Version tested Xbox 360
Now this is more like it. To date, most downloadable content has been a cynical exercise in artificially holding a level back from the game and then punting it out at a price that makes you wince. In fact, that's pretty much exactly what the recently released Beneath the Ashes pack felt like when it belatedly arrived a fortnight ago: more of the same, and not particularly inspired either. More like a deleted scene to extend the game than a fully-fledged episode.
Lara's Shadow is a different prospect entirely, mainly because you're not actually controlling Lara at all. Instead, for the two or so hours that this lasts, the starring role falls to the mysterious Doppelganger who popped up a couple of times during Underworld. Tasked with helping out Natla, your quest is to restore the power source to a gigantic, ancient machine so that the withered old hag can, I dunno, take over the world via some bonkers old contraption. You know what videogame scriptwriters are like when they haven't had their Shreddies.
Thrown in the deep end, you find yourself in control of a character who might look a bit like Lara, but has the ability to dose herself up on amphetamine sulphate at will. Blessed with an array of 'shadow' abilities, she not only moves with lizard-like speed, but is pretty handy in the fisticuffs department, meaning the melee combat rather comes to the fore.
While Lara could merely scale ledges and gingerly crawl up rocky inclines, Shadow Lara can sprint-climb up any rock surface with a vein-like formation. To grab hold, you first jump towards the rock and then hold down LB or RB to activate her shadow powers. Time seems to slow down as you quickly scale each section, but your powers quickly drain, meaning you have to make precision jumps and quick decisions to safely progress. Should you overstretch yourself, Shadow Lara's grip loosens and she plummets dramatically into the abyss. But we're all used to that kind of caper, eh?
Fortunately checkpoints are generous and quick-loading, so level progress is rarely truncated, leaving much of the game a series of mini jumping puzzles as you attempt to figure out the best route through the sprawling chamber. Even better, the in-game hint system which was so mysteriously abandoned in Beneath the Ashes is back in Lara's Shadow, so that you can always dive into the menu if you're having trouble figuring out where to head next. That said, the overall level structure is much more intuitive than it was last time out, so progress is logical and less frustrating.
Within a few minutes, it's quite evident how different this episode feels from the rest of Underworld. I always found the combat side of the main game a bit of a necessary evil; a misguided attempt to tick the action box. The fairly lame shooting mechanic that dragged down both Legend and Underworld was made even more tiresome thanks to primitive, predictable and often buggy AI routines, with enemies often failing to trigger and standing stock still. But here, things have improved a touch, and with the Shadow Strike, Blast and Fire abilities at your disposal, the process of fighting it out toe to toe with those godforsaken Thralls and their lumbering oaf friends is more fun than it was.
Attacks are simple to pull off, and far more effective than the rather rubbish moves with which Lara was lumbered. When your Shadow Meter turns white, you have the option of unleashing a slow-motion roundhouse kick with a bumper and Y, or a focused two-handed blast with bumper-and-X. Alternatively, you can press a bumper and the right trigger to blast your pistol at high velocity. You still often have to perform the finishing move with Y when they hit the deck, but on the whole the close-quarters combat is much more of a viable option than it was previously.
On the downside, Crystal Dynamics has chosen to up the enemy count considerably, and seems somewhat keen to throw tedious Thralls at you at every turn. So what initially feels like an improvement gets dragged down by the incessant repetition of it all - especially as there are precisely two enemy types in the entire episode, and neither is a master of their craft. By the time Lara's Shadow nears its climax, you're forced to fight about 20 enemies in succession before a platform deigns to extend, and you'll be heartily sick of the continual circle-strafe onslaught.
While I'm on the topic of repetition, it's fairly exasperating to finish the first half of the game only to be told you've got to go back and do it all again in reverse. And yet as cheap as this padding tactic is, it's still almost as satisfying to go through the cavernous environment a second time, with all the linking tunnels and traps that you encounter along the way. The latter half, in particular, succeeds through ramping up the challenge and the increasing need to make precise use of the time-slowing shadow powers to dodge otherwise impossible traps. Slipping past them by the skin of your teeth offers the kind of satisfaction that few action-adventures can offer.
Inevitably by the time you've reached the conclusion, you have to ask whether it's really worth forking out another 800 Microsoft Points (GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60) for an extra two hours of content. In this case, yes. There's no doubt hardcore fans will warm to Lara's Shadow in a way that they probably didn't with the rather disappointing Beneath the Ashes. With zero replay value, this latest DLC feels a little overpriced on the whole, but as a proof of concept, it offers some interesting possibilities for the future direction of the Lara Croft series, and satisfies far more often than it frustrates.
7 / 10