Finishing Thoughts: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

An inevitably disappointing end to the trilogy

The flaws in this game were so obvious and frequent that it didn’t take much more than half an hour of playing to realise I wasn’t going to enjoy this Shadow of the Tomb Raider. And I say that as a Tomb Raider fan — I’ve played most of the major games in the series from the very original.

Some sequels/trilogies fall into the trap of becoming formulaic. They lose sight of the spark that gave them their initial success, and instead just focus and grow the specific elements that the developers believe were the key to the success. But if this isn’t done artfully, respectfully and skilfully, you end up with a game that is tangibly less than the sum of its parts. Tomb Raider is exactly this. It is an entirely formulaic continuation of the previous two games, that has lost its sense of identity and charm, leaving just an exercise in gameplay mechanics, with the ideas of fun, creativity and wonder totally lost in the process.

Many of the core elements of the game were weak and unfulfilling. The plot, for example, was just weird. The decisions the characters make didn’t make sense. There was no continuity — you’d go from walking through a field one moment to being dragged along in a tidal wave (and the people you were in the field with turn out fine of course). The main baddy started out ok then turned out to coincidentally be living in a remote town you end up fighting in. Some of the characters are ok, but your sidekick Jonah is entirely pointless. He just spends his time giving you moral support via radio and it got embarrassing really. Of the few combat scenes you find yourself in, they are short and offer little room for fun or creativity.

Then there’s the whole upgrade/resource finding/crafting mechanic. This game suffers from that thing were there’s a really complex and detailed mechanism in place designed to gamify your upgrades and progression, but in reality it is completely useless. I got so many resources etc just by playing the game naturally, I never once had to even know what the 20+ resources I had to find were. I just played the game, upgraded when upgrades were available, and that was that. What was the point in the complexity other than to distract me?

This expanded to the clothing crafting, which again was completely pointless. You are encouraged to buy and unlock new outfits which give different skills, but I didn’t find myself changing my outfit once. I found the outfit that suited my play style, and that was enough. I remain unclear why I would ever choose a different one. Again, this was a mechanic that served no purpose and just added to feeling that developers had forgotten what it means to have fun playing a game.

In typical Tomb Raider fashion, the game is full of side quests, collectibles and mini challenges. All of these have turned into nothing more than a grind — a mechanic that appeals to the completionist in me rather than generating any sense of fun or real challenge. I found myself just finding endless things which I stopped bothering to even read about. I was all so repetitive and boring.

It would be bad enough if the above were all that were wrong with this game, but it gets worse. In addition to all of this, there was another level of failure. The game was… buggy. But worse than that. A lot of the problems weren’t bugs — they were as designed, but a result of either poor decision-making or poor testing. There are so many niggles that I think I’ll have to resort to a bullet-list. Bear in mind some of these might seem trivial, but all of them added up really took their toll, and it shows that the details matter:

  • Weapons would just disappear from Lara’s hand once used, and the weapons shown on her back was seemingly completely random. Depending on what clothing you wore, weapons would clip through the clothing.
  • The framerate sucked
  • NPCs would just repeat the same dialogue over and over gain, and dialogue prompts would show over characters, indicating something to say, and it would just be the same dialogue you just had with them.
  • The lip-sync of characters was all over the place
  • In-game hints never stopped showing. Hours into the game, I was still seeing visual prompts on how to grapple, despite having done it a hundred times. Was this a bug? Or did they actually intend to show you the same hint throughout the entire game?
  • The dynamic lighting would sometimes fail to adjust when going from a dark area to a light area or vice versa, leaving the scene over or under-exposed
  • You could buy new weapons in shops, but couldn’t view their stats so had no way of knowing how they compared to your current weapons
  • The sound was buggy. Many times the dialogue volume of other characters talking to me would be so quiet I couldn’t hear it, no matter how close I stood to them. And the game teaches you to scan every square inch for things to collect, then creates scenes where you have to keep walking past things just to hear what other characters are saying.
  • The underwater threat thing, where you can get attacked by piranhas or eels, was just annoying.
Merchants. Prepare not to have any fun here.

Ok that’s enough, you get the point.

Criticising this game makes me feel acutely aware of how impressive games have got. The expectations I have of this game are exceptionally high, mainly thanks to the incredible similar-genre games I’ve played recently — God of War, Uncharted Lost Legacy, Uncharted 4 to name a few. To many, I’m sure SotTR will be an enjoyable experience, especially given I am lucky to have played the PS4 exclusives above which really are incredible.

However, the standards have been set, and SotTR is a high-billed AAA game that, after 2 entries already, is obliged to excel. And it utterly fails. I don’t really know why this is the case. Am I being too picky? Was it because the Crystal Dynamics, who made the previous two, took a backseat on this one (I couldn’t find out why this decision was made)? Regardless, I would advise anyone who has high standards for gaming to either give this outing a miss, or get it at a very reduced price.

Brighton (UK)