Shadow of the Tomb Raider PS4
2013’s Tomb Raider reboot was one of my favorite games of the previous console generation. I adored its darker, grittier narrative direction and the decision to evolve Lara Croft into something deeper and more complex than her original 90s, impossibly proportioned fantasy design. It breathed life into a franchise that had felt increasingly dated. The gameplay mechanics and level design were also brilliant, modernizing the series with a blueprint that sought to balance exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat in a satisfying loop.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks the third installment in the new rebooted series, and I was particularly keen to see how developer Crystal Dynamics had iterated on the foundations of a formula it had first implemented so successfully five years ago. After just a few hours of gameplay, I had no doubt in my mind that this is absolutely the most accomplished culmination of that design we’ve yet seen. What was less clear, though, was just how much the experience was going to push beyond the familiarity of its formula to show me something new, and in doing so, elevate it beyond merely a great game to something truly excellent.
Lara Croft’s coming of age story is now officially over. She’s well and truly a hardened badass archeologist –young, but confident in her ability and matured from her experiences over the past two games. She’s given a major reality check early into Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s story, however, as her lust for an ancient artifact leads her to unwittingly put into a motion a series of cataclysmic events that devastated an entire city, and actually threaten to destroy the world. It’s all very high-stakes stuff, and much of Lara’s character development throughout the game centers around her coming to terms with taking responsibility for her actions and dealing with the consequences of her behavior. It’s dark and shocking at times, and there’s a sense of desperation in the urgency of Lara and best friend Jonah’s plight.
The dubious Order of the Trinity, led by Pedro Dominguez return as the game’s main antagonists, but this time their clash with Lara Croft takes place in a starkly different setting. The exotic Peruvian jungle is the backdrop for Lara’s return to the lush forests, ruined temples, and interactions with native tribes that feels much more Tomb Raider than the mountains of Russia.
That should please fans of the series. Particularly so, if you yearned for something more closely aligned to the aesthetic of the 2013 reboot. In fact, both story and location, this latest game are quite reminiscent of that experience. From the dense forest vegetation to the incorporation of native peoples and tribal cults.
It’s certainly prettier, though. Actually, that’s not doing it justice; between the superb facial animations and textures to the astounding lighting, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is absolutely gorgeous. In combination with the Jurassic-sounding chirps and whistles that resonate from the jungle, you really feel like you’re actually outside in the thick of the Amazonian vegetation. I couldn’t get enough of exploring the many spectacular waterfalls, mountaintops, and mysterious native temples and ruins. There are even urban centers this time around, and Lara is free to roam around several towns and villages.
However, it’s in the jungle that Shadow of the Tomb Raider not only looks the best but feels so wonderful to play. Traversal is once again top-notch, challenging players to master much more than just holding a button to grapple and leap between traversable surfaces. There’s a skill to swinging from point to point with the grappling axe, dangling inverted from rocky cliff-faces, and saving her from countless crumbling ledges. It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before, though, it has to be said. But it certainly feels no less gratifying to pull off.
That’s a good thing, too, because you’ll be doing a great deal of traversing the great outdoors and exploring ancient ruins in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. There really is a wealth of content to explore, with dozens of optional areas that branch off from the game’s main hubs. The level design will be familiar to anybody that’s played the previous two games, but this time Crystal Dynamics has taken things a step further with Crypts, Tombs, Monoliths, and all manner of documents, murals, and relics to locate and collect. I enjoyed the Tombs, especially, which are scattered generously around the world and offer fun and sometimes lengthy distractions with brain-teasing puzzles.
There are side-quests, too, which see Lara interact with local peoples and help them with various tasks. Of all the content, however, I honestly didn’t find these especially meaningful or fulfilling. They don’t really add anything other than giving you yet more objectives to tick off, particularly since the story arcs aren’t all that interesting.
While we’re on the subject of “ticking off,” although the sheer volume of content lends itself to replayability, I’m not sure I love the way the entire experience is essentially listed and segmented into what boils down to box-checking –or percentage-accumulating, I should say. It’s addictive, this process of slowly working one’s way through every activity and objective in the game, but somehow it makes exploration less special, too. That’s compounded by the fact that you can always press your survival instincts to get an idea of what you’re supposed to interact with and where to go. So although everything looks and feels great, I often felt like I was just churning my way through content, obsessively trying to increase my percentage and “tick-off” areas.
Of course, you’ll also be working toward beating these additional areas to improve Lara’s skills, weapons, and items. Shadow of the Tomb Raider incorporates an XP system that rewards players for, well, virtually everything they do in the game, to varying degrees. The progression system has been part of the rebooted series since the beginning, and they work well in tandem with emphasis on light survival mechanics. But though they’re plentiful in number, I never really felt as though many were absolutely necessary to the experience outside of some fairly vital boosts to Lara’s abilities in combat.
In terms of combat, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is best played as a stealth game, and it’s definitely been designed with the intention of players primarily opting for that strategy. Sneaking is fuss-free, as Lara automatically ducks behind cover, and it’s super easy to plot a deadly path through your enemies using bushes and vine or mud covered walls as cover. There’s a neat mechanic you score early in the game that allows you to cover yourself in mud for extra cover, and Lara looks tough-as-nails poised in full camouflage waiting to strike on unsuspecting victims. The takedowns are brutally violent and cinematic, too, as she plunges her knife into her victims.
Most of the time, it’s almost too easy, though. Enemies seem to be deliberately placed looking away from Lara’s position or patrolling close to areas she can ambush them from. They’re also almost always close together to facilitate a chain takedown (a skill you probably should acquire as early as possible). Of course, there are moments when you have to use the age-old throw-a-bottle-to-distract-the-enemy trick, and the game later introduces enemies that are much harder to sneak past, but it’s rarely challenging. I only found myself having to resort to a plan B shoot em’ up on a few occasions outside of scripted gunplay scenes. When the action does kick up a notch, shooting actually does feel pretty great, and the plentiful number of weapons have a nice heft and recoil to them. Although, for my money, it’s only during these scripted moments of desperation that it feels appropriate for Lara to be chaining down Trinity militants or native tribesmen.
While that’s clearly the direction Crystal Dynamics want to take Lara Croft in the wider context of the story, new school Lara has no qualms with mass-murder. It’s slightly at odds with her character, and I can’t help feel there was a bit of missed opportunity to incorporate a non-lethal gameplay option. Perhaps even to introduce a mechanic that worked in consequences either way? Instead, you are forced to mercilessly dispatch your enemies in the same way as previous games. Sure, plenty of series are guilty of over-the-top violence, but this new Lara Croft is supposed to be slightly more grounded in reality, right? Even though the slaughter has been toned down a little this time around, I could still do with more Tomb Raiding and less serial killing.
I also wanted to see Lara’s personality shine through a little more than it did. Obviously, it’s a deliberately serious and moody story, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t expecting her to develop a little of that sassy charm as she’s matured through this trilogy. She hasn’t at all, though. She does plenty of badass things but there’s no attitude –just anger, and slicing dozens of men to pieces.
Not everybody is going to share that sentiment, however, and overall I still appreciate much of what Lara Croft has become. I think my main gripe with the game ultimately boils down to the fact that it’s the most polished and entertaining Tomb Raider has ever been without really being brave and moving the series forward. Yes, the grim, dark story changes Lara Croft as a character, and yes Crystal Dynamics have found a pleasing balance between each gameplay mechanic here, but judged in comparison to 2013’s reboot, let alone Rise of the Tomb Raider, there’s not that much new.
That being said, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is still absolutely worth playing, and it’s an easy recommendation. There’s challenge to its gameplay, of which every facet feels great to control. The graphics are sublime, the world beautifully detailed, and there are some sensational set-piece moments that will have you on the edge of your seat. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, too, even if the serious theme coursing through its plot can be a little draining at times. Overall, it’s another terrific addition to modern Lara Croft’s adventures, albeit a safe one that doesn’t seem to want to take too many risks outside driving the series’ iconic protagonist through a dark and grisly story.
Score: 4/5 – Great
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