Me and Lara Croft go way back. We've been hanging out since 1996 when I had to fit her in between math homework and calling boys on the landline, and I've never seen her like this. In this final part of the reboot trilogy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it feels as though Lara's character has finally caught up with the day to day murder that being a video game hero requires. She's angry, confused, poisoned by a apocalyptic level guilt, and it's much more believable to think that - with the end of the world very much nigh - she'd have no problem jumping out of some ferns and slitting a throat.
This time the action takes place in Peru, so picture rustic towns, jungle, lots of natural water features - all the better for showing off her new swimming skills - and tombs, puzzles and lots of wildlife to slaughter in the name of crafting. Honestly, you spend your entire childhood sponsoring a panda through the World Wildlife Fund and then as an adult you're chasing llamas and shooting arrows at frogs. The worst part? The only thing I got for killing that frog was a cold sense of remorse.
Killer cat lady
The game starts with that classic negging move, taking all your gear away from you and then making you get it back. You quickly fashion a blade out of airplane wreckage (suck it Bear Grylls) and then it's just a quick explore to find your box and climbing axe, box, and a massive murderous set of leopard twins. It's seems like a bold early move, forcing you to take on such a formidable predator, but the game fumbles the delivery a bit by grabbing control to show you a cutscene right when your blood is up. Luckily not long after fighting the Tiddles duo, the training wheels come off and you're into crafting and the basics of guerilla warfare.
Swappable outfits are always a nice touch, but the first you craft, from the pelt of the freshly killed leopard, had me worried. Yes, it was stylish in a recently divorced sort of way, but it must have smelt awful. As I watched Lara running around in the ensemble I couldn't get it out of my head. I know she's dealing with bigger problems, but she's not going to endear herself to the locals smelling like hot roadkill.
Learning the ropes
As well making questionable fashion choices, Shadow's Lara has been taking lessons from Batman, and has a penchant for stringing Trinity soldiers from trees like unconscious fairy lights. The stealth combat still doesn't feel as slick as something like Assassin's Creed or even Batman: Arkham Asylum, and when you grab a gun it feels clumsy. It's best when you give into the game's preference for stealth, and slathering on a full body mud pack and picking the generic, safely predictable mercenaries off from a safe vantage point.
Storywise, Lara is dealing with having made a huge archaeological faux pas, so her friend Jonah has been promoted from annoying sidekick. Lara might have evolved enough to be a darker, tougher character, but girl has zero jokes. It's up to Jonah to provide the comedy relief, and to give Lara an ally and connection to humanity. As you arrive in the towns, or 'hubs' that dot the world, and interact with locals, Lara has to face the fact that she's responsible for many of their woes. The developers said the hubs would be important places, but the one we saw was just a small taste. There was a local that needed help with some "pillagers," a few anecdotes that hinted at the location of treasures, and a market where I could trade my resources for weapons, ammo bags, or new clothes.
Of course you can't become the Tomb Raider without monuments and caverns to desecrate. One of my more puzzle focused experiences in Peru involved a huge rotating mechanism that was part of an ancient trial. Think a killer rotary clothes dryer but made out of stone and ropes. As Lara, you have to scale it to find a lever here, a switch there, and it had me completely baffled. I started making increasingly desperate leaps, retracing my steps, before I remembered that Lara can rappel down from walls she's hooked onto with her climbing axe. Oh.
Darkest Peru (minus the Paddington)
Once I'd got the hang of that, it was everything you could want from a Tomb Raider puzzle, it felt physical and weighty, and just tough enough to restore my faith in my own cognitive abilities after the whole rappelling embarrassment. The same was true of the titular tomb - they're hidden throughout the world - and this one had chunky, satisfying problems that required brains and biceps that have learned a lot from Assassin's Creed over the years.
So far, so Tomb Raider. The game did grab my attention when towards the end of our preview we came across a massacre of Trinity soldiers. We got just a peek at some vaguely bestial creature, one with a haunting hiss and a talent for gutting generic NPCs. I always appreciate a bit of supernatural waffle in my adventures, though god knows what the bastards will be like to try and slot an arrow in.
This is my first time with Lara since the reveal back in May, and I'm much more excited about the game after these four hours in the jungle. It still lacks some of the gloss that made my last jungle expedition, Uncharted Lost Legacy, such a looker, and it still has a nasty habit of wrestling control away from you right when things are at their most exciting, but the jungle playground, child sacrifice and monster vibe means there's hope that Lara will end this trilogy with a bang, rather than a llama's whimper.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be released on September 14, on PC, PS4, and Xbox One