Shadow of the Tomb Raider is just over a month away from release, and we were given the opportunity to play through an extensive sequence set in the game's Peruvian jungle. As Lara adapts to her new surroundings and responsibilities, the player must also adapt to a more stealth-focused and pro-active gameplay style. This video preview highlights how the game's thematic evolutions translate into the gameplay. Read on below for some more thoughts, along with some insight from Narrative Director Jason Dozois and Lead Game Designer Heath Smith.
From Prey to PredatorShadow of the Tomb Raider is designed to be a culmination of Lara’s journey to becoming “the Tomb Raider”, which is a little confusing as she’s been happily raiding tombs since the series was rebooted in 2013. But when I spoke to Jason about Lara's journey, he explained that this is as much about becoming a mature adult able to handle her mistakes as it is about becoming a skilled adventurer.
Jason Dozois: Emotionally, she’s not dealt with any of [the events of the first two games]. She’s so focused on this emptiness inside of her. “I don’t know who I am”. She’s so driven because she wants this [mission] to complete her. She’s so focused on Trinity to heal herself subconsciously... an adult reaction is that problems happen but you have to deal with it. Death is a part of life. Being an adult is accepting consequences and making the best decision.
In Tomb Raider (2013), Lara was very much the prey trying to survive. While she gained confidence and power during the events of Rise, it's in Shadow that Lara solidifies into a force to be reckoned with. In the story this leads to some pretty catastrophic mistakes, but in the gameplay Lara is a competent, skilled predator. While a lot of elements of the combat and movement will be familiar, there is significantly more focus on stealth in this instalment.
It feels a lot closer to the movement-based stealth of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag or Metal Gear Solid 3, albeit far more polished than either of those games. Lara can blend into the jungle overgrowth when crouched or where it grows thickly on a wall, meaning that she can infiltrate enemy territory and take them out quietly rather than relying on picking them off from a safe distance.
To balance this, Trinity forces are a lot more capable. They will zero in on your last known position and it seemed that Trinity were generally more lethal. They certainly move around more and across different levels of verticality, so you need to make the most of the water or the canopy to stay hidden while you track your targets. This encourages players to make full use of the new types of cover available and act like a jungle predator. You can cover yourself in mud, skulk in the shadows, and use your rope arrows to string an enemy up from a branch. All in all, the combat feels comfortably similar but more proactive and creative. I certainly had fun with it.
Heath Smith: The essence of Tomb Raider combat is agility. We realised that we need to create stealth combat that encouraged movement, as opposed to stationary gameplay attracting the enemy to you. If you don’t move, [Trinity] are much more deadly. There was a lot of iteration on the AI to fight the right balance of not too dumb, not too smart. Deadly but rewarding for you to play as the predator — strike and disappear.
Jonah Returns, and Sticks Around for OnceRise disappointed when reliable companion Jonah was whisked away early on, becoming only another rescue target just like the first game. He’s a great philosophical foil to Lara’s hot-headed righteousness, and I wanted to see more of their curious friendship. In the opening hours of Shadow, Jonah is a near-constant companion. As Mark noted in his E3 preview, Jonah reacts angrily to Lara’s insistence that she alone has to fix everything. Later on in the jungle, Jonah stays with you not just in cutscenes, but in the gameplay. He’ll help move obstacles and solve puzzles. This opens up his and Lara’s characters much more widely and I found myself more invested as a result. While you wander around, Lara and Jonah will talk about their situation, their competing philosophies, and generally show care and concern for each other. It makes Lara feel more human, which was sorely needed.
JD: I’m proud of some of the slowness and stillness of some of these scenes in the jungle, showing their relationship.Grounding Lara’s journey in humanity is further helped by the fact that the game is generally more crowded than before. Unlike the Remnants in Rise, the citizens of Peru have more movement. Lara is responsible for the threat that looms over them, and that feels like a more satisfying motivator for the player. Hopefully the increased activity of the game's NPCs continues into the rest of the game. We didn’t get to see the recently revealed city of Paititi, but the small settlement we were introduced to seemed to be a primer for an even more engaging and complex society to come.
HS: Jonah holds up a mirror. If [Lara] was by herself she might not normally vocalise the things she is going through, but with Jonah there, you get more of a sense of where she’s at. This is a more mature and more complex emotional tale that we’re trying to tell.
The Fear FactorFear is a significant theme for Shadow — not just for Lara to overcome, but for her to use against her enemies. The jungle feels actively hostile. There were two sequences in which Lara is facing off against the jungle’s jaguars, and it was genuinely stressful trying to keep track of them. They have the stealth and speed of the wolves and the raw power of the mountain lions that we’ve seen before. Luckily, Lara can once again take the initiative in these fights. She can now identify and use certain plants to enhance her senses for an edge in a fight. In the second fight, a plant allowed Lara to track the jaguar's ghostly imprint through walls and in cover, so she could get a shot off before it pounced.
Underwater sections are improved and seem to be more prominent. You have full directional and camera control, and it’s a lot more intuitive to dive deeper or rise quickly. This has allowed the team to create more complex and panicky underwater sequences, with fewer air pockets and more dangers. You’ll find stealth is necessary down here too. Eels and shoals of piranhas stalk the waters and can very quickly make a meal out of you if you’re not careful, so there’s patches of seaweed cover throughout to keep you hidden. Finding a balance between avoiding the threat and running out of air makes for a much more tense experience.
Play Your WayThis is the most accessible and customisable of Lara’s journeys since the reboot. As has been revealed this week, the game will come with tweakable difficulty settings. You can adjust the Combat, the Exploration and the Puzzle sections individually.
As we discussed on this week’s TA podcast, I immediately went for harder puzzles but easy combat. Dave would likely prefer to bring down the Puzzles difficulty in favour of harder combat. Whereas my puzzles would have no hints from the scenery or from Lara, Dave’s playthrough would mean that Lara’s Instinct shows interactive puzzle elements in blue and static elements in yellow, while Lara basically points herself to the next step in the challenge by thinking aloud. That might be useful for some players, as most of the puzzles tended to be more complex affairs like The Orrery in Rise. It’s a level of customisation more action adventures should consider so everyone can play their own way.
HS: We’ve also looked into the skills and abilities and customisation options, for example in outfits, to give a lot more nuance for how you approach the game. As Lara herself becomes more complex and strategic, we wanted to reflect that in the gameplay.
There’s less chasing around after basic tools and skills as well. Lara already knows how to use rope arrows and can immediately test out the new rappelling and wall-running features. The skill tree has been streamlined — it’s all on one page now, and is colour coded — meaning that some old skills have been combined into one option on the tree. This leaves room for the more exciting and pro-active skills for when Lara goes on the hunt.
An Achievement Teaser?We couldn’t get any definitive information on the achievement and trophy lists, but while the list isn’t his responsibility, Heath confirmed that the progression of the list in general is much the same as previous lists. However, it will include “one achievement that’s going to be a real challenge to players, linked to those new difficulty levels”. That’s interesting, because at the start of the game we saw an option to play through the whole thing on a harder difficulty with permadeath switched on — if you die at all, it’s game over. If that turns out to be the “real challenge”, this could turn into one of the tougher Tomb Raider lists in recent years.
You can find out how Lara’s darkest chapter develops when Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes out on September 14th.