This generation’s Tomb Raider trilogy comes to a close – and it’s with a limp, not a wild leap into the future. Sam Brooks reviews.
The Tomb Raider series is the Maria Sharapova of gaming. The games are always good, never great, and the reputation, or at least the fame, they hold far outstrips the actual quality of the games. This has been true since the first games and both continuity reboots – they’re rarely ever bad games, but they’re never truly amazing.
Unfortunately, this continues with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As the last act in this trilogy of Tomb Raider, one that went explicitly dark and gritty about five years too late for it to be on trend, Shadow of the Tomb Raider aims to go out with a bang, and resolve a narrative that it regards as epic.
The gameplay is solid, as this trilogy has always been. Playing as Lara is incredibly fluid, without ever feeling necessary or compelling. The open worlds are full enough with detritus without ever feeling alive. The combat remains great fun, with the switch between stealth and run-and-gunning being more fluid and tight than ever. The tombs, as ever, are the highlight, and the one thing this series still manages to do better than any other – so much so that it makes you wonder why the whole series doesn’t focus on this.
The best thing the game implements, and truly the one thing from this game that should be implemented into every single game from now on in – are the robust difficulty options. As someone who proudly plays a game on Easy Mode and will continue to do so for the rest of my life, it’s a genuine pleasure to start a game up and have many options for difficulty – not just combat, but the difficulty of puzzles and exploration. Shadow of the Tomb Raider wants you to play it, and wants you to enjoy it. (There’s also, thankfully, a similarly robust array of accessibility options for otherly abled players, and its a series of options that every game ever should implement.)
But the problem with this conclusion is there’s no bang. And that’s less a problem with this game, and more the games that precede it.
A huge problem with this generation of Tomb Raider has been the dissonance between the gameplay and the narrative. The narrative presents us with Lara as this seemingly sympathetic woman who is searching for the truth behind her father’s killer, and is an imperilled survivor flailing against the world’s elements. These elements include murderous mercenaries, the generically-named doomsday cult ‘Trinity’ and some protected wildlife.
However, the Lara that the gameplay presents us with is the exact opposite of that. She’s a superhuman who survives the likelihood of death, both from the elements and other humans, on an almost constant basis. She also, as she has throughout the series except a brief moment of reflection in the first game, kills hundreds of people without guilt, remorse or apparent difficulty. For the most part, Lara’s the one who strikes the first blow, and she strikes to kill.
This isn’t a unique dissonance in gaming – the Uncharted series only just manages to balance Nathan Drake’s readiness for quips with an unfortunate penchant for mass murder – but it’s one that feels so keenly felt here because we’re constantly told that Lara is the underdog and that it’s her against the world. The super-arc of the trilogy has been her trajectory from scared young woman into the competent Tomb Raider™ we know from the other continuities. While it’s true that it is Lara against the world, the rest of the world is the underdog and Lara Croft is going to murder continuously and without difficulty until there’s nothing left to murder.
The game is dogged with a flatness and lack of specificity in the writing – the cult ‘Trinity’ which Lara has been chasing since the first game is rendered here about as generically as a doomsday cult possibly could be, and when the narrative drags its way to the hidden city it feels like any other ‘hidden city’ that you’ve encountered in fiction.
In a way, the game feels weirdly old-fashioned, as though it was written and made in a world before the thinkpiece. Firstly, the game opens with a beautiful, supposedly devastating set-piece – a tomb raid in a Latin American country ends up with hundreds of people being killed or left homeless, all because of Lara. The weight of this should be felt throughout the game, but is rarely touched upon again. Secondly, the tropes and cliches that the game plays on with the hidden city – a supposedly barely visited Mayan city – are at best lazy and at worse offensive.
This is a game that gives us Lara, a white woman, as a protagonist engaging with a ‘primitive’ Latin American culture that engages with ritual human sacrifice, and presents her as a kind of saviour of the world, while the people in this city are mere window dressing, and problematic window dressing at that. There’s all the time and chance in the world for Shadow of the Tomb Raider to deconstruct these familiar tropes, but there’s no interest in doing that. It replicates them, hastily and seemingly without consideration, and marches forward with the narrative.
It’s also a game that relies on most of the colour, detail and texture of the narrative to come from written text. In a game like Dragon Age, that’s fine. The world is detailed, nuanced and is also not our own world. When it comes to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which is in our own world, it’s unacceptable that so much of the world-building comes from optional text-and-voice codexes. It’s 2018 – if your world, your gameplay and narrative aren’t fully integrated, then you’re not doing it right.
All this makes the game, and therefore Lara as a character, very difficult to connect to emotionally. The gameplay is as robust as its ever been, but the lack of specificity to the narrative, the characters, and most crucially, its protagonist make Shadow of the Tomb Raider hard to generate any feeling towards. It’s not that she’s an unrepentant murder machine, god knows there’s very few iconic video game characters who have bloodless hands, it’s that she seems to be cobbled together from a list of tropes – dead father! remorse about murder (but only for narrative’s convenience)! woman who has nothing left to lose! – and there’s little specificity about her. Camilla Luddington, in her third outing in the role, does the majority of the legwork to giving Lara a personality, but there’s nowhere near enough attention paid to the character’s inner life and given circumstances to ever make her someone that you can connect to.
She’s both superhuman and cardboard cutout, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, frankly, isn’t a smart enough to interrogate either of these things, or has no desire to do so. The first two games haven’t interrogated Lara’s humanity, or lack thereof, so why should this one start?
The most damning thing that can be said about this game is how strongly it called back to the original Tomb Raider series of games in the nineties. That is, the series that went to the same well so many times that it not only ran dry, but when they tried to fill it up again, it overflowed and required the entire series to rebuilt from scratch to rehabilitate it. (Hello, Angel of Darkness!)
People think fondly of those games now – or at least the kinds of people who think fondly of janky handling platformers from the nineties think fondly of them – but it’s easy to forget how disappointing and uninspired each successive game in that series was. Nothing huge changed, it was the same engine with slightly updated graphics and a few new features. A strong engine, sure, but it felt less like playing new games and more like playing expansion packs. Or DLC, as we call it now.
By the time Tomb Raider Chronicles came out, the well had truly run dry and Angel of Darkness – never a good title or label for anything – was enough to kill that particular era of Tomb Raider off for good.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is no Angel of Darkness. It’s not going to kill the series – unless the sales do the dirty where that’s concerned – but it’s not the inspiring step forward that anybody was hoping for, and rather than finishing this origin trilogy off with a bang, it limps to the conclusion. The core mechanics work – it’s always fun to raid through a tomb and the combat remains reactive and a fluid mix of stealth and action – but the narrative and the lack of inventiveness tie it down to being a slightly updated version of Rise of the Tomb Raider, which itself was a slightly updated version of Tomb Raider. It’s not bad, it’s nowhere near that, but it’s no significant achievement.
It’s the Maria Sharapova. It plays a good game, it’s not an embarrassment to anybody involved, but it’s also not cashing the cheques that its name, reputation or fame has set for it.