'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' Hands-on: Death Is Everywhere, and It's Glorious

Lara Croft returns in the third installment of Square Enix's Tomb Raider prequel/reboot series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider. This time, she's uncovering the secrets of Mayan and Incan ruins in Central and South America. We had the chance to spend an hour with the game at a reveal event on Thursday in Montreal, and came away excited to experience more of its dazzling environments and roller-coaster thrills, even if we had a couple quibbles along the way.

The demo, which isn't the opening of the game but comes fairly early on, kicks off with Lara and her pal Jonah in Cozumel, hot on the trail of Trinity, the mysterious organization responsible for the death of her father. It's dia de los muertos, and below the balcony where the pair piece together their latest set of clues, people gather in a marigold-festooned plaza to mourn, drink, remember and laugh. Vibrantly colored skulls and countless candles glimmer here and there. Kids light sparklers, spouses wind their arms around one another's shoulders as they reflect on the departed. It's a gorgeous scene, and I couldn't help wanting to play tourist and explore further, distracted from the goons I was meant to be tailing. There was so much going on in the background, it didn't feel like an assortment of NPCs, it felt like the buzz and hum of real life.

After a bit of local color, the adventuring begins in earnest as Lara tries to infiltrate a nearby Mayan archaeological site before Dominguez, her Trinity nemesis, manages to get there and claim the plunder himself. Along the way, the game reintroduces mechanics from previous games in the series, like the bow, rappelling, crafting and good old-fashioned platforming. Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn't hold your hand with these gameplay fundamentals, it basically tosses you the keys and leaves you to it after a brief refresher. Hopefully the final version will have a more gradual learning curve, so the problem-solving aspect of the game doesn't tip into plain old confusion.

You might not be as embarrassingly and consistently bad as I was in my hour with this game, but you will probably die, a lot. You will die misjudging the distance of a jump. You will die missing the timing on a platform. You will die because you're barrelling down a tunnel and accidentally trigger a trap that launches a hundred spears out of the walls. But unlike actual death, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is sometimes forgiving. If you keep blowing jumps, eventually you'll be plonked down in a place that makes your route a bit more obvious.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider hands on demo impressions preview
Our early impressions of "Shadow of the Tomb Raider." Square Enix

Combat, however, is another matter. If you stink at stealth and prefer to go in spraying bullets all over the place (like me), you will be mercilessly shot to swiss cheese until you start chucking bottles to distract your foes. Yes, it's more "realistic" to avoid running into a horde of men with powerful guns, but this is also a woman who can land 40-foot leaps onto vertical cliff faces with one hand. Is it so unreasonable to assume she can take a few (dozen) bullets?

After some death-defying plunges across crumbling, sea-swept rocks, Lara eventually makes her way down to an ominous cavern, pummeled by the ocean's waves. The Mayans regarded caves as spiritually potent places, potential portals to the underworld, and the atmosphere Lara finds here makes to a startling contrast to the warm intimacy of the nearby town. This tomb is more than a memorial; it feels like the land of the dead itself, with heaping mountains of skeletons, scuttling rodents (complete with creepy-crawly violin music) and abyssal waters that must be explored to progress further through the ruins. The development team says underwater environments will figure more prominently this time around, and so far this aspect of the latest in the series is smooth as butter, blissfully devoid of camera jitters or fiddly controls. It's also remarkably claustrophobic and tense, an invigorating contrast to the colossal sense of scale elsewhere.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider's richly detailed world is shaping up to be the kind of place you'll want to spend more time in, even if you spend a fair bit of it plummeting to a horrible death. Check back in the coming days for more about Lara's latest adventure.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes to Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on Sept. 14