how he talks to people in an amiable fashion during the Day of the Dead opener in Mexico, or how he and Abby quite obviously have a bit of a thing for each other when they venture down to Peru. Lara, on the other hand, has no real idea how to talk to people.
It’s her absolute driven nature that puts a real strain on her friendship with Jonah. Her actions on the Day of the Dead set off a disastrous flood in Mexico and force her to confront the actions and consequences of what she’s doing. Her obsessive drive to get one step ahead of Trinity and their various plots is leading her to reckless actions that endanger innocents. It’s this event that sets them on the trail to the lost city of Paititi, but it’s far from smooth sailing… or flying and they crash right in the middle of the jungle.
It’s when disaster strikes that Lara is at her best, flying solo and struggling to survive against the elements. She’s at home in the wilderness and more than a match for any obstacles it throws her way. Those opening moments as she recovers from the plane crash see her dropped right into an impressively thick and difficult to read jungle. It would be easy to get lost here, and even when it opens up and you have more freedom to explore, it can be tricky to spot all of the natural resources available to you and the path ahead. Though it’s very much in the vein of what we’ve seen in the last few games, and elsewhere in the third person adventure genre, having the light white marking on certain ledges, marking the spots where Lara can scramble up a wall or tree mean you don’t have to rely too heavily on her Survival Sense.
For those that abhor such a ‘gamey’ feeling trick, there’s new Perception plants that you can forage that effectively make Lara hallucinate. I’m sure the British government would move to ban these berries as quickly as possible, but they highlight all the natural resource bushes and animals for a few moments. It’s still a trick, but it might be welcome for those working through the more challenging difficulty levels – in a great twist, you’ll be able to adjust the combat and puzzle difficulty separately from one another.
Perception plants can also play into when Lara is sneaking around Trinity’s goons, highlighting enemies for you on screen, but that’s just one new advantage Lara has. Her main new trick comes straight out of Predator, covering herself in mud and letting her blend seamlessly into the muddy banks and thick tree roots. It’s another tool at her disposal, alongside hallucinogenic arrows that turn enemies wild with irrational fear, the ability to tether arrow an enemy and drag them back up into a tree – which has some particularly brutal and gruesome animations, and all her returning abilities and attacks.
Where the last two games kept the enemy AI always going for you after the alarm had been raised, here you can hit and run, striking and then breaking their line of sight and blending back into the surroundings. It’s not exactly a new concept, but it works really well here, giving Lara an even greater feeling of formidable lethality, while also emphasising her fragility in combat at times. You can be overwhelmed, and so breaking away and attacking from another angle can be a good tactic. Some combat encounters can even be avoided entirely, which is good to hear.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider promises grander puzzles and deeper challenge tombs than before. As in the last two games, some of these will be off the beaten tracks and more optional, with actually finding the entrance half the puzzle, but even in the main path there’s some grand challenges to overcome. The trek to reach Paititi is full of peril in its own right, pitting Lara against a number of towering moving puzzles and death defying drops, while another puzzle has you interpreting Mayan numbering schemes to input the correct date and avoid a classic ‘Lara falling into a pit of fire’ death. There’s also some underwater sections where you need to find pockets of air to catch a quick breath, lest you invoke the ‘Lara drowns’ death, while potentially avoiding piranhas and other deadly underwater creatures, trying to avoid the ‘Lara become fish food’ death.
With a few hours from the beginning of the game under my belt, Shadow of the Tomb Raider still felt like it was just getting started, especially since Lara uncovering Paititi signalled the end of the demo. In a lot of ways that just left me wanting more. At its core, this is the same Tomb Raider that we’ve come to know since 2013, but it’s evolving in a number of ways. Exploring Paititi and its surrounding areas, learning new techniques atop her existing ones and exploiting the hit and fade tactics in combat should add new layers to what promises to be a dramatic conclusion to the trilogy.