Shadow of the Tomb Raider is sprinting towards its 14th of September release date, promising the end of Lara’s origin story. The last time we saw Shadow of the Tomb Raider in action, Lara had inadvertently kickstarted a natural disaster in her pursuit of the mysterious organisation Trinity, who want to control the world through supernatural artefacts. Chasing them to Peru, things go from bad to worse for Lara at the start of our latest hands-on, as her plane crashes out the sky.
That’s when we get to take control. Over the course of four hours, we see how Shadow mixes its darker direction with a broad evolution for our central hero. Lara has become a deadly warrior, who is just as capable of taking out a squad of mercenaries silently as she is at navigating ancient tombs. Here’s how the game achieves this thrilling mix.
1. Exhilarating set-pieces
This current Tomb Raider trilogy has made its name off the back of its chair-grippingly intense set-pieces and Shadow looks set to raise the bar in that regard. Once Lara comes to in the Peruvian jungle, she has to find her allies Jonah and Miguel. After a brief trek through the crash site, she spots a flare go up in the distance.
What she discovers when she gets to the flare is particularly gruesome. A partially devoured corpse sits in front of a pack of ravenous jaguars. When they spot Lara, they begin to eye her up as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We then have to guide Lara through the dense jungle, with every rustle and screech putting us on edge… until we tumble into their den. At this point, it’s up to our archery skills to keep their swiping claws at bay.
It’s a perfectly paced scene which builds to a frantic climax. Considering this is early on, we can’t wait to see what the rest of the game has in store.
2. Tombs are terrifying
After we dispatch the jaguars, we manage to meet up with Jonah and find a good spot to make a camp. It’s also in this area that we spot a challenge tomb, where Lara will pit her wits against some particularly nasty architectural challenges.
Simply put, tombs are designed to push your limits with their traps. From the expected tricks such as tripwire to avoid, to surprising moments, where jagged boulders come tumbling down a cliff side, these areas are both intense and foreboding. Why would you take them on? Well, completing them will help improve Lara’s abilities, so they’re more than worth braving.
3. You feel like a predator
Back in 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, survival was your only goal. While Lara become more adept at fighting as the game went on, she was always reacting to a situation. In Shadow however, Lara is taking the initiative, as we discover when she comes up against an armoured convoy of Trinity thugs.
You have more options available to you, such as smearing Lara in mud so she can blend into backgrounds or luring enemies to locations with a well-placed arrow, and these options lend more depth to every combat encounter. Do you hunt soldiers quietly or go in all guns blazing? We try the stealthy approach, and barring the last guard in the area spotting us, we make it work. Importantly, whatever decision you make, you always feel like Lara is capable of pulling it off.
4. Hub levels are large and complex
As Lara and Jonah push on, they discover a bustling village called Kuwaq Yaku. It’s a colourful, if slightly ramshackle, area, where buildings are made out of wood and corrugated sheets. As Lara and Jonah chat to the locals, we discover that there’s a thriving local bar, a busy garage, and villagers tending to their vegetable plots. What separates it from the hub levels of previous games is the sheer scale. This level feels bigger and more welcoming than Siberia in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
It’s not only the size that impresses, but the density too. We chat with a variety of villagers, some of whom help flesh out the story of the town, while others offer to help us find our way around. Kuwaq Yaku feels alive, with plenty to discover for those that want to. And when we get offered a side-quest, we feel obliged to see where it leads…
5. Side-quests will play an important part
We bump into a chap called Victor, who tells us that a band of crooks have rolled into town and are forcing villagers to dig up artifacts. As we chat with villagers to find out more, we learn that the bandits’ leader, Omar, is now forcing children in the village to work for him. Naturally, Lara decides to sort this out.
What makes this side-quest so satisfying to complete is that it started by just wandering Kuwaq Yaku and stumbling across an argument between Victor and Omar. By the time this side-quest evolves into Lara liberating workers from a group of violent thieves, we feel more invested because of how we’ve been at the heart of this mini-story progressing.
It’s these little stories and side-quests that will be the heart of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As Lara becomes more efficient at taking on Trinity and exploring ancient ruins, these interludes where we see her using her skills to help others promise a little bit of light to go along with her dark quest.