I’m playing through Shadow at the moment. I’m actually really enjoying it, more so than I thought I would, as I had similar reservations with the second game. I would completely agree that the game does have a lot of problems, particularly in regards to Lara herself and the game being… well it is all about you Lara!
Firstly, I am also taking sooooo many photographs in this game. The art direction in this games is staggering. It’s very much a game of vistas and everything looks spellbounding, whether you are gazing over vast gorgeous jungles or submerged underground within the festering crypts you raid. Aside from literally raiding the game world of all it’s collectables, the real game for me has been the photography mode. Given the tone of the story, it’s so weird that you can make Lara smile for her photographs or Again, it’s all designed for you, with everywhere you look semingly rewarding you with some amazing landscape, or shafts of light emanating from above.
These games have always looked good but I think the creative design team have gone beyond what they’ve done in the previous games. The tombs in the last two games did feel like rudimentary puzzles, particularly in the first game where they felt like an after thought, but in Shadow they feel bigger and some of them actually feel hard (though I am playing on the hardest difficulty which lessens the ambient hints throughout the environment. The tombs are a joy and it’s genuinely a thrill discovering a new crypt and venturing forth. For an old school Tomb Raider fan who is so nostalgic towards those old 3D levels, feeling like you had discovered and were exploring this ancient hollow. That’s everything that appeals to me in video games.
The story is the weakest aspect and it’s something that was present in the last game to be honest. Again, as a big Tomb Raider/Lara Croft fan, I did think the character needed to be rebooted. Tomb Raider  did do that Christopher Nolan esque deconstruction of the icon fairly well, I remember that game being set out more as a bunch of challenges this character had to overcome. A young Lara shipwrecked on the worst island in the world with a bunch of psychopath members of the He Man Women Hating Club. There was no shadowy organisation suppressing people Lara needed to liberate, it was more survival based but it was always with trepidation that Lara looked towards the next objective. Like she had to go out of her way to climb the radio tower to activate the distress signal. Each set piece scarier than the last. Of course that game just turned into - “I’m going to murder everyone of you fuckers now” but as one of those games goes - I felt Lara was more endearing as a character and was sort of setup to become the heroine that made her iconic.
It’s just the story in the second and now third game just feels as if it is treading water. They brought in Trinity, which are the boring shadowy antagonist organisation for Lara to shoot arrows at from bushes. Both games have Lara going to some remote region, one snowy, one jungley, each being suppressed by the big bad, something something end of the world, skip to the end Lara saves the day. Added to the fact that the titles implied that we were yet to see Lara actually grow into the Tomb Raider. Whatever that means…
In Batman Begins they take their time before you see Batman standing on a gargoyle looking over Gotham, they find time to pave the road before going up against the Joker. They did the same with James Bond with Casino Royale. Cynically, this style of reboot is just away to take all the fundamental concepts audiences are familiar with and padding them out slowly as payoffs as legitimate beats over a series. Rise and Shadow both seem to be poised to usher in Lara Croft as Tomb Raider - whatever that means in this day and age.
Who is Lara Croft really? She’s a British adventurer, aristocratical background, she’s an orphan (which iconic character isn’t), she fires the two pistols, she maybe wears hotpants but I don’t know if you really need to go down that road tied to the Lucozade swilling 90s conception of the character anymore. I think this Lara is free to go in a completely different direction. I’m just not sure if Crystal Dynamics really knows where to go from here.
Which is fine, because I do.
Lara Croft - badass British adventuring aristocrat. In a world where everyone is angry at everything - a lot of people hate Lara Croft. Residing in her ancestral home of Croft manor - itself a tomb and monument to the Croft dynasty - a lineage that Lara has no volition to continue. She’s an icon in global celebrity culture, even though she doesn’t want to be. Rich and jetsetting, beautiful and for reasons the tabloids can’t fathom - not married. The animal rights activists hate her because she has been known to kill many endangered creatures during her adventures. The archeological community hate her because she never shares with them her discoveries, whenever she finds a tomb, she raids it, takes the prized artefacts and leaves the crypts half demolished. She retains all the artefacts in her home - for her own pleasure. She has all the resources financially, all the technology and the physicality to go out there and get whatever priceless artefact she wants. It would be alll about Lara Croft, but then maybe being Lara Croft isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be. She can only find solace cut off the world, pushing her body to the absolute limits in pursuit of whatever priceless thing she has her sights on.
I guess my Tomb Raider, would end with Lara having successfully collected the macguffin artefact and then putting it on display behind a glass box in her home. She sits down and looks at it for a while - reflects on all the experiences she had in getting it. She then turns her head to look out of the window at her next adventure, and lets out a massive sigh. Fade to black.