Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Traditionally in my Dreaded Backlog posts I play older games that I didn’t play at time of release. That way I don’t have to write about every gaming experience I have, and I can also provide a retroactive (possibly alternative) set of views that may differ from original critical responses. I did however play Shadow of The Tomb Raider upon its day of release, but I neglected the game for a protracted period after it came out. I have written passionate defences of this series’ supposed failures in the past. However Shadow of the Tomb Raider did not endear me. It was a while after release before I completed it, and an even longer while before I could be bothered to sit down and write this. It went from a game I pre-ordered to a prime example of gaming backlog that I dread.

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Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a disappointment. A new studio has come in and misunderstood how to correctly implement the series’ core mechanics, whilst actually managing to understand the story of the series so far very well, but integrating it with a video game experience poorly. Thus the core gameplay is bad, the story is good but misused, leaving only the open world exploration (where you traditionally make your own fun, so to speak) to give satisfaction. However that was also something this new studio has struggled with.

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Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider designed their respective game worlds as a series of hub areas with a clear gameplay/story progression route as you entered a new area. You could double back, or take your time, or just barrel through these new zones. The games could be completed with minimal exploration if the player just wanted a fun 6 hour campaign experience, on the other hand those more curious about the world or who like crafting mechanics, could find more depth and time in the titles. These hub zones were big enough to give enough exploration, but small enough to keep narrative pacing flowing (regardless of approach) and prevented needless resource grinding and so on. They also knew how to design the explorable areas to lead (or ‘manipulate’) players to whatever side task they were trying to do without the player necessarily realising consciously.

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Shadow of the Tomb Raider adopts the straight path through hub areas, but with little imagination. They dump tombs at the end of side paths. The new hub areas are just generic open spaces with resources and treasure dropped into them, with no real attempts to direct (or misdirect) players with unconscious path routes. The campaign paths just barrel through these areas in a way that instinctively guides the player to a very fast pace of play through. Even players who don’t enjoy exploration may find themselves dissatisfied with how short a time the campaign has them in one place. Those who love exploration will hate that it feels like an Ubisoft game where getting the collectibles is a chore, an in-game map check list, not an adventure into the unknown. And unlike Ubisoft titles there are no real characters in these hub worlds. Shadow does have some hub worlds with towns in, with NPCs that give out side-quests. Most of these side quests have no emotional impact. The map lists how many side missions are in an area and it can be confusing to the player when exactly these missions unlock relative to the campaign. You can spend a lot of time looking for more side missions (because you have to discover them) before they can even be played. Then end up missing some before the endgame (where gained equipment and abilities, or even story context would be appreciated) because when the missions unlock they’re not near the paths the player and story momentum is being directed.

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All of these issues are compounded by the expanded crafting and character ability systems. Lara Croft now requires herbs to heal and to scan certain things. To craft equipment requires a multitude of different new materials. Combat in the game is costly and so players who want a stripped down experience are also forced into the open world checklist nonsense. It’s also bizarre because the game doesn’t have much combat in it (more on that later). In previous titles crafting was used to get new outfits with extra healing and combat abilities, and so on. But now the new costumes barely shift the character stats, to the point where you’re still excessively reliant on herbs. The game creates a total cognitive dissonance wherein Lara appears to be made of tissue paper, but can heal bullet wounds by slapping some leaves on herself. Most of these extra outfits are made of such specific materials and animal skins (from disparate areas) that it’s another series of chores to get all the ingredients individually, let alone in the correct amount.

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Getting new items (that unlock new areas and tombs) is also a needless chore. There are a few areas in the beginning of the game that can only be accessed by equipment you either get (or have to buy from stalls) from near the end of the game. There’s a particular area that can only be accessed by a particular knife that can only be bought from a particular stall (from near the endgame). This stall has a habit in being in one of two locations, but often in neither. All the issues with exploration and crafting progression I’ve listed in the above paragraphs means that you spend the majority of the time in the game fast travelling back and forth from different areas, scanning random zones in the hub worlds to look for whatever you need (the scanning screen turn off noise is an irritating shuddering beat that’ll grate quickly) and hoping you’ll find the hidden side missions and so on before the main story ends. Because once it does there is no motivation to keep exploring the world as the exploration is so irritating in and of itself.

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As said before, in this game Lara seems as she is made of tissue paper. All players are thus forced into exploration regardless of play style preference. This issue is worsened when the game’s combat restricts player choice so much. If you enjoy the shoot outs you can’t focus on developing abilities there, or vice versa with stealth. You can’t be a jack of all trades either, but a master of them. This is because the stealth areas in the game have no cover once you’re discovered. The areas designed to encourage shoot outs don’t allow the player to easily disappear and be stealthy. There aren’t areas in the campaign that offer either approach, or a mixture. The combat areas are so directed that you don’t really have the micro choices that exist within a shootout or stealth route. You’ll have to use a specific hiding spot against specific individual unaware guards. You’ll have to use specific individual bits of cover in shoot outs, and you’re unlikely to survive moving to other bits of cover if the game doesn’t want you to yet.

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Gone is the fun of a combat section being snuck into, taking out a few guards, accidentally being discovered, scrambling to survive before turning the tables by using homemade gadgetry to turn the tables once again. Gone is entering an area full of chest high cover and still managing to never be detected. Half the time the game will even use the narrative to force you to only possess certain weaponry and equipment. Most baffling of all is the fact the game has next to no combat sections. There’s only one real set piece after the beginning on rails set pieces. Individual combat encounters in the game don’t number enough to even use the phrase ‘a handful’. If you want to experiment with the combat systems, and even try to stubbornly insist you can carve your own path through the game’s refusal to give you choice you’ll have no real chances to do so. There’s some new stealth mechanics (such as creating fear) you’ll only have one brief section of the game to actually use. Then within that reality is the fact that you often do not have the equipment and weaponry you want to use.

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In turn all of this is made by worse by gameplay input issues. Traditionally this series has been good at balancing gun feel (how responsive the controller and visuals are to firing a gun to achieve verisimilitude) and gun accuracy. Shadow of the Tomb Raider favours gun feel too much over accuracy. The guns are harder to aim with when firing, and thus skill shots are harder. Ammunition mostly comes from either enemy combatants (of which there aren’t many) or from the stalls. Those stalls require money or resources and so on. Thus in turn more exploring and material discovery grinding. Generally speaking the game has other gameplay let downs. Jumps the character model has clearly made will frequently miss. Glitches are more common place. The tombs, whilst plentiful, aren’t as mysterious feeling as in the past. They are greatly expanded in terms of challenge and ability use, but less fun to play due to the inaccuracy of jumping and more common glitches. The ability to highlight useable parts of the environment is present from previous games. But now Lara Croft will just tell you the solution when you press the highlight button. The game has custom difficulty settings that allow you to have a range of options going from constant hints and reveals of puzzle solutions, all the way to the other end, where you get no hints and can’t even highlight interactive parts of the environment. However most players will want to know what you can interact with, but without being told the puzzle solution. You can’t have the ability to highlight things without Lara coming out and telling you what to do entirely or at least condescendingly or both.

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Shadow of the Tomb Raider turns exploration into a chore, that is no longer a choice of whether you want to do it or not. Or want to do some, but not a lot. However it’s still too much to do the entirety of before (or after if you somehow still desire) the endgame. Combat itself is unsatisfying, and yet requires excessive prior busy work to perform it. And then half the time your preparations will be ripped away and the game will force you into the load outs it wants you to use, for areas that can only be progressed through one way. Side story content is plagued by the fact its ridiculously time consuming to even find it as you repeatedly go back and forth over the same areas of the map over and over again. The previous titles in the series may have had small open hub areas that directed the player even during exploration, but at least the player wasn’t aware of the occasional lack of agency. In Shadow of Tomb Raider the total obliteration of player agency, and constant loud reminders of it seem to be the intents of every element of design.

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If you’ve not played Shadow you may think from my descriptions of combat and hoarding requirements that it’s very difficult to play. And that isn’t actually the case. It’s no Dark Souls experience. It is laughably easy, even compared to the two previous titles. This rebooted Tomb Raider series was designed to encourage a wider range of players with different levels of ability and experience. Again, it’s not supposed to be Dark Souls. It’s about going on a journey with a more realistic Lara Croft; a journey that you can shape just enough you can feel like it’s yours as well as hers. The problem with Shadow is that if you do exactly what it demands you do in combat you’ll have no issues (and thus no sense of tension.) You’ll die quickly if you try to have fun with the systems or improvise. Entering a combat area isn’t about surviving a deadly adventure, but becomes about the player very consciously saying to themselves: “What specific actions does the game want me to do here and in what specific order?” Exploration isn’t about satisfying your and Lara’s need for danger and exploration, but making sure you both have enough herbs so you don’t die if a single grazes your foot.

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This essentially leaves a lot up to the story to make the game satisfying. The story is good, but the way it is implemented does not create satisfaction. It’s nice that a new studio has carried on the themes previously established in 2013 and Rise: Lara is too comfortable with killing, her trauma is due to a fear of death rather than killing and so she continues to go on dangerous adventures. This in turn makes her adventures that should be about saving others from the maniacal cult Trinity become an exercise in Lara justifying the worst excesses of her own ego. The story even echoes a moment from the first game where Lara kills someone for the first time and is upset by how easy she found it, and is shaken up only by the physical trauma and a fear of herself. (I reiterate that last point because this moment is often seriously misinterpreted.) In the opening of the narrative Lara unintentionally causes the deaths of hundreds in a flood through magical means. Trinity are closing in on her position and will inevitably cause the same flood. She has no choice because if she doesn’t they’ll be able to steer an apocalyptic prophecy to their own ends of world domination. However Lara doesn’t make this choice out of utilitarian necessity, but because of her own ego, need for exploration and need to justify her own recklessness and endangerment of herself and others.

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Lara is constantly called out on her shit in this game, either directly by sidekick Jonah or the bleak results of her actions. There is a fantastic section where Lara believes Jonah is dead, and with just a knife, manages to go on a needless massacre of Trinity troops. It ends in a crescendo of explosions and when silence afterwards hits Lara she’s left empty. In this moment she’s a merciless killer, who doesn’t regret her actions, yet her friend is still dead and she is no hero. Jonah then turns up actually alive after this moment. It may seem from the outside to be a cheap reversal of consequences; instead it becomes a haunting moment as Jonah is now witnessing Lara at her most morally repugnant moment where her emptiness and existential dread is so clear outwardly she is left naked. She then breaks down in shame as Jonah tries to console her. In this section the gameplay is very directed with Lara only have a knife, but the combat sections are open enough to allow a range of stealth options. This part of the game is where story and gameplay dovetail perfectly for a brief period. Unfortunately this is not the case elsewhere.

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A technique in narrative, especially movies, is when a sequence hits its peak of intensity, to avoid having nowhere else to go it’ll cut to a calmer set of events. This technique is often referred to along the lines of “meanwhile back on the ranch”. It allows the inevitable de-escalation of events to feel like a practical cut to concurrent events elsewhere, rather than making the intensity of ongoing action feel like it’s deflating. Obviously in video games this is difficult to do. In Shadow you are playing as Lara Croft, a single protagonist. You can’t cut away to a cut scene elsewhere because player control is taken away. If you switch to playing as another character elsewhere it can reveal too much about events going on in a world the player wants to be a mystery they slowly unravel. Also due to the multi-decade legacy of Tomb Raider games being about Lara Croft there’s a motivation to avoid fan backlash by taking the events out of her control too often. So what Shadow does is after action events have peaked, it’ll have Lara fall asleep at a camp site and have dreams of child hood memories.

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These dream sequences are playable, but not really open to explore. They overstay their welcome and involve solving puzzles in the Croft manor. Mostly they’re about Lara’s relationship with her parents and father in particular and how her romanticising his adventuring led her to where she is now. Problem is her parents are barely present because of the pressure to create gameplay. Her parents aren’t going to let her jump and climb things if they know about it. So character exposition is still in cut scenes, which are brief. So instead of relieving tension and allowing for narrative pacing to ebb and flow, the player is forced to play a similar but different game which feels like it’s blocking the actual plot from progressing. Older and current Lara is literally stationary as she’s asleep and learning nothing because it’s her own memories, so there can’t even be emotional progression as she realises something. There’s no thematic progression because all the flashbacks do is add extra surrounding context to things we already knew from Lara’s childhood. The big core events that happened to her remain the same stuff revealed from previous titles. Said previous titles would relieve tension after big action set pieces by always opening the game world up to free exploration. Due to the dreadful game world exploration issues when Shadow employs this technique it’s even less satisfying than the dreams/flashbacks.

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With Shadow being the finale of this Lara’s origin story the ending of the game has to be a satisfying pay off to three games. In terms of how it pays off Lara’s emotional journey it is affective enough. It’s a little disappointing that what at first in Shadow seems like a critical deconstruction of colonialist adventure narratives (she literally gets hundreds of people from a formerly colonised nation killed because of her egotistical desire to go on adventures and profit from their ancestors lost artefacts) instead becomes a white saviour narrative. Lara quite literally becomes the chosen one in a prophecy to save the world in a story that comes from a non-European culture. The previous titles mitigated the colonialist fantasy ickiness a little by having the villains of 2013 (mostly) be Europeans and US citizens that have washed up on an island and turned (for want of a better term considering what I’m criticising) ‘savage’. Trinity in Rise are a conspiracy cabal of white colonisers. Shadow has ‘savage’ natives akin to monsters that turn out to be humans. The Trinity force we see are led by a man of Latin American heritage who originally comes from the culture Lara is trying to white-saviour-protect.

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“Hello, my name is Lara and I’m here to save you from yourselves, whilst wearing the garb of your people.”

Other disappointments arise from the fact that a character working for Trinity is revealed to be connected to the death of Lara’s father, and is the man who pulled the trigger on Lara’s stepmother in Rise and was ordered to spare Lara. The disappointment comes from the fact you don’t get to take on this character. He’s killed by NPCs in a cut scene. This is made harder to forgive given the combat section leading to this is, whilst linear, building in intensity to this moment. The dude is sitting on an APC turret with the vehicle not moving. You can move from cover to cover to get closer, then there’s a side path that leads round and above the turret. When I played I followed this path assuming logically that this was how to kill him…nope…I got killed immediately when I tried to jump on the bloke. The path round and above the APC is there for once the NPCs kill him. You literally just have to wait in cover nearby until the game decides to trigger the cut scene.

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This eventually leads to the final villain who you take on in a long boss fight. He’s a bullet sponge with an off and on again impenetrable shield. He’s supported by waves of enemies. The section requires you to deal high amounts of damage in combat very quickly and accurately, before being able to break line of sight to go back to stealth. This is inherently required as part of the mechanics of the section. Essentially you need to be fortunate enough to arrive at the boss fight with plenty of ammo and relevant herbs. You also have to have had designed Lara’s outfit to balance protection with stealth, rather one or the other. If you lack these things the boss fight may easily become a repeated battle waiting to be lucky enough to win it without the required supplies. That’s not so much about learning and overcoming something as it is about repeating a task in exactly the same manner until you win an AI coding lottery. Any chance that the death of the villain will be cathartic after this boss fight is lost. It also doesn’t help that for no sensible in-universe reason the entirety of Trinity’s leadership turn up in a helicopter which is shot down in the background when you’re climbing. This dramatic defeat of Trinity is a convenient utter contrivance delivered by a radio call from off screen. It could be argued that this area is safe from the apocalypse that the prophecy will trigger, however they’re in a helicopter, they could hover nearby without being near enough to take damage from the pre-firearm culture that drag them down.

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After all this fluff Lara essentially ends the story knowing she will go on further adventures, but handle them with more self-awareness, selflessness and acting as ethically as she can. Killing will be something she tries to avoid, but will do with remorse when her hand is forced. Some may not find this ending satisfying, but this game was always going to be the ending to her origin that’ll lead to more episodic adventures with less focus on emotional resonance. A truly satisfying ending would have to be in the eventual last game that brings this canon’s Lara’s adventures to a final close.

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I’m happy this game exists at least for the heights of its storytelling. I love these characters and the traumatic journeys they’ve survived. I’m pleased this version of Lara will get to go on further adventures, and as a redeemed person and hero. It’s just a great shame the game itself gets in the way of this so much. Every design choice has a series of minute choices within it that are antithetical to the larger intentions of said design direction. Why does a game about exploration and crafting require buying ammo supplies and equipment from stalls? Why does a game with dramatic stakes and aggressive set pieces get interrupted by progression destroying flashbacks? Why does unlocking the ability to reach new areas and new sights require repeatedly back tracking over the same spaces repeatedly? A new studio was given an engine and a formula to build upon, but it built something that fundamentally misunderstands what that formula is targeting as an experience, or as it should be; a completely varied set of experiences.

Played on Xbox One X

What is a Dreaded Backlog

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