Ambition can be an enemy all its own. Sometimes what makes it possible for you to do the impossible, and really push yourself to the edge of your capabilities, ends up bringing you to the brink of becoming something you never dreamed you could turn into; for better, or worse.
Crystal Dynamics has been toying with this premise for a while now, by framing Lara Croft as a troubled adventurer who is doing everything she can to stand in the way of her enemy’s ambitions. The only issue is that Lara is dealing with her own demons as well, or so the developers seem to want you to think. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is just as fractured as the protagonist herself; what’s good in it is really good, but the flaws are obvious to anyone viewing it without a sense of bias.
I’ve come to realize that the rebooted Tomb Raider series is targeting a feeling that it never really captures. They obviously want to portray Lara as a tortured individual who is at odds with herself, but they completely gloss over it until they’re ready to have some big moment.Sure, it makes for some great photo opportunities, but short of these fleeting moments, Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t do much. It’s a competent action-adventure game, and it looks pretty in most areas, but issues start to appear if you look any deeper than the surface. For instance, I played on the Xbox One X with a decent 4K TV, and it looks amazing as long as you don’t move. I’m inclined to think that the issues with screen tearing and framerates has something to do with my set not having a high enough refresh rate, but I’ve had zero issues with any other game. Even on the Xbox One X version’s performance setting (which is supposed to favor framerates over 4K resolution), it chugs like The Little Engine That Could.
Yes, I just made that reference.
Maybe, it plays better on a capable PC, which is something that I am not in possession of at the moment (more on that later). But I don’t even want to know what it plays like on an original Xbox One however, or even a base model PS4.
Still, there’s more to it than the looks. “What about the gameplay, Shelby?” Well, worry not, reader, because it has gameplay!
That might sound obvious. Actually, it is obvious. My point is that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is playable, and at many points, actually pretty enjoyable. Lara handles like a tank, but it isn’t a deal breaker. In a way, it reminds me a lot of the old days of gaming, like the original Resident Evil tank controls, where part of the intensity of the combat was the handling of the characters themselves.
Granted, Lara doesn’t handle as poorly as Leon in the original Resident Evil 2, but she’s still pretty tanky; just not in terms of durability. She’ll wilt in the face of incoming fire, and the enemies in the latest Tomb Raider are relentless. Sometimes, they’re frustratingly difficult to deal with, but I believe the aim is to put more emphasis on making the player deal with foes from the shadows. Like Dutch in the jungles of Central America, trying to take out the Predator on his own, Lara does better when she isn’t going to toe-to-toe with the enemy.
Interestingly so, she takes a page from the book of the aforementioned character, by slathering herself in mud camouflage in order to make her harder to see. Supposedly there are enemies that can see through her caked-on camo with the aid of thermal vision goggles (lots of Predator stuff in this; something I should know?), but I never actually had been spotted by them, even when I know I should have. Maybe this is something caused by the difficulty, but I couldn’t really pin it down.
Thankfully for the challengely challenged like myself, there are a plethora of difficulty options. Not only can you adjust the difficulty of the combat itself, but also the tomb puzzles as well. The former settings are the usual hard modes that sound like: “your enemies will cut through you like butter, and ammo will be as rare as red diamonds”, and easy modes that sound like: “enemies will crumble like a house full of termites and ammo will rain from the heavens, but not in the dangerous way”. Tomb difficulty can be adjusted by making challenge objects (the things you need to mess with to complete puzzles) easier to spot, and by making Lara quite annoyingly remind the player about what they need to do… constantly… incessantly… For your sake, just deal with the puzzles on your own. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
In all seriousness though, I am glad that Shadow of the Tomb Raider includes accessibility options like the ability to switch button-mashing events with the ability to just hold a button. My thumbs are thankful, and so are countless gamers everywhere who can’t hammer away at a controller to move a stone block out of the way. Even the radial motions required to crank objects can be altered to only require directional input, which a godsend to myself, who is already paranoid about destroying my already disintegrating Xbox One Elite controller (I’m still pissed about that Microsoft).
I just had the thought however, that there’s an entire part of the game that seems completely out of place: the exploration. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a game whose open areas to explore feel rather pointless, as there aren’t any enemies you’ll be running into to cut your teeth against, meaning that once you clear an area, it’s basically done. Every time you travel through that section from then on is just that… traveling. I can understand not wanting to make combat a constant concern, but then again, why even bother making open areas to explore if they’re just going to be empty sections you have to trudge through? Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels much better during the set piece moments spread throughout the story. I can’t say the same for the time I spent lurking around in the various levels trying to collect things.
My pet peeve though? I still don’t understand what world these developers live in, because things in the Tomb Raider series have long been divorced from any reality. Sure, they’re graduated from the absurdity that was the original Tomb Raider reboot in 2012, which included such gems as being able to upgrade an aging WWII-era Sten submachinegun into a fully automatic AKM platform assault rifle, but they moved onto other head-scratching decisions, like not understanding how winches work, or coming up with the dumbest, most nonsensical weapon upgrades I’ve seen in a game that attempts to ground itself in a semi-real world.
I don’t know who Crystal Dynamics consulted to help them design their weapons in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but it appears that they’ve gotten everything from shows like CSI and ill-informed politicians. I swear that I’m going to need to make an entire post about the various things that they got wrong with this one game’s weapons…
Again, it’s a pet peeve, so take my general gun-nuttiness with a grain of salt.
Oh my, I almost forgot about the story! That may be because the story is pretty forgettable. For some reason, whenever games like this take place in Central America, they always go with “the ancient people know the only way to prevent the end of the world!” route, which would be interesting if it hadn’t been done before so many times in various movies, games, and books. They initially go in a different direction by framing Lara as a potential antagonist, but later neuter this idea by again shifting the negative focus away from her. She’s obviously the heroine, you know? They can’t try to make her too complex, or show her as a person existing in a realm of grey instead of pure black and white… That would be too human, after all.
I digress, but it feels like Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s story is a mishmash of ideas that don’t really come together in a cohesive package. As I played through it, I remember Jennifer watching me and asking what was going on, and I really didn’t have an answer. You fight the Falmer from Skyrim, but I don’t remember ever finding out why they were there in the first place. You stumble across a hidden civilization, but I never found out why almost everyone that lives there can speak perfect English. It’s a game of never-explored plot elements that culminates in a huge free pass for Lara.
I won’t spoil it, but I warned you; they pull a huge punch.
So enough word salad. What’s the verdict with Shadow of the Tomb Raider? Should you play it?
It depends. If you love the Tomb Raider franchise, or action-adventure games in general, it’s probably worth looking into. I wouldn’t say that it’s worth shelling out the full price for, but luckily for Xbox One owners, you have the option of the Xbox Game Pass (at least until the game is pulled from it). It’s not without its fun, despite being host to a number of glaring missteps. For that, I’d say that it occupied me for a while until I found the next obsession of mine to focus on.
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