At a Square Enix event in London yesterday, I played through an hour of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the final game in a trilogy, which comes out September 14 for PS4, Xbox One and PC. Though the action felt very familiar, the tone was a little different.
The newest Tomb Raider game is the conclusion of a trilogy that took a re-imagined Lara Croft from frightened survivor to competent explorer and, finally, to confident killer. It looks as though Shadow of the Tomb Raider might ask how all of this has affected her.
The best thing about Tomb Raider – apart from Lara, whom I have enjoyed in all her various incarnations, from quippy action-heroine to teenaged survivalist – is the locations. Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s sumptuous South America is no disappointment on that front.
In the game’s first hour, Lara moves from a packed-out Dia de los Muertos celebration to a dig site that opens out onto a vertiginous climb down to a Mayan tomb whose entrance hides under the gaze of a giant skull carved into the cliffs.
In the opening scenes, Lara pushes her way through a crowd of masked, face-painted, frequently drunken revellers at a packed Dia de los Muertos celebration, eavesdropping on a Trinity captain talking about a dig site where some important treasure is waiting. It’s the visually impressive scripted opener that’s become a convention for these narrative-led action games – very pretty, but restrictive.
The first tomb is a better indication of the direction Eidos Montreal is taking with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. She gets there – surprise! – by climbing, jumping, using pickaxes to move across the rocks, and rappelling down from a safe height.
The ancient culture that Lara is investigating here worshipped death: The traps and spikes and imposing structures in their temples are not there just to keep out intruders, but for human sacrifice. This is a disquieting place, deep underground, with ancient bells that clang ominously as Lara climbs them. Rather than wonder, they elicit fear.
I like that Tomb Raider‘s climbing actually feels dangerous – it’s almost impossible to actually fall to your death in a lot of games such as this, but I plummeted more than a few times on my way through this temple. It was a sickening sensation each time.
Lara nicks an ancient dagger on the way out – never a good idea – and after a familiar-feeling few minutes stabbing militiamen from behind walls and leaping out of bushes, there’s a brief firefight.
It doesn’t last long, though, before Lara is swept away in a sudden, biblical-seeming flood. Turns out nicking that dagger may have triggered the apocalypse. The demo ends with Lara surveying the devastated scene.
This first hour, together with the trailer and the various promotional material that Square Enix has put out there today, suggest that Lara will find herself combating an inner darkness here, reckoning with consequences – a rather dangerous conceptual route to take for an action game that revolves around killing hundreds of faceless enemies. If Lara is forced to stop and think about that, then as players, so are we.
I’m a little concerned that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is coming just a little too late. The Tomb Raider reboot came out in March 2013, and this is working with almost the same tool set: Light puzzling, stealth combat that frequently erupts into firefights, investigating corners of every area for trinkets, a story rife with peril.
In the intervening time we’ve had Uncharted 4, Lost Legacy, God of War, and The Last of Us all raising the bar for the single-player narrative adventure.
Rise of the Tomb Raider absolutely held its own, but we’re now another three years down the line. I’m hoping that what we learn about Shadow of the Tomb Raider in the coming months will show that it takes the series further.