We are very quickly approaching the September 14th launch of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which promises to close up the rebooted trilogy. Square Enix invited PlayStation LifeStyle to a preview event in the ocean-side city of Manhattan Beach, California, to get a decent chunk of hands-on time with Lara Croft’s latest upcoming adventure. We have collected our thoughts, and have a preview ready for you below.
A Big Chunk
During this event, we played the first four hours of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. In fact, we were perhaps the first outlet to play the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro—all previous outings had been played on the Xbox One X. The game’s engine supports 4K rendering as well as HDR, and both technologies help to bring the jungle environment to life. Lush, green vegetation casts dark shadows, while ancient ruins have never looked so detailed. No word on frame rate yet, but at least on the PS4 Pro, things ran smoothly, and stuttering was never noticed during our four hours.
The graphics in Shadow of the Tomb Raider are the best ever seen in a Tomb Raider game. Set pieces are also high-intensity and dramatic. Character models are incredibly lifelike. There is kind of an uncanny valley effect going on, particularly with Lara. While she looks and animates in a believable fashion, her neck is actually animated to slide up and down as she breathes. This produces a weird effect, one that is realistic but can be a little unnerving since games generally do not model neck movement in this manner. It doesn’t take too long to get used to, and also shows the level of detail Eidos Montréal has been willing to go into for this entry.
So what content was in this first four hours? Quite literally, the very beginning of the game. Lara was shown on a cargo plane, riding with longtime partner Jonah as they flew towards a mysterious destination. Naturally, things don’t stay quiet for very long, and before she knows it Lara is forced to fight for her life in a jungle where many hazards are present. The opening hour serves as a tutorial, culminating in a fight to the death against one of the jungle’s most dangerous predators, in a satisfying showdown between woman and beast that is primal and exciting. After some more exposition setup, eventually we managed to make it to the game’s first open area, Kuwaq Yaku. This also opened the game up quite a bit, as it introduced side quests. It served as a preview of the main open area that will be encountered later in the campaign, Paititi. These cities serve as hubs, even including spots for Lara to dabble in trading to acquire parts she can use to craft new or upgraded items.
A new feature in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is individual difficulty sliders for different portions of the game. Players can choose different levels for combat, puzzles, and exploration. So if someone enjoys discovering the solution to a puzzle completely on their own, but they feel combat gets in the way of their enjoyment, they can turn the combat difficulty down while keeping all puzzle hints off. Likewise, someone who prefers fighting tougher enemies and doesn’t want to be forced to slow down and think about how to traverse the next area between fights, they can turn the enemy difficult up, and exploration difficulty down. This is a flexibility you don’t see too often, and should help to tailor the game for exactly the experience players want.
There is also a new emphasis on stealth in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While Lara may be more of a hunter than the one being hunted, she is still fairly vulnerable. Just a few gunshot hits will take her down. But Lara is special. For instance, pressing R3 will display key items that can be interacted with, but it will also highlight visible enemies (she can’t see through walls, after all). If they’re red, taking them out will be visible to other enemies, while a yellow-outlined enemy can be taken out silently if so desired. Once in combat, Lara can hide back in bushes, behind cover, or up in the trees if she can break her enemies’ line of sight. So there are options to stealthily take down enemies, but also options to get back into stealth mode once cover is blown.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider represents Lara Croft’s biggest adventure in the rebooted franchise. Thus, it necessitates new ways to traverse a world that is also bigger than ever. Lara can now rappel off certain textures on the sides of walls, for instance. This will lower her to a new location down below. The implications this has for level design are obvious, as now areas will not only be built horizontally, but vertically as well. This also means that threats can come from all directions now. Rappelling is as simple as pressing L2 when climbing on a valid wall texture. Holding L2 allows the player to adjust Lara’s height, and once at the desired level she can swing back and forth before leaping forward, or pressing circle to simply drop down. It’s a good change that will open up the game in new ways.
As the big launch day approaches, fans have a lot to look forward to in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. New stealth and swimming mechanics mean there are more ways to take down enemies than ever before. Meanwhile, adding the ability to rappel should result in more vertical level designs, which could also mean threats coming from all directions. The massive open-world hub of Paititi also brings with it the promise of always having something new to do and see in the wide world that Eidos Montréal has brought to life. While we have to withhold our final judgement until launch, things are looking promising to give this reboot the strong finish it needs when Shadow of the Tomb Raider launches on September 14, 2018.