On April 26th, I was invited to an early showcase of the cinematic trailer of Shadow of the Tomb Raider and an exclusive hands-on experience with the first gameplay demo of Shadow of the Tomb Raider at the Full Reveal Event in London held at the Welsh Chapel. No gameplay footage has been officially revealed to the public so far, including the one from the demo that I played, and it’s promised to be revealed at E3.
According to the developers, the demo was a complete and final version of the featured level. Judging by the story elements and atmosphere, it appears to be the introductory level to the game, similar to what Syria was to Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Here are my impressions regarding the story, gameplay, world, characterization and the general feel of the demo, and a full review of the various aspects of the experience as a whole.
The demo starts with a hooded and disguised Lara in a small Mexican town with a buffed and much more developed version of Jonah, discussing her findings about an artifact. She’s much more prepared and determined than the last two games, with her new equipments and a rope attached to her and concealed within what appears to be sleeves for musical instruments. They come to conclusion that an artifact called “The Box” isn’t located in Brazil, but in Peru in a place referred to as the silver mount/crown, contrary to what Trinity seems to believe. Lara and Jonah begin tracking a gang leader, Dominguez, so they start exploring the small town, socializing with people, overhearing conversations and slowly tracking him down to find the artifact and the archaeological site that he’s after, until she concludes that Dominguez is the leader of Trinity.
Cantina, the town that Lara and Jonah explore first in the demo is the closets thing to a city level since Tomb Raider: Underworld. It plays out similarly to the introduction of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy where Chloe Frazer is covered and slowly exploring the town, except the place is alive, populated and feels safe and warm. While the town is pretty small and Lara is always in a walking stance as she explores the populated areas, the atmosphere is a welcome change of pace, especially that Lara is able to socialize and constantly shares her thoughts with Jonah. Shortly afterwards, Jonah is able to distract two guards, allowing Lara to hop over a fence and find her way to the archaeological dig site.
As soon as she leaves the populated area, she removes her mask and her poncho/hood revealing an outfit that can be described as a combination of the classic, AOD and Underworld outfits. She stealthily assassinates a few guards who were threatening an innocent civilian and makes her way to a costal area, climbing all the way across the cliffs. She uses her two axes to climb and her rope to reach farther ledges and platforms.
As she continues on her way, she discovers some submerged remnants, which she concludes that they’re the entrance to the tomb, she dives underwater and begins to traverse the treacherous sunken cavern. In these moments, we’re given a clear insight into how much more developed swimming and diving have become. Swimming underwater is as developed as the classics. She moves from large underwater spaces to tight and narrow ones, finding air pockets here and there to catch her breath. The way the sound, the environment and the dynamic atmosphere around her makes swimming feel both very free at times and genuinely oppressive at times. For example, Lara was about to lose her breath at some point (in a scripted scene) and she has to find her way to the surface through a very tight crack and she begins to squeeze herself, trying to climb and swim her way out, but she’s stuck and a boulder falls almost on top of her and she squeezes harder before she finally makes it out. The sound effects and the atmosphere make the scene feel quite effectively suffocating and oppressive, and in a very good way because it manages to convey the feeling of being trapped with brutal realism.
Afterwards, she finds an underground Mayan pyramid that she has to make her way to its top as she’s separated from it by a wide crack. She goes through a couple of traps, and climb on top of multiple balancing platforms. Again, the way the environment is structured and the sound is engineered makes the traps quite hard to spot and scary when Lara falls for them. She eventually lands top of the pyramid and find a platform with multiple wheels featuring a constellation (very similar to the Path of the Stars).
Along the way, she gets in touch with Jonah through her radio about her findings and how she’s adamant on finding it before Trinity, to finish her father’s work. She solves the puzzle revealing a dagger. She also notices a mural right on top of the pyramid, apparently hinting a series of events that lead to the destruction and the creation of the world through affecting the moves of tectonic plates. As she’s about to take the dagger, Jonah advises against it. However, knowing Lara, she’s consumed by her desire to finish what her father started, she takes the dagger which triggers a tremor and advises Jonah to leave.
She finds her way out of the place, and by that time, Dominguez and his army have already found their way to the place, so she goes on a full on combat mode towards them until she’s finally captured by Dominguez who takes the dagger and scolds her about her actions and for taking it. He explains that by removing the dagger, she triggered the tremors to which she protests that tremors happen naturally all the time, and that this is nothing more than a coincidence. Dominguez yells at her, telling her that her actions have set the apocalypse in motion and that it’s up to him now to stop it. He also added that a tsunami will now follow the tremors. He takes the dagger and leaves with his troops on a helicopter. As he takes off, a tsunami strikes the town, killing tens of people and Lara must survive the tsunami by swimming and carefully finding her way through the waves and the flow of the water, and avoiding a horrifying death in different ways. She climbs onto crumbling buildings and eventually finds her way to Jonah who’s alive and well and trying to help the victims.
When she tells Jonah that she caused of all of this and that they must go to Peru immediately to find the box she was looking for in the “sliver mountain crown”, he yells at her telling her that not everything is about her and that saving the people here now is the topmost priority, and after that, they can leave to Peru together, to which she agrees. The demo ends with a fast series of scenes from various parts of the game including ones not shown in the demo, and with a wide range of outfits.
As I noted early in this article, the demo that I’ve experienced was apparently an introductory level in a similar way to Syria in Rise of the Tomb Raider. It was linear, it lacked any open world elements and it was very focused and on point, so this may or may not reflect on the rest of the game, however, the development team did confirm that the jungle will be the main focus of the game, and it will not only feature the main story missions, but a variety of optional side quests and new areas to explore. But judging by the mechanics and how prepared Lara is, the gameplay is much more entertaining, with the inclusion of the rope which allows Lara to hang down from ledges, swing back and forth to gain moment and reach farther areas as well as being able to wall-run which is a very welcome new feature that further helps developing Lara as more of a well-prepared and an established Tomb Raider than an unwitting survivor.
The demo also features multiple traps and different ways Lara can manipulate the environment to her own advantage such as using carts and her rope along with wheels to destroy rubble blocking her way, she takes advantage of balancing platforms to reach higher areas, and here players are expected to think and react fast before the platform Lara is on lands down and the other rises further up.
As for combat, it’s fairly the same with Lara using a bow, a pistol, a shotgun and an assault rifle, along with the ability to shoot flammable objects that result in massive explosions, or use bottles and Molotov Cocktails to ignite her enemies on fire, in addition to the ability to stealthily assassinate targets. Not much has changed in that aspect, in comparison to Rise of the Tomb Raider and a full skill tree was not shown and neither were any camps (which is understandable since this is a fairly linear introductory level), and therefore, more skills or ways to fight may or may not be introduced later on.
In terms of tone and characterization, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is miles better than its two predecessors as Lara is a lot more prepared and determined, and her personality is much less of a whiny and scared girl. Her body is remarkably buffed showing signs of training and experience. She’s still motivated to complete her father’s legacy, and she also does show some signs of uncertainty and naiveté, but she’s noticeably more developed than Rise of the Tomb Raider, and her outfit in the demo (which isn’t yet shown in any promotional material) adds a lot to that. She’s wearing a greenish tank top with a ribbed texture and mesh-like pieces near the shoulders and the sides, with long brown pants and black military boots, as well as a pair of gloves. She’s also carrying her bow, a pistol in a holster, her two axes and a rope hanging from her belt in the back.
As for Jonah, he took the spotlight for me as his new style with a pony tail, beard, mustache, his outfit, his attitude, the voice acting, motion capture and overall personality were better than ever. I would truly enjoy a spin-off or a DLC playing entirely as this version of Jonah being a tomb raider and a fighter on his own. He’s no longer just a random NPC or a follower to Lara and now more of a mentor and friend who not only gives her advices and cracks some jokes with her, but also gives her tough love and some wake-up call when she’s wrong.
Environment / Atmosphere
Numerous fans have pointed out that both the 2013 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider felt quite monotonous and snow was the defining feature, especially in the latter. This time, the climate, the locations, the geography and the overall tone is far from what we’ve seen in the 2013 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Shadow is a very colorful game full of greens, reds, blues, and different shades of darkness and light. With the demo being the way it is, the promise of an open jungle in the coming parts of the game and what the cinematic trailer has shown, this seems to be the most diverse and colorful Tomb Raider from the reboot trilogy. From a glowing Mexican town to the high and breathtaking costal cliffs to the dark and treacherous submerged caverns, the enclosed underground structures and remnants and the lush outdoor areas, there’s a wide variety of themes in one short demo, which gives hope for an even more diverse and open jungle as the game progresses.
From what I could glimpse from the fast gameplay showreel which plays after the demo, there will be rivers, cliffs, dense jungles, dark caves and lots of traversing underwater and Mayan rituals in the final game, which feels promising in terms of exploration and a change of scenery from the last two games.
From the first glance, Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems miles ahead of its last two predecessors in terms of gameplay, characterization, atmosphere and storytelling. The “saving the world” plot is back in full force this time around as the danger seems much more imminent and drastic, with Lara surviving a full-on tsunami in the demo (a first of its kind in games, as far as I’ve seen). The tone is more serious and yet the fact that Lara is more prepared this time makes the experience feel more fun as the idea of her being a survivor and always being caught off-guard and unprepared has overstayed its welcome in Rise of the Tomb Raider. The way Jonah is a much more developed character that players will genuinely care about this time around and how the consequences of Lara’s actions will reflect badly on others too, allows the story to give more focus than just Lara doing her thing. That this is no longer just her surviving. It’s no longer just about her, but something much larger than her, her father or Trinity. It’s about the world, even though the concept of saving the world itself is quite overused, even in the franchise’s own standards, and it remains to be seen whether we’ll see any actual global destruction or any ventures beyond Peru, or whether Lara will contain the damage within one area.
Lara Croft is still motivated by her father’s legacy and the race against Trinity in this quest. She’s not playing for sport, which that’s understandable as this is the finale of her origins trilogy which has to follow through the story of Trinity to its conclusion. The game promises that Lara will have to make a character-defining decision(s) which will make who she’s meant to be, whatever that decision may be.
From a gameplay and an exploratory perspective, Shadow of the Tomb Raider excels above the two other games in the reboot trilogy. In terms of characterization, it’s a step forward, perhaps more for Jonah than it is for Lara. Shadow will likely be everyone’s favorite reboot game, even though it still suffers from the same problems that makes a huge portion of fans prefer the classics and the Legend-Anniversary-Underworld trilogy over it, in terms of who Lara is, how she reacts to situations, her personality and motivations, but the game will likely surprise you in a very positive way if you’re evaluating it against the two other reboot trilogy games, or as its own thing, its own original IP, rather than having to live up to the original Lara Croft as a character and the classic Tomb Raider games. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not drastically different from its predecessors, nor is there any major alteration to who Lara is and how she’ll evolve to be “who she’s destined to be”, as promoted and whether that growth will gradually reflect on gameplay too, or merely remain within cutscenes. The ability for Shadow of the Tomb Raider to surpass the classic and Legend-Anniversary-Underworld trilogy in terms of the characterization of Lara Croft are quite impossible at this point, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming the most enjoyable one in the reboot trilogy or as a beautiful and an entertaining experience on its own.
Special thanks to Square Enix for the invitation and the sponsored trip to the reveal event in London. Shadow of the Tomb Raider launches on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on September 14th. Explore all the officially released promotional material including the full cinematic trailer and a wide range of concept arts, screenshots in addition the pre-order guide and promotional schedules, on the Shadow of the Tomb Raider mini-site, here.