'Shadow of the Tomb Raider' for Xbox One might prove to be the best in the series' history

Square Enix has officially revealed the third and final entry in the modern Tomb Raider series, paired with a heart-racing teaser of what's to come. Promising a journey with the highest stakes yet, Shadow of the Tomb Raider will wrap up the trilogy that defined Lara Croft's status as an iconic adventurer.

Though a few months remain until its September 14 debut, we had the opportunity to get hands-on with a pre-release Xbox One X demo to experience what's changed this time around. After spending an hour on an early level, we're eager to see where this journey is headed – provided it isn't afraid to innovate.

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Back stronger than ever

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the culmination of Lara Croft's journey so far, tying together the foundation of her origin story. Over the previous two games, we've seen Lara develop as a protagonist, shaping her foundations and adapting to the challenges presented to her. Showcasing her shift from an unknowing archaeologist to a ruthless fighter willing to kill, the journey most recently halted on a much darker tone after the events of 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Lara Croft is now in her prime, mightier than ever, with the experience of several perilous expeditions backing her cause. Having established strong motivators against the mysterious Trinity organization, she finds herself amid a conflict with far-reaching consequences.

Despite her successes so far, Shadow of the Tomb Raider also begins to explore a new side of the story – considering the wider effect of her actions. In recent games the focus has laid with Lara, exploring personal hardships and the drive to follow her family legacy. But after awakening a Mayan relic and kickstarting a chain of cataclysmic events known as "the cleansing," we see consequences with a heavier weight than ever before. Earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis could be rampant, with damage on an apocalyptic scale. Throughout the game, we're expecting to see Lara exploring Mayan ruins in pursuit of answers while holding off hostile forces.

Familar foundations

The fresh locale of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is looking to be one of its most promising features, taking the adventure to the modern-day Americas. Kicking off in Mexico and spanning further south with Peru, its narrative is strongly influenced by ancient Maya civilization and traditional mythology. As seen in recent Tomb Raider titles, the Mayan ties also add a familiar supernatural angle to events that unfold.

Our hands-on session kicked off in a small Mexican town, amid a Day of the Dead celebration bustling with locals. After navigating through the carnival and sneaked into an exclusive area, Lara eventually pinpoints Trinity excavators stationed at a relic dig site. Descending into the cave network, she needs to explore while unnoticed and race to the treasures stowed below.

If you've played any recent Tomb Raider games, the mechanics at the heart of Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be very familiar. The same balance of exploration, platforming, and combat is still present and our demo rarely deviated from this formula. The game also retains the cinematic style that defined this trilogy, preserving those tense moments filled with panic and rapid button mashing.

Platforming is still a primary component of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, requiring quick responses and planning. These mechanics are left mostly unchanged from predecessors, but a new rappel mechanic makes a welcome addition. Activated while on any climbable surface, this implements an added layer of verticality to Lara's move set. Players are now required to look up and down and not just what lies ahead.

This rappel system also makes room for several other tricks, including swinging and wall running for momentum, to reach further ledges. While our time mostly centered around dark underground environments, it's clear how these mechanics could translate to jungles too.

Similar puzzle design also makes a return, slowing down the pacing and taking full advantage of its platforming sandbox. Puzzles focused on weights, carts, and winches have all been revived, following a heavy presence in Rise of the Tomb Raider. While we're yet to see any hugely innovative puzzle types, it will be crucial for these to remain fresh in the full game.

For those who loved what Rise of the Tomb Raider had to offer, this could be a deserving conclusion to the origin story trilogy. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is built on a strong foundation, taking advantage of the well-crafted formula that left previous games feeling so impressive. But admittedly, without context, clear similarities mean this could pass as an expansion for Rise of the Tomb Raider. Without major overhauls outlined, this is shaping up to be an incremental continuation of Lara's story, rather than something revolutionary.

Despite this, Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels just as great to play so far, leveraging strengths of previous titles. Provided a strong storyline can be delivered with equally captivating gameplay in the long term, this could be a promising new adventure.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is on track for a September 14, 2018 debut, on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Preorders start at $59.99, with several higher-tier additions also in the works.

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Note: This preview was based on a pre-release demo of Shadow of the Tomb Raider running on an Xbox One X development kit.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.