Take an enduring penchant for panache, be it dressed for dinner in black or sheathed in survival chic. Add an assemblage of weaponry, from the arch of an eyebrow to the stainless silver of a semi-automatic. Shake it all together with sex symbol status and a passport like a chequebook. And pour over some ice-cold English quips. What do you have?
Well, historically, you have Lara Croft. But these last few years have pruned back the series’ Bond-like excesses and taken aim at a grimier, human approach – as indeed, have 007’s more recent outings. Casino Royale saw him sweating, bleeding, careening through a cubicle, and gaining his Double O status by drowning a man in the pooling sink of a public toilet. But It wasn’t Her Majesty’s Government that issued Croft with a licence to kill; it was being bound at the wrists and assaulted on a muddy island in the middle of the Pacific. She took to it quickly.
Now, in the third game in its rebooted run, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Croft is as lethal as she is lithe – just as likely to be seen scaling the sheer walls of an ancient temple as she is tearing out the throats of a throng of mercenaries. And now there are many more nefarious, thrilling ways to do it. She wrenches hapless saps into the water and chokes them out. She ensnares them with rope arrows and hoists them up into the jungle canopy, binding them like a black widow. Taking a leaf from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book, she conceals herself with clumps of marshy mud, slithering against the jungle slopes and turning the tables on her predators.
These, sadly, are a boring bunch: a military cult called Trinity that’s been hunting superpowered relics and ruining Croft’s expeditions for three games now. They have also been sewn into the fabric of her tragic history in a way that recalls Christoph Waltz’s recent turn in Spectre. ‘I am the author of all your pain,’ he says to Bond. In similar fashion, Trinity’s leader, Pedro Dominguez, is inserted as an archenemy early on – and swept to the side soon after. The mystical dagger he’s stolen threatens the end of the world, but the end of the world can wait – there are Peruvian villagers that need help locating their lost dice.
This game bears the hub structure that the last two have, in which your route is irrigated through narrow channels and flows into wide pools of diversion. Merchants selling goods, side missions, optional crypts, treasure caches, murals that tutor you in ancient tongues: there is much in the way of distraction. Early on, this is a prime excuse for swivel-eyed wonder. As Lara alights in Peru and sets about exploring the Amazon rainforest, you’ll welcome any opportunity to stray from the worn path and see what you can see. Such is the magnificence of the setting, a lush acreage of delirious green rendered in unstinting detail and fidelity.
The prospect of going after collectible feathers is made appealing by the excellent platforming on offer. Shadow of the Tomb Raider refines and swells the mechanics of maneuverability so that it becomes a variegated game of angles. Each climb is broken up with different prompts – dinted rocks that denote the use of your pickaxe, strips of white that mean you’re able to springboard upwards – and furnished with new equipment. Now Lara can rappel downwards, running across walls for adjacent leaps and hurling her grappling hook while in mid-air to postpone her trip back to Earth.
But nevermind collectibles. The real treasure of a Tomb Raider game was never the golden gleam of whatever lay buried within; it was right there, twinkling in the title. The tombs are the litmus test, but this trilogy trades more in combat, platforming, and the amassing of resources for crafting and nurturing the growth of one’s skill tree. Both of these remain present and accounted for as they have in the last two outings. Shadow of the Tomb Raider offers the best burial chambers of the three games – and the optional challenge tombs remain the raison d'être.
They arrive with firmer footing here than ever before, emphasising puzzles that strike a balance between testing your patience and making you feel clever. They also arrive rather wet. There is more swimming here than anywhere else in the series, meted out with pockets of air to gulp and prolong your stay in the depths. Swimming remains fluid and offers up its own brand of stealth – slinking low amidst the kelp allows Lara to slip past aquatic menaces on her way through narrow, claustrophobic passages.
The puzzles are stronger toward the front half of the game, though, and, after a time, your patience starts to wane. All these divertissements stretch and thin the thrust of the narrative, to the point where you often wonder not just what you’re doing next but what you did hours before. This isn’t terribly important, as it invariably involves a ceremonial pan pipe or some other such McGuffin to – in this particular case – stop the sun from being blotted out. When you do cleave to Lara’s main story thread, you’ll find that darkness becomes her; it’s a tale of personal demons as much as it is about the impending apocalypse, and she has an awful lot to overcome.
We should expect nothing less, of course; afterall, she is the Tomb Raider. Or is she? The inquiry into The Soul of the Tomb Raider continues, with muddy results. Her potential was sketched in 2013’s reboot; then came her climb to greatness in 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider; but now it seems she’s already casting a shadow. Has she risen? Maybe we missed her christening; then again, maybe not. Playing these games is similar to the opening act of a superhero film, wherein the main character is still getting accustomed to their powers, clumsily swinging into walls, say, or crushing doorknobs in ignorance of their own strength.
So it is that every blockbuster stunt is scored with a scream to indicate her vulnerability. It’s tough to sell this version of Croft as being so unsure of her bearing while she wipes out a platoon of thugs before surfing the lip of a landslide to safety and solves some archaic enigma. Having her yell, ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’ isn’t quite enough to convince us of human frailty. At one point, as if struggling under the weight and implication of her title, she demurs, ‘I’m a… researcher.’ She isn’t casting a shadow, after all. She’s living in one.
Developer: Eidos Montreal / Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: 14 September, 2018
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