Lara Croft is a good representation of the current golden age of video games.
Revived on next-generation consoles, Crystal Dynamics breathed new life into the Tomb Raider series—one missing in action since 1996 or so when it comes to quality—and has progressed to the point that Lara's latest adventure is the end of a trilogy.
Each stop along the way has received rave reviews. This isn't an annual assault wearing down gamers, but a carefully prepared release met with deserved praise, starting in 2013 with Tomb Raider (86 percent on Metacritic) and followed by Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015 (86 percent).
It's fitting, then, that this journey experienced by one of gaming's most iconic franchises mirrors the story of Lara told over the course of this trilogy itself. Gamers know what they're getting with both the gameplay and the story—all Eidos Montreal had to do was be like Lara and keep jumping over the bar it originally set by Crystal Dynamics.
Graphics and Gameplay
It's rare for a game to come along and have the perfect blend of graphics and gameplay interwoven into a truly immersive experience. Gems like the original Bioshock have made it happen, while few others—including the first two efforts in this trilogy—took environment interaction into a whole new level of immersion.
Beautiful and deadly, Tomb Raider isn't a sightseeing expedition from the safety of a tour vehicle. It's going to make you feel claustrophobic. It will make you wince. You're going to hold your breath during tense underwater sequences right alongside Lara.
From lush jungle areas filled with huntable wildlife, to mountainous regions with deadly drops and crumbling ledges, to underwater sequences with packs of piranha ready to tear Lara to pieces, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is one of the prettiest games ever released—and one of the most grisly for those who get lost in the facade.
Lara's deaths are as memorable as the surroundings. It sounds weird, but the first game in the trilogy received some criticism for going over the top with her various ways of perishing. We don't feel as bad about the beating she takes in this game thanks to smooth storytelling and character development, but the nasty ends will get a vocal reaction out of the player either way.
Woven deeper into the story than usual, the various set pieces Lara visits are more distinguishable from one another than ever before. And the stories behind the ultra-detailed environments are told (for those paying attention) via NPCs or collectable items.
In a game like this, sound design is almost as important as the graphics—something Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics clearly understand. The attention to detail, especially with directional noises, defines the experience.
This isn't just droplets of water in a cave to your right immersing a player, it's the sharp shrill of an instrument when you make a risky jump or unexpectedly realize you're not alone out in the wild.
Eidos Montreal had to walk a tricky tightrope here with gameplay. The gorgeous settings and gruesome ends would fly well into the frustrating side of the pie chart if the gameplay wasn't done well.
But it is. Combat is tense and punishing. Stealth is a fun method, and the further unlocking of skills makes it feel rewarding while staying fresh. The gunplay isn't great by any means, but it's a viable enough option if players botch a sneaky run through some bad guys. Slathering Lara with some muddy cover or stalking prey from the treetops while picking them off with a bow is still the most enjoyable way to navigate combat.
Outside of combat, the traversal and puzzles are in series-best territory. Figuring out the way to go is always rewarding and interesting, with a clever use of all types of journeying to a destination involved.
Tombs that loop back to the entrance upon completion always provide a sense of awe. And while it isn't easy to keep the puzzles coming and fresh, Shadow of the Tomb Raider has some memorable set pieces and unique ways of solving things that aren't strictly limited to "hit a switch, then go here."
While puzzles and getting to places remain interesting despite being linear, combat is a customizable experience enhanced further through the use of crafting and herbs made from resources found in the environment.
This per-player experience is also felt with the different difficulty levels specifically for combat, traversal and puzzles. Turning the latter down assists the player by having Lara specifically call out what needs to be done and offers different colors of highlights while using focus. Getting stuck and tweaking the difficulty of combat, exploration or puzzles to keep the story flowing isn't something to be ashamed of.
This isn't to say the last part of the trilogy doesn't cause some frustration. Traversal can do some odd things, and Lara isn't always going to jump where you'd think. Puzzles don't always have the most obvious solution, which could have you thinking about the customizable difficulty levels.
And truthfully, more combat would have been a welcome addition, meaning more open-ended environments to dissect through various means. But at the same time, it's important to balance this sort of narrative—Nathan Drake's body count at the end of an Uncharted game could make guys like Master Chief blush.
Less combat leads to further leaning into a sense of exploration and awe, which shouldn't be a turnoff for players unless they go in expecting a gore-fest.
Story, Features and the Rest
Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics have an organic narrative going that has been crafted over three games.
Lara isn't a lost victim like she was in the first game. She was thrown into the fire and shoved the right way until she got out. The second game eased her into more control, but even becoming a seasoned killer didn't stop it from feeling like she was just along for the ride.
Now she's in full control.
In this story of revenge, things aren't so black and white—something players discover rather quickly. In going from reactive to proactive, Lara's on a hunt and creates a tidal wave in her wake, for better or worse. She's willingly throwing herself into this and brutally efficient at killing (one skill lets her swoop down with a hook like the dark knight himself and string up a dead foe), so what befalls her isn't as traumatic as it used to be.
Outside of the main story, side quests offer really good insights into characters and settings during town sequences. While your typical run-of-the-mill fetch quests, they provide an interesting peek behind the curtain of a locale's culture viewed from an outsider's perspective. These also escort Lara to nooks and crannies of an environment non-explorer players might never see.
Challenge tombs return and automatically unlock superb skills, which is critical for speed runs and weaves nicely into the progression idea that Lara's getting better as she goes.
Three classifications of skills on the unlock grid tailor to different play styles in RPG fashion, with the three overlapping in interesting ways. Those players who like to explore and collect already will feel doubly rewarded with skill points to make Lara as powerful as possible. They aren't all necessary, but the powers available to Lara make it feel like the culmination of a long journey's worth of adaption and survival by any means.
As if the wealth of options here—ranging from gameplay to character building and difficulty of various elements—weren't enough, a New Game Plus mode unlocks after beating the game for the first time.
According to Brianna Reeves of PlayStation Lifestyle, it offers "three different 'pathways,' each of which places emphasis on a specific style of play." Reeves added, "New rewards will also unlock, based on which path is chosen," which adds replayability and massive appeal for the next segment featured below.
Speedrunning Tips and Appeal
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has speedrunning written all over it.
Regardless of the speedrunning's nature (charity stream, competitive or a mix), this latest foray into a legendary franchise offers a fun puzzle of sorts for speedrunners to solve.
Part of the joy in watching a run is the journey toward unearthing efficiency, which leads to world-best numbers. Here, would-be runners have to dissect a deep skill unlock system, how to best get through enemy encounters and the best process for solving puzzles the quickest.
In this regard, some of the key speedrunning tips for this game won't come as a surprise.
As always, cutscenes are skippable. And while the backstory-building interactions with people you encounter along the way is great, none are absolutely vital.
While some interesting unlocks are barred behind side quests, a few practice runs will reveal whether they're worth the effort when going for a world-best time. It's the same story for collectables. While players earn experience for picking up things like journals and artefacts, multiple runs will reveal whether going out of the way to seek them is even necessary based on what sort of skills players need to unlock.
And the Lara speedrunners end up building will separate the best from the rest. Tailoring the build in all areas for a run is necessary. This means unlocking traversal skills like faster swimming, longer ability to hold breath, not having to worry about button presses for short QuickTime events to keep a grip on a ledge (no need to risk wasting time dying and starting over).
It also means certain skill purchases on the combat side. Stealth is fun and rewarding, but playing the waiting game with enemy patterns and staying hidden probably isn't going to produce fast runs.
It's a necessary evil in the early goings before leveling up, but making a lethal Lara who is accurate, and who can craft gun modifications and poison bombs to inflict as much damage as possible, is bound to be the fastest route.
As an aside, you can complete some segments of the game without killing anyone, triggering an exit point if you can get there without dying.
But combat is just one part of the puzzle. As is the case in many games like this lately, whitish paint will offer hints for where to go.
Lara often turns her head at points of interest. Coming out of cutscenes also provides a zoomed effect on points of interest—it's subtle, but important. Ditto for light and dark, with a noticeable uptick in the former likely offering a hint. These apply to both traversal and puzzles. Though the latter is something that will be tough the first time through, simple memorization will take care of in subsequent runs.
Speaking of the three pillars of gameplay, we'd be remiss not to mention the different difficulty levels specifically for combat, traversal and puzzles. While it will depend on what sort of speedrun a streamer or tournament wants to do, tuning certain aspects of the game can tailor the experience to the type of event, from hardcore competitive to a fun sit-back-and-chat experience.
Repetition is going to produce the best possible speedruns here. It will provide a player with the best understanding of how to navigate each combat encounter's verticality and cover for maximum efficiency, while also imprinting the fine details of when and how to jump or swing through an environment as to not make any deadly (and time-consuming) mistakes.
While Shadow of the Tomb Raider might not come to mind first as a viable speedrunning option, the depth in three key areas here and the sheer attention to detail, not to mention customizable options, make it a fun alternative bound to have a dedicated streaming community, at a minimum.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a fitting end to a trilogy.
What started as a passion project breathing new life into an iconic franchise has taken on a form of its own, spreading its wings into three pillars of gameplay few games on the market do better. Oftentimes a game only masters one, so the fact Crystal Dynamics has mastered two and Eidos Montreal made another enjoyable—atop a Hollywood-esque story—is quite the feat.
Said story goes above and beyond as well and feels like a natural arc of character development. Lara is a new person here compared to the vulnerable hero we started the series with, and it feels like this end of the trilogy is putting it all behind her before opening up to something with a different, perhaps positive spin in future iterations.
The open-ended possibilities from here with Lara are both limitless and thrilling, though players and speedrunners alike won't mind the wait.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a modern triple-A offering that's done right. It's one of the best games of the year and easily the best offering in the series—so far, as Lara's clearly just getting started.