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'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' Tries, but Fails, to Tackle Its Own Colonialism

Fun stealth mechanics and a passable photo mode can't free the series from the baggage of its core fantasy: Lara Croft is still just a thief playing at being a savior.

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Sep 10 2018, 1:00pm

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(This review contains light spoilers for Shadow of the Tomb Raider.)

“Every day it encroaches. Paititi will not survive its invasion. Everything we are will be taken or destroyed.” It’s not a line of dialogue I expected from a Tomb Raider game. But deep into the narrative of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it’s a position passionately argued by one of the main characters. They’re talking about the outside world. About colonialism.

And, though this character never says it directly, they’re talking about Lara Croft.

This Friday, when Shadow of the Tomb Raider launches on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, players will once again take up the mantle of intrepid British heiress and archaeologist. It’s (hopefully) the final act in the rebooted origin story of Lara Croft (Camilla Luddington), this time developed by Eidos Montreal in conjunction with Crystal Dynamics.

The basic setup is this: Lara is chasing down Trinity (a Dan Brown-like organization hell-bent on controlling the world through the acquisition of mystical artifacts) to the confabulation of what a town on the Mexican island of Cozumel should look like. Here, Lara breaks into a tomb before Trinity can, steals a ceremonial dagger, and triggers a giant tsunami that obliterates the town and portends the end of the world.

Even Dr. Dominguéz (Carlos Leal), the leader of Trinity and primary villain, underestimates just how reckless Lara is, saying “It never occured to me that you would just take it.”

Destruction seems to emanate around Lara, and because this is the third title in a AAA franchise, the scale of disaster has escalated dramatically. From the destruction of caves and temples to the flooding of a city to exploding an oil refinery— Shadow is bigger and more bombastic in every way.

At some points, Shadow seems like it wants players to ponder Lara’s relationship to this destruction. Is she the cause of it? The solution? Should she be involved at all?

An early voice for those questions is Lara’s Polynesian sidekick, Jonah Maiava (Earl Baylon), whose indigeneity is expressed the way “exotic” sidekicks were in mid-century adventure films: he’s big and strong and frequently “senses evil.” After one of Shadow’s many frenetic running-jumping catastrophe set-piece sequences, where Lara platforms her way to safety as the town she was staying in is literally wiped off the map, Jonah says to her, “You don’t know that you caused all this, Lara. Not everything is about you.”

Except, Jonah’s wrong. It’s a line of dialogue that sets up one of the forced themes the narrative hopes to wrestle with. But it falters.

Regardless of what these opening moments suggest, and despite the story team’s interest in prodding at the colonialist underpinning of making a series called “Tomb Raider” in the first place, everything in this world is very much about Lara.

Midway through the game, Lara and Jonah arrive at “the hidden city” of Paititi, which marketing materials remind us is the largest hub in any Tomb Raider game. It is indeed huge, and there are indeed many NPCs. But Paititi is less a vivacious city showcasing the lives of uncontacted Indigenous peoples and more a digital Epcot Center attraction built especially for Lara to peruse at her leisure: You’ll overhear looping conversations, and watch as fishermen, children, and women pounding corn into flour cycle through their animations in this terraced city of thatched roof cottages and ancient, hidden temples.

And, of course, in Paititi and its surroundings, there are plenty of things for Lara to collect.

Lara loves collecting. There are 336 collectables, and I imagine the DLC’s seven new Challenge Tombs will only add more. While the game tries to skew them largely to items pertaining to explorers and conquistadors (there’s literally an artifact tab called Conquerors—I’m not kidding, it’s a decision that was made), Lara still manages to steal plenty of Indigenous souvenirs along her way.

But Lara loves collecting Indigenous people, too, adding supporting characters to her orbit the way European “explorers” brought brown folks into their own personal legends of conquest. At first, Lara finds pushback from some of these people: Abby (Erika Soto), an Indigenous Peruana mechanic balks at Lara’s hunt for Maya ruins (since the Maya Empire never extended this far south); Unuratu (Patricia Velasquez), the deposed queen of Paititi, is skeptical of Lara’s presence in her territory. But Shadow is committed to aligning the locals to Lara’s perspective, and so, of course, Lara throws Abby’s ancestral knowledge back in her face, and convinces Unuratu with a brief dialog, winning over her, her young son, and their trusted military advisor.

Unuratu might be the queen of Paititi, but the city and its inhabitants are Lara’s—and yours, too.

Don't get me wrong, Paititi (and the rest of Shadow’s South America) does look incredibly expensive. It's clear that a great deal of time, effort, and yes, even research and consultation went into crafting it. As with Cozumel, and Kuwaq Yaku before it, I got goosebumps seeing a multitude of brown faces peering out from my television (even if incidental NPCs in this game have only one facial expression). This is the first time I can recall this many brown folks in a video game speaking Spanish without being cartel members.

In Paititi, I walked through market stalls and past villagers just living. They speak, teach, conduct business, and even gossip in Yucatec and Quechua. There is corn— real corn—and brightly colored, Indigenous art and clothing. I spent hours just wandering the city, amazed at something I never thought I'd see in a AAA game. I took over 900 photographs.

Shadow's creators seemed poised to finally include Indigenous peoples in a game without the grossness of "Western" imperialist tropes of savagery.

But, even here in this paradise, cliche adventure story ideals of the exotic and savage other permeate.

Deep below Paititi, is an old tomb—The Sacrificial Pit. One of the darkest zones in the game, it's here the game introduces the staple of jungle adventure: ritual human sacrifice. The game gestures at it before, in a mostly non-committal way. But in this blood temple, it indulges in this trope repulsively. Lara must crawl through hundreds of decomposing bodies, channel rivers of oil and blood to open passageways. It’s The Temple of Doom in overdrive.

Human sacrifice was practiced by many Indigenous peoples of pre-columbian South America. Human sacrifice was also practiced all over the world for millennia.

No matter how historically accurate the practice was, its deployment in this game (and across media depicting these particular peoples) becomes shorthand for showing how violent, uncivilized, and truly savage they are. It's used no differently here, and locating it within the majestic city of Paititi, only serves to condemn even these Good Brown People, as only slightly removed from the depravity of their ancestors and the game’s Bad Brown People.

In the end, what precious moments of indigeneity the game could offer were stolen from me. This isn’t a game about, by, or for Indigenous peoples.

It’s all about Lara, and Lara is an outsider, a tomb raider. Every brown face in this game exists to help her. Or die.

Racing through Cozumel, players are treated to the bodies of Mexicans floating dead in water. A young boy screaming for his mother as he slips from a wall and falls to his death on flaming rubble. Lara’s pilot, Miguel, is another early brown character who dies, horribly. There’s even two whole factions of antagonistic Indigenous people that Lara gets to kill.

And, boy howdy, that skinny white girl can kill in this game.

As the press cycle ramped up for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I wondered, as I often do—how far off the mark did the marketing team stray? Given that members of the development team were using phrases like “contact resistant cultures,” and emphasizing their work with consultants, would this be the Tomb Raider where I was surprised by the developers finally making strides to addressing the issues of colonial violence in a franchise called fucking Tomb Raider?

As it turns out, the marketing team knew exactly what this game was all about.

The last game in the franchise, Rise of the Tomb Raider made heavy use of Lara’s arsenal, adding skills and crafting to make her a more efficient combatant—but it pales in comparison to the explosive shadow of destruction Lara has become in this new entry.

I'm conflicted by the way Shadow of the Tomb Raider creates a more personal connection to Lara and her violence. This isn't the jingoistic, cartoonish, depersonalized violence of a Tom Clancy game. Players inhabit Lara, and her brutality (which is more often directed at brown folks). That left me with a conflict I couldn't compartmentalize, even as I enjoyed the mechanics of slaughter.

...stealth mechanics are only as good as the combat that starts when stealth is broken. And openly skirmishing in Tomb Raider doesn't feel great.

Lara’s skill tree now includes the option to craft arrows from neurotoxins extracted from frogs and beetles, when fired at an enemy they’ll lose control and turn on their allies before dying of suffocation. Given the density of enemy patrols in certain sections, it’s possible to tag every enemy in an area, and hide in a tree as they blast away at each other.

Speaking of trees, Lara can also use her tethering abilities to shoot an enemy with a roped arrow, jump down from the tree and hoist them into the air. Initially she’ll loop the other end of the rope around their necks and hang the bodies, but later she can hide them from enemies in the branches (though, the joy in watching a Trinity guard stumbling on a regular old body hanging from a tree and screaming “what the fuck!” is undeniable). She can even transform her kills into beeping corpse bombs.

All of which is to say, the initial comparisons of Lara Croft going Predator weren’t wrong.

But as much fun as the game has made slaughtering from stealth, the problem is that stealth mechanics are only as good as the combat that starts when stealth is broken. And openly skirmishing in Tomb Raider doesn't feel great.

The same quality of animation that gives Lara's exploration movements a deliberate fluidity makes her feel unresponsive in the heat of battle. The buttons are flush with options, but it wasn't until the end of the game I felt even competent at basic combat tasks like quickly cycling weaponry. Everything she does takes time. And while she has the option to choose between any number of rifles, shotguns, bows, and pistols—none of them feel differentiated within their class in the slightest. As a whole, it highlights however comfortable with killing Lara has become—she's not a soldier. She can be moved behind objects, but she can't properly take cover, vault, or lean out.


Listen to Dia read her review and discuss the game with Rob:

You can download the podcast audio here.


Reentering stealth is tedious, enemies swarm fast, and Lara both in terms of control and animation just isn’t responsive enough. Also, it turns out that the difficulty options for combat just jack up enemy health (from “burly guys” to “walking tanks”) and how perceptive they are (from “sharper than you’d expect” to “absolutely inhuman”), which is about the most boring thing possible.

And then there are the arena boss battles—thankfully few in number—but made tedious because Lara’s only real recourse in those moments is dodging, circling around, and trying to fire off with whatever weapons she has before repeating the process. Lara needs the shadows. When that isn't an option, the fantasy breaks down.

When you’re not turning Trinity soldiers, cultists, or random jungle animals into mincemeat—you’re probably in or on your way to a tomb. And if you, like me, missed tombs in Rise. You’re in luck. This game sure does have ruins for you to explore.

Both the Main Story Tombs and the Challenge Tombs are full of deadly traps, gimmicky puzzles, and a wide variety of platforms to leap off, cling to, and plummet to your death from. Besides the treasure you’ll pick up, you’ll also find plenty of big, stone steles to learn languages from inside the tombs (and a few scattered throughout the world). This time you can learn Mam (Maya), Yucatec (also Maya), and Quechua (Inca), and as in Rise, upgrading Lara’s linguistic abilities allow her to to read monoliths that will point her to more collectables and tombs to explore.

Lara’s got some new skills, which while dangerously overloading the buttons of a PS4 controller, make for new exploration and traversal challenges. In some tombs Lara will have to use new gear to do overhead climbing, while in others she’ll make use of her bow and arrow to shoot tethered arrows creating zip lines or operating massive, ancient machinery. And while the tombs themselves tend to present a good variety of challenge and the puzzles and design can be fun— Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t offer any freedom in platforming or puzzle solving.

There’s always one path, one right answer, and of course, it’s always expressly tailored to Lara’s skillsets. Again: For all of the game’s gesturing at the world being bigger than her and for the dangers of being a self-centered outsider, Shadow really is all about Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

You’ll never get in over your head, find yourself without the tool or skill needed, nor be allowed to come up with a solution of your own to get around those obstacles. Lara is more likely to die repeatedly from leaping with the wrong tool out, or in the wrong direction by mistake, or from simply letting go of a wall instead of clinging to it than players attempting to do some unanticipated crypt parkour.

If it feels like nearly every paragraph of this review is punctuated “It’s cool, but…” that’s because so much of this game plays out exactly that way. Shadow’s stealth action is cool, but once it turns into a gunfight, its marred by clumsy handling. The story’s premise of Lara-as-outsider is cool, but it only half-heartedly attempts to do anything meaningful. It’s cool that there are Indigenous peoples in this game, but everything about them is subordinate to Lara Croft.

This isn't a game that creates space for its indigenous characters as anything other than props, people who desperately need help, people to be corrected to show how Lara is the smartest person in the room. In planning the final showdown, Jonah presents one tactical option, and its downsides. Unuratu's lieutenant presents another similarly. But it's Lara who realizes they can do both—thanks to her. Her compatriots are left to marvel at her bravery and tactical genius as though they never would have thought of this on their own.

Even when they are allowed a semblance of righteous action, it's in service of Lara's ultimate quest (which just happens to align with things the Good Brown People need in the moment).

Unuratu is depicted as noble, strong, a leader. She's given moments of heroic action, but she's not a “hero.” There can't be room for her in that role. She can't save her people, she needs Lara for that.

This is Lara's fantasy. She's the hero. And the game does little if anything to puncture that.

Long before I sat down to play Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I was skeptical. But when I found out Jill Murray was tapped as Lead Writer, I remembered how impressed I was by Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, which set players as the leader of a slave rebellion in the Caribbean. Hearing that the developers had added “Contact Resistant Peoples” to their vocabulary? That this game would feature an “immersive language” option where Spanish, Quechua, and Yucatec would be spoken by NPCs, and Lara Croft would finally have to wrestle with her actions—it gave me hope. Not much, but a glimmer.

I wrote down two questions before I launched Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Does this game accomplish its goals? Does the world need another Tomb Raider?

I don’t think either answer is yes. Beyond concluding this exhausting, three-games-over-five-years origin story for a character whose original origin story was actually way cooler and accomplished in a single page of the instruction manual (OG Lara was disowned by her family and wrote books and articles about her adventures to fund her thrill-seeking lifestyle), this game falls well short of its intent.

Lara’s story of personal responsibility is flat. There’s never any real stakes for her, she doesn’t have to give up anything, and even if her actions are destructive—she’s always proven right. And while the combat and exploration can be fun, it really never achieves more than a very athletic Epcot Center attraction.

Even the photo mode (yeah, it has one) falters because Lara Croft’s South America is populated by people who are frozen in place, doomed to never leave the cycle of the one animation or conversation they’re given. You can spend hours photographing this world (and I did), but you’ll end up with the same staged photographs as everyone else—a lovely, generic National Geographic expose about Dia de los Muertos, or an uncontacted tribe in the Andes (and honestly, I’m sure I have those issues in a box somewhere).

Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t want Lara to fail, it’s her fantasy, and because of that it doesn’t allow players the freedom to be expressive. The game’s narrative gestures at wanting players to learn a lesson about colonialism, but even when it manages to make some small point, it's undercut by the very mechanics that make up 90% of the game. Even in Paititi, Lara can't keep her hands to herself. And when she takes, she does so with an almost malicious abandon.

I’ve always joked that the Tomb Raiders were better games than Uncharted, because at least they’re honest about what they are. But, if I’m honest. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, a game with significant problems, actually achieves more solid commentary on colonialism, sovereignty, and personal responsibility.

In fact, It’s hard not to think of other games that put this one in their shadows. Assassin’s Creed: Origins gave us a world full of vitality and possibility, and a better means to record it. Hitman let us be unbelievably expressive in how we navigated a space (and killed a lot of people). Breath of the Wild showed us the breadth of what an open world could feel like. There are just so many other games doing the things Shadow of the Tomb Raider tries to do, but better.

Buried deep inside this game, there’s a better one. There’s an Indigenous queen, deposed during a struggle for ascension. A society that’s purposefully hidden itself away from a world built on colonialism. The queen is a powerful warrior in her own right, nimble, and wise. She has choices she has to make, decisions about actions and consequences for herself, her heir, and her people. There are important cultural and religious artifacts she has to acquire to ensure the future of her nation, long lost and buried in her people’s history.

But that isn’t Tomb Raider, and it could never be.

There’s a moment an hour or two into Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where Lara flashes back to her childhood. The garden of the Croft manor is exactly the stereotype of an aristocratic English yard, but with a twist: in a huge sandbox, a wooden play structure has been erected complete with rope bridges, a slide, walls to scale, platforms to jump across—even a weight-activated elevated puzzle, complete with a “treasure” for solving it. In this memory, a preteen Lara narrates her fantasy of being an adventurer as players guide her through much of the same actions in the rest of the game. There are even childish drawings chalked onto the walls of the playset, and in-game collectables.

And while an after-credits sequence tries quickly to quell Lara’s more destructive impulses and instruct against the violence of colonialism, anything it manages is far too little, and much too late. No matter how much Lara changes in the course of this adventure, she's still an instrument of hegemony. This world remains a constructed fantasy, one designed specifically for her.

Tomb Raider is and will always be Lara Croft’s playground. And as uninteresting and fundamentally regressive as Lara’s tale is, that’s the only story that this franchise can tell.

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