Lara Croft has been shooting and looting tombs for over 20 years now, but in 2013 Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix decided to throw us back to the beginning of the story as we witnessed the birth of the Tomb Raider, a narrative which continued with 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now the final piece of this origin trilogy has fallen into place, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider billed by new developer Eidos Montreal as Lara Croft's "defining moment"; the point where she finally becomes the Tomb Raider. Because, you know, all those tombs we visited in the other two games didn't really count.
In fact, the entirety of the marketing campaign for Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to suggest in no small way that the stakes have been raised and that this will truly be an epic finale to this trilogy, five years after we were first introduced to this more down-to-earth Croft. At the beginning it would certainly seem that way as well, as within the first hour or so Lara recovers an ancient dagger, only to realise that in her haste she's brought about an apocalyptic event that devastates everything in its path.
But as per usual those pesky Trinity bad guys won't let our Lara raid in peace, and Dr. Pedro Dominguez rocks up to threaten her with armed goons and take the dagger for himself. The only problem is that this dagger has the power to bend the world to the user's will if paired with another artifact, and so it's a race against time to find Dominguez before it's too late. Here is where the game really starts - crash landing into Peru on the hunt for Trinity once again.
Without wanting to spoil too much of the story, it's worth noting that despite the pre-release talk about making you feel like there are consequences to your actions, we didn't get this impression when playing. Sure, we see the one apocalyptic event, but then that's not mentioned again, and even when we get the classic clichéd line asking "how many people have you killed?" as if to try and make us question our own morals, not much has changed in the grand scheme of things. We're still going after artifacts, shooting guys who get in our way, and showing a reckless disregard for ancient objects.
This time though we were pleased to see that Jonah was along for the ride in a more prominent manner, rather than getting lost for half the game like he did in Rise. Here he offers a good counterpoint to Lara's tunnel vision and actually helps her in social situations where she is less comfortable. He's far more significant and fleshed-out here and has an integral role in the plot throughout.
Jonah is with us for our entire foray into Peru, where we get to meet not only the helpful residents of Kuwaq Yaku but also those of Paititi, the hub world that we've seen in trailers prior to release. This is the largest hub world the series has seen, and while the town itself is ruled over by a murderous cult, we still need to stick around to try and find the second artifact and prevent Trinity from getting their hands on it.
Paititi itself is where the game quite literally opens up, as it takes you away from the linear set pieces we're used to seeing in action-adventure titles. There are side quests to complete, merchants to interact with, and hidden caves filled with tantilising loot to discover, but the trouble is that none of it is really gripping. Despite Paititi's size we never really felt compelled to stay in it for very long, and the side quests, in particular, don't offer a lot of excitement when compared to the grand stakes of the main plot. They range from getting a boy's dice back to freeing rebels, and most of the time you get wooden conversations between Lara and the NPCs when doing these tasks. That said, Paititi's Merchants are good for upgrading gear, and the hidden areas are worth exploring for the rewards - but aside from these quick stops, the city didn't interest us.
Apart from Paititi, the story itself is quite linear, as we've experienced in the last few games. Actually, a lot of Shadow will feel like the last few games (Rise especially) since the survival elements are back, combat has the same emphasis on stealth, and you clamber and climb around the world like it's going out of fashion. It really is retreading much of the same ground in terms of the core gameplay pillars, albeit with a few bells and whistles to spice things up.
One big change is the location though, as the jungle provides new avenues for attack that rely on darkness, camouflage, and striking fear into the hearts of your enemies. This is the most satisfying part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and the tools you have at your disposal make it all the sweeter. By using mud you can conceal yourself on walls covered in foliage or in bushes, and there's new weaponry like an arrow that sends soldiers into a frenzy that will really make you feel like Batman in Arkham, watching your foes lose their cool as you pick them off one by one.
In fact, the combat is probably the strongest part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as it builds upon the same solid foundations that we've seen in the other games. Outmanoeuvring your opponents and striking in secret is still as fun as it always has been, but we just wish there were more times when you could really be the predator in the dark jungle because that's where these elements shine brightest. If you can't manage to stay undetected there's always the option of using shotguns, assault rifles, and pistols, and we'd be lying if we said we didn't find these weapons satisfying too.