Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PS4) Review
You’ve seen the trailers, you’ve played the previous games and now finally, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is upon us. The final installment of the modern Tomb Raider trilogy; the one where Lara finally becomes the hardened grave robber she is destined to become.
But that’s all hype. It doesn’t matter what the game sets out to do if it sucks, right?
That’s not the case here. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is hands down, the greatest of the modern Tomb Raider trilogy. With all the lessons learned from the past two games by Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal has elegantly crafted the final entry with aplomb, despite it being their first game in the series.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider continues Lara’s quest of vengeance against Trinity, the company that’s behind pretty much everything that’s happened in the past games. From her father’s death, to the fiasco at Yamatai, Trinity had its hands in every single power grab.
The past games have been building up to this direct confrontation between Lara and the organization, but now that it’s finally here, I’ll be the first to admit that I honestly expected more. Without spoiling the plot, there’s a way too convenient twist that ties Dr. Dominguez (the head of Trinity, who coincidentally looks like a plump Oded Fehr) to the Crofts and Lara’s current adventure. It’s meant to tie everything up neatly, but ends up feeling like a cop-out. That’s not a strike against Shadow’s plot, as it’s decently crafted. But when compared to the build up from the last two games, the conclusion of Lara’s struggle against Trinity feels a little tame.
Taken by itself, Shadow’s pretty self-contained plot is a pretty good Tomb Raider adventure, with Lara going to multiple countries and locations to stop the coming apocalypse, which she inadvertently triggered by recklessly removing an artifact from a tomb.
The plot’s never going to win any awards for being deep or complex, but that’s ok, since it’s just an excuse to toss Lara into some incredible set-pieces. Nearly every location you visit has one (be it a landslide, a tsunami or some other event) but it’s the ones near the end that ratchets things up to 11. I particularly found the refinery setting to be one of the game’s highlights, as you (as Lara) climb from pipe to pipe, dodging the fire from an APC, mercenaries AND a helicopter gunship, while everything is exploding all around.
If you’re on the PS4 Pro, you’re given a choice between performance or framerate. Unfortunately, while the framerate choice DOES offer a higher framerate than the performance choice, it’s not stable, with it fluctuating depending on what’s happening. Performance mode is locked to 30FPS and maintains that much more constantly than the framerate mode and is my preferred mode to play.
No matter which mode you play, there’s still a weird stuttering issue in some cutscenes, especially in the early going. It’s distracting though thankfully the issues drop off in the later cinematics. Here’s hoping a future patch will smooth the performance issues.
Another much appreciated option is hidden in the game’s options. Delve into it and you’ll find the choice to have characters speak in their native tongue. It does wonders in making it seem Lara is in a foreign land, though most of the time the characters will just be speaking Spanish since the game’s set in Latin American countries. It does get a little weird though since Lara still speaks English, as it’ll seem like everybody can understand English but can’t speak it.
Still, it’s a great option and one should never fault being given multiple choices like this.
The choices extend to the game itself as well, as Lara has a ton of optional side activities this time around. You’re regularly given the chance to venture off the beaten path and explore and that’s where the game shines. You’re constantly being rewarded for being the explorer Lara should be. You’ll find challenge tombs, animals to hunt and even side quests to complete, all of which benefit Lara in some way such as giving her unique skills, gear or weapons or the ability to upgrade her gear.
You’ll miss a lot of the game if you simply rush through it. I’m going as far as saying this is the first true Tomb Raider game as there’s a ton of optional tombs and other archeological locations to raid, most of them totally optional. Learning languages from monoliths also return from Rise of the Tomb Raider. This time being proficient with the ancient languages will let Lara read from special treasure monoliths, which will give hints to buried treasure you can dig up.
It’d be great if it’s just quantity, but Eidos Montreal has gone the extra mile and made the Challenge Tombs much bigger and more complex than any of the optional tombs in past games. Some might take place in a single open location, while others might have you going deeper and deeper into it to reach the prize at the end. Every tomb is unique and some of the puzzles are ingenious, especially if you turn off the hints.
Death is inevitable, especially considering some of the tricky jumps Lara has to perform. It’s an issue when you’re jumping horizontally (whether it’s from a ledge or other traversal option) and can lead to unintended deaths. Thankfully, the game loads incredibly fast from your mishaps and there are numerous checkpoints, so it doesn’t take long to get back to where you died the first time around.
On the flip side, loading for fast travel is INSANELY long, even if you’re just moving from one campfire to another nearby. If you’re going to a nearby location, it might be better to forego the fast travel entirely and just move there. The game streams the data otherwise and barring from a few areas where it pauses to load, moving from area to area is pretty seamless.
Fast travel loading will still be encountered no matter what though, especially if you’re backtracking for stuff you missed. The game incorporates elements of a Metroidvania title, as the locations you’ll encounter will regularly have places you can’t access unless you return later, with new gear. It’s certainly not a requirement to backtrack but you’ll find a ton of optional secrets if you do.
The best part of the tomb raiding has got to be the rewards you get. As mentioned you not only get unique skills but also get unique gear, which is a first for any Tomb Raider game. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara can actually equip different outfits. These fall into two categories; outfits and unique Vestige gear.
Outfits give you a set look and there are a ton of them to choose from, including Lara’s looks from previous games. I don’t just mean the Tomb Raider reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider. I mean from the original Tomb Raider 2 (complete with her angular…assets) as well as her Angel of Darkness gear.
Alternatively, you can also equip Vestige gear piecemeal. You can choose two different types; upper and lower body. You can mix and match any gear you find in the sarcophagi and every one of them has their own unique benefits. Sadly, there’s no extra benefit from wearing a matching set of upper and lower body but perhaps that’ll change in future content updates. Despite that, it’s still fun to keep changing clothes since they do show up in cinematics.
Apart from the buffs Lara gets from Vestige gear and the skills found in Challenge Tombs, Lara also has three different talent trees to advance in with the experience she gains from activities and combat.
Seeker enhances exploration and observation abilities, Warrior increases combat and weapon abilities while Scavenger enhances crafting and stealth skills. Most of the skills are useful but sadly, there are some duds in the fray. Extra materials from gathering? Who needs that?
Thankfully, all essential skills are unlocked without the need to level up. New skills include the ability to hide in bushes and against walls. You can even cover Lara with mud to beat enemies with thermal vision, which is reminiscent of Rambo: First Blood Part Two. In fact, the game even acknowledges this, with a trophy called First Blood that involves stealth killing while covered in mud, similar to how Rambo did it in the movie.
Stealth is now a big part of the game, as nearly every enemy encounter allows for a stealthy approach. Survival Instincts, a mode where the game highlights important items and enemies, is back and improved. Now enemies are color coded when you’re in stealth. If they’re yellow, you can take them down with alerting the others. If they’re red though, taking them down will alert whoever is looking in that particular direction.
Survival Instincts is a crutch though it’s one you’ll need since items tend to blend into the background. It’s also an annoying crutch due to it fading as soon as you move (which was also an issue in previous games). Why it’s still this way after two games is questionable, especially considering it’s a major part of the game.
Since it’s this way, you’ll need to CONSTANTLY keep hitting R3 to trigger it, especially since it also highlights waypoints and your next objective. It’s annoying and I honestly wish it was better implemented. What’s wrong with it being a toggled action instead?
Sneaking around is fun, but Lara has a ton of stealthy options if you can’t get close. These include the ability to use bottles as distractions (or use them to craft molotov cocktails or smoke bombs), craft arrows that’ll make enemies turn on one another and concussive shells to blind her foes in case she’s discovered. Your mileage on how useful they are will vary, as I found myself only going for close up kills or using Fear arrows to have the bad guys kill each other instead.
If you’re not one to sneak, the game does give Lara a handful of offensive weapons to wreak havoc with.
These fall into four categories; bows, rifles, handguns and shotguns. All of them can be improved at campfires with the materials you find as well as equipped with various attachments (which you buy) and secondary functions (which you have to unlock from the skill tree.
You’ll get a few of the weapons automatically as you play, though certain weapons are given as rewards or need to be bought from the merchants in-game.
Gunplay is deliciously tight, with tense shootouts and enemies who’ll react intelligently to your actions. Hide too long in one place and they’ll attempt to flush you out with grenades. Pick them off one by one and they’ll start to patrol in pairs. Sadly, melee is completely underutilized in the game, with Lara only being able to do a weak 3-hit combo with her climbing axes or special finishing moves.
Don’t go into Shadow of the Tomb Raider expecting a lot of combat though, as unlike past entries this one’s focus is on raiding tombs and the environmental puzzles you’ll encounter. Fighting with the Trinity mercenaries (and other enemies) isn’t as regular as you’d expect, especially if you choose to do the side missions and Challenge tombs in between doing the story missions.
While it may not be as action heavy as its predecessors, Shadow of the Tomb Raider does have better art direction. Sure, it’s still ancient Mayan (and other civilizations) ruins you’re exploring, but you there are other different environments too, such as the refinery I mentioned and an awesome monastery, which has catacombs eerily reminiscent of those from The Nun, complete with tons of crucifixes adorning the sides of the walls. All that’s missing is a vicious demonic entity hellbent on killing Lara…perhaps an idea to explore in the future, eh Eidos Montreal?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is definitely the best entry in the modern series, though there’s certainly room for improvements.
However, as the finale in the modern Tomb Raider trilogy, it concludes the plot nicely, tying up all the loose ends involving Trinity and Lara’s past. Plus, it’s quite a looker too, especially in the later areas…though perhaps the jungle environments do tend to get a bit too similar for my liking. I’d love for the next games to focus more on Gothic European ruins instead of more Latin American ones.
Well…that’s what sequels are for, isn’t it?