Sometimes subtitles help you hear characters talk because the audio mix is all over the place, or you have to turn the telly down because you don't want to wake the kids. And sometimes subtitles help you understand a video game's truth. It was the latter for me, while playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
During my 45 minute hands-on demo of Eidos Montreal's adventure game there were quite a few subtitles that caught my eye and - I've decided in retrospect - sum up the modern Tomb Raider experience. It goes something like this:
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Let's start with the good. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a pretty game. The characters are incredibly detailed and move naturally in cutscenes (Lara's eyes are perhaps the most realistic I've seen in a game). A huge amount of work has been put into making the environments packed with detail, too. The level I played began in a Mexican town celebrating Día de Muertos - the Day of the Dead. While tailing the game's bad guy, a chap called Dominguez who's digging up a bit of Mexico on the hunt for an ancient Mayan artifact, you can't help but notice how densely packed the place is. Candles and altars and bread and fruit and pictures and all sorts of clutter combine to make the town feel real. There's even a live band. Lara slowly shuffles through the throng like Drake does in all those calm-before-the-storm walking pace bits in the Uncharted games.
I quite like the story set-up this time around. I've always been fascinated with the Maya civilisation and some of the more eccentric stories associated with it (one of my favourite childhood cartoons is The Mysterious Cities of Gold). Shadow of the Tomb Raider's story ticks all my Maya mystery boxes: ancient powers, a lost civilisation, magical pyramids and all sorts of fun with the sun. Lara nicks an ancient dagger and in so doing appears to trigger the end of the world. The villain, this Dominguez chap, is convinced of this, and after capturing Lara says the apocalypse starts with a tsunami. Lara says he's lying. Lo and behold, the village ends up destroyed by a flood, leaving poor Lara to wonder: "what have I done?"
Also good: Shadow of the Tomb Raider has tomb raiding. After Lara comes up on Dominguez' dig-site, she discovers a Mayan pyramid inside a flooded cave. The cave is a huge place, impressively detailed and smartly designed to familiarise the player with Lara's many mechanics. To work your way to the artifact you have to swim, jump, climb and solve a clever rope puzzle before unlocking the prize. Inside the cave, it's just Lara, you and her occasional spoken thought (audio hints for those who struggle to work out what's going on). It turns out it's really nice to raid tombs as Lara Croft. Who knew?
Speaking of many mechanics, Lara has a lot. And that's a good thing, because it adds a sense of variety to her progress. She can climb certain surfaces with her pickaxes, rappel down, wall run, fire rope arrows and generally do all the things I wish I could do to keep up with my two-year-old in the local soft play centre. You never feel like there are multiple ways to progress or solve puzzles - this isn't a sandbox game, after all - but Tomb Raider switches up the tools required for the job often enough to keep things feeling fresh.
Now onto the bad. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the end of Lara's origin story, and so I accept there needs to be a tonal consistency across the trilogy, but by god the game needs to cheer up a bit. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is super serious - relentlessly so. Lara herself is one-note - the thing she is talking about is incredibly important and we'd better understand the gravity of it at all times. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is grimdark personified. Lara has clearly worked through any lingering remorse associated with stabby murder she felt in the previous games and emerged a deadly killing machine. Now she stabs with nary a care, willy nilly, in the chest, in the back, in the neck. More so than ever, she is a Ubisoft assassin, an Agent 47, a Tom Clancy super soldier.
I've come to accept Lara killing her way through hundreds of bad guys as she works to save the world. Naughty Dog's Uncharted series suffers from the same ludo-narrative dissonance as you switch from bloody shootout to emotional cutscene as the wise-cracking Nathan Drake and I still love those games. But the upshot of Tomb Raider's deathly tone is Lara feels empty, as if she has no personality. Playing the demo, I longed for the return of Core Design's imperious Lara, then pondered what a Tomb Raider game might look like starring an older Lara Croft. I'll soldier through Shadow of the Tomb Raider with this current version of Lara Croft, but I doubt she'll have made much of an impression by the game's end.
And finally, the ugly. The demo I played, which involved a stealth combat section that triggers after you lift the Mayan artifact from its home and must escape the crumbling ruins, betrayed the build's shaky foundations. Movement was a tad janky, the shooting a little erratic, the hitboxes a bit all over the place. I encountered a few bugs and on occasion the camera decided to embed itself within my troublesome cover. Eidos Montreal has a few months to sort a lot of this stuff out, so I'm not calling for an evac just yet, but I remain convinced that my favourite bits of this game will be those when Lara is on her lonesome in some mysterious tomb, pulling the odd lever and jumping from pillar to pillar.
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So, after 45 minutes with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I'm confident enough to report it's more of the same, and no doubt a fitting end to the big reboot project Crystal Dynamics embarked upon in March 2013. This is good and bad. It's good if you love these games, bad if you don't. That sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but it's important to note: Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn't look like it'll do much to address common complaints with the series. In fact, it doubles down on some of them, presenting perhaps the grimmest and darkest Tomb Raider game yet. Lara is battered and bruised, blood and mud splattered, crushed under rock, drowning and gasping for air and, when you fail to nail the quick time event, speared gruesomely by a spike trap.
Those subtitles... they really did nail it, didn't they?