Will Lara in Shadow of the Tomb Raider be at her old peak? What's new? What's to critizise? We played the game for you!
Here it is: My review of the gameplay demo of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which was playable at the reveal event in London. The demo can be separated into three parts and I will go into detail for every one of them. I'll try to avoid story spoilers where possible.
The part that was playble in the demo is the prologue of the game. Because of that it's hard to say if the whole game is like what was shown or if there will be any surprises.
The graphics of the game are top notch, but after Rise of the Tomb Raider nothing less was to be expected. Though since good graphics in video games are nothing rare nowadays, I'll mostly concentrate on the gameplay in my review, because in my opinion that's an element that is skipped over far too often when there's reviews of new games.
The demo begins with Lara and Jonah, who after Rise of the Tomb Raider lost a few more kilos and now sports a short ponytail, visit the Día de Muertos (Day of the Death) festival in a Mexican village. Lara also changed a bit visually: Although her face still looks like in Rise of the Tomb Raider, she gained more muscles, which shows especially on her arms. But her animations are still the same as in the last two games and because of that still look a bit clumsy at times. In the beginning Lara is undercover and sports a skull mask and a poncho. In no prior Tomb Raider game there have been as many NPCs in one place, which is impressive on a technical level. It's possible to walk around the festival, talk to Jonah and press the action button to make Lara give comments about different things. But this part also has a big constraint: Lara can only be moved at a snail's pace, similar to how she moves in the loading areas of the first reboot game. I personally am no fan of such restraints in video games. Some of the guests at the reveal event compared this section to Uncharted. But since I don't have a lot of experience with the Uncharted series, I rather can compare it to Life is Strange's movement system. In the end of the section Jonah distracts some guards and Lara leaves the village and finds herself in a jungle. At this occasion she takes off her disguise and reveals her new outfit: She still wears long brown trousers, but she changed her grey-teal tank top for a top that is reminiscent of the classic Tomb Raider top mixed with Lara's top from Tomb Raider Underworld.
The jungle section is rather short and blends into a climbing section. Lara can now use her rope to rappel like in Tomb Raider Underworld. Once more she's also able to do wall runs while she's hanging at the rope. After rappelling she enters the tomb she was searching for. The tomb section is pretty linear and a bit reminiscent of some of the optional tombs from Rise of the Tomb Raider. Another new skill of Lara is actually an old one: She's able to properly dive again. And with that I don't mean that she just "ducks" under the water surface like in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but that she's properly controllable three-dimensional as in the older games. The diving controls are good and didn't remind me of a submarine as the did in Tomb Raider Legend and Anniversary. But since diving is a skill that was there since the very first game in the series and actually should be in every Tomb Raider game, I can't say that it's especially positive, that proper diving makes a return in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
The puzzles in the tomb are old acquaintances: Shooting ropes with the bow, turn rope winches and use counterweights to get to higher places. If you played the last two Tomb Raider games you'll have no problem figuring that out. In my opinion those rope puzzles are a bit too easy and not a replacement for complex level design, through which you have to find the right path. But since the playable part was just the prologue, as mentioned earlier, I can't tell of all puzzles will be rope puzzles or if there will be something new to tease ones brain. A good idea would be to combine those puzzles with more complex level design so that it won't be too easy.
After Lara found the artefact she was after, there's a short fighting sequence. Lara still can sneak behind unaware enemies and kill them silently. If you prefer the more direct approach via shooting, you still have to make do with Lara moving rather slowly when she draws a weapon and that it's best to take cover behind a chest high wall. Here I would prefer if it was possible to overhaul the fighting system so that Lara can shoot while running around. Because let's be honest: Cover based shooting isn't the most challenging fighting system in video games. The fighting sequence is rather short, but that could be since it's the first fight in the game. At least in the demo Lara had all her weapons and Shadow of the Tomb Raider like its two predecessors once more has a 4 weapon limit and the weapons are the usual suspects: A bow, a machine gun, a shotgun and a pistol. I don't know if Lara will have all four weapons from the beginning in the final game, but that probably won't be the case. The reintroduction of the bow seems a bit weird in my eyes. Because in the beginning of Rise of the Tomb Raider Lara took a pistol to Syria as her weapon of choice and in cutscenes she also preferred to use the pistol over the bow. Because of that I thought that she would prefer a pistol over a bow if the has the choice. And since Lara apparently prepared herself for her adventure in Shadow of the Tomb Raider instead of losing all of her equipment in a disaster, the bow appears to be misplaced in her inventory.
Like in Rise of the Tomb Raider Lara can heal herself manually. But I don't know if there still will be automatic healing depending on the difficulty setting.
After Lara got rid of her enemies, one of the typical setpieces like those used in the last two games, began: A flood wave flooded the village from the beginning and the player has to control Lara through the water so that she won't get impaled on pointy poles. This section is very reminiscent of the white water sequences from the first reboot game, but this time around evading is easier which makes this section less frustrating. In the end Lara reunites with Jonah, which marks the end of the demo.
Crafting and RPG elements still seem to play a role since several pick ups can be found which signaled that Lara gained experience poitns or collected crafting materials. If her skilltree will start at zero again in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is unknown.
If you love Rise of the Tomb Raider and want more of the same in a different location, you'll probably be happy with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. After Rise of the Tomb Raider was such a huge leap forward in comparison to the first reboot game, I expected more than just well known elements in a different scenario. Gameplay constraints that are dictated by the story and setpieces where everything around Lara explodes leave me cold by now. I also see it rather sceptical that once more Lara has a bow and needs to level up and craft things again. In the first reboot games these things made sense, but in Rise of the Tomb Raider I already had the feeling that they were shoehorned in although the game still would work without these elements.
I can't recommend buying the game at this point since overall too little is known about the whole game.