Under the cover of darkness.
Lara Croft's origins trilogy comes to a close with Shadow of the Tomb Raider where she's now hunting down the villainous organization known as Trinity, instead of piecing together their motives and escaping their grasp. The new game doesn't stray too far from what you've come to expect from this current era of Tomb Raider, though--beginning with the reboot in 2013 and the follow-up, Rise of the Tomb Raider. We spent about four hours with Shadow of the Tomb Raider at a preview event, and while we hoped some minor flaws would be addressed this time around, the best parts of the series' formula still shine through.
You can count on an action-adventure game about seeking ancient relics to bring you on a tour of exotic locations. The lush vegetation of Central and South America provides some wonderful exploration through branching paths and optional side quests, and makes the tried-and-true process of discovery feel refreshing. The dense foliage affords some creative approaches in combat like covering yourself up in mud to blend in or using overgrown vegetation as cover.
The tropical setting isn't solely tourist eye-candy either. One of the game's early hub areas, a Peruvian village called Kuwaq Yaku, showcases the rough nature of a small community holding itself together. We wish the expansive main hub Paititi was playable in the demo, because it's promising to see Shadow of the Tomb Raider create a more vibrant world than past games, with culture and society now a large part storytelling.
Puzzles have been a highlight of Tomb Raider, and the clever solutions that accompany them let you flex your mental prowess. Although the rewards don't seem too gratifying early on in Shadow, the process of unraveling the sequence of steps is the fun part. The fluidity of movement and combat is still intact, too. Slipping into cover at the last second or lining up an arrow for a kill just before getting spotted remains satisfying. However, if either aspect gives you too much trouble, the game allows you to tweak the difficulty of combat, puzzles, and exploration separately. Puzzle and exploration difficulty in particular affect the number of visual cues on screen, while combat difficulty affects enemy health and damage and resource availability.
Unfortunately, enemy behavior still leaves a bit to be desired. They'll often walk into dubious situations that are easy to exploit. One sequence allowed me to pull off a series of stealth kills off the ledge of a boardwalk since each enemy saw suspicious activity in my area. Patrol patterns and enemy placement don't offer much of a challenge, with many guards conveniently having their backs turned to Lara. We expect the action to ramp up, but there just isn't enough to chew on in the early stages.
Moments of close calls have gotten pretty stale in action-adventure games. The cliche of escaping death at the very last second to keep up the intensity would be fine if it was saved for key moments, but when they become too frequent--especially as a narrative device--it gets predictable. Shadow is filled with these close calls, even in the opening hours, and its effectiveness in ratcheting up tension wears thin. Even during normal gameplay, Lara will occasionally slip while scaling walls or jumping to ledges in which a QTE button prompt is your savior. Thankfully, an early ability that costs one skill point negates this altogether.
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We had previously seen the early chapter that takes place during Day of the Dead festivities in Conzumel, Mexico, which was part of this hands-on demo session. After Lara swoops in on an ancient artifact that's said to cause a catastrophe, a flood consumes the entire village, leaving several dead and many more in a state of crisis. Although Lara's companion Jonah scolds her for not even considering the situation at hand, the consequences of her actions aren't really felt in that moment. In the context of a campaign where you're essentially racking up a body count, this may not seem like a big deal, but even a hardened Lara might want to reflect on a foreign town's destruction. The loss of lives feels like an afterthought, but we can assume that Lara's focused on the bigger stakes since Trinity escapes with this mysterious artifact. It remains to be seen how she'll internalize these events and if this will come back to haunt her as the story progresses.
If you've been a fan of the franchise's new direction this generation, you'll be happy to know the formula remains strong, though not without some lingering issues. Lara's latest adventure appears to be taking on a darker tone, and hopefully that comes with narrative surprises. You can experience it for yourself when Shadow of the Tomb Raider launches for PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on September 14.