As soon as Crystal Dynamics, developer of the previous two Tomb Raider games was announced to be stepping down from lead development of the third and final Tomb Raider game in the rebooted, I was nervous. This callous move from the gaming industry, to needlessly mess with success happens often. New guiding hand Eidos Montreal who developed the rebooted Deus Ex prequels; the quite good Human Revolution and its follow-up Mankind Divided have a habit of screwing up endings. Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes some interesting choices in character and design that set it apart from Rise and the original reboot, but it fails to make the most of a return trip from the world’s most destructive and murdering archaeologist.
The one experience Eidos brings over from its Deus Ex prequels is its hub world design and improved stealth mechanics. For the first time in the series, the levels aren’t empty or abandoned exploration vessels for the player to plunder in, but a living creation of the lost Incan city of Paititi. Lara can don appropriate clothes (a second for the series) as she walks the steps of ancient villages and completing local side quests. For the Tomb Raider series to have Lara Croft frequently interact with people and give her a surprising introverted nature is the most welcome character development in the game. It makes sense that an archaeologist (‘all they do is break things’ as one NPC belies) who usually only deals with long dead ancient civilizations and fights shadowy organizations isn’t a people person, but the developer fails to make the most of this beat remarking at it once only in voice-over as her connection to the city and right as a ‘protagonist’ isn’t challenged in any significant way. If only Jonah, a returning series character were more of a key to the development of the story rather than soothing Lara’s conscience one time (the cataclysmic events that drive the plot are her fault yet writers Jill Murray and Jason Dozois make sure Lara suffers no actual consequences for it) and asking a friend to drive a few kilometres to the local mission aka the next hub world.
As the supposed conclusion to a three game arc Shadow suggests that all Lara needed to do from the beginning was shed most of her friends and start killing people in order to bring her the relentless obsessive drive she had in the previous generational games. The lack of strong character development established in the first game makes this game fall short of story pleasures of the first game or the major gameplay improvements of the second. A smart interesting choice the developer made this time around was to focus more on environmental puzzles and much improved stealth rather than shooting gallery combat of the second game. This in turn successfully makes Lara more of an explorer than a murderous maniac but it doesn’t get the characterization completely off the hook. This feels too much like a cash in game and I’d wait for a $30 sale or a later edition with DLC included. Fortunately for interested parties similar to the last game, starting today there is a free trial for the game available to download from the Xbox or PlayStation store. For all its production value, it is at least worth a free play.