Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t going to pull punches. Lara’s latest continues the journey that she started in 2013 and continued in the brilliant Rise of the Tomb Raider. But this time, the stakes are higher, the tone is darker, and the scope is more ambitious than ever before.
We discover that Lara’s actions will have consequences, as we’re one of the first to go hands-on with this superb sequel.
Our demo begins as night falls on a tiny Mexican village during Day of the Dead celebrations. Lara and Jonah are covertly tracking an enigmatic fellow by the name of Dr. Dominguez, who works for the series’ villainous organisation Trinity. Trinity are digging up the area in search of a Mayan artefact that could change the world, while Lara’s goal is simply to stop them.
Before we can even get our bearings, Dominguez is hurrying over to the dig site. Trinity’s found something, and Lara slips away to follow him. What’s immediately striking on our reconnaissance mission is how stunning the game looks. Whether it’s the warm glow of candles around the village or the vibrant colours of the tumbledown storefronts we sneak past, this is already a graphical step-up from its predecessors.
After a bit more covert recon, we overhear that the Mayan artefact that Trinity is after has been discovered and race over to the dig site. Once there, we spot a Trinity soldier preparing to execute a villager who had helped with the dig, which is a thoroughly rotten way to reward a job well done.
Fortunately, Lara is still a dab-hand with a bow and arrow, and dispatches the Trinity goon swiftly. Just like in previous games, there’s a satisfying snap to the bow and arrow, which forces you to focus on accuracy rather than spamming arrows like a loon.
With the entrance clear (and a very relieved villager rushing to safety), we drop into a cave and start to make our way through. While the doorway we need to get through is blocked, there’s a large pool underneath that offers an alternate route. We take a gulp and start to swim.
Developers Eidos Montreal have clearly poured a lot of love into these underwater sections, and the attention to watery detail is immediately obvious. Pockets of trapped air offer precious relief during your underwater excursions, and real effort has been made to ensure that these dives feel appropriately tense and dangerous.
But, just when we spot a beam of light break through the aquatic gloom, our relief turns to cold dread as the cavern begins to collapse around us. We frantically push towards the surface, but we panic as rocks start to block our path. Lara squeezes through until she gets caught on a jagged piece of stone. The screen starts to blur and darken. We pound at the pad in a desperate bid to free ourselves from this watery tomb.
When Lara finally breaks free and pulls herself up to safety, we’re left just as breathless as she is.
There’s no time to rest, though, as we find ourselves on a perilous cliff edge and spy the entrance to another gloomy cavern. Lara is as athletic as she ever was, leaping onto cliff faces, digging her pick-axe into the treacherous rock, and fearlessly climbing on down into the murk. Lara’s new rappel rope proves handy as we dangle our way down to solid ground.
Once inside, we’re treated to a stunning shot of the Mayan temple that looms above us. While we just want to gwap at the sense of scale in this foreboding underground area, we keep on pushing forward. It isn’t long, however, before a classic Tomb Raider puzzle blocks our path. We won’t spoil the solution here, but the ancient brainteaser offers a welcome change of pace from the tense platforming action.
Once we’re at the top of the temple, we stumble upon what Trinty have been after: an ancient Mayan dagger. It’s surrounded by ominous cave-paintings — scenes of disaster and ruin that clearly show this is not an object to be trifled with. But, before Lara can stop to think, her radio crackles into life, breaking the forbidding silence. It’s Jonah.
He explains that Trinity know she’s there and are after her. He implores her to make her escape. Throwing caution to the wind, she grabs the dagger and runs.
When we’re back above ground, the situation looks little better. The area is so densely packed with Trinity mercs that avoidance isn’t even an option. That’s no bad thing, though, because the latest incarnation of Lara is absolutely deadly.
She’s ruthlessly efficient, dispatching enemies with a casual pick-axe to the chest. She’s better at stealth, hiding amongst vines and overgrowth to get the drop on unsuspecting guards. And she’s still a pretty good shot as well, as we discover when we blast away two guards with a single shotgun blast.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was notable for allowing you to play and engage enemies exactly as you please. Shadow of the Tomb Raider continues that trend, improving on its predecessor at every turn.
After our shoot-out, we run directly into trouble. Dr. Dominguez catches up with Lara and takes the dagger away from her. He’s not outwardly menacing, if anything, he’s remarkably calm and civil. But it’s here we learn that Lara has messed with something she doesn’t understand. As Dominguez asks for the other part of the artefact, he quickly realises Lara took it without knowing what it did. Those warnings of disasters we saw daubed on the cave walls? Lara’s actions have set them in motion.
As Dominguez jumps into a helicopter and flies off, we stare in horror as the waves of a tsunami crash into the happy Mexican village we started in. Lara gets swept through the wreckage, narrowly avoiding sharp poles, wrecked vehicles, and the bodies of villagers that have already drowned. In what appears to be a moment of respite, she slams into the side of a building and starts to clamber up.
But she’s not the only one hanging on for dear life. Just out of reach is a child, screaming for help. As Lara begins to inch toward him, the boy loses his grip. Lara frantically scrambles across, but she’s too late. We can only watch helplessly as the child tumbles from the side of the building and into the merciless waves.
The boy’s swept away in a heartbeat, but the moment stays with us long after we put down the pad. Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t just going to improve on the intense action the series has become renowned for – it’s going to show us a whole new side of Lara Croft. And that’s why we can’t wait for the 14th of September!