Five years ago we were introduced to a new kind of Lara Croft in the form of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, the first part of an origins story that continued with the second instalment, Rise of the Tomb Raider, two years after. About a month ago we found out that the conclusion to this origins story, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, will be coming in September this year, and we recently got to see the game for ourselves as part of the reveal event for the game in London.
The demo we played sat us down in Mexico alongside our old friend Jonah as we figured out where our next treasure might be found while also keeping our eyes on an archaeologist target of ours who also had some connection to said treasure. Once this target started moving though, it was our chance to get in disguise and chase after him, using 'chase' in the loosest sense of the word since it revolved more around Assassin's Creed style movement through a crowd, brushing past people and apologising rather than an actual high-speed pursuit.
Once this mysterious figure entered an area guarded by particularly mean-looking guards we threw off our disguise and switched to more usual methods to observe him (climbing, more specifically), before going on to find the location of the treasure ourselves nearby. As soon as we took off the shawl that had been covering us, however, we took one look at Croft's outfit and were immediately reminded of older games like Tomb Raider Anniversary, as she's wearing more of a combat-ready outfit than casual clothing, swapping the holiday tank-top of the first game for something more like a tactical vest.
It's not just in Lara's outfit choice that Shadow of the Tomb Raider reminds us of older games; there's also that assuredness, the experience that Croft has which reminds us of the titles where she was already an established treasure hunter. The opening sees her grabbing opportunity by the throat and going after what she wants without hesitation, which eventually leads to us finding a key to an ancient treasure... the key actually being a dagger that needs to be paired with a silver box.
We won't spoil exactly what happens here, but almost immediately after finding said dagger we find out that our haste in picking it up will lead to drastic consequences not just for Croft herself but for many others too, and this is something the developers say is being explored in this game - the consequences of your actions. We've known for two games now that Croft has become more comfortable with going to historic sites, slaughtering those who oppose her, and taking what she wants. Now, though, there are more disastrous implications, something which feels promising, especially when it comes to shaping and developing her character arc.
That said, it's not as if we're putting the 'killing bad guys' approach on hold for now. From the reveal trailer, it actually seems Croft has become even more of a stone-cold killer. Even in the first tutorialised section we were reminded of stealth kills, and the takedown animations are particularly brutal, with the strangling of the previous games makes way for a savage flurry of stabs. Of course, we'll be shooting arrows and bullets aplenty when bad guys get in our way as well, so there's that too.
A lot of her efficient murdering is adapted to the setting of the jungle. In the said trailer we see Croft dispatch enemies like Predator, stringing enemies up and sending them to meet their maker before disappearing, the survivors left sweating, and this comes into practice nicely in-game. You can hide in bushes and foliage once more, as we've seen in the last game, but now you can also do things like push your back against a wall covered with vines to become almost invisible, leaping out to attack enemies as they walk past.
What's more is that steps have been taken in Survival Instinct to make stealth a bit easier too. To remind you, Survival Instinct is activated by pushing in the right stick (like Detective Vision in the Batman Arkham games) to show things you can interact with in the environment, as well as waypoints and enemies, except this time they're colour-coded. Yellow enemies, for instance, are not in sight of others, so can be killed without raising the alarm, while those in red are visible to their allies, so should be separated from the pack. In this way we found ourselves tactically picking off the opposition in an incredibly satisfying way, feeling like a total badass while doing so.
When we did raise the alarm, though, we were forced into open combat, which existing fans should find easy to slip back into the groove of. There are still the same four weapon slots - bow, pistol, assault rifle, and shotgun - and all of these have their strengths and weaknesses, like the bow being best for stealth while the shotgun works best for very close-quarters combat. Little needs to be said in this department since it's all pretty much the same as it has been before - ammo boxes litter the ground, there are chest-high walls for cover, and sticking to the shadows is always safer than launching into a pitched battle.
Traversal should be familiar as well, featuring the same mix of climbing between ledges, using your ice axe on rugged walls, and solving environmental puzzles to get to where you need to be. The puzzles we saw were similar to what we've seen in the past, requiring you to mix abilities like one that had us attaching a rope to a cart via the bow, pulling it uphill, and then releasing it to clear some debris. It didn't take long before we settled into a comfortable rhythm.
One thing that has changed is that the team are now placing a heavier emphasis on underwater exploration, which we couldn't help but notice in our demo. There were plenty of times in this section where we had to explore watery depths to get the treasure we sought, and in a later section of the game - which we won't spoil - the water was quite literally overwhelming. Another useful feature has been added in this regard too, and with the simple tap of X when prompted (we played on Xbox) you can surface at a pocket of air in a mini-cutscene to make sure you don't drown, making the whole swimming process streamlined and easier to navigate.
All of this is built to play upon the theme of 'fear', which the team is working hard to get across. At one point, for instance, we found ourselves clambering underwater in between tightly packed rocks before further boulders fell in on us and left us panicking while trying to clear the way, and it did convey that intensity really well. There's something extra scary about being submerged in water with no knowledge of how you can get out for air, after all.
Fear also manifests itself in how dark the game is too. Considering the previous cover art we've had in the series, you only need to look at the imagery for this game to see what we mean. In fact, our demo took place entirely in the darkness, whether it be the candlelit village we started at or the depths of the cave system we ended up in. It's not only visual either, tonally the game feels a lot darker, heavier. Sure, Croft is assured and confident, but she's also a more savage killer, and will unwittingly cause a lot of harm with her actions.
That's why it's not just about Croft's own fear, but also the fear that she puts into others. She's no longer a girl who's surprising everyone with her resilience, but a force to be reckoned with, and that's why at the beginning of the game we overhear our archaeologist friend wanting to know whether we're around, because we're the threat. We're the danger this time around, not just a spanner in the works, much like the dark knight that stalks the shadows.
The environments all looked polished, especially when bathed in the light of the thousands of candles lining the streets, but we didn't get the same pop that games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted 4 offered with their sunlit scenarios. However, there is the same epic scale, including vast chasms in the tombs that you marvel at before exploring, and while there were some lip-syncing issues, we could forgive those considering this is a work-in-progress.
Speaking of tombs (you know, the ones you'll be raiding), in this game they're more about going downwards, playing on the themes of fear and darkness by plummeting you into the depths of the earth. Sure, they'll feature the same ancient artefacts and puzzles, but there's more that's ominous about them, as we often found ourselves poised over vast expanses of blackness that were looking to swallow us up.
It's also worth mentioning that all the extra bells and whistles that were introduced in Rise make it unscathed here too, as there are still crafting ingredients to find and scrap to salvage, so despite not seeing a campfire once in our demo, we assume there'll be the same emphasis on upgrading both Croft and her gear. We also noted the same emphasis on crafting on the fly too, like picking up a bottle and making an impromptu Molotov to hurl at the bad guys who, by the way, are the returning Trinity organisation who are looking to take more stuff for themselves.
We were reluctant to let go of the demo when the staff at the event told us our time was up, and that can only be a good thing. Mechanically it's more of the same for the most part, as we've explained, but what really made us want to keep going is to see more of this different side of Croft, and to experience more of the darker tone that made itself clear even in the opening 45 minutes. If it keeps going this way, we should have a very fitting conclusion to the origins story - the end of the beginning, if you will - and we just hope Eidos Montreal can take what Crystal Dynamics started and shape it into a suitably decisive moment for this beloved character.
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