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Shadow of the Tomb Raider review - sleeping with the fishes

To the designer who thought filling a video game with insta-fail, underwater stealth sections was a good idea, I have a message for you: no.

A lot of your time in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is spent swimming. You’re mostly defenceless in these stealth sections as you plunge through seaweed to avoid detection from moray eels and schools of piranha. You can stab the eels (in a QTE, of course), but the piranha nip you to death as soon as you are spotted. It’s almost as if the developer decided to combine two of the worst things in video games - insta-fail stealth and limited-time underwater sections - just to personally f**k with me.

When you're not swimming, you might instead be squeezing through tiny cracks. The first time you cram through a crevice, pushing forward on the left stick while dramatic stuff happens, your chest tightens. By the fifth time, your eyes tighten and you fall asleep. No doubt these sequences exist to mask loading times, but it doesn't stop them being bad and overused.

It’s a shame because there’s also some good stuff here. Combat feels more immediate, satisfying, and each shot feels deadly. It looks incredible. On-foot stealth options are expanded, and there’s a focus on exploration over violently murdering people and animals. It’s refreshing to have the focus back on, you know, tomb raiding.

A good portion of the game is built around navigating acrobatic puzzles with a climbing system that’s far more hands-on than Uncharted - digging your climbing axe into a wall, rappelling down chasms, dangling from overhangs, and swinging from branches. There are moments where the peril feels fake - those squeezy gaps - but there’s often a real danger when clambering around.

When murder is necessary, you have many more ways to approach things: there are rope darts to string people up from trees; you can rub mud into your face for camouflage; and you can coat the tips of your arrows with a fear toxin to send enemies on a killing spree. The Lara Croft who broke down after her first kill is well and truly dead, replaced by an unfeeling predator who occasionally gets murdered by fish.

In this story - something Square Enix is dubbing ‘the final origin chapter’ - Lara is still chasing her dad’s dreams. This is where she’s supposed to make her proper transformation into the seasoned tomb raider we all know. Unfortunately, that transformation never happens. She starts the game as a selfish rich girl, and she ends it a little less selfish. The way she’s written, she’s hard to empathise with, and it doesn’t help that voice actor Camilla Luddington delivers her lines like she has dual pistols to her head.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes its Mayan apocalypse storyline overly seriously. The dialogue - particularly the stuff that plays outside of cutscenes - is atrocious at times. At one point, I thought an NPC was crying when they were actually laughing. Another NPC introduced himself to Lara twice in two different conversations that were minutes apart.

Of course, the script and its delivery could be overlooked if you actually did interesting things for these side characters. You don’t. One memorable sidequest is literally: ‘talk to five people’. Shadow of the Tomb Raider really wants to tell a gritty story and pull you into its fantasy, but there’s so much here that pulls you out.

For example, I have a hard hat buried in my bag of artefacts, and I bought an automatic shotgun from a Christian missionary. The uzi in my holster was purchased from an indigenous Peruvian tribeswoman who has never had contact with the outside world.

Tucked away in the options menu is an immersive language option which sees characters speak in their native tongue. It’s a cool idea, but implementation is bad. Each side of the conversation speaks a different language - these isolated tribespeople somehow know English - and everyone switches to English for cutscenes. If anything, it breaks the illusion.

There is the occasional flash of brilliance beneath the mud rubbed all over the game’s face - in one late stealth section, there’s a bit of one-off reactive dialogue that really impressed me - but it’s just a flash of inventiveness inside an otherwise unremarkable adventure.

For all the savvy tweaks to combat and exploration, Shadow of the Tomb Raider unfortunately feels like an extremely long expansion pack, now with killer fish and face mud.

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