Though I'm a Tomb Raider fan, especially since it was rebooted several years ago, I must admit I've never found it easy to care about the story. In 2013's game, Lara was surrounded by many characters, both allies and enemies, and none of them really stood out as anything more than fodder to help move the plot forward. 2015's follow-up, Rise of the Tomb Raider, gave us fewer characters, tried making her close friend Jonah into something more like a character worth rooting for, but again surrounded Lara with more lackluster, often cookie-cutter bad guys. So I was a bit surprised when my E3 demo of this fall's Shadow of the Tomb Raider showcased a hint of what might actually be some meaningful story content.
For the bulk of my hands-on time, while I was thinking of how I would report back on what I saw, I couldn't help but feel like it was more of the same from the series. Despite moving to a new studio, Shadow largely plays like its predecessors, especially Rise. Crafting supplies is again a big focus and Lara will find salvage all over the place just as she did in 2015's game. Environmental puzzles, of course, make a return and the major puzzle I solved in my demo was quite well thought out, but like the environments, combat, and general danger Lara always finds herself in, it was just all a bit too familiar.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, as those who enjoy the series and haven't yet tired of the formula look to have another winner on their hands. However, I struggled to see much that was new and exciting. Lara is meant to be a more dangerous predator in Shadow, and I did see a bit of that. New stealth mechanics, like hiding in ivy and tall grass, let me stalk the Trinity hired guns in a way this series hasn't tried before, and more contextual kills meant she often looked stylish doing it too. Ultimately these touch-ups didn't feel so drastic, and I was left feeling like this sequel will be good, maybe even very good, but maybe too familiar for some players.
Then the last cutscene happened and I had a change of heart. As the town in which Lara and Trinity duke it out disappears in a flash flood, Jonah pleads with Lara to stop her treasure quest and fix the more immediate issue. Innocent people were dying, being washed away in the flood with cars, street signs, anything else that wasn't tied down tightly. Jonah yelled at Lara about how she could save these people right then and there, but Lara, blaming herself for the chaos in the first place (due to story reasons I wasn't given in my demo) rejected Jonah's cry for help. Hellbent on fixing the more long-term issues, she abandoned Jonah and these people to go chase whatever endgame solution she believes is just outside her grasp.
Jonah has long been her closest ally, but Lara risks alienating him in our E3 demo.
Such a moment was very interesting in my eyes, as so often in this series is Lara seen as an almost infallible ally and hero. She gets into constant danger, sure, but she never really feels like she's in the wrong. I always felt like she's just one death-defying jump from saving everybody and becoming the golden savior of the local people. This time, that was unexpectedly — and refreshingly — not the case. If Lara can be depicted as in the wrong or even selfish like she seemed to be in the demo, Shadow would go a long way to selling the story in a way its predecessors have not done. A do-no-wrong hero gets pretty boring pretty quickly, so for this series to trot her out like that again would feel wrong.
My hope is that this change in Lara will be thematically important across the entire game. I'm now wishing for a game wherein Lara is becoming what she has so often opposed and she needs her allies to pull her out of her tunnel vision. If Eidos Montreal can give us this new Lara, her journey across the last three games will take on an entirely new meaning. They'll give us an interesting, imperfect, conflicted hero that even the studio who rebirthed her never gave us.
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