The assessment committee—consisting of one owl—was presented today with the case of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which released on the 14th of September for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. The game was played for 26 hours by Nathan Drowl on Xbox One, who completed the main campaign and several side offerings to earn an 86% completion rate, and will represent the game in front of the committee.
- ROW: Before we get into the assessment, first tell me your history with the Tomb Raider franchise; specifically, this modern reboot/trilogy.
- ND: I have played, completed and loved both of the previous entries. I really liked Tomb Raider (2013), but my favorite is Rise of the Tomb Raider.
- ROW: Great! Now, with that out of the way, talk to me about Shadow of the Tomb Raider: What did you like about the game?
- ND: First of all, I should say that I’m going to mention things that I like, and then mention the same points as stuff I don’t like; it’s that kind of a game!
- ROW: Duly noted. Now, please proceed!
- ND: The biggest thing that I liked from this game is that the devs nail the balance on several things, like challenge tombs, populating the map, new environments and activities that help the game flow and progress; specifically, I’m referring to the balance of helping the player feel cool and rewarded for doing something challenging, but without ruining the flow and forcing several fails and retries. So, tombs are not that challenging, but they are satisfying and employ cool mechanics that are just the right amount of challenging to feel like guarded “secrets”, but not too difficult to figure out or execute what needs to be done (except an annoying exception).
Spoilers for the exemption tomb!!
- ROW: Isn’t that what Rise of the Tomb Raider was hailed for?
- ND: It is, and a lot of that “perfected” formula carries over, but I did feel the tombs in that game were more reliant on actual puzzles. With Shadow, the tombs feel like a set of traps and skill checks, which made them easier to balance just right!
- ROW: Okay, anything else?
- ND: I really like the new added features; underwater exploration, side quests and better stealth mechanics, alongside scaling difficulty settings for each gameplay element, photo mode and other quality of life improvements. I’ll focus on the stealth mechanics for a bit, because in previous games stealth was a viable option to start a combat encounter; not for its entirety. However, with the Predator-inspired mud stealth, where Lara covers herself in mud to avoid detection while keeping near specific walls and bushes, and the color-coded identification of enemies that are visible to other enemies, stealth is now a viable option for most combat encounters. Furthermore, Shadow boasts a new narrative direction for Lara; a grittier, more interesting story about Lara’s adventures and the aftermath—and casualties—of them. This wasn’t an easy direction to head towards, but they did and I think I should recognize that, even though they did not do a great job.
- ROW: I’m guessing you want to move on to the next question…
- ND: Well, there’s some other smaller stuff that I could talk about, but I don’t intend to read off all of my notes, just the ones that mattered to me in the end.
- ROW: That’s fair. What didn’t you like about the game?
- ND: The biggest issue I have is that Shadow feels worst to play, considering the previous entries; Lara has always been clunky to control, but in this one it was more obvious and affected my enjoyment of the game significantly. She would not attach to walls, or she would and immediately freak out and drop to her death, equipment would not work to a point where I thought I was missing an upgrade and left to go explore, only to come back and have it work; all of these examples are an example of how junky and buggy Lara feels, especially in platforming-heavy sections. This matter is worsened by this game’s emphasis on more “deadly” challenges, with tombs having insta-fail/death sections and Lara feeling more vulnerable in combat.
- ROW: That sounds frustrating…
- ND: It was, and it affects most aspects of the game; for example in combat, certain enemies will now rush you, which emphasize the issues with close combat. Lara feels immobile and slow, and this frustrating feeling is something you bump into constantly, because you are both exploring and moving around the levels or you’re fighting bad guys, and neither feels as good as previous entries. Aside from that, even the new features have glaring issues; underwater exploration features oxygen management and annoying insta-kills (which suck), side quests mostly act as fetch quests, and the buggy nature of the game’s animations and controls also venture into the new stealth mechanics.
- ROW: That’s disappointing…
- ND: It is, but I’m not done yet! The biggest disappointment is by far the narrative; the game presents two main themes: Lara seen as a rich, white foreigner going into foreign lands and collecting historical artifacts, while destroying or damaging them, and Lara being deeply troubled from her experiences and showing an obsessive, reckless and dangerous mentality in the pursuit of her goals. However, both aspects are inconsistent in their execution: While Lara is challenged for her actions by Jonah and the locals, it quickly falls back to Lara being the great adventurer/hero/savior and action set-pieces destroying entire cities with no real consequences (besides a few noticeable, but un-impactful exceptions). Furthermore, Lara’s obsessive nature is made abundantly clear from the get-go; she is at fault for a devastating event, she does not care for herself anymore, she is distant from others—besides Jonah—and she is heading into “the end justifies the means” territory with her actions and her reactions to the consequences. However, this interesting shift amounts to nothing, because the plot at some point forgets the theme and picks it up for the ending only (with some notable and frustrating exceptions), Lara goes after dumb side quests like a kid losing his dice just to help others (and because this is a game that features side quests) in the middle of a very important and time-sensitive situation. Thus, the themes are there, but the execution and exploration of that narrative is inconsistent and frustrating. For me, the narrative was the biggest draw of the game and the biggest disappointment…
- ROW: So, it sounds like you weren’t satisfied with the experience Shadow provided…
Just an example of how the writing can let this game down; I love (because it’s “so bad it’s funny” type of writing) that after she brutally murders a person and hangs him from a tree, she genuinely asks what they are so afraid of!
- ND: No, I was not. It plays worse than the previous two; the narrative is more ambitious but also less efficient and frustratingly executed; the new features are cool, but they lack the polish of the previous two; even smaller details like the environmental design not really helping me guide to where I was heading to next or confusing me in platforming sections. These issues all add up to make Shadow the worst of this modern Tomb Raider trilogy; however, it is still a good game. Like Revenge of the Jedi, a good thing feels worse than what it is, because it followed two excellent entries; I’m still glad I played it and that it exists, because so many new features can now be dissected and improved upon in the next game (if we see one). However, as a 6999 owlians (69.99 euros for humans) during a time period where new games come out every, single week, it’s harder for me to recommend Shadow; it is still a game fans of the series and genre will enjoy, it looks and sounds amazing, while providing an experience that can appeal to a broad audience. So did Rise of the Tomb Raider though, and with Red Dead a month away, I know a lot of people will overlook Shadow anyway; even if you can afford both, I can only recommend it with certain caveats, and even then you’d have to really want to play it.
This happened a few times and it was always annoying!
- ROW: So, you don’t like the game, as far as I can gather. But is it because it’s a bad game or because in contrast with the previous game, it’s a disappointment?
- ND: It’s because it is a disappointment. It is a good game, but in a series that produced excellent ones. Mostly though, despite every single thing I can point at and say “I like this” and “I don’t like this”, what actually remained with me—and the main reason I don’t recommend the game—is that it feels pointless; but, not in a way I can point at. Maybe it’s because of the narrative’s failings or the new features not feeling right to play, but my feelings on Shadow is that it wasn’t necessary or needed to exist; I know that sounds presumptuous of me, but that’s what made me feel less patient with the game, less willing to overlook small details, less able to “sink” into the world…
At least most of the bugs were funny…
- ROW: Honestly, this doesn’t sound unfair; you gave the game a good representation and your job here is done. I’ll bring the report back to the committee and we’ll take it from here…
- ND: I thought you were the only one in…
- ROW: …I’ll see you later!
…And some were bewildering!