It’s a little unnerving to spend time with the seasoned Lara of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, because her experience has changed her into a hardened, obsessive, and selfish individual. She’s reached true colonizer form, determined to get the game’s McGuffin, blind to the collateral damage, much to the concern of her lovable partner Jonah. Her demeanor is reflected in a renewed focus on stealth, where the new mechanics and the jungle setting give Lara the opportunity for Predator-style ambushes. She can cover herself in mud for additional camouflage, string enemies up from a tree, and craft Fear Arrows, which cause humans to freak out and attack each other. You’re also now able to transition back into stealth after being discovered, provided you can get away and break line of sight. There’s a big emphasis on these new abilities, as tooltips throughout the entire game will continually remind you that they exist. But while her expanded skillset gives you more options to confidently and quietly hunt everyone on the map, it also highlights the cracks and inconsistencies in Tomb Raider’s enemy logic and the limitations of the game’s relatively unsophisticated core stealth mechanics.
Sound still does not play a significant factor in Tomb Raider’s stealth. While firing at someone and throwing objects will draw attention, moving through rustling vegetation and making loud footsteps don’t seem to faze anyone even though the game suggests that it will, nor will taking out a soldier right behind another with his back turned, but those rules also seem malleable. There were times when my attempted stealth approach went wrong, a gunfight broke out, and after the dust settled I was shocked to discover an additional patrol of guards in the same area, only a few seconds away from the action, carrying on with a conversation as if nothing had happened.
Lara’s Survival Instincts ability once again will give you information on which enemies are safe to quietly take down without alerting others, but it can also reveal puzzling inconsistencies in enemy AI. There were too many times where I was able to get away with taking out a guard with one of his coworkers staring right at us, only meters away. Other times, the game will tell you it’s unsafe to take out an enemy because of someone with line-of-sight halfway across the arena. You can’t always trust your own perception of the map, even if it seems obvious, and using Survival Instincts feels necessary to constantly verify that the game agrees with your idea of what is safe or unsafe–expect to be taking out a lot of bright yellow men in monochromatic environments. When playing on Tomb Raider’s hard combat difficulty, which removes enemy highlights, this uncertain behavior makes stealth tougher than you might think.
The new abilities also have their quirks. Though camouflaging yourself with mud rightly makes you harder to notice, you can abuse it to the extent where you can roll right under the nose of a guard–it’s thrilling for you, but makes you pity the enemy. Mud is also typically available at the onset of major stealth sections, or very close to hiding spots that require it, making the mechanic feel more like an innate ability rather than a tactical option you need to seek out. Fear arrows have disappointingly varied results, too. More than a few times I would find myself stalking a patrol of men from a tree, shoot a fear arrow at the shotgun-toting soldier, and watch as he proceeded to miss every point-blank shot.
There’s still some satisfaction to be gained in Shadow’s stealth, though. Waiting with bated breath for patrols to move on, and figuring out the order in which to eliminate guards like some kind of violent logic puzzle, is still enjoyable. But the new mechanics don’t really add anything significantly interesting to that baseline experience–the big spotlight on them suggests a more sophisticated stealth system that isn’t there. You get the feeling that Lara is a cold-blooded predator, that much is true. But it’s not satisfying when the prey is so dumb and easy.
There’s a cutscene in Shadow of the Tomb Raider that mirrors Lara’s first kill in her 2013 outing–in both, she’s caught off-guard by a soldier and is thrown to the ground. But despite being at a severe disadvantage, the 2018 Lara confidently blocks and counters his attacks, and when she eventually kills him, there’s no emotion on her face. She barely even sighs. The game wants you to know that this Lara is fearsome. However, this depiction is betrayed by her actual abilities in the game’s toe-to-toe combat, where it’s often tough to get Lara to act like that efficient killing machine.
The game’s guerilla angle calls for more close-and-personal encounters, and the greater number of small combat arenas means that when things get hostile, soldiers close the distance quickly. Additionally, there are new melee enemies who focus on rushing you down with overwhelming numbers. Tomb Raider’s existing combat mechanics do not service this particular style of hostilities well. Lara’s dodges are still the hurried scuttle and roll from her early days as an amateur survivor, and her climbing axe is still largely ineffective as a melee option–most enemies will simply dodge her knockdown attempts, especially on harder combat difficulties. Melee doesn’t become a viable close-quarters tactic until you unlock a dodge and counter skill later in the game, and most of the weapons in Lara’s arsenal are inefficient as close-range keep-away tools until the events of the story give you a shotgun.
Additionally, Shadow of the Tomb Raider still doesn’t communicate damage direction–if you’re getting overwhelmed and are being attacked from the sides or behind, you won’t know exactly where from, meaning it’s more difficult to make smart evasive maneuvers on the fly. With so few certainties and reliable tools to assist you in close-quarters combat, these encounters typically result in making Lara scurry clumsily in whichever direction doesn’t have enemies coming from it and frantically trying to create enough space to effectively use your weapons.
When Shadow throws you into its few mid-range combat encounters, though, the difference becomes clear. Fighting suppressing fire, scampering from cover to cover, throwing improvised Molotov cocktails, and pinging out headshot after headshot after headshot feels empowering. The combat mechanics feel much more suited to these scenarios, as was the case in previous games, and it’s only here where Lara can feel like the ice-cold killer queen she has become.
But the game keeps reverting back to close-quarters encounters, and there is one battle that’s particularly frustrating and seemingly never-ending. One enemy will charge at you relentlessly, teleport if you create distance, and has a large, damaging area-of-effect attack which Lara’s double dodge will only just avoid. Other enemies in this battle can also, unfairly, knock you off the side of the level, but you can’t do the same to them. The environment is not your friend, and it’s an infuriating way to remember a grand adventure.
What the environments are, though, is beautiful. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is nothing if not a gorgeous game, and it features some stellar level design, both aesthetically and mechanically. Exploring the impressively dense locations in Mexico and Peru is a joy. Jungles feel imposing and endless, ruined tombs are intricately detailed, hub cities are enormous and lively, and it’s easy to be completely distracted by discovering new paths and areas. Hunting down the game’s artifacts, treasure chests, and numerous other collectibles–however meaningless you might think they are–is also still enjoyable, as they give you a reason to go sightseeing. There’s a lot of emphasis on underwater exploration in Shadow, too. And while underwater sections can be frustrating as part of story missions (instant-kill piranhas that require you to hide in seaweed get old fast), it’s hard to resist swan-diving into a huge body of water when you get a chance to explore on your own.
But it’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s numerous challenge tombs and crypts that are the undisputed stars of the show. The impressive design of ancient mechanisms and the obscure solutions to using them and unlocking the path forward feel amazing to decipher after minutes of head-scratching. Some of the answers can appear straightforward if you’ve tackled a number of these in the past, but it’s always satisfying to watch the complex parts come together regardless. Shadow of the Tomb Raider also rewards you for completing these activities with exclusive skills and gear, making them more than worth your time.
Traversing the treacherous environments in these tombs, as well as during the game’s story missions, is thrilling in its own right too. Despite there always being an expected sense of peril, the designs of Lara’s foolhardy paths between locations never gets old–there’s always some kind of dicey maneuver at a terrifying height that makes you hold your breath.
But these exciting traversal puzzles also feature their own unique moments of frustration, because though the locations have changed since 2013, Lara’s platforming ability has seemingly not. Her jumps across gaps still feel floaty and inconsistent, meaning she’ll sometimes get a mysteriously divine boost in the air to make sure she latches onto a faraway edge, but sometimes she might not grab onto a ledge at all even if she’s easily cleared the gap. The same goes for tool-related maneuvers–there were enough instances where Lara completely (and amusingly) whiffed a grapple axe or zip-line that caused her to plummet to her death, prompting me to check that my controller was still connected and that I still had my primary motor functions. Her jumps and traversal maneuvers still feel loose in general and lack a strong sense of weight, which makes them feel imprecise–the way she unconvincingly flops her climbing axes directly into solid rock faces after jumping onto them always raises an eyebrow.
Altogether, these elements bring a dire uncertainty to Shadow’s more demanding traversal sections–every time you try and make a jump, it’s a gamble. The result you get after jumping the first time might not be the one you’re supposed to get. But while that adds to the perilous nature of the task, and everything works out fine most of the time, it’s annoying when it doesn’t. It’s especially demoralizing while playing on the hard exploration difficulty, which completely removes the subtle white paint that hints at the forward path. This difficulty setting is great–having to pay such close attention to your surroundings is engrossing, and there’s a small pang of delight and relief every time you discover the first step. But sometimes you’ll try a jump, the right jump, and Lara won’t latch onto the ledge for whatever reason. Because you don’t know any better, it discourages you from trying the jump again until you’ve pointlessly tried every single other option and decide to come back to it. When you can’t completely trust Lara’s abilities to jump and grab a ledge that she’s supposed to jump and grab, that’s a problem. It’s these kinds of moments make you incredibly frustrated that Tomb Raider’s core platforming mechanics don’t seem to have been refined in the past five years.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider adds so many more pieces to the formula of previous games, but there are also so many little things that it just doesn’t quite land. The game’s obsession with collecting crafting materials has only become more profuse–there are now 21(!) different items to gather–causing everything to seem less valuable and the act of gathering them to be more of a chore. The side quests are poorly paced, as each will lead off with roughly 10 minutes of fetch quests across the game’s huge hubs and watching talking heads before getting to the meat of things, making it easy to lose motivation. The game has an option for immersive voiceovers which causes NPCs to speak in their native languages, but Lara continues to speak to everyone in English, which feels like a missed opportunity.
And perhaps most sad of all is the fact that Lara herself, with her single-minded selfishness, is a harder character to empathize with in Shadow. Her attitudes and obsessions are intertwined with the game’s plot, and you might find yourself in disagreement with her a lot, which is a big deal when trying to overlook the flaws in her abilities. Jonah is the one you’ll be rooting for in this game because he acts as Lara’s centre, he’ll likely echo a lot of your own sentiments, and he has a more sympathetic arc. It’s a shame that the Lara you grew so incredibly fond of in the Tomb Raider reboot, and the scrappy skills you used to help her survive Yamatai, have both grown to be some of the most frustrating parts of her latest adventure. Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes you long for the days of a Lara that was easier to empathize with, where being inexperienced and imprecise made sense, and there was only one crafting resource to gather.
Thankfully, the parts of Tomb Raider that make it really fantastic–uncovering the mystery of ancient ruins, solving impressive challenge tombs, and exploring exotic environments–are still here in Shadow, and they are just as outstanding as they have always been. But the core mechanics that have been with the series for half a decade are starting to show their limitations. Making the journey to Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s peaks is certainly an attractive goal, but like the challenging terrain Lara needs to traverse, the path there is getting rougher and more unpredictable.