Shadow of the Tomb Raider – Hands-On Preview
Shadow of the Tomb Raider tried its darndest to kill us during its opening hours, and we loved it.
Recently, Mia and I had the chance to play the game at a press event held in Montreal, Quebec. What awaited us was the first four hours of content, uncut, and a special introduction to the game by Daniel Bisson, the games senior game developer at Square Enix. Here are our thoughts.
His intro to the title was very enlightening, from a narrative point of view. While Tomb Raider (2013) was about Lara discovering who she was as a person, Rise of the Tomb Raider was meant to explore what it meant to be a Croft. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, to Bisson, is about the maturity which comes from making choices and living with the consequences. What the title seeks to recreate, is the defining moment when those choices turn Lara Croft “into” the Tomb Raider.
Dark and Unforgiving
These words set up the ominous tone in which we began our playthrough, one which doesn’t wait to escalate.
Without spoiling too much of the early plot, this installment in the series happens some time after Rise as Lara seeks to dismantle scattered cells of Trinity. By a twist of fate, she happens upon a very important member of the organization and quickly becomes embroiled in a Mayan apocalypse. Like Bisson specified, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is about exploring the guilt that comes with being consumed by revenge. This ‘reckoning’ which is the price of Lara’s haste comes quickly, and it is something to behold.
Suffice it to say that Lara is very quickly thrust into total chaos. In those early moments, where players have to fight against the environments like never before, Shadow of the Tomb Raider shows the proverbial ‘teeth’ it had previously hidden. Climbing walls, a staple mechanic, is now punctuated with increasing amounts of falling debris. On the whole, action segments for which the game has become famous are much less forgiving.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also places greater emphasis on water exploration, and the danger that comes with it. Rather than water simply providing underwater tunnels to facilitate player movements, it now offers an entirely new playground. Mobility in bodies of water was reworked, and rewards placed within sunken confines are only offset by your need for air. On the whole, much of the entries difficulty comes from an increasing emphasis on cost and benefit analysis. The studio knows this, and they’ve made the rewards really enticing.
Add to this that combat, agility tests and puzzles have all been granted difficulty sliders, and you’re in for a very difficult journey…should you desire it.
Quality Tombs Galore
This level of difficulty also becomes apparent in early puzzles and challenge tombs.
I had the chance to play through a handful of early puzzles and one full challenge tomb. In all honesty, I was blown away by how much more complex they were compared to the series reboot in 2013. Early tombs in Tomb Raider (2013) felt well integrated with the world, but their puzzles were always solved quickly. Not only that, they often took place within small confines. While Rise of the Tomb Raider expanded on the scope of these challenge tombs; Shadow of the Tomb Raider pushes the boundaries even further. The jungle environments in which Lara finds herself are particularly well suited to this freedom.
Rather than enter a dark cave where corpses must be burnt, the first tomb requires the player think. The game looks for them to apply most of the mechanics and platforming tricks it’s introduced. It’s a refreshing lack of handholding, and also clear respect for the player.
Mechanically, it’s also important to note that Shadow of the Tomb Raider introduces a vertical rappel. Rather than simply falling everywhere, Lara now has the ability to decide when to go down. This is usually done from a rock face and even allows her to swing from the rope to access difficult areas. It’s a big change for the game, and how much freedom players have in approaching puzzles.
A Journey Strong on Emotion
Narratively speaking, the sense of urgency and foreboding perspires from every corner of the game as we try to stop Trinity. Ominous in tone, dark and gritty in style and gameplay, we truly feel like the apocalypse is upon us.
Set pieces such as the Día de Los Muertos festival are stunning and walking in such a vibrant and colorful world is engrossing. As a historically driven adventure, there is a heavy focus on the Mexican culture as well as Mayan lore, whether in character dialogues, tombs, environmental puzzles, architecture or even inside the jungle that acts as a character itself with howler monkeys warning Lara of the presence of powerful jaguars. There is a sense of wonder, magic and mystery, reflecting well the Mayan myths and legends.
A new and very welcome addition are the village hubs. Much like more recent sandbox RPGs, the villages are great to replenish stocks and catch your breath. You may discuss with NPCs and get a real feel of the atmosphere. Side quests feel intricate to the story more than mundane fetch quests and the random loot you get from accomplishing them becomes a second thought. You actually want to help these people.
Just like in the prequel, Jonah is your main companion and friend throughout the adventure. Acting as Lara’s moral compass and sturdy support system, his presence is even required in a few puzzles. The story fleshes out his relationship with Lara as well as other characters in the story (no spoiler I promise!) and he feels like a multifaceted character at last. Speaking of Lara, she looks and feels stronger than ever as her journey to becoming a true Croft is almost at an end. The cutscenes, several and frequent, get us deeply attached to Lara, showing her as a human rather than a brutish tank.
All in all, this third entry to the Tomb Raider reboot promises to be the cherry on top of a very dark, perilous and exhilarating sundae. From the four first hours of the game, we got to experience all the ingredients that make for an excellent action game recipe plus a few new additions that feel logical but fresh and exciting in the evolution of the well-loved franchise. We cannot wait to get our hands on the full title and become a bonafide Tomb Raider at last!
Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes out on September 14, on PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Collaborative article by Cédrick and Mia