'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' E3 Hands-on: If at First You Don't Succeed, Die, Die Again

The final installment in a planned trilogy focusing on Lara Croft's early years, Shadow of the Tomb Raider sees her outnumbered and outgunned. Lara must use every skill in her arsenal to keep one step ahead of her enemies at Trinity and save the world from an impending Maya apocalypse (which she may have kinda-sorta triggered herself, oops). The game marks the completion of her evolution into an iconic adventurer, after years of tirelessly honing her survival and exploration skills.

Stealth combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be quite a formidable challenge, if the latest playable demo of the game featured at E3 2018 is any indication. This late-game segment of the story eschews tombs entirely (aww), instead finding Lara relying on camouflage and stealth combat in the jungle, stripped of much of her weaponry. Similarly, the difficulty of the scenario left me stripped of much of my dignity.

Lara Croft takes aim
Lara Croft prepares to unleash her bow while covered in mud, making her harder for enemies to spot. Square Enix

(Real talk: I suck at stealth combat. Partly because I lack the necessary patience and deliberation, but mostly because I'm just plain bad at it. I'm here for the rollicking adventure, the dazzling scenery, the fictionalized tweaking of history and clever puzzles. Now, hand me that flamethrower.)

During a thirty-minute demo, I died more than a dozen times. To my great shame, I even asked the person supervising me to take over, but then he died twice, so I reclaimed the controller and (eventually) got through it. I could manage the first few takedowns fine, but inevitably perished in a hail of gunfire before I could conceal myself in the bushes. If you're familiar with the controls of the recent Tomb Raider games, all of this will likely come easier to you. However, I found myself repeatedly hamstrung by the fiddly dual-button triggers to aim and heal, as well as maneuvering the camera to find a safe area. By the time I got my bearings, those henchmen had eaten my lunch. Again.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider E3 hands on demo
Lara Croft sneaks up on an unsuspecting foe in 'Shadow of the Tomb Raider.' Square Enix

This wasn't my first rodeo with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Back in April, at a launch event in Montreal, I played through an earlier portion of the game. In it, Lara explores the city of Cozumel in the midst of Day of the Dead festivities, then heads to the outskirts of town to traverse oceanside cliffs in death-defying fashion, finally wriggling her way into a claustrophobic sea cave in search of a precious Maya artifact. (Yes, I died a lot in that one too, but for different reasons.) Unfortunately, one of the niggling qualms I had about the game during that first encounter was also very much in evidence in my second: this is a game that wants you to do things in a very specific way, and it will punish you if you don't. Stepping into Lara's shoes in a fight demands memorizing patterns through trial and error, running through scenarios over and over until you execute them perfectly.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider serves up some truly stunning visuals and environments, and the traversal and exploration elements of the first demo are great fun, as was as the bit of platforming derring-do in a blazing oil refinery that capped off the second. But repeating the same gameplay beats—climb the tree, stun a guard, strangle his buddy, scuttle up the hill, wait behind a bush to take out a third guy, follow the path and crouch behind the crate, toss a bottle once the next guard walks to the left, etc.—left me frustrated with the linearity of the combat. Having played the Hitman 2 demo earlier in the week, which offered seemingly limitless options for taking down baddies (and was far easier to jump straight into), made the lack of alternate play styles in Shadow of the Tomb Raider seem all the more obvious.

I have been reassured numerous times that the release version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider will have three customizable difficulty settings, allowing you to tweak the level of challenge in traversal, puzzles and combat separately. And really, thank goodness, because I am gonna need to slam that combat slider straight down to Bullet Sponge Baby Mode, like, immediately.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes to Xbox One, PS4 and PC on Sept. 14.