Some developers announce their game and then stay in the shadows before release, only showing it briefly in preview sessions if they even show it at all, but Eidos Montreal and Square Enix have been more than generous in giving us glimpses of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as we've been to at least three presentations and three gameplay sessions since the reveal in March. The latest of these came via an event in London this month, presumably the last before the full game launches on September 14 (although who knows at this point), except this time we had a much meatier chunk of the game to look at.
The first section of the game we could afford to skip past, as it's the introductory level that we previewed already after the reveal event, but to give the brief summary (spoiler alert for those who want zero story details): Lara Croft is looking for an ancient knife, she recovers the knife, and then an apocalyptic tsunami hits, causing untold chaos. Is it her fault? Who knows, but it appears that way, especially since this is a game where Croft is dealing with the consequences of her reckless actions.
Back to what we played. The extended demo threw us into the section immediately after where our journey in a plane is cut short when a storm hits (again, supernatural perhaps?). We're after Trinity, who are also looking for an artifact that is said to give whoever wields it untold power. After crash landing in the jungles of Peru, we must survive once more, just like in the 2013 reboot, with very little in the way of defence.
Like Bear Grylls we went off to see what we could find to keep us alive, and as you'll remember from Rise of the Tomb Raider, there are plenty of berries, animal carcasses, and boxes to rummage through and get ingredients for crafting. Not long after we land we craft a knife out of broken airplane scrap, which then allows us to cut our equipment down from the tree it had become entangled in. As you can tell, Croft is still as resourceful as ever.
The trouble is, Croft didn't pack her arsenal of warmongery weaponry in one place, so we're stuck with a bow and arrow and a knife in the opening sections, hence why it reminded us a little of the first game where we relied more on primitive survival techniques. It's not all about foraging for resources though, because early on we're introduced to one of the challenge tombs. These are hidden ancient ruins that provide extras for us to discover, such as symbols to decipher and improve our skills in forgotten languages. There's also gold ore to sell to merchants and extra equipment to craft; gear which can improve your abilities by allowing you to collect more natural resources when you scavenge, for example.
Once we'd finished being sidetracked, it was time to look for our pilot Miguel, although he'd met with an unfortunate end after being munched by two jaguars, which we then got to fight. It's survival of the fittest as they say, and unlike the fights we've had with heavily armed Trinity goons in the past, this was all about dancing around our agile opponents, dodging their strikes and waiting for the right time to shower them with arrows.
Jonah's back this time around as well, and we meet up with him later (luckily he didn't end up as jaguar food). The relationship between Lara and Jonah has been building steadily over the past two games, and it's really promising that we've seen so much dialogue between them both in-game and in the cutscenes, since in this session alone we got to see both of them learn some big lessons, and hear about the backstories for the pair. Jonah has always been a good influence on Lara, but now we get to see how they work together.
Other challenge tombs lay nearby for us to discover, and of course being a keen archaeologist we just had to explore them for ourselves. There's been an emphasis on darkness and fear with regards to these tombs, and although one of these certainly was a descent into the abyss, activating hidden mechanisms and scaling underground towers to reach the sarcophagus full of loot, another one was much more out in the open.
This other tomb saw us ascend to a hidden area (perhaps some sort of temple) that had been abandoned in the middle of construction, and discovering long-lost camps full of dead explorers just heightened this sense of adventure. We didn't even realise it was a tomb until the game had told us, because of how bright and open it was, but by swinging on cranes and climbing Croft's favourite white-coloured ledges, we got to the top and got our reward. Perhaps most interesting though is that there were noises of creatures that weren't quite human, but weren't animals either, so it'll be interesting to see how these are revealed in the full game.
Once we'd returned to Jonah, who was patiently waiting by the fire for us to finish dawdling, there were some light puzzles to solve so we could advance, but the good news is that, if you hate the puzzles, you can turn their difficulty down while keeping the combat difficulty the same, or vice versa. In this way you can tailor the experience to suit your preferences, although we would argue it's incredibly rewarding to find the solutions to these puzzles... that's just us though.
It wasn't long before we wandered into a settlement called Kuwaq Yaku to find some allies though, and while we won't spoil who these are or what they do, it does offer a new element to the game. As Eidos Montreal's Jason Dozois told us, Lara isn't that much of a social person, and so Jonah comes into play a lot more here. In fact, Dozois told us that people are actually one of the puzzles this time around, as we have to deal with and get help from communities in more ways than before, in turn helping them as we go.
Of course, it wouldn't be one of the reboot games without Trinity showing up and being the worst kinds of people, so when we weren't intermingling with the new friends we'd made we were sticking to the shadows to set our enemies on fire with special arrows, blast them with assault rifles, or stealth kill them from the water. We've talked extensively on the combat before, but it really does favour stealth (covering yourself in mud and hiding on a wall, for example) and movement, making sure you're a ghost as you pick your targets off.
There are more options in terms of how you play since the aforementioned loot gives you more gear to craft, and you can switch your outfits (we won't spoil what we saw, but they're great), make resources like arrows, and of course improve your skills via extensive skill tree. You can find some abilities by exploring the world, but upgrades really help you become proficient in areas like crafting, traversal, and combat, as well as skills that mean you never slip on a ledge, reduce any fall damage, and perform stealth kills without alerting nearby enemies.
We saw a whole lot during this most recent session, and we remain confident that fans of the rebooted Tomb Raider series will like the direction this is going in. It's different in the sense that exploration is diversified via the jungle, as is combat, not to mention the fact we'll see a new side of Lara, who is both more deadly and more aware of the consequences of her actions, but it's still the same solid foundations underneath. Traversal is still fun, combat is tense and rewards patience, and the puzzles are rewarding, all of which impressed us during the opening section. Now all that's left to do is wait until next month, where we can fully realise our journey to becoming the Tomb Raider.
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