We're three games into the Tomb Raider trilogy and the final chapter of this particular run does exactly what it says on the tin: for the most part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft raids tombs.
There were tombs in the previous chapter, Rise, but nothing on the scale of those in Croft's latest outing. In Shadow there are challenge tombs, crypts that are really just mini tombs, and story sequences that take place in, well, tombs. She's underground more often than a Womble and we're certainly not complaining.
Add to that sequences that see Lara partake in more underwater swimming than a Blue Planet cameraman and you've got a Tomb Raider that hardcore fans will appreciate. You might be a little less enthused if you would prefer the firefights of the first, but we feel developer Eidos Montreal has the balance spot on.
Apocalypse is nigh
Like most of her adventures, Shadow starts with Lara hunting for an artefact. And, as is traditional, this results in her spending the entire story fixing wrongs caused by her own naivety. Where it differs is in the size of the problem.
Her actions have started a chain of events that could lead to the end of the world as we know it. Cataclysmic disasters occur left, right and centre, providing major action sequences based on earthquakes, mud slides, storms and a tsunami. Add to that the occasional skirmish with evil military organisation Trinity, plus plenty of hunting around in dusty caverns, and you have the game in a nutshell.
As we alluded to above, gunplay is downplayed in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, with the game preferring stealth and puzzle solving than sheer muscle. Rather than take heavily armed opponents head on, you are encouraged to hide in the undergrowth and take them out one by one.
Much of the game is played in lost Peruvian city Paititi where you only get to use your bow and selection of arrows. There are sections that give you your guns back, but once they do, it actually feels like cheating.
You'll definitely get a good feel for your humble bow which, like all the other weapons in the game, can be upgraded through a simple crafting mechanic. Much like the previous two games, you can upgrade your tools, guns, bow and apparel when sat at a camp fire, although the options this time around are more expansive and varied.
There are also more weapon types in the game. You can have a handgun, shotgun, rifle and your bow selected in a pop-up weapon wheel, but you get to choose between different makes and models of each. They can be bought from merchants or found, so there's plenty available to suit all types of play.
Lara's skill set can also be improved upon at camp fires, with a large skill tree of abilities that can be unlocked in return for skill points earned on missions. Some can only be achieved through the completion of the nine challenge tombs in the game, but you'll quickly gain many of the others simply by finishing side quests.
That's one very welcome addition in Shadow: there are tonnes of side missions that can be taken on just through speaking to the locals. By giving you interaction with non-playable characters, the game is more fleshed out and less vacuous than ever before. It also expands the paying time significantly – something for which the last two Tomb Raiders were criticised.
Riddle me this
Ultimately though, how you get on with this game comes down to how much you like climbing walls and leaping across chasms. Like most games of its ilk, there are plenty of overhangs to dangle off, rocks to grapple, and more than the odd death-defying jump. These are often puzzles in themselves, as you look for obvious routes, and there are few games that offer the feeling of clinging by your fingertips.
The other puzzles are the standard fare – pull this lever, cut this rope – but it must be said that the ones Eidos Montreal has devised are among the best we've encountered. Some are massive, time-sapping head-scratchers that require multiple failures before you finally reach that aha moment. And the payoff is always worth it, in play rewards and graphical splendour alike.
We played the game across an Xbox One S and Xbox One X, with the latter version enhanced by incredible native 4K visuals. We understand the PS4 Pro version is checkerboard rather than native, but if it has even a fraction of the crispness in detail it will look equally magnificent.
High dynamic range (HDR) tech is available across both console platforms and is used to great effect. Not only does the wider colour gamut and contrast make fire and light tracing sizzle on a compatible TV screen, it gives the darker tomb sections the depth and richness they deserve. It really is a technical showcase all round.
We must admit, around an hour or two into Shadow of the Tomb Raider we wondered if it'd end up being the Return of the Jedi of the reboot trilogy – fun, but the weakest of the bunch. We were proved wrong, however.
It is a dark game in tone – especially if you're used to the wisecracking of the similarly tomb-obsessed Nathan Drake – and, at times, Camilla Luddington's vocal performance can give Lara a monotone, unenthusiastic resonance, but that is far from our own thoughts on the game.
Shadow gets better and better as you progress. And while Croft's bleak mood never really lifts, each side mission, challenge tomb and crypt discovered will still make you smile.
It's the largest Tomb Raider game yet, too, with much more to collect and do even after you finish the main story, and, dare we say it, an ideal stepping stone for an all-new trilogy to come...
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