Shadow of the Tomb Raider

A bigger world, higher stakes, and an unexpected spin on Lara Croft's character make Shadow of the Tomb Raider the most ambitious of the modern trilogy.

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Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft has been an iconic video game hero for decades, but all that’s ever really mattered about her character -beyond the lumpy polygons of her original model-was that she’s good at raiding tombs. Various games have indicated that she grew up in a big mansion with her father, and that he was a big influence on her, but all that matters when she’s actually down in a cave is that she shoots tigers with her dual pistols and does impossibly acrobatic leaps up to high ledges. Anything else either got in the way of Lara’s status as a video game sex symbol (god forbid), or was simply irrelevant to the kinds of stories that the Tomb Raider games were telling.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the latest installment in Crystal Dynamic’s reboot trilogy, has finally made a big step toward changing that, and it does so by taking Lara back to her childhood. The hook of the reboot series, going back to the first game in 2013, has always been that they treat Lara as more of a human than the old ’90s platformers, which portrayed her as little more than a badass superhero. The new Lara grunts and groans as she fights off attackers, her fingers slip when she climbs up rocky cliffs, and she suffers horrible deaths when you fail to avoid spike pits. Yet, most of the character development Lara experienced in the previous two games was still just about growing more and more battle-hardened as she dispatched countless goons and-again-those dangerous cave tigers.

In Tomb Raider and its sequel, 2015’s Rise Of The Tomb Raider, you could’ve replaced Lara with almost are very indebted to), and it wouldn’t have changed much. That’s not the case for Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, which is very much a game about what makes Lara Croft tick. The prologue sequence makes else, like Nathan Drake from Uncharted or Samus Aran from Meroid (games these reboots this very clear, with Lara racing to disover a mysterious artifact before the evil, semi-religious organization Trinity does. She succeeds, but in doing so, she inadvertently causes the apocalypse and loses the mysterious artifact to Trinity. Basically, in her rush to beat the bad guys and prove how good she is at “archaeology,” Lara makes things much worse, and indirectly kills a lot of people.

Lara is understandably horrified, and, after a plane crash that separates her from her buddy Jonah, flashes back to a traumatic memory from her youth that kicks off what is easily one of the best sequences to ever appear in a Tomb Raider game. With very little prompting about what’s going on, you suddenly wake up as a very young Lara on her family’s big estate. Young Lara is playing a game where she’s trying to rescue the White Queen, a stand-in for her mother, who she says has been taken prisoner in a castle. That means doing a lot of standard Tomb Raider stuff, including environmental and platforming puzzles, but instead of musty, trap-filled caves, it’s all being done on and around an elaborate playground.

Shadow Of The Tomb Raider’s roughest patches push Lara around for the sake of the plot, reducing her to little more than the flat video game avatar she was in the ’90s. For one brief moment, though, while she’s standing on the roof of her home and wondering why she puts herself in such ridiculous situations, Lara Croft actually feels like a real person.