Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review – Xbox One & PC

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Shadow of the Tomb Raider marks the third and final game in the planned trilogy designed to reboot the Lara Croft franchise. The game is hugely significant, not only for the series that was born in the late 90’s but also for me, both personally and professionally. Back 22 years ago, just after the internet had become a thing and before Game Chronicles had evolved into what you see today, I wrote this little strategy guide for my favorite video game of the time; a game about a female adventurer, a game that even prompted me to go out and buy a 3DFX daughter card to add to my Diamond3D video – state of the art at the time. That online strategy guide soon turned into ten…twenty…and then thirty and eventually evolved into the site you are reading today. You might say we owe our very existence to Lara Croft.

With that brief history lesson and potential hint of bias now out in the open, let’s talk about Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Much like how the original caused me to purchase that 3DFX card in 1996, now, 22 years later I found myself once again heading to the store to upgrade to an Xbox One X so I could experience Lara’s latest adventure in all its intended splendor. While no single game is worth buying a new game system, Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes mighty close. The sheer amount of design, detail, and special effects, not to mention 4K and stunning HDR support easily makes this the best looking Tomb Raider game of all time, both artistically and technically.

I played Shadow of the Tomb Raider on both the Xbox One X and a high-end gaming PC, and while a killer PC will obviously deliver a more polished experience you’ll need a video card that costs way more than an Xbox One X. My i7 6400 with a GTX1080ti card easily sustained a constant 60fps with all settings cranked to the max at 1080p. It actually went higher in the benchmarks (90+ fps), but my Sony 4K TV only does 60 so I capped it with v-sync. Cranking the res up to 4K required too much tweaking of the pages of options on the PC and I still had the occasional jitter or even a screen tear, even with v-sync. My Sony has a great up-conversion to 4K and in side-by-side testing with the Xbox running in 4K and the PC running in 1080p with all the fancy options maxed out, the PC was just as good if not better.

The game does a fantastic job of streaming level content in a way that there is virtually no load screens after the initial start-up.  Every time Lara squeezes through a gap or crawls under a branch or over a broken wall there is a short bit of animation that is masking the loading of assets.  It’s a huge quality of life timesaver that you likely won’t appreciate until you start using the fast travel system at the campfire prompting load times of a minute or more.  The PC loads are slightly shorter, especially if you have the game installed on a speedy SSD.

HDR is a game changer when it comes to how Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks. On the Xbox it just works and it looks amazing provided you have an HDR screen. You’ll see it most effectively from the very opening sequence when Lara climbs out of a crevice and enters a large cavern, and later when you arrive in Cozumel for a nighttime celebration there is all this colored neon lighting and other light sources that realistically glow vibrantly and cast colored lighting on nearby objects while creating rich contrasting shadows. Bouncing between HDR on the Xbox and non-HDR on the PC I was startled at just how bad the non-HDR game looked on PC despite the game supposedly supporting HDR. For some reason, this is one of the only HDR games for PC I know of that doesn’t allow you to enable HDR in the game until you have enabled it in Windows first; something I avoid doing because enabling HDR in Windows 10 turns all SDR content into a muddy mess including the Windows interface. So basically, to run this game in HDR I had to enable HDR in my display settings before launching and disable HDR after exiting; a minor hassle but worth it when you see the results.

To wrap up the technical portion of this review I also want to call out the support for Dolby Atmos, a sound format that adds ceiling speakers to the standard surround mix to create added immersion from above. Those with Atmos home theaters or sound bars can enjoy Atmos surround with the download of a free app on both the Xbox and the PC, and if you want to experience Atmos on your headphones you can pay a small fee to enable that feature. There were numerous times where the audio was quite literally surrounding me from all sides and above; the first and most noticeable being in the plane during the hailstorm after leaving Cozumel. At first I didn’t realize it was hailing in the game and thought it was an actual storm outside – it sounded like ice bouncing off my roof. Also, any time spent in the jungles of Peru will have Atmos realistically putting the sounds of birds and scampering monkeys in the canopy above you.

So with history and tech out of the way how about we talk about the actual game. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a much darker story than anything we’ve experience in the past; this trilogy or in the entire franchise. In many ways Lara becomes a villain of sorts, or at least comes off as no better than the Trinity forces she intends to stop from destroying the world. In her race to secure a pair of mystical trinkets Lara unintentionally unleashes a series of cataclysmic events resulting in the death and destruction of entire cities; a revelation that haunts and drives her through most of the game. It’s a much more emotional story than ever told before, communicated through fantastic cinematics and compelling voice acting. An early exchange between Jonah and Lara after she escapes a tsunami is particularly revealing when Jonah shouts, “It’s not always about YOU!” The look on her face is devastating.

Aside from this new serious take on the franchise and the storytelling Shadow of the Tomb Raider plays nearly identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider. We have the campfires and the crafting; the endless assortment of secrets and collectibles, and some of the most brutal combat of recent memory. If you thought Nathan Drake was a killing machine don’t get in the way of Lara with a pickaxe, let alone a bow or any of dozens of other weapons. The body count is in the thousands before the adventure is over and Lara doesn’t make any witty Drake one-liners while stabbing a guy in the neck or ripping the intestines from a Trinity henchman with her axe.

Basically, if you played the last game you’ll hit the ground running, although there are a few nifty new features. In addition to Lara’s super-human climbing abilities she can now rappel from cliffs and climbable surfaces, going up and down the attached rope and even swinging to ledges. This new ability is used often and is a believable and fun addition to her move set. Perhaps the more interesting new feature is Lara’s stealth abilities, which turn several sections of the game into Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed inspired game moments. In some areas Lara can simply hide in tall grass or bushes or even disappear into vines on walls. This ability is enhanced further in later parts where Lara can cover herself in mud and disappear almost entirely like Rambo. This level of concealment along with the ability to shoot out certain light sources to create pockets of darkness certainly helps when Lara is going up against 10-20 heavily armed Trinity mercs. Now you can take these soldiers out with a single tap of a button rather than engaging in all-out war…at least until someone spots you. These stealth sections are a great addition to the gameplay formula and keep things fresh with their almost puzzle-like solutions.

While Lara’s adventure begins in Mexico the majority of her adventure takes place in the jungles of Peru with more tombs, crypts, and collectibles than any previous adventure. There is a bit of linear exploration when the game starts and during the final chapter, but for the most part your adventure is based out of any of two villages or one large hidden city where you must disguise yourself to talk to either of the two city factions. In these areas you still have all the aforementioned quests and collectibles as well as new side-missions activated by talking to key people in the community. These missions are fresh and exciting and really immerse you in the culture. One of my favorite levels in the game is a dream sequence where we get to play as a 9-yr old Lara who is pretending to be an explorer, starting in her own backyard before moving into Croft Manor. Other games have explored her mansion and in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation you even got to play as a teenage Lara, but none of that compares to one of the best, and sadly shortest sections of this game. Pro tip: This is one of two areas that cannot be revisited in post-game clean-up.

The overall mix of gameplay styles and freedom to do what you want when you want creates a very welcoming and open-ended experience. While it is possible to stick to the critical path and knock out the story in 20 hours you will likely be underpowered as the game practically demands that you do at least some of the side stuff to level up Lara and bolster her abilities using the standard triple-zone skill screen. You’ll unlock all sorts of perks, boosts, buffs, and other abilities by spending skill points earned through gameplay as well as simply completing story chapters and exploring challenge tombs. The list of skills is too vast to name, but thorough gamers should be able to unlock 95% of them during a single game.

If you are a 20+ year fan of the Croft franchise or just got your start with this recent reboot trilogy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is sure to delight. There is a bit of shock to overcome with just how violent things have gotten but when the existence of the entire planet is at stake a few misguided zealots have to die. And yes, Lara has not escaped her own grisly death sequences, as she is frequently impaled or cracks her skull on a rock or falls into a bottomless pit, and then there are those pesky piranhas!

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a must-play addition for those who have played the first two or even just Rise of the Tomb Raider, although no prior knowledge is required, but there are a few comments referencing past events. Expect anywhere from 40-70 hours to complete. I know that’s a large spread but it also depends on if you are going for 100% completion and if you stick around and listen to Lara verbally describe every relic and read every document she finds. The sheer amount of non-story, non-critical, non-cutscene recorded dialogue is staggering, and I always felt a bit guilty when I read faster than Lara narrates and cut her off before she was finished. I love and appreciate all your hard work Camilla. There is also a Season Pass available that will be adding more Challenge Tombs as well as allowing you to play the tombs already in the game in new and exciting ways; definitely worth checking out if you want more of a good thing.

Rather than duplicate this review for both systems I’ll just combine Xbox One and PC all into one as they are essentially identical assuming you are either playing on a high-end PC or an Xbox One X. I only played about 30 minutes of the game on an Xbox One S, and as I said earlier, it sent me straight to the store to upgrade. I’m sure its “playable” on the S just as much as popcorn is edible without any butter. If you’ve been on the fence about getting an Xbox One X this (and a dozen other games coming this year) should push you over.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a bold new direction as far as mood, storytelling, and character development, and is certainly the darkest installment of an already-dark trilogy. And while there is a satisfying ending that will leave you with a smile on your face there is also the yearning of wanting to see what comes next in the continuing evolution of Lara Croft and her tomb raiding exploits. Hopefully we won’t have to wait long.

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