A shadow of its former self.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was a surprise hit for me back in 2015. Eidos Montreal managed to transfix me with a more exploratory Tomb Raider game I didn’t know I wanted. In fact, I liked it so much it was the first review I ever wrote, which will never ever be published. I thought I was ready for another entry in the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise, though, I soon discovered I was grossly mistaken. Beyond the litany of gameplay bugs, Shadow of the Tomb Raider wrestles with a painfully dull cast of characters in a surprisingly boring adventure, which feels more like a drawn-out tutorial than an interesting journey through secret lands.
To get it out of the way first, I may not have even written this feature if it weren’t for the painfully broken experience I had with the game, egging me to critique it out of some craving to exact vengeance. Before refunding it back to EB Games for $10 more than I purchased it (a story you can find on the podcast for this week), I had put roughly 12 hours into this third entry. I swear, I don’t think there was a single session longer than 2 hours, and in every single one, I encountered some sort of gameplay bug that required a reload.
Characters duplicated in narrative sections, doors and walls didn’t open in cutscenes, events didn’t trigger, and on countless occasions, I fell to my death as Lara would glitch-out trying to latch onto a climbable surface. When I combine that unforgivable jank with the already expressionless faces and relatively poor voice acting, the overall picture is that of a cheap brown leather shoe from Target that’s been stepped on 50 times – unpolished as all hell. After such an impressive start with Xbox One X graphics on a 4K OLED HDR tv, every hour that passed made me feel like I was playing a game that didn’t belong in this generation.
Oh, and did I mention I hit a game-breaking checkpoint glitch that prevented me from finishing it?
Now, if you asked me: David, do you think your technical issues with this game are contributing to this high level of vitriol? I would respond with: “Hell. Yes.”
However, while those problems have definitely incited a rage unbeknown even to Kratos, I’m still deeply disappointed with the fundamental experience of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. When I played Rise of the Tomb Raider back in 2015, I listened to every collectable I picked up and studied every relic I came across. This activity is distinctly ‘un-David-like,’ but I did it because I was engrossed in the fiction they drummed up around that particular long-lost city. But man… The Mayan and Inca storyline in this game just sucks.
I believe my basic issue with this particular lost city boils down to the fact its civilisation is even more ridiculous than in previous games, and the whole ‘cult’ narrative that it centres around is contrived and stupid. If you suspended your disbelief, the society of ‘protectors’ from the previous two games made sense, even if it felt a bit odd that they spoke fluent English. Though in this title, they’re literally less than a stone’s throw from the real world, and their justification for staying isolated is barely understandable.
Then there’s the gameplay… Now, it is entirely possible I am embellishing my memory of Rise of the Tomb Raider, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels immensely more confined. Whether it is the constant tutorial prompts, the frequent underwater sequences that required button mashing to squeeze through gaps, or the incredibly rote stealth sections, I felt like I had very little agency in my experience. Sure, there were always paths to explore off the beaten track, and that’s great, but when I got back into the main throughline, I honestly felt like I was on rails.
Stealth sections, in particular, made me feel like I was just going along with a set path the developers laid out for me. Most combat zones begin like this: You move through a gap in the branches and once you pop out the other end, enemies start to talk and you’re thrust into stealth. Nevermind that the game is constantly pointing you towards things to interact with, every branch or mud pit feels meticulously placed as if the developers were saying “Hey! Psst! Use this over here to kill these two guys walking in a circle, then lather yourself in this conveniently placed mud to take out that other dude over on the left next to a mud wall!”
The linearity of the game’s stealth sections doesn’t make me feel like a predator, it makes me feel like I’m on a leash.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a game that doesn’t know why it exists. Efforts at character development fall flat as they try to strike a serious ‘life-lesson’ tone, while immediately plunging it into the ‘now back to our adventure!’ mode. Similarly, their tremendous focus on stealth mechanics is underdeveloped and seems more like a desperate attempt to present something fresh and new in Square’s marketing campaign. In these ways, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is very much like Uncharted 3, minus the polish and add the effort to pretend to be something it’s not.