The new installment to the “Tomb Raider” franchise hit consoles and PC this week, allowing players to explore dangerous tombs and new locals with the iconic Lara Croft. In the newest installment, called “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” Lara Croft is still on the hunt for clues surrounding the disappearance of her late father. In this adventure she has the aid of her BFF Jonah Maiava and runs into the group ‘Trinity’ while trying to save the world. Croft has traded the icy tundra of Siberia in the new game, this time diving into the depths of South America’s most forbidding jungles and caves.
Setting the graphics upgrade aside for one moment, Lara herself has gone through a lot of changes since we last saw her. The events of the new story take place roughly one-year after “Rise of the Tomb Raider” and Lara is deadlier and stealthier than ever. No longer struggling with the morality of killing the enemies in her way, Lara is basically a sworn enemy of the group “Trinity” at this point, and we spend less time grappling with the justification of a murderous archeologists and more time grappling with the actual tombs and terrains she is exploring. Lara’s research takes her to South America to find a special dagger, the first stage in her plan to save the world, when her plan backfires and sets off the events that she thought she stopping. The story sets up Lara Croft as the possible cause of the world’s end, with her hubris as her undoing. It’s an interesting take on the classic Tomb Raider story-line, asking the player to question if a billionaire heiress should really be desecrating tombs and infiltrating remote cultures just because she thinks she’s in the right. While it’s an interesting idea, the story never really comes to a point because of the actual game you are playing.
This is where the inherent problem with the “Tomb Raider” franchise comes into play once again. Just like in the first “Tomb Raider” installment, the gameplay and the morals of the story are always at odds, with no actual answers explaining the divide between the story-arch and what the players are actually making Lara do in the missions. In the first game Lara wasn’t a killer, she was just a budding archeologists hoping to find answers to her past. While the writers tried their best to explain why she would soon be killing everyone in her path in the upcoming missions, it just didn’t make that much sense for the character they created. Despite this, the game was a smashing success and everyone just kind of shrugged it off. This time around, the writers had Lara struggling with the idea of being a privileged outsider coming into foreign cultures and stealing their idols and desecrating their tombs. In every game, Lara just rampages through locals with the mindset that she should ‘save the locals from themselves’ and never questions her self-imposed authority. While the story in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” asks players to question Lara’s morality, the gameplay has you doing the exact opposite. This is throughout the story, without consequence or a second-thought. Honestly, I don’t know if there is a clear way to fix this problem with Tomb Raider, and the answer might be to just shrug it off and chalk it up to just being a game. I will say this. If I accidentally almost ended the world by desecrating a foreign tomb, I don’t know if I would jump into 10 more tombs and steal more idols while I was trying to fix the problem.
Even with the fractured story setup, the game is quite amazing once you look past the juxtaposition of story and gameplay. Players explore the civilization of Paititi, which will serve as your home base for most of the game. This is where you find clues for new missions, learn about new tomb locations, learn a new language, and explore hints for what you can do next. There’s plenty to do in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” and I really enjoyed the mechanic of the main-hub. Camilla Luddington once again did a fantastic job voicing Lara in the new game and her supporting cast did an equally impressive job bringing the story to life throughout the cut-scenes and events.
Visually the game is another marvel, enhanced even more if you have the new RTX capabilities of the GeForce RTX line. At the time of reviewing this game those cards were not available to us, though I had no trouble hitting top-tier graphic settings with a Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 G1 paired with an I7-4790k at the office.
“Shadow of the Tomb Raider” is another progressive step for the franchise overall. The graphics and effects are improved, as are the skill-trees and the general gameplay mechanics. While stealth-play seems to be the preferred method of dispatching Trinity, it’s not a requirement and there are plenty of high-caliber options for anyone that would rather blast their way out of a tight situation. The game offers a wide-array of difficulty settings in general, allowing anyone to pick-up the game and decide just how frustrated they want to be with exploration, shooting, or puzzles, and the new combat mechanics are well thought-out and fun to explore.
I don’t know if there is a simple solution to the “Tomb Raider” problem. The franchise is built on a rich, white heiress swinging into foreign countries and stealing whatever she wants while murdering anyone that she decides is evil. That’s a hard setup to justify. The idea that a young woman, who consistently hopes to promote the exploration and preservation of culture, would steal and destroy so many sacred tombs and temples, is a hard selling point to begin with, but the gameplay is so terrifically fun that it seems impossible to leave any of it out. Maybe with each Tomb Raider installment we will get closer to the perfect formula.