Modern Tomb Raider has been one of my favourite franchises of the past few years, but there are aspects of its first two games that prevented them from being universally celebrated. The first was a commercial hit and a game I enjoyed a lot, but it also leaned a bit too heavily on the Uncharted playbook. I felt that the sequel took the right steps towards bringing the game back towards its roots, but it was still a bit too heavy on the gun play and the game was largely overlooked due to it being a timed Xbox One exclusive. Third time’s a charm? Shadow of the Tomb Raider closes out this era of Lara Croft with an adventure that is as high stakes as it gets.
During an attempt to take down the head of paramilitary organization Trinity, Lara grabbed a mystical dagger from a temple they were excavating in order to prevent the evil group from getting it. However, by doing so, she triggered the Mayan apocalypse, causing the entire region to be engulfed in a flood. Whoops. Now Trinity has the dagger, and its leader is hoping to combine it another artifact in order to stop the apocalypse while reshaping the world in his image.
It is here that the game lays the groundwork for an interesting premise. Is it Lara that’s really at fault? Does her unending quest for shiny objects cause more harm than good? There’s a lot to explore on this front, but the game largely ignores it beyond the intro. Instead, it shifts the focus towards a more conventional story. Not to say that the story it tells is bad, but it certainly could have done more to pay off on the ideas it sets up.
Having said that, the story it does tell gives her a better framework to do more traditional Tomb Raider things. One of the biggest criticisms of the first game in this modern trilogy was that it played too much like the Uncharted series, with too much combat and not enough exploration. The second game tilted the scales a bit, with this one adjusting the balance even more.
The focal point of this game is clearly on the exploration this time around. You’ll be raiding a number of tombs that will force you to navigate through tricky obstacles, as well as solve a number of environmental puzzles. It’s really satisfying to get through each area, as it does push your dexterity and thinking power throughout. If things get too tough, you can fine-tune the difficulty based on specific elements of the game. For example, if the default combat is too hard, tone down just the combat. Meanwhile, if you want harder puzzles, you can adjust that as well to make them tougher without adjusting the difficulty to other aspects of the game. Really nice touch that more games should have.
When you do fight, the number of situations where you can go in guns blazing are scant. This time, it’s heavily in your favour to fight as stealthily as possible. The game even allows you to cover yourself in mud and hid within walls covered in vegetation before lunging out and stabbing a hapless foe. I’m not particularly good at stealth, but I was able to weasel my way through on the default setting. Being able to completely clear a room while going undetected is quite the thrill.
During a handful of key moments, you do get the opportunity to really let the bullets fly. While these sections oftentimes leverage bombastic set pieces that are spectacular to play through, they’re not enough to hide the fact that the combat is getting long in the tooth. Never the tightest shooter on the market, its shooting engine is really starting to feel out of date here, as the act of shooting never feels particularly satisfying.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t quite deliver on everything it sets up, but it is a good modern Tomb Raider game that continues to course correct from the first of this era. I feel like they got the balance between exploration and combat right this time. If you’re already two games deep into the modern trilogy, there’s no reason to pass on this. This is probably not the best place to start the series, but the first two games are certainly worth your while to get to this conclusion.