Edited by: Tiffany Lillie
After breathing a sigh of relief that you have finally made it past the most epic of death-defying leaps and swings, you realize that you are not alone in this tomb. This place doesn’t belong to you; the ancient beings that reside here want to send you to the depths that swallow the shallow walking paths and rock faces that you will climb. Eerie, challenging, thoughtful, compelling, and downright fun. Shadow of the Tomb Raider shows what AAA games should be about. Just don’t be surprised if you encounter some frame-rate stutters, slight audio-visual desyncs, or the occasional bad texture rendering. This review will focus on the merits of this entry as a standalone title, instead of comparing it to previous entries in the series. Have no fear of spoilers — none will be shared.
LARA FREAKIN’ CROFT
To no surprise, you play as Lara Croft, the tomb-diving, wall-climbing, gun-slinging, and tight-pants-sporting adventurer. In the very first installment of Tomb Raider in 1996, it was far more puzzles and platforms than story or conflict. Our lovely hero was also a low-poly, mostly triangular female protagonist who absolutely loved short shorts. Now Lara is an absolute beast of a hero. You begin your endeavor combating Trinity (the bad guys) in Mexico, where the “quest for the sacred knife” (See how well I’m avoiding spoilers?) is well underway. Lara is introduced to you by the ways of old. You will be diving, swimming, climbing, and jumping your way through this initial area. There are a few puzzles to solve, but they are far more introductory than challenging. The story is what comes in swinging. I was immediately sucked in by the beautiful graphics, amazing sound and voice acting, and the overall atmosphere generated by the soundtrack.
THE MEAT AND POTATOES
Let’s get down to brass tax: The graphics are incredible. They directly reflect the budgets and capabilities of AAA development and I cannot help but be dumbfounded by the talent and effort that this team (Eidos-Montréal, Crystal Dynamics, Nixxes Software, and Square Enix) put forth to bring the universe of Shadow of the Tomb Raider to life. The character models are vivid and extremely accurate in facial animations, and the environment seems like magic because the color palette is far more accurate than most games I’ve seen in recent time. Each hallway, building, tree, and bush is a work of art, while the tombs show a horror that’s both beautiful and haunting.
The cutscenes and voice acting are on par with current Hollywood cinematography. The tone and delivery of each word are crisp and believable. At no point in my playthrough did I ever find any of the dialogue to sound forced or dull. Granted, there is a part of the game in which you find an isolated people, living deep in the Peruvian jungles, who conveniently speak fluent English. With that being said, you can see the effort put in to ensure that the accents and the dialects reflect their environments. For instance, the people in Mexico during your adventures there have a strong Mexican accent. The Peruvians have a similar, but identifiably different accent, even though they both speak a dialect of Spanish.
PUZZLES TO SOLVE
The platforming and puzzles are interesting in most parts. While I do find them to be self-limiting (as in only certain, easily-identified walls can be climbed) at times, the overall flow of this title shines as a story-driven experience. This can be a little bit of a drag, due to the “on-rails” feeling that can come from story-driven titles. You always know you’re going in the right direction in Shadow of the Tomb Raider because it's the only way to go. To be fair, the purpose of this title is to experience the story, not necessarily get lost in some ancient tomb for over an hour, so I really didn’t get bothered by its progressive nature. The puzzles offer a unique experience because there is a difficulty slider just for puzzles: You can adjust the puzzle, combat, and the exploration difficulties at any time during your playthrough, unless you choose the hardest difficulty, in which you will be locked in for the remainder of the ride. At some points, the puzzles really do make you stop and think about your actions and how to solve them. I thoroughly enjoyed the investigation and problem solving that occurred in almost every tomb.
The combat feels fast and smooth. Enemies are lethal but can be thwarted with a single arrow or a single bullet most of the time. Occasionally you will come across the troops of the Trinity organization, who sport what appears to be a SCAR-L rifle and a sweet bug net over the top of their Kevlar helmets. These fine gentlemen will take a few more rounds to pacify, but it never really becomes a bullet sponge fight or breaks the narrative that you are the one to be feared, not them. Most combat scenarios will draw you into an area that gives you the advantage of stealth right off the bat. From here you can choose to “go loud” or cull the herd silently from the outskirts. This is where we learn that our hero Lara Croft is an absolute madwoman in combat — she will literally put a knife through someone's eye on more than one occasion.
THE FINER THINGS
The attention to detail is what really blew my mind. I adore the little things in video games. In recent memory, one of my favorite aesthetic moments in gaming came from Star Wars BattleFront 2, in which there were leaves that will blow in circles on some parts of a map. The wind seemed to actually have a pattern on the map, and if anything explosive detonated near those leaves, you would watch them individually catch fire, change blowing pattern, and disperse into ash. I thought that was an awesome touch. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, every single aspect of the game has this level of attention. Lara will change her walking pattern if she enters deep mud, then all of this mud will stick to her. Lara’s face will squint and fear will cross her eyes when you almost miss your jump or are navigating a narrow, back-to-cliff area. The enemies react extremely well to being struck with bullets or arrows, showing true impact. On an even darker side of this coin, you can drown your enemies — and it looks and sounds hauntingly realistic.
THE GRUESOME THINGS
The last thing I’ll talk about here is that this title is absolutely rated M. Shadow of the Tomb Raider pulls no punches on the cruelty that it has to offer. Death has no “age protection,” nor does it have any filter. There is no shortage of savagery that will ensue on your adventures through the jungles. There are even little death animations for Lara when you miss certain jumps or if you make a mistake on a puzzle. Believe me, they’re pretty rough (but awesome, too).
While Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a fantastic single-player experience, it does suffer from a few minor issues that most likely will be fixed. First and foremost, you will notice immediately the frame rate stutters. I have read on multiple forums now that I am not the only one with this issue. I have quite a computer rig, so I play mostly on the ultra settings of games. Anytime during reviews, I like to go through all the settings and see what the optimal one is. Even on the lowest settings, I would see the same stutters as Ultra. (For those of you who are wondering what stuttering is, its when your frame rate isn’t “lagging”, as you are maintaining an overall high frame rate (let us say 60 fps) and all of a sudden it goes to 0 fps — then back to 60 fps. This can and has happened at the worst possible times, such as when you are trying to swing on a rope to another ledge; the frames stutter and you miss your jump time, and may or may not land on a porcupine of spears and mud.
This type of experience should focus a lot on optimization, especially since timing plays such a large role in this title. Graphics problems throw an unseen wrench at the face of every player trying to jump that dang canyon in hopes to beat the tomb in a first go. Another slight issue that plagued my playthrough was the occasional mouth-to-speech desyncs, in which words spoken did not align with the animations of the characters talking. I rdidn’t have this issue during cutscenes, thankfully, but in the game world itself it was pretty common to have someone talking to me and totally break that immersive quality that is so hard to maintain. Textures would also sometimes have a hard time loading in at the right time. It was rare, but there were moments that water just wasn’t water in time before I turned the corner of a tomb.
The Verdict: Excellent
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an amazing experience. I absolutely love single-player games and this one, in particular, is one of the best I’ve seen in recent time. The story is beautiful and very impressive in its delivery. The graphics and the gameplay are fantastic, while New Game Plus and multiple difficulties are offered to boost replayability. Thisis a thoughtful, inspired, and impactful third-person adventure that will be sure to revive the explorer inside you. While it may have some slight bugs at the moment, these are sure to get ironed out and offer a seamless, gorgeous experience to all those who dare to traverse the ancient Mayan and Incan ruins and catacombs of old.