Ah, they grow up so fast. The last five years, we’ve watch Lara Croft go from fortune-hunting neophyte to seasoned adventurer, and now, with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we see her become the ass-kicking badass we all know and love.
This new chapter of the Lara Croft saga revolves around the Apocalypse as predicted by the Mayan calendar, and yesterday, Eidos Montreal gave a press showing at—where else—the beautiful Mayan theater in downtown Los Angeles. Stepping into the Mayan was like stepping into a Lara Croft adventure: mist up to your knees, mysterious lighting, massive Mayan statues festooned with vines…
The tomb-raiding mood thus expertly set, Eidos gave us a hands-on hour with the game that argued strongly for their vision of the recently rebooted heroine. This go-round, Lara’s off to Mexico, so the demo began at night in Cozumel, Mexico, during the Mexican Day of the Dead. Few things are as picturesquely macabre as this skull-ridden holiday, so it was an ideal setting to continue the larger Tomb Raider story arc. As a refresher, in the previous game, Lara went in searching of information about her father and discovered he’d been working against a secret organization called Trinity. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, she continues his work, racing to prevent Trinity from bringing about the end of the world.
Before the hands-on, Eidos discussed what they’re trying to achieve with this entry in the series, and they said the ocus is cranking the danger to blood-curdling levels. As they put it, the first Tomb Raider (the reboot) tested Lara’s grit and taught her to be a survivor, then Rise of the Tomb Raider sent her on her first legitimate tomb raid. By the time she and her sizable side kick Jonah make it to Mexico in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, she’s become (as Eidos put it) “Master of her World.” What that means is that Lara’s become a prettier variation of Bear Grylls. She’s a true survivalist, able to bend the environment to suit her will. That’s good, because during the event, Eidos repeatedly used the words: “deadly,” “dark,” and “terrifying,” and from what we saw in the demo, they mean it.
Things started calmly enough. With the aid of her buddy Jonah, Lara dons a Day of the Dead mask and follows members of Trinity through a Mexican village. The art and atmosphere of this sequence are truly stunning as Lara drifts past villagers in a mask and hood, Assassin’s Creed style, eavesdropping on the Trinity members’ conversation. Of course being Lara, she ignores the danger and follows them to a dig site and then to the sea. Off comes the mask and hood, out come the climbing axes!
Lara never does anything the easy way, and this part of the demo provided plenty of opportunity for daring deadly jumps, rappeling off cliffs, and climbing sheer rock faces. It’s as terrifying as ever for those of us who are afraid of heights, with controls forgiving enough to make you feel braver than you really are. Lara’s pursuit takes her into a cave and into an underground temple that’s partially submerged. Convenient that, since it gave Eidos an excuse to showcase the revival of an admittedly controversial feature: swimming.
Many players loathe swimming in games and for good reason. It’s generally a chore, what with poor camera and awkward controls. Thankfully, Eidos appears to have handled the underwater sequences better than most. At least in the ones we saw, the camera was smooth and the controls were simple, thus letting the swimming aspect do what it should do—progress the story while augmenting the nail-biting tension.
Whatever your thoughts about swimming, most of us can agree that Tomb Raider wouldn’t be Tomb Raider without puzzles and traps. The latter manifests here as typical ancient temple safeguards: spears appearing suddenly, darts shooting out of the walls, etc. The kind of thing where if you don’t react fast, Lara will have a few more holes in her than she’d probably like. As far as puzzles go, the standout was a clever platform puzzle involving getting to the top of a Mayan pyramid using platforms, winches, and a broken down cart. This little trial was just challenging enough and struck a good balance between “gaminess” and realism.
SPOILER MODE ON: Don’t read this bit if you want the story to be a surprise.
Not surprisingly, once Lara reached the top of the pyramid and grabbed her prize, the enemy appeared and she was forced to fight her way out. Along with the usual platforming and resource-gathering (yes, resource-gathering is back) Shadow of the Tomb Raider appears to offer a goodly amount of shooting, sneaking, and stealth-killing. Lara’s no scared little girl here; she’s a ponytailed Rambo, comfortable with knife, rifle or bow and capable of taking out one guy at a time or six at once. Hair-raising as it was carving a path through a highly guarded enemy compound, she does it, but just when you think she’s home free, she suffers an Indiana Jones-style loss by having Trinity steal her hard-won prize. Worse, she learns that by taking it, she’s triggered the Apocalypse. She refuses to accept this until a tsunami sweeps through the area, taking everyone and everything with it.
There’s nothing like a natural disaster for testing your reflexes, and the tension in this part of the demo was unreal. Steering through chaotic, roiling waters trying not to be impaled on random debris…yikes! Sudden jumps and button presses kept every nerve tingling as Lara fought to reach higher ground. Tomb Raider fans have come to expect this kind of hazard-laden set piece, and from what we saw, those expectations should be satisfied with ease.
SPOILER MODE OFF
Though the game’s due a mere five months from now, certain things—like the map and crafting—were yet unavailable for preview, but crafting and collecting (artefacts and historical information) are still meant to be a big part of the game. The biggest change does seem to be the danger level. Things do feel deadlier, and slow reaction times made for many a sudden and shocking death. In addition that major gameplay change, it appears that Lara’s evolving: both internally and externally. She’s young—still in her early twenties—with plenty of room to mature, and as she appears to find in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, that needs to happen. The demo showed her shock at realizing how her choices affect the larger world, a theme that should provide a logical and fulfilling direction for her story to go.
Though only on show for an hour, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is shaping up to be an interesting, if tentative, step in the growth of the series. Aside from a noticeable jump in the danger, Tomb Raider fans will find it visually and mechanically familiar, while new players should find it straightforward and accessible. Though nothing earth-shattering appears in the offing, our hands-on demo time contained enough satisfying moments of bad-assery to suggest there’ll be many more to come and thus plenty of reasons to snap the game up come September.
This article was provided by the wonderful Neilie Johnson, who’s written plenty on MMORPG.com and more.