A few months ago during E3 2018, I sat through an extensive presentation on Shadow of the Tomb Raider and then played it myself for about 30 minutes. My grand takeaway was that it seemed like another Tomb Raider game to a fault as its tiny improvements did not override its overall sameyness. After recently playing the first five or so hours of the game, I am less concerned about its extremely similar gameplay mechanics and more interested in seeing how it is all going to play out. It still looks like it will borrow heavily from its two predecessors, but the narrative and more intimate character interactions might make this trilogy-ending game the best in its rebooted series.
My hopes for its story were not initially as positive. Multiple cutscenes and limited interactivity within the game’s opening half hour bored me as it felt like the beginnings of yet another self-serious plot filled with bland characters and tired material. I almost turned off the Xbox One when she started droning on about her father. Lara, her crew, and the scumbags she clashes against never seemed to have to charisma and personality to uphold a narrative worth getting invested in. It’s one of the key aspects that Indiana Jones and Uncharted have over this series.
But the game started to deviate from that path of mediocrity focusing the story more on Lara’s faults as well as giving her and her cohorts more depth. Instead of purely focusing on how they are going to steal another treasure, the game stops to ask why. Why does Lara need this thing? Why does she always do this? Why doesn’t she think of other people?
It is an interesting proposal that sets up a more interesting story at the top, rather than waiting for the inevitable dumb supernatural monsters or “this artifact is actually bad” twist that the genre has slowly tried to move away from. Like the latter Uncharted games, this semi-postmodern approach reflects more on the protagonist and focuses less on the Treasure of the Week they are currently after. Even the villain was not the typical greedy dirtbag as the game seemed to be setting him up as a reasonable, sympathetic human. For the first time in this rebooted timeline, I am intrigued to see how Eidos Montréal and Crystal Dynamics will handle the story and hopeful they won’t veer back into comfortable, well-tread territory.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider Preview: Digging Deeper Into the Archaeologist
Part of the narrative’s newfound strength lies on Lara herself. For all of her admirable survivability and grit, she’s always been a dry, uninteresting character. Either the games never bothered to slow down and show us more of her inner complexities or the writing could not make us care. Probably both. But here, her apocalyptic screw up in the beginning served as the base for her introspective character moments I saw during the demo.
The game explores these character moments during her alone time with Jonah, that round tub of mayonnaise from the two prior games. During these scenes, the game slowed down the pace, gave her room to breathe, and let the two hash out some of their issues and shoot the breeze.
Like Lara but without the tough spirit, I have never been a fan of Jonah. But the solemn conversations they had together felt like a better realization of their platonic friendship while also humanizing them in a way the other games could never quite do. He also sticks around for some of the gameplay sections and, while I am not expecting (nor did i hear anything close to) Naughty Dog-level banter or memorable writing, I was pleased that the game took the time to work on their relationship. In a similar vein to the story as a whole, I share the same optimism that these moments reflect genuinely improved characters while also holding some reservations that they will actually be able to continue this upward trajectory.
Along with one-on-one moments, the game also placed Lara in another environment that she does not thrive in: civilian-rich towns. Lara isn’t known for having friends or talking to others but the game’s openness pushes her into larger communities where she must try to fit in. As experienced as she is at navigating temples, she’s not a veteran at navigating social situations. Putting her in these foreign scenarios showed a little more about the culture of the surrounding areas and Lara’s growing selflessness, reinforcing a likely key theme in the narrative that I do not want to spoil. It’s just up to the rest of the game to continue to execute on that theme.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider Preview: Social Raider
Social hubs house side missions and demonstrate how much wider the game is. According to Senior Public Relations Manager at Square Enix Ryan Arbogast, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s campaign is about as long as Rise of the Tomb Raider, but contains a lot more optional content. It did not take long for me to figure that out by myself as that main city was littered with different paths and optional objectives.
I was almost the last person out of the demo room because I had spent so much time going off the beaten path completing objectives and snatching up collectibles (of which there are too many). More content runs the risk of potentially spreading the game too thin, which I am weary of. But, for the few hours I played, I did like the freedom the more open environments gave me, even if that freedom can potentially strangle the pacing down the line.
It’s up to the side missions to fill these areas with worthwhile things to do. Here, along with the main campaign missions, is where Tomb Raider spends the most time being Tomb Raider. Combat, stealth, traversal, and puzzles remain relatively unchanged from the past few games and almost identical to my previous preview of the game. Here is a quick recap: gunplay continues to be loose but functional, stealth is better thanks to the ability to hide and reset alarms, platforming is simple and floaty, and puzzles are still inventive, if cut from the same, physics-driven cloth. It only feels a tiny bit smoother than the last two entries and you probably already know if you are OK with that or not.
As much as I was hoping for Shadow of the Tomb Raider to move forward with better game mechanics, it looks to be progressing with a better grasp on its narrative. As is the case with any incomplete sampling, it’s impossible to say whether or not the deeper look into Lara’s character will fizzle out. And that’s the case with most of the game. I am worried that the lame quick time events will hit their breaking point. I can’t be sure sure if the writing will be able to carry the game. I do not know how long the nearly identical gameplay loop can stick around. However, the first five or so hours made me optimistic that it will be a memorable end to the trilogy. It just won’t be until September 14 until I can be sure beyond a shadow of a doubt.