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‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ hands-on preview

Shadow of the Tomb Raider will see Lara Croft raiding tombs and killing bad guys — but this time, she’ll face some serious consequences.

The third title in the rebooted Tomb Raider series is advancing her character to the end of what might be considered her origin story. Where the first two games in the series found Lara tapping into her potential and finding a way to survive, Shadow of the Tomb Raider has her actively hunting down the villainous organization Trinity and taking the fight to the bad guys. In doing so, Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems poised to put Lara through harrowing moments as she comes to grips with who she has become. She’s previously faced death, destruction, and torture. This time, though, she must deal with the fallout of her increasingly violent attitude. In the short, 45-minute demo shown to journalists, it’s Lara, not the bad guys, who causes a disaster.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider review

The demo starts with Lara and her pal, Jonah, in Cozumel, Mexico. They’re following Trinity’s leader, an archaeologist named Dominguez. Lara’s determined to find out what Dominguez is searching for, so she follows him through a Day of the Dead festival. Players take control of Lara as she moves through the crowd, talking with locals to get information about Dominguez and figure out what he’s after.

Before long, Lara finds her way into Trinity’s dig site and overhears that Trinity has located what they’re looking for. That’s when the Tomb Raider fans have come to expect kicks in. Reading inscriptions and looking at murals, Lara determines that a Mayan temple is not far away and climbs down a cliff to find a way into a cave below.

Return to form

Fans who played the last two games will be at home with Lara’s cliff-hanging skills, which include a new ability that lets her repel straight down. The cliff is ultimately a linear path on which each of Lara’s tools must be used in a specific way — much like in the last games. The harrowing paths across impossible heights make for fun puzzles, and they carry that blockbuster feel of imminent danger.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider puts Lara through tough moments as she comes to grips with who she is.

When Lara finally finds her way down into the cave below, she discovers a Mayan pyramid secreted away. It’s one of Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s new tombs, which carries with it a new approach. Eidos Montreal’s design approach to the game looks to make Shadow‘s tombs goes beyond intricate and beautiful locations that require brains and skill to solve; the developer also wants to make them terrifying. These tombs are underground and, as in Rise of the Tomb Raider, they’re downright spooky.

Shadow is also returning the ability to swim to the Tomb Raider series, with Lara diving down beneath the pyramid and navigating an underwater temple. There’s a certain claustrophobic intensity to the underwater moments, where Lara is forced to fight her way through tight confines as she squirms and struggles, trying not to drown.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider review

We’re not sure who among Tomb Raider fans wants a return to these subterranean depths, though. In the Shadow demo, the underwater portions are taught and quick, but sometimes clumsy, and feel like a throwback to a different era. Short environmentally driven scenes like these felt fresh when the first Tomb Raider reboot arrived in 2013, but they’re less inspired today, five years later.

The tombs we saw were otherwise filled with puzzles that recombine elements from previous games. The rope arrows are back, in which Lara shoots an arrow with a rope tied to it at a certain kind of piece of wood or object, and then can yank it to pull down a barrier or move something. On her way to the top of the pyramid, Lara was forced to leap between bells, each one slowly lowering from her weight. At one moment, she must use a crank to rotate a mine cart into position, then use another rope and the same crank to lift the cart up a hill. Cutting the rope released the cart to send it careening into one of the bells, creating a new path upward. The sequence felt tight, even clever – but it’s clever in a way that some players might find too familiar.

Unforeseen consequences

At the top of the pyramid, Lara discovered what Trinity was after – a powerful dagger artifact. Fearing the supernatural shenanigans her enemies would get up to if they secured the dagger, she grabbed it — which immediately triggered a tremor in the Earth and sent her sprinting out of the cave, and back to the dig site, where Trinity soldiers were preparing to murder the Mexican workers they’d hired. Cue a combat sequence, complete with stealth.

Moments that force Lara to deal with the consequences of her actions add depth to her character.

You probably know what’s next, as Shadow plays exactly like previous games in the rebooted franchise. Lara can sneak up on unknowing bad guys to execute them with stealth kills, slay them with her mostly silent bow and arrow, or take them down with a host of other weapons. Crafting will be back, too, with Lara finding resources like cloth and bottles along the way. Bottles are handy to distract enemies — but combine one with cloth and it turns into a Molotov, offering a less subtle approach.

We did notice a new addition to stealth. Lara has learned to weave herself across walls covered in vines, offering more paths through areas, and more places to spring out and assassinate her prey. Eidos Montreal explained that it plans for the jungle to be a major character in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and for Lara to be able to make use of its elements — like vine-covered walls, or trees she can climb — to hunt foes. It’ll also contain hazards, of course, including a few elements that’ll alter the survival-based elements of the experience, such as parasites. Those weren’t in the demo, but they seem…unpleasant.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider review

After killing a handful of Trinity soldiers, Lara found herself face to face with Dominguez. He revealed that by taking the key, Lara had meddled with forces she didn’t understand, unleashing a “cleansing” on the world. In the demo, that takes the form of a massive tsunami that thunders through Cozumel, sweeping Lara along with it. The final portion of the demo finds Lara dodging death as the current carries her past hazards like collapsing houses or jagged rebar. She eventually makes it out after diving down through a market littered with floating bodies. Later, climbing on the side of a building, Lara watches a young boy fall to his death below, just out of her reach.

That, too, feels familiar. Past Tomb Raider games have reveled in the absurdly lethal challenges Lara must conquer. Placing the blame on Lara is a new twist, however, and the stakes have been dialed up to 11. While the original reboot’s plot implied a larger nefarious evil, it was mostly about the survival of Lara and her friends. Rise took a similar approach, using a struggle over the power of immortality as backdrop for exploring Lara’s past. Shadows, though, immediately puts the whole world in peril, and implies Lara herself is directly responsible for it. In doing so, the game seems ready to question whether her obsession with Trinity is making her the hero she thinks she is, or if she’s out of her depth.

Just how that will translate into the rest of the game remains to be seen. Where Shadow seems like it could stand apart is in challenging its protagonist and exploring her character in new and unexpected ways. Dealing with these issues give the franchise a clear – and perhaps predictable – path forward.

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