She’s Here to Kick Ass and Chew Bubblegum…

Lara Croft has been present at gaming conventions longer than most of them have been running, and her appearance at PAX West 2018 was heralded with little surprise. After all, she’s been through many makeovers and companies since her debut, but her spot in the triple-A lineup hasn’t budged. After playing the Shadow of the Tomb Raider demo, there’s a reason why.

Since Tomb Raider rebooted with the successful Crystal Dynamics’ franchise in 2013, people have gotten used to her new, reinvented presence, one that often manifests physically at conventions like PAX, where hiring models to pose with fans as Lara is a time-honored tradition dating back to the inception of the franchise (there was more latex back then, though). The new franchise shook up the traditional puzzle-based elements of pre-reboot Lara and made it a survival game that happened to have a few tombs here and there. Now, with Shadow, the balance is shifting back. In the hands-off demo I saw, the updated combat was shown—the AI for her enemies are now smarter, and react more realistically to her actions, which can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you see it. It looked very fun to play, but it was also stressed that combat was no longer going to comprise of over half the game, the way it did in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

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Instead, puzzles and exploration are being brought to forefront, turning it from a 60/40 split with the focus on combat, which is what Rise had, to around 30/30/30 between the different aspects of the game. With the demo I got my own hands on, I explored the beginning of one of the tombs as Lara, tombs that are much larger than before. For comparison, the crypts in Shadow are the size that the tombs in Rise were. I didn’t have too much difficulty with the puzzle presented to me, and, blissfully thinking that I was solving the center of the tomb, represented by a huge contraption resembling a South American totem pole, I jumped and grappled Lara’s way through fire and spikes to pull the right levels. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it really is starting to look like a Tomb Raider game you might have played a decade ago.

Afterwards, Lara dove down into the water, showcasing the increased underwater focus of the new game, and I finished the demo with the slow realization dawning on me that that whole huge puzzle I’d beaten was just the introduction to the tomb. My ease was mistaken: the challenge was much greater than I’d assumed.

…And She’s All Out of Bubblegum.

The crafting and skill trees have been changed so that it’s no longer shooting yourself in the foot to choose a non-combat oriented path, and mechanically, Lara begins Shadow with all the skills she had at the end of Rise. Shadow is the last in the trilogy about her growth to become the Tomb Raider, and so it resembles the pre-reboot games the most as she changes. In my interview with Senior Gameplay Director Daniel Chayer-Bissan, he talked about how, in the earlier games, “it was Lara against the world, against the wild, and for her to become the Tomb Raider…she needs to understand that she’s human, and there are other humans.” Shadow has much more interaction with the NPCs for Lara to achieve that growth, with three settlements of interactive characters to talk to (or be uncomfortable around, as might end up the case with Lara). The story, which centers around Lara’s hunt for the shadow organization Trinity, takes her to South America. Shortly afterwards, she accidentally sets off the Mayan Apocalypse. I know her therapy sessions in the last game didn’t work, but still, there has to be a better way to find herself.

Overall, my only worry going forward is about the graphics. Something about them doesn’t look quite as shiny and realistic as they did the last time around…but that doesn’t mean that the game looks bad, just that it’s currently no-longer displaying the fantastic top-of-the-line graphics that made Rise and Tomb Raider 2013 such a visual treat. I hope I’m wrong about this and that these are polished up in the last week or so of the game (or that I had something in my eye the whole time I was playing) because otherwise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks like it is finally bringing the reboot to the place I’ve wanted to see it since the beginning: a modern, enjoyable game that mixes excellent story, puzzles and combat with one of the most iconic video game characters of our generation. September 14th still feels like a long time away.