You wouldn’t blame Lara Croft for turning her back on tomb raiding and opting for a less risky career.
Her last adventure involved multiple run-ins with bad-tempered Siberian bears, witch poisonings, helicopter assaults and collapsing rock faces - and she only narrowly prevented the bad guys from getting their hands on the keys to immortality. It’s enough to put anyone off.
But not Lara. Nope. Video gaming’s foremost explorer (sorry, Nate) is back for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third and final instalment of the reboot trilogy, which this time sees Croft heading for South America to once again race shady organisation Trinity to a magical and potentially world-changing artefact.
While somewhat detached from the more methodical, puzzle-heavy ‘Raiders of old, the last two entries were superb action romps, and in this game we see Lara at the peak of her powers, both as an intrepid archaeologist and shotgun-wielding one-woman army.
This instalment is billed by the developers as Lara Croft’s defining moment, which will see her exercise the demons from her past and finish what her dad started so she can truly become the titular Tomb Raider she was always destined to be. It’s very dramatic, but just go with it.
There’s little in here that you haven’t seen before, but the game is so polished and endlessly enjoyable to play that any nagging feeling of sameyness soon subsides.
Tomb made her
Sure, it makes you by far the most interesting person in the pub, but plundering long-abandoned underground temples for their treasures is a dangerous way to make a living.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is given a harsh reminder of this when she snatches an ancient dagger and in doing so accidentally triggers the actual Mayan apocalypse.
In the wrong hands (that would be Trinity’s), the dagger can be used in conjunction with an enchanted box to remake the world, and it falls on Lara to stop that from happening.
By some distance the darkest of the noughteens Tomb Raider games, Shadow sees Lara pushed to her limits both emotional and physically, and her close friendship with Jonah tested.
Every time she encounters a new area she sees the consequences of her questionable actions, and spends a lot of the game battling with them. This introspective arc to the Lara Croft story does make you wonder where the series goes next, if indeed we are to see another Tomb Raider entry anytime soon. If we are now in agreement that travelling across the planet raiding the contents of tombs like you would your parents' fridge is in fact bad, then Lara might need to start handing out CVs.
I’ve always found these games to be more than a little po-faced stood next to the popcorn silliness of the Uncharted series, never really earning their ultra-serious tone.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s plot - apparently aided by historians and cultural consultants - goes to some pretty interesting places, particularly as you learn more about villain of the piece, Dr. Dominguez, and the natives that fear him.
But it's a bit all over the place, with more holes to pick at than last year's Christmas socks, and I'd be lying if I said I was thinking about any of these characters after the credits rolled.
Welcome to the jungle
If I had one criticism of Rise, it’s that I wasn’t all that enamoured with its snowy setting, but there’ll be no need for fluffy parkas here.
A hairy moment in the game’s opening hours sees you plonked right into the middle of the Peruvian jungle, where you’ll have to avoid traps, stab your way through merc patrols and tame the local wildlife.
It’s a simply magnificent creation. Played with headphones on (recommended) you can hear screeching monkeys clambering through the treetops above and the not-so-friendly purring of jaguars stalking you through the bushes.
As you make your way through immaculately detailed foliage, muddy swamps and across creaky rope bridges, you’ll encounter massive stone temples that clearly don’t get a lot of visitors.
At its best, Shadow is a treat for the eyes, so you’ll want to make time to muck about with the photo mode. There is also a lot of underwater swimming in this game, and you could make an argument that Lara Croft’s lung capacity is even more impressive than her pinpoint aim.
Like its predecessors, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is made up of hub worlds littered with murals, documents, survival caches and hidden tombs.
The aforementioned jungle is one of them, but you’ll also spend a lot of time in the game’s numerous towns and settlements.
The largest area is the hidden city of Paititi, where you can easily sink several hours into wandering about, chatting to eccentric locals, observing the musicians, accepting side quests of varying quality, trading gear with merchants and taking selfies with a llama. Obviously.
While the game’s collectathon nature can get a bit knackering for some, it’s worth soaking up everything the varied locations - from the vibrant Day of the Dead celebration at the beginning of the game to the sleepy river village of Kuwaq Yaku - have to offer before you plough on with the main story. Shadow is rich with secrets and lore that’ll extend its lifespan tenfold for those who are interested.
Raid with love
The world might be about to end, but the Tomb Raider has to make time for raiding tombs (and crypts). While still technically optional, they make up some of Shadow’s most awe-inspiring moments, and completing each one unlocks a new ability in the skill tree.
The puzzles themselves remain relatively short and simple once you know what’s required of you, although disabling the hint system is an option for those seeking a more devilish challenge.
Cracking them tends to involve shooting rope arrows, pulling levers and sending things crashing into other things, but it’s where these self-contained challenges take place that make them must-plays. I won’t spoil any of the settings, but rest assured each is meticulously designed and great fun to explore.
It isn't too spoilerific, though, to reveal that the challenge tombs aren’t always totally solitary affairs. Often you’ll be paid a visit by some irritatingly uncongenial residents, which makes for some fairly mediocre horde-style shooting sequences that don’t add much to the experience.
Far more entertaining is simply getting in and out of the tombs, which nearly always requires leaping across chasms and scaling perilous rock faces. A slightly tiresome trope of modern action/adventure games is that they make it almost impossible to fall in sections like this, therefore removing a lot of the spectacle.
It’s strangely great to be able to report, then, that plummeting to your certain death in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a more regular occurence. It’s all-too easy to mistime a wall-run jump after rappelling (a new feature), or just miss a climbing axe button prompt, making the game’s many climbing sequences feel more swear-inducing for sure, but less like you’re on autopilot.
Prepare to see poor Lara savagely impaled on a bed of spikes more than once in this game.
Archaeologist might be the headline of her LinkedIn page, but Lara Croft also happens to be a merciless killing machine.
After making this transition with with slightly comical ease in the first game, she’s now at the point where all-out slaughter is second nature right from the off. In Shadow, the aim is to become one with the jungle, heightening your senses in combat to open up more tactical options.
As you progress through the game you’ll gradually unlock upgrades in three skill categories: Seeker, Scavenger and Warrior. Some are more exploration-based (breathe underwater for longer, take less damage from a fall, climb faster, increase the likelihood of finding a wild animal that may well try to eat you etc.), while others help you take out the bad guys.
Buff up your Perception skill, for example, and you’ll be able to temporarily sense the presence of Trinity bods even when you don’t have a direct visual. The Jaguar’s Fear perk lets you craft fear arrows that turn enemies against their own, while another lets you string them up on a tree branch.
If you’ve played either of the games in the trilogy you’ll settle back into the familiar combat loop in no time. Skulking through the long grass stealthily picking off you prey with arrows and gruesome knife attacks tends to be the best strategy. Covering yourself in mud makes you even more difficult to detect, and you can now cling to vine-covered walls in preparation for a surprise attack.
When it inevitably goes pear-shaped and turns into a gunfight, Lara can craft molotov cocktails in a matter of seconds and headshot her way through swarms of mercs with ease.
Each weapon is upgradeable, but none of them feel rock solid, and last ditch melee craps aren’t particularly satisfying. Stick to stealth for as long as the game lets you and you’ll have more fun, and when the time comes to unload, aim for the stuff that explodes.
There are some brilliant fights throughout the game, and feeling like a near super-powered jungle warrior never gets boring, but I thought the final boss battle was a pretty uninspired run ’n’ gun sequence that felt like more of a chore to get through than the culmination of an epic adventure.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider verdict
The thrill of this modern Tomb Raider series has always been its pacing and refusal to have you doing one thing for too long.
Bored of rock climbing? Here are some goons to fight. Bored of unloading on goons? Let’s go for a swim. And now I’m doing a rope puzzle. It just knows how to keep you entertained.
You can’t shake the feeling that you’ve done it all before, though, and this is no radical reinvention. But Shadow of the Tomb Raider is without doubt the best of the bunch, a veritable roller-coaster of a game that gives players a lush South American jungle to explore, challenge tombs crafted with real care, and set-pieces that’ll rival anything you see in the cinema this year.
Granted, there’s nothing particularly original going on here, and Lara just isn't as good company as Uncharted's Nate. But if you’ve followed her story this far, you're going to have a load of fun seeing it through to the end.