Crystal Dynamics handed off the torch to Eidos Montreal for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, though the effort was a collaborative one between both studios. While much of the team in charge of Shadow remained the same as Rise of the Tomb Raider and the 2013 reboot, the studio change did come as a bit of a shock back during the announcement event for the game. Let's just say I've never been a fan of the way Eidos Montreal handles shooter mechanics, and any combat in Tomb Raider is always going to be shooter mechs. However, after playing the game a few different times over with various different settings and playstyles, I'm rather pleased with the way Shadow of the Tomb Raider turned out despite my initial misgivings.
Much of my enthusiasm for the title stems from the fact that it allows you to toggle the difficulty settings for various different gameplay aspects – you can give yourself harder puzzles or harder combat without changing the difficulty of the game overall, allowing you to tailor your experience toward your personal strengths. Overall, however, Shadow is a much more difficult game than Tomb Raider and Rise by a pretty significant margin. And that's pretty awesome, as the gameplay scales as Lara gets more and more experience delving through tombs and taking on Trinity.
The one big problem I have with the difficulty scaling, however, is that it also coincides with bigger and badder threats for Lara to combat. Sure, that's just the nature of games, but it feels like we live to torture Lara Croft more than we do any other game protagonist. Hell, at the end of Tomb Raider, we still acted like she wasn't really the Tomb Raider just yet. As if she needed to go through years of suffering and pain and failure in order to "become the Tomb Raider."
Which, honestly, smacks quite a bit of sexism. While the game development team and game director Daniel Chayer Bisson argued against this, saying that, to them "the Tomb Raider" is the savior of humanity and so far Lara has only saved small groups and her own family – I'm still not totally convinced. Because if Trinity were ever to get their hands on the mystical objects featured in any of the Tomb Raider games, it'd be a pretty bad thing for humanity as a whole.
Yes, we get to see Lara grow in Shadow of the Tomb Raider in a way that few male protagonists do. And that is awesome. She's finally got to grapple with the element of human suffering involved in her world saving antics in Shadow, but that doesn't exactly absolve the series from its Lara torture porn reputation. Even with shortened death scenes that focus only on the ragdoll physics of Lara's shortened lifespan, the death sequences are still brutal in a way few games feature death.
That said, there are parts of this game that make me wonder if, perhaps, the dev team at Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics didn't just miss the forest for the trees. So much of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is to show Lara's darker side and make her a jungle-dwelling predator, parts of the game honestly seem like they got ripped out of Assassin's Creed or Arkham City. The stealth kill mechanics are familiar and don't feel true to who Lara Croft is. Furthermore, the jungle stealth skills and outfits seem a bit, well, over the top for a woman whose main job is investigating ancient ruins.
Lara is an archaeologist, not an assassin.
It's a gripe I've had with the series for a while now, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes that aspect of the gameplay and makes it far more commonplace. Because of the increased difficulty in the combat sections of the game, stealth really is the best way to go more often than not, and that means pulling out your best Ezio impression. It just feels out of place.
Similarly, some of the cultural elements in the game seem a bit forced. Why the starting mission takes place during a Dio de los Meurtos celebration is beyond us. It honestly just seems like set dressing and a way to get Lara in a sugar skull mask. However, much of the historical information added to objects you interact with and pick up do make for a fantastic add-on to the game experience.
That said, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a great third installment of the revamped series with solid puzzles, tomb delving and exploration, and combat. Since the DLC packs are bringing co-op, things will only get better as the game goes on. Though raiding tombs in co-op does take some getting used to.