Shadow of the Tomb Raider brings Lara Croft full circle

, | Game reviews

“I’ve only got one chance at this,” Lara says urgently.

I’m lining her up to make a jump I know she’ll easily make. Why did Square Enix decide to make her say “I’ve got one chance at this”? First of all, it’s not true. I have literally unlimited chances. But this isn’t even a particularly tense moment. Yet someone at Square Enix’ Montreal studio wrote that line, someone told actress Camilla Luddington to say those words in the sound booth, and someone decided to put that audio bit in front of this jump, which is just another of the dozens upon dozens of unremarkable jumps in this insipid retread.

I shouldn’t have been thinking about a dumb line at that point in the game. The climax was in high gear. Serious action was supposedly happening. The fate of the world was hanging in the balance, or something. I should have been caught up in the game. The line should have tapped into my sense of urgency at getting Lara where she needed to be. But by this point, I had been hate-playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider for some time, the same way I hate-watched Walking Dead or Lost. I’ve come this far. Might as well see it through.

I’m not sure what I expected after Tomb Raider. The 2013 reboot stands out from the rest of the Tomb Raiders for being a captivating story about the transformative power of violence. An origins story for how a helpless girl is turned into an adventure hero who will spend a dozen or more games shooting things, solving puzzles, and pushing cutting edge videogame technology. So of course the following games would be the typical pulp serial videogame nonsense. That’s what Tomb Raider was before the reboot. There’s no reason it wouldn’t be that after the reboot.

But I didn’t expect the series would go so dramatically backwards. For instance, there’s considerably less content than the last game. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a terrible campaign and that’s it. None of the expeditions stuff from Rise of the Tomb Raider. No score attacks, survival challenges, or horde modes. No cards to collect and gift thresholds to reach and leaderboards to work and goals to queue up. Just the option to back up to the save file before the finale. Now I can scrape up more collectibles and unlock new pants I’ll never wear because the other pants actually have a gameplay effect. Now I can do another challenge tomb that gives +5% extra pistol damage, even though I didn’t even use the pistol. I can scoop up resources to do another upgrade for any one of pistols I didn’t use. I can finish that one corner of the skill tree I neglected, but I neglected it because the skill tree is entirely shrug-worthy.

It’s all so desultory and disjointed. There is no sense of unity or overlap among the various gameplay bits. It’s a collage of isolated set pieces, often flat-out incoherent. One moment I’m in a town hub (when did that become a thing in Tomb Raider?), completing side quests in which Lara Croft finds missing children and recovers lost jewelry and delivers love letters. Then I’m doing a climbing puzzle right outside town solved entirely by letting the camera show me where to go. Then it’s a shootout with bad guys on the way back to town. Now it’s a slow walk through the sad approximation of a crowd while exposition talking happens. Now I have to stealth kill some dudes because my weapons are gone and Lara can’t pick up someone else’s weapon, so I have to start all over when I don’t time a stealth kill correctly. Here I am again spending skill points not because I care about the skills, but because I’m annoyed by the insistent exclamation point at the next campfire fast travel point, where I also have to listen to Lara muse thoughtfully about her predicament in case I wasn’t paying attention during some bloated cutscene. Which I wasn’t.

And, really, is there still a place for games like this? Is anyone still interested in playing Find the Climbable Texture? In this glorious heyday of open-world games, is there any appeal in Hold the Joystick While the Avatar Does Her Animation on the Way to the Next Plot Trigger? What about Press X at The Scripted Peril Moment? Why is that even in here? Look, game, we both know Lara’s not going to fall to her death because a ledge crumbled. I’ve been pressing X to recover from crumbled ledges for years now. It’s no longer scary or tense, especially because if I happen to fail, it’s just a setback to the last checkpoint, and you know enough to put it right before this Scripted Peril Moment. Shadow of the Tomb Raider even lets you spend a skill point so you never have to deal with another Scripted Peril Moment.

The setting this time is the jungle corridors of South America. Peru, I think. Then Ecuador. Maybe the other way around. Lara has come here because of some doo-dad that’s going to end the world. First it’s a dagger. A silly looking one, at that. Then it’s a box. It doesn’t even get called a fancy word like coffer or ark or phylactery. It’s just a box.

On this trip to South America to get a knife and then a box, the crafting and upgrading and penny-ante MacGyverism feels all the more contrived. It worked when Lara was shipwrecked on an island filled with centuries of detritus. But coming directly from the city to spelunking some cave where she knows mean mercenaries with guns are waiting for her? Why didn’t she upgrade her rifle back at Croft Manor? Merchants in town hubs sell her some of this stuff, which is silly in its own way. Some dude stands behind a makeshift counter in the middle of an impoverished villa. He’s got two flavors of assault rifle, a shotgun, a revolver, and some ammo pouch upgrades for sale. Has Lara found enough coins for these things? To be fair, Lara didn’t have any cash on her because her plane crashed and she walked from the plane crash to this town. “You walked here from your plane crash?” someone asks her. Of course she did. The detailed foliage doesn’t allow for any meaningful distance in these levels. That’s why all the secret inaccessible ruins are right outside town.

The action gets absurdly contrived to explain sections that Lara can’t just shoot her way out of. Sometimes she’ll get knocked into a river and lose everything except, conveniently, her pickaxe, which must have one hell of a lanyard on the handle. So now she has to sneak around and axe a mercenary in the skull to take his rifle, except that she can’t because this is a stealth killing section. Sometimes she carefully unpacks a rolled up blanket with her guns in them so now you know it’s shootin’ time.

During underwater stealth sequences, I have to watch the patrol pattern of a school of piranhas. Lara hides in seaweed until they swim past. Moray eels attack her and wrap her up in their coils as if they were RPing boa constrictors. She fights a couple of jaguars until one of them decides to just eat the other jaguar after Lara kills it. She fights more underground zombies/monster people, which is something she’s had a lot of experience with. Sometimes she uses an assault rifle against natives with bows. Maybe not the best idea. I’m not saying it isn’t gratifying. I am saying it’s not good optics. If you care about that sort of thing. Lara Croft doesn’t. Her heart is as black as her new hair color.

Oh, sure, there are some new features. Lara can climb under overhangs so long as they have climbing textures. Her magic rope spools and unspools up and down cliffs as needed. She can tie people up and dangle them from branches like Batman or Spider-Man. She has clothes that give her a bonus, but only if she wears the garish leopard print boots and blouse. She can put mud on herself, but only in special mud pits full of hiding mud. Unlike all the other mud — this is a South American rainforest — only patches of hiding mud bring up the Press X to Mud prompt. Make sure to Press X to Mud before you go into the area with the mud walls where characters wearing mud can hide. The mercenaries stalk her, taking their turns walking away from the others to get killed by Lara’s Sam Fisher animations. They’ve all been instructed to pronounce her name correctly. “LAIR-uh,” they call out, instead of “LAW-ruh”. The voice actors up there in Montreal are nothing if not meticulous. Sometimes she has to wear a silly outfit and hat to play certain levels.

Everything else is the same as it was in the last game. Intermittent shoot outs, breaks for traversal, exposition sessions, waiting on the animations for squeezing through gaps and crevices while something is probably loading in the background. It’s mostly just following the waypoint, which isn’t much of a challenge since there are only two directions in the jungle corridors of South America: forward and accidentally backward. The camera will angle itself exactly where you need to go if there’s ever any ambiguity. Otherwise, just use Lara’s eagle vision. All the color leaches out of the world except for the bright yellow jars of xp and scrap lying around. Some bushes and trees light up yellow so you can harvest them to improve the pistol you won’t use. A pulsing yellow godray waypoint shines down from heaven. Come here, Lara, it says yellowly, drawing your eye like the weak point on a Capcom boss monster. You go there. Game happens.

I didn’t expect the writing would be this bad. If the story had been compelling, if there had been any meaningful character development, or even any sense of drama or tension or clever dialogue, it might have pulled the action along like a wooden toy on a string. But without that pull, the wooden toy just sits there, sad, inert, dated.

And there’s a lot of writing. The game is full of characters talking about their feelings, doubts, and motivations. Welcome to Tell Don’t Show Theater. Lara feels guilty for this, that, or the other. Jonah tells her not to feel guilty. Jonah feels like he let her down. Lara insists he didn’t. They abruptly yell at each other during a scene that decides they should yell at each other because yelling is dramatic. Lara reminisces about her father, who has been shoehorned into the plot again. Now you have to play a twee tedious flashback of Lara as a little girl. In one conversation, Lara equates being sad as a nine-year-old girl with the destruction of civilization. “What about the fate of the world?” her interlocutor poses, because this is a game about world-ending doo-dads. “What about the feelings of a nine-year-old girl?” she shouts back as if she has a point.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider was written by a former Ubisoft writer who gave us Aveline in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. I understand what the story is attempting, setting up strong women as heroes alongside Lara. I wish it had worked. Some woman shows up to be Jonah’s girlfriend and then all she does is hang on his arm during a few cutscenes. What was your name again? A mysterious stranger shows up at the eleventh hour. Visually, she’s a fantastic bit of character design, but she’s just a plot device. Another woman is the leader of a tribe. She shows up long enough to get refrigeratored by a bad guy so you know how bad he is. You know his name because he reports in on his walkie-talkie after being really bad. “This is Main Bad Guy, reporting in,” he says, but using his name. I think you kill him at some point, but I forget. Turns out he’s not even the main bad guy. Another main bad guy is the final boss fight. During the boss fight, when he sets up a glowing orange shield around himself, it’s a cue that you’re supposed to run up and punch him. Glowing orange shields say to me, “This guy cannot be punched or shot until you figure out how to turn off the shield.” But Shadow of the Tomb Raider throws you a curveball.

There’s a point in Shadow of the Tomb Raider when someone tells Lara her sidekick has been killed. He hasn’t, of course, and she’s a rube for believing it. No one playing the game believes it. I’m surprised any bad guy thinks it would even work. But Lara believes it. She thinks her friend is dead because someone said so on her walkie-talkie.

So then Lara rises out of a burning pool of fire and oil. It’s the same shot as the Terminator emerging from the wreckage of the burning truck. It’s cinematic shorthand for grim unstoppable resolve, ruthlessness, inevitability. This should be cool, right? But then the game goes all Michael Bay, full of dumb explosions, bad guys standing next to red barrels, the obligatory helicopter, boxes of ammo all around because now you’re supposed to be using your guns. Use your guns, use your guns, here’s the part where you shoot stuff, don’t be shy, yee-haw! It’s more Time Crisis than Tomb Raider. Then it turns out, oh, her sidekick isn’t dead. Of course he’s not. Now Lara weeps as they’re reunited and the whole thing was a ruse to get us to this cutscene. If there’s one thing worse than emotional manipulation, it’s clumsy emotional manipulation. That’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider in a nutshell.

The whole thing is so serious, so pleased with its somber drama, so convinced it’s making you feel through the meaningful looks and pauses. It mistakes its own empty air for tension or emotion. It has forgotten that Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake are loveable rogues. They’re partly comedic characters, cracking jokes and defying death. Lara Croft was once a member of that club. She was Indiana Jones with a ponytail and ridiculous tits. But the Tomb Raider reboot cast her as the lead in a horror story about empowerment. Great idea, but where do you go from there? How to you turn a survivor into a loveable rogue? According to Square Enix, you don’t. Now that she’s empowered and taking everything so seriously, she’s no fun anymore. She’s an earnest murdergrrl, but then she goes all emo during cutscenes, and it makes no sense. An adventure hero who forces you to watch while she talks about her feelings.

So we’re pretty much back to square one, where Lara Croft is little more than a punchline. The absurdity of her combat sequences, so out of sorts with her soulful anguish. The “let’s yell at each other” moments of implausible character conflict, the forced grieving for a character we just met, and especially the contrived retconning of her backstory, grasping in vain at precisely the kind of secret destiny nonsense the 2013 reboot didn’t need. She was a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. It fell to her to save her friends, which is a far more noble feat in a videogame than saving the world again. Tomb Raider was personal because it was personal. But now it’s come full circle to yet another vapid videogame character muddling through bad writing, rote familiar gameplay, and fewer features than the last time. Wake me when the next reboot is here.

  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • How to you turn a survivor into a loveable rogue? According to Square Enix, you don't.
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