Shadow of the Tomb Raider review: Hands-on

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the upcoming culmination to the Lara Croft origins trilogy that began with 2013’s Tomb Raider, followed by 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Like both of those games, it promises a gritty, dark, realistic take on the series that wants to distance itself from the character’s rise to fame as a pixelated sex symbol.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t out for a little while yet, but we had the chance to go hands-on with the game at E3 2018, playing through 15 minutes or so of the game (which you can read below). If video is more your style, check out some of the biggest changes you'll see in Shadow of the Tomb Raider above.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider release date and platforms

The third Tomb Raider game comes out on 14 September 2018 - just six months after it was announced back in March - and will hit PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

PS4 players will be glad to hear that the game is coming out simultaneously across all platforms, unlike the timed exclusive which saw Rise of the Tomb Raider release on Xbox One months before its rival, frustrating fans and ultimately damaging the game’s sales.

Pre-orders for the new Tomb Raider are live now, so head to Amazon UK, Game, or Argos if you’re in the UK, or Amazon US, Gamestop, or Best Buy if you’re in the US to guarantee yourself a copy for launch day.

The regular version of the game will cost £49.99/$59.99 at launch (and if you’re in the US, that includes a limited edition steelbook), but if you don’t mind spending a little extra, there’s the £79.99/$89.99 Croft Edition which includes access to the game two days early, on 12 September, along with a DLC season pass, additional weapons and outfits, and a digital copy of the game’s soundtrack.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider hands-on preview

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: this is the third game in a trilogy, and so as you’d expect developer Crystal Dynamics is clearly more interested in perfecting its formula than reinventing it.

Across the 15-minute E3 demo drawn from the beginning of the game, which we played through once on Xbox One and once on a high-spec gaming PC courtesy of Nvidia, we got the chance to raid a tomb (naturally), sneak around a bit, shoot a few bad guys, and leap between some moving platforms and collapsing buildings with a few quick-time events thrown in for good measure.

It’s all very Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, all very Uncharted) but that’s really no bad thing. It’s a formula that’s proven particularly well-suited to that style of Indiana Jones-esque rollicking adventure, pairing gunplay and derring-do with the sort of over-the-top set pieces that only quick-time events can really keep up with (as shown off in the quick-time-inspired action in the recent Tomb Raider movie).

The E3 demo takes place in Mexico, and represents a chunk of the early game, some of which will be familiar if you’ve watched the recent trailers. Following the trail of some of evil organisation Trinity, Croft plunders a Mayan temple, steals an ancient dagger, and in turn triggers something called “the Cleansing” - which starts with an apocalyptic flood in the local town, and we suspect will only get worse as the game goes on.

It looks like the story will be a sort of fantastical way of tackling one of the big issues around series like Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones, namely the shameless irresponsibility of archaeologists just legging it round ancient monuments, breaking and stealing stuff as they go. This time around that approach is clearly going to backfire for Croft, and hopefully the game is willing to really examine whether ‘tomb raiding’ is really such a good idea after all.

Still, from a player’s perspective it’s hard to complain too much when working your way through a crumbling ruin is this much fun. The tomb in the demo is a dark, musty, underground construct, full of ill omens, mouldering skeletons, and some very conveniently placed platforms.

There’s a great verticality to the design, as Croft has to work her way up a pyramid, hopping between platforms that raise or lower as you step on them. It prompts some neat platforming and a few simple puzzles - none too taxing, but this is the early game after all, and the focus is mostly on introducing you to Lara’s arsenal, from pickaxes for climbing to rope arrows you can use to create zip lines or yank around remote objects.

The sequence is studded with quick-time events - moments where you’ll have to hammer ‘X’ to swim through a narrow passage or avoid a sudden drop - which are either an annoying interruption or a welcome change of pace, depending on your perspective, though the demo also ended with a more extended quick-time sequence, as Croft leaps between cars and crumbling buildings in the midst of the raging flood.

Before that though, there’s the combat. This has always been a bit of a tonally dissonant element of the series - the first game’s innocent young woman looked like a bit of a homicidal maniac by the end - but Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to have embraced the idea that Lara Croft is very, very good at killing people, and that’s that.

That’s most obviously reflected in the enhanced stealth options she has this time around. Like in the previous game, Croft will automatically sneak around in fights to avoid detection, using all the usual stealth takedowns, arrow kills, and throwing objects to create distractions. Survival Instinct is also returning, which highlights enemies you can kill without alerting any others.

New features include the fact that she can now blend into walls coated in greenery [insert Homer Simpson .gif here] to sneak up even closer to enemies for a sneaky takedown. More interestingly, it’s now possible (albeit difficult) to return to stealth in the middle of a fight so long as you can evade detection for long enough. This harks back to the Batman Arkham games, with getting spotted no longer a commitment to a lengthy firefight, but instead a chance to clear a few enemies before sneaking away to stalk the remainder.

This, perhaps more than anything, is a sign of what Shadow of the Tomb Raider is: a game that intends to live up to its name. For better or worse, the trilogy closer looks likely to plumb darker depths - of both the character and the tombs - perhaps pulling Croft apart as a character in the process.

SHOULD I BUY SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER?

There’s a clear confidence here from Crystal Dynamics. If critics complained that the earlier games’ violence didn’t match their protagonist, the studio has now tacitly agreed, shifting the character itself to be more violent, responsible for more death, whether intentionally or not. Who knows if the final game can live up to this early chapter’s promise, but if so it could marry the best of Tomb Raider’s mechanics with its darkest, weightiest writing yet.