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Wot I Think: Shadow Of The Tomb Raider

It looms large

Update: We've made some substantial changes to this review to reflect the dramatic technical improvements made by the day one patch released on the 12th.

Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is, we're told, the final entry in the latest trilogy of Lara Croft adventures. And is, I'm pleased to report, by far the best of the three.

It remains a muddled affair, never quite sure what it wants to be, never certain what it wants to say. But there's plenty of fun to be had. Here's wot I think:

In many ways, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider at first feels like exactly that - a slightly darker impression of the last game. Gosh, if you liked Rise of the Tomb Raider, they sure made some more of it. Before the game opens up after its first few hours, it's madly similar to 2015's Rise Of The Tomb Raider, from its opening plot structure of a "two weeks earlier" interruption to the initial plane crash cutscene, exploring in one country to find a sought treasure of Lara's late father is in fact in another, and dragging poor Jonah (the only other surviving character of 2013's execrable story) on yet another calamitous adventure to race world-ending cultists Trinity to finding the Magical Thingamy Of Destiny.

Then the similarities at the start feel really quite peculiar, for a game coming a full three years after Rise. Lara's animations are mostly exactly the same, wringing out her hair as she gets out of water, lobbing climbing axes around, impossibly slowly sidling sideways through narrow gaps... The same assets seem to appear - say, the exact same leather bag used for revealing hidden items on the map. And despite being in a whole other continent, Lara's still running around looking at murals that reveal hidden treasures when translated. For too long, it felt much more like playing an expansion pack.

And then it blossomed. There were already a bunch of changes, too. Lara can now dangle from climbing axes, then swing or wall run from them, to add a bit more to vertical exploration. And indeed she can rather impossibly crawl upside down on marked rocks with the axes. They've tweaked bits and bobs here and there, with rope arrows now a default at the start, explosive and poison arrows ditched in favour of lures and traps that do something similar, and a more interesting skills menu to unlock (albeit mostly exactly the same skills). The one important exception being a quickly unlocked ability to not have to do that bloody slipping-off-a-ledge-and-having-to-press-X bullshit. Quite why they didn't just ditch it, I've no idea, but thank goodness it's removable. Oh, and she can hold her breath for more than five seconds! In fact, for absolutely ages, with swimming and underwater exploration now a big factor.

The other really significant change is to the difficulty options, which are really impressive. You can now tweak three different areas, Puzzles, Exploration and Combat, to three different difficulty levels. On the easiest, puzzles will reveal all the needed elements in Lara's "Survival Instincts" vision mode, along with very heavy-handed narrated explanations of the next task. On the hardest Lara keeps mostly shtum, and only some moving parts are highlighted. Frustratingly, she doesn't always keep quiet, and just using Instincts to spot any pick-ups will still occasionally have her annoyingly declaring what she needs to do. For exploration you can have climbable walls and ledges marked in ludicrously dense white paint, leaving no doubt about potential routes, make it slightly more subtle (as was used in the previous games), or turn it off entirely. (This does have the side-effect of showing that the white paint was originally in these games to fix a design issue, and removing it does rather glaringly point to that issue - it's a bit random about what you can and can't climb.) And for combat, it's the more obvious changes in how much damage Lara can take, and how dangerous and well armoured are the enemies. I played with all on the most difficult setting, and was pretty happy with that setup for the most part.

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Then come the far more interesting new aspects. After a brief stint in Cozumel, the game teases on your arrival in the Latin American town of Kuwaq Yaku, where you can chat to the locals, get involved in some of their business, and pick up a couple of side-quests. But it's on arrival in the game's main enormous town of Paititi that you realise just how different a game this actually is. It's buried deep, the realisation, a few hours in, which is quite the odd decision. But once you're there you find the most extraordinarily detailed realisation of a supposedly lost Inca city, populated with a local people whose lives are meticulously realised. As you wander its many streets you'll find school lessons taking place, arguments in the street, kids playing games, adults working on growing food in large agricultural areas, political situations, and most importantly, the internal conflict between two rival factions that it would be far too much of a spoiler to get into.

I kept being just taken aback by how layered and alive Paititi proves to be, with hours and hours of things to do, so many expansive side quests to carry out for characters, alongside the hidden tombs, challenge areas (smaller tombs, essentially), regional challenges, conversations and so on. It ventures incredibly close to BioWare territory in places, with a murder mystery to solve, people to rescue, and emotionally driven situations to resolve. Albeit not entirely brilliantly, since this isn't a BioWare RPG, and Lara doesn't get to make choices about outcomes - but all the same it's an awful lot more detail than you'd perhaps expect given the last two games.

But, at the same time, Paititi presents us with another more complicated factor. No matter how clumsily they've wrung their hands trying to pretend it's not the case, this absolutely just is a story about some white lady waltzing in to a city of brown people and fixing everything for them. Clearly Eidos Montreal have spent a squillion hours researching and desperately trying as hard as they can to present and represent everything as respectfully as they can, providing a complicated and intricate representation of a culture that eschews the racist tropes of portraying anything as "primitive" (hello Far Cry 3). This is a richly sophisticated place, even if people are living in straw huts and wearing loin cloths. And yet...

The game's opening shows Lara's insatiable desire to solve the mysteries that had equally obsessed her late father, and that she'll pursue this in the face of potentially terrible consequences. In the first playable scenes you aid Lara in mystically unleashing a series of catastrophic pre-apocalyptic disasters, the second of which is a terrible storm that has done damage to the region in South America. The idea being, the crappy things that are happening are sort of Lara's fault, and anyway, the invasive forces of Trinity are trying to do far worse things than she is. So she needs to put them right, right? That's clearly what they hoped would make it not feel like the hoary old colonialism thinking that, despite it all, the game undeniably is. Lara is dressed in the clothes of the region's deities and leaders, by the locals, presumably because no one as white and British as her could possibly have just done it themselves?

Yes, in the end the game is about running and jumping and shooting arrows at heads and crawling through grotesque pits of severed corpses and falling through an infinite series of roofs, so yes it's another nu-wave Tomb Raider game, and the rest is only decoration. But it's a decoration that left me just constantly weighed with the unpleasant sense that no matter how awkwardly it was trying, it really is a bit of a racist old cliché.

It's perhaps also important to note that the broader story from start to finish is absolute rubbish. Complete gibberish about a magic box that will stop the world from ending, and recharge the sun, or some-such waffle. And while that might read as the dismissive paraphrasing of someone wanting to pooh-pooh the game, unfortunately that really is about as sophisticated as its telling gets. There just is a box, and it just does do that, the end. Meanwhile, Lara's emotional journey appears to get stuck in quite the traffic jam.

That put aside, if it can be, Shadow is undoubtedly the best entry in this revised version of the series. And the largest reason for this is a change in who's made what. Crystal Dynamics, they behind the splendid previous trilogy of Legend, Anniversary and Underworld, made the first two games, but increasingly sharing the load with Square's excellent workhorse studio, Eidos Montreal. This time the main development duties have fallen to Eidos, with CD focusing on what they've always done best: the puzzles. And the result is fantastic. 2013's Tomb Raider was rightly lambasted for the paucity of its tomb raiding, and Rise went some way to address this. But Shadow sees things back as they ought to be, albeit still relegating most of them to "optional". View them as "essential" and you'll have a far better time, as there are many vast and intricately complicated puzzles to solve, across a huge variety of styles.

There are underwater puzzle tombs, a hark back to the olden days with a mirror-and-light reflecting tomb, great big mountain-size climbing frames, and chambers containing dozens of moving parts that must be solved and assembled to reach their goal. It's glorious to see Crystal Dynamics doing this properly again after (counts on fingers) eleven years of just smashing burning roofs with a falling lady.

Oh, and good gracious, it's beautiful. Has there been a more astonishingly elaborate and graphically detailed game? I'm struggling to think of one. Jungles and towns and tombs are all breathtaking - literally. I'd gasp as I entered chambers at the phenomenal minutia of cavernous puzzles. Outside is even more remarkable - that it's even possible for computers to render so much flipping foliage beggars belief. This prettiness is rather definitely let down by the scrappy NPC voice acting, and the throwaway nature of less significant character faces (it can look quite bonkers as Lara's astoundingly realistic face chats with a vaguely featured somebody), as well as an awful lot of half-hearted filler chitchat. But in the main, the presentation is top-notch.

It's much more buggy than I remember either of the previous games being at launch. The worst technical issues were immediately cleaned up before the game went on sale, but it still feels a smidge glitchy, with lip-sync occasionally off, dialogue crashing here and there, that sort of minor thing. I've also had some issues with its getting laggy and wanting a reboot, which suggests that are still some issues to iron out.

While I've not completed the game due to some technical issues before release, I've spent a good 20 hours with Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, and they really have been good. This works out as a great balance between the icon-ticking compulsion of a top tier Ubisoft game, with the puzzling chops from a team that have suddenly remembered they were the best in the business. It's huge and detailed and stupid and probably most of all, fun. Problematic fun, without question, in a way that the game loudly invites upon itself, and the gets completely arse about tit. And even without that aspect, the story is absolute balls from top to bottom. But I came for the running and jumping and grabbing and sliding, and I got that in spades. Combined with the quite astonishing detail in the game's towns, there's an awful lot here that's awfully good. In a dumb way.

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