While the recent games in the series focused on the exploits of a less experienced Lara Croft surviving the elements and battling legions of armed goons, Shadow of the Tomb Raider builds up moments of unease and self-reflection while bringing her arc to its natural conclusion. Set sometime after the events of Rise, Lara and her closest ally Jonah find themselves on the hunt for an ancient Mayan artifact in Central America. With prophecies of cataclysmic events centering around a mysterious box that private military corporation Trinity is desperate to get its hands on, Croft will come to realize that her recent adventures have some serious consequences, making her question whether she's the savior she believes herself to be.
By showing the real consequences of Lara's actions, developers Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics believe Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be a watershed moment in the life of the young adventurer, maturing her into the expert adventurer we know and love.
"From a narrative standpoint, we wanted to increase the drama", said narrative director Jason Dozois. "To do that, we not only needed an external conflict, like nature and combat and hazards, but also taking it to more personal conflicts with antagonists--and even her allies as well. That was the big thing we took away [from the previous games]. We had characters that people liked, like Jonah, and we wondered what he would be like if he evolved. What if he was someone who could really challenge her? Not everyone believed that in the beginning, but once we saw those performances [from the actors] we thought, 'Wow, this is a huge differentiator.' It's about taking the momentum of these characters [from the last two games] and seeing that payoff."
During our hands-on time, we got to play an early mission where Lara and Jonah explore a small town during a Day of the Dead celebration. The developers say Shadow of the Tomb Raider features some of the largest hub areas of the series and will lean into exploration more heavily, while also giving players more opportunities to interact with the characters that inhabit the world. While this leads to more moments for Lara to find tombs, collectables, enemy bases, and other points of interest, these moments of exploration also highlight Shadow's greater respect for the history and culture of the the areas the game is set in.
While there are several events and set-pieces that advance the plot--including a massive flood that forces you to contend with strong currents while helplessly watching civilians drown--progression is still largely tied to the open hub areas of the game. In these spaces, Croft will take part in side-quests, collect rare items and materials to upgrade your gear or buy new items, and explore lost puzzle-oriented tombs--all while learning more about the space she's exploring. In keeping with Shadow's darker story, Croft's journey in the time since Tomb Raider (2013) has also made her a far more cunning survivalist. In addition to her skills with pick-axes, bows, and firearms, she'll now be able to use more advanced stealth techniques. With thick vines scattered throughout the jungle, Croft will be able to hide in standing position in the dense foliage, allowing you to stealth-kill far more quickly.
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While the dense jungle setting in South America was a fresh departure from the icy wilderness and ruins of the previous games, playing through Shadow of the Tomb Raider also brought a strong feeling of familiarity. Eidos Montreal is taking the lead this time round, and it says it has learnt from its time helping out on previous Tomb Raider games.
"I think on the gameplay side, we would say knowledge is the greatest treasure," said lead gameplay designer Heath Smith. "When you played the earlier games, you could see that she's still learning and still recovering things--she's seeking physical, material things to prove her points. But she matures, through the gameplay as well, [and] you saw hints of that in Rise [of the Tomb Raider] with the codex and challenge tombs. It's the knowledge that is her treasure. At the end of the day, what we're trying to do is create the conclusion to the trilogy, but still make it a standalone experience because this is the game where she becomes the tomb raider. The character she was always meant to be."
Shadow of the Tomb Raider focuses a lot on bringing back those familiar feelings of being a fully-realized explorer. But in a pleasant surprise, it tries to examine the inherent narcissism that comes from being the person to discover another country's treasures for themselves. Given that the core theme of the current trilogy is that of change, it's not that surprising to see that Lara Croft will go through her own growing pains during her toughest adventure yet. Eidos Montreal claims that Shadow of the Tomb Raider will challenge the idea of who Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, is.