LOS ANGELES—Game publisher Square-Enix gave its new game Shadow of the Tomb Raider a public unveiling at an event last night, and I played the game for about an hour. If you liked the previous two games, you’ll probably end up liking this one.
Shadow is the third game in the Tomb Raider reboot franchise, following 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. It doesn’t have a strong connection to the recently released movie other than that the film was loosely based on the 2013 game. Square-Enix representatives said that this is the final game in a trilogy. (I doubt that means it’s the last Tomb Raider game, though.)
In the hour I played, franchise heroine Lara Croft attended a Latin American fiesta, sneaked into a villain-infested dig site, stealth-assaulted a lot of bad guys, nearly drowned about half a dozen times, solved physics puzzles in an ancient tomb, and maybe caused the actual apocalypse.
The game looks great, plays similarly to its acclaimed predecessors with just a few new gameplay mechanics, and continues the recent games’ focus on Lara’s character development.
Sometimes games like this get large unveiling events coated in marketing dollars, and Shadow followed that script. The event took place at a nightclub in downtown Los Angeles called The Mayan, which is—you guessed it—Mayan themed. It was a fit for a game that tasks Lara with diving into ruins around Latin America.
There were tacos, hanging vines, huge projections of Lara in combat poses on the walls, a big marquee on the street labeled “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” and models both male and female wearing Lara-inspired outfits, posing for pictures with visitors. It’s all totally unnecessary, but I guess it’s neat.
Attendees played the game on Xbox One developer kits and HDR TVs in a back room that had a giant ziggurat on the wall.
Do you like expertly crafted action cinematics that blend seamlessly with running, shooting, climbing, and jumping gameplay? Then you’ll enjoy this game, just as you probably enjoyed its two immediate predecessors.
On the other hand, do you like following a very linear path, occasionally performing active time events because sometimes the game is more interested in being cinematic than a game, in the tradition of Dragon’s Lair? Well, if you do, you’re in luck. If not, this game doesn’t make any different arguments on that front from its predecessors.
But if you know the franchise (or even the genre) then you know that going in. Like I said: it’s more of the same, and just a little more—just what you’d expect from a triple-A, action-adventure sequel.
I noticed three new gameplay interactions in Shadow that I didn’t remember from the previous titles. The first is wall-running, and it’s just what it sounds like. It’s not as easily and frequently done as in, say, the 3D Prince of Persia games, but when it’s there, it’s there. The second is rappelling from surfaces you’re climbing with your pick axe, then swinging on the rope to jump and reach new areas. Again: it works just like it does in other games. Finally, you can now dive and explore under water.
We’ve seen all this before in other entries to the genre, but back in 2013 I was very impressed by how accessible and comfortable Tomb Raider made the action-adventure tasks to which we’ve become accustomed. By that, I mean the visual language is extremely clear, and you’re rarely confused about which situations you can perform certain actions in. That remains true here. There are distinct patterns on the walls that indicate that you can rappel from them or wall-run on them. They walk a perfect line between obvious and immersive; they look like natural parts of the world, but you know them when you see them.
When you’re swimming, you always know where to go because you’re generally going toward the nearest major light source. There are also bubbles that draw your attention; they signify that there’s a spot where you can swim to the top and catch a breath. “The opposite of shadow is light,” Lead Game Designer Heath Smith told me when explaining this choice.
He also noted that the rappelling and diving mechanics were added because they play into the game’s theme of descending into darkness. The temples you explore do that, too; while temples were usually peaceful puzzle environments in the previous games, they’re more dangerous this time. There are a lot of traps and other ways to get yourself maimed.
A big chunk of the demo was dedicated to a series of physics puzzles in one of these temples, but making the wrong move didn’t just result in confusion; sometimes it resulted in death. The game’s checkpoints are generous, though.
There’s also a lot of shooting. It’s the usual fare. Stealth is prominent; where you could hide in bushes before, you can now hide in some new set pieces, like walls covered in vines. Doing so covers Lara in mud as she draws her serrated combat knife to make a kill. It’s all very Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now.
When Smith was asked which new features he’s most excited about, he told us about one I only got to see a little bit of: the city-like hubs. They’re bigger than what we’ve seen in previous Tomb Raider games, he said. The Latin American village in which the demo started was definitely a change of pace compared to most of Tomb Raider‘s previous environments—Lara could talk to some of the hundreds of bystanders and partake in the festivities to some degree. I didn’t see any shops or side quests in this demo, though.
While the 2013 reboot of the franchise brought many technical and gameplay advancements compared to previous Tomb Raider games, it was the focus on narrative and characterization that really set it apart. It’s not like it belongs in the Criterion Collection or anything, but it’s a big step up from prior games—Lara has internal conflicts and so on, like a protagonist should. They’re a bit overwrought, but they might be a lot better than nothing.
In 2013’s Tomb Raider, she was facing her fears and overcoming her aversion to violence in order to survive. By the end of the game, she was decidedly not averting violence. After Lara discovered how powerful she can be in the first two games in the reboot series, she’s discovering how that kind of power can lead to arrogance and hubris in Shadow, if the hour or so that I played was any indication. She wears the same outfit she did in the original Tomb Raider game in the ’90s, suggesting this is the fully realized Lara Croft. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have flaws.
Some minor spoilers follow; they’re minor because I have the impression that they’re from very early in the game.
Lara is looking for a relic called the Key of Chak Chel in Latin America. It has some connection to her late father, and an evil organization of thugs is trying to acquire it as well. That organization wants to use it to “remake the world” without “sin” and “weakness”—whatever that means. In the course of the game, she makes an impulse decision to just take it without considering the consequences. That action, she soon learns, has literally incited the Mayan apocalypse. (No, really.) Now she has to find a mysterious “silver box” that somehow averts that eventuality, but she’ll have to overcome her impulsive and narcissistic tendencies to do that.
It’s all about Lara learning her limits. A generous critic could say the game is trying to address the “white savior” trope endemic in the genre by making Lara face the music, in the same way that 2013’s Tomb Raider attempted (with only some success) to address the dissonance between Uncharted‘s charming, down-to-earth hero and the fact that you spend most of that game casually mowing down hundreds of humans with guns.
That said, Narrative Director Jason Dozois stressed to assembled press who were inquiring about the issue that “we’re not making a social commentary on anything; we’re trying to tell the best story we can… but we’re always influenced by present-day things, even if it’s subconsciously.” He said the focus is mainly on Lara learning that her actions have consequences.
So far, it seems like a story well told, though I’m worried the franchise will continue to miss the talents of Cory Barlog, who served as cinematics director on Tomb Raider but moved on to direct Sony’s new God of War game.
The previous two Tomb Raider games were technical milestones in some ways, if only because they came with some of the best PC benchmarking tools we’ve seen in a while. I played this new game on an Xbox One X dev kit. It looked great.
The new God of War on the PS4 Pro gave me the impression that game developers are finally crafting visual experiences with HDR in mind from the get-go, rather than as an afterthought. It means the technology is that much more impactful. That shows here more than ever. Frankly, Shadow looks amazing in HDR.
The opening sequence of the demo saw Lara walking through a large party in a Latin American street market. A full moon and an array of stars were shining in the sky, hundreds of candles rested on tables, and neon signs hung overhead, in contrast to dimly lit alleys and shifting shadows. They all looked like they were specifically designed to demonstrate the value of an HDR TV—or at least to fully take advantage of one.
I used to say Horizon: Zero Dawn was the best argument for gaming in HDR; then I played God of War. Now I think it’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
1440p or 4K resolutions are nice on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, but HDR is where modern console games really (literally) shine. This game looks great if you have the TV for it, so if you’re looking for something to show off that expensive LG OLED or that more affordable TCL Roku TV, this game will probably be a good option.
Square-Enix says Shadow of the Tomb Raider will launch on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PCs on September 14, 2018.
Listing image by Square-Enix
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