Why Shadow of the Tomb Raider is THE single-player game to watch in 2018

Later this year, Square Enix and Eidos Montréal are set to debut the third and final entry in the modern Tomb Raider trilogy, with the launch of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. After overcoming Siberian challenges and resisting Trinity forces, Lara Croft is setting out to further topple the relic-hungry organization. With a skillset more diverse than ever, the iconic explorer has entered her greatest form yet.

On a surface level, Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn't differ hugely from its predecessors, with familiar movement, puzzles, combat, and progression. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Rise of the Tomb Raider received stellar reviews back in 2015. If you enjoyed the previous trilogy entries, you'll likely find something to love here.

However, with small but significant evolutions across the board, the game is shaping up as the best Tomb Raider so far. After spending five hours in-game since the reveal, we recommend keeping it on your radar this September.

From light to darkness

Without jumping into spoiler territory, Rise of the Tomb Raider concluded with an emotional finale, uncovering a dark secret behind Croft's past. Stakes are now higher than ever with a fresh threat looming, hurling Lara back into conflict to uncover a new spiral of secrets. Shadow of the Tomb Raider picks up shortly after the other games, making a playthrough strongly recommended before considering this entry.

Lara Croft's abilities have evolved considerably since the first game's opening hours, highlighting her evolution from fearful archaeologist to ruthless predator. With strong motivators pushing her forward, she's now stronger and more reactionary to the events around her. For the first time, large-scale consequences are sprouting as a direct result of her actions, rather than the internal conflicts pushed previously.

After awakening a Mayan relic and kickstarting a chain of cataclysmic events known as "the cleansing," earthquakes, floods, and deadly storms spread across the region. The journey takes Lara across South America in search of answers, while exploring an untapped realm of history and mythology.

Preview: Shadow of the Tomb Raider might prove to be the best in the series' history

The heart of the jungle

One of the main takeaways from our time with the game is its presentation, making for one of the best looking games on Xbox One X so far. While Rise of the Tomb Raider was already a beautiful game, Eidos Montréal has exceeded expectations with its graphical achievements.

The Peruvian jungle shines on the console, between both huge spanning vistas, and natural life on a smaller scale. Each environment features dense foliage spotlighted by effective shadows and lighting, while overhead animals and ambient noise add a level of dynamism to the world. Even with its somewhat linear format, the sprawling jungle portrays endless scale. This consistently culminates in one of the richest environments I've experienced, at least through my three hours of game time. That's not even touching on its gameplay implications, allowing Lara to use mud as camouflage, climb between trees, and better utilize foliage.

Comparable fidelity extends to cutscenes when stacked alongside Rise of the Tomb Raider, and they are a significant leap in quality. Improved facial animation, depth of field, and general presentation contribute to a huge gain, further doubling down on the cinematic qualities.

This leads to one of the highlights of the new trilogy, exceedingly present in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Eidos has found a unique blend of gameplay and scripted cinematics over the years, making for a tone that's unique to Tomb Raider. Smooth animations tie into movement, combat, and simple interactions, adding polish that just makes it feel great to play.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is being built with Xbox One X on the market, making for further upgrades beyond Rise of the Tomb Raider's patch for the console. A true 4K, 60 frames-per-second (FPS) experience isn't on the table, with the choice of 4K resolution at 30 FPS or 1080p resolution at 60 FPS provided instead. Support for High Dynamic Range (HDR) and various other graphical enhancements are also touted for each mode, ideally making for the best console version on the market. Although we've yet to receive details on standard Xbox One performance, 1080p at 30 FPS is likely.

Play it your way

Puzzles are another defining trait of modern Tomb Raider, likely occupying a considerable portion of your time as Lara Croft. Familiar puzzles return for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, with emphasis on accurate parkour, finding environmental clues, and executing moves in careful timing. While the puzzles we experienced were challenging, they often provided enough guidance to find solutions in a timely manner. Hopefully, these will remain fresh throughout the full game, alongside the new mechanics introduced.

As recently unveiled by Square Enix, several difficulty subcategories are on the way, hoping to make the puzzles and combat more accessible to all types of player. These options allow combat, exploration, and puzzle gameplay to be scaled dynamically, in accordance with your personal preferences. For example, this could draw players not interested in combat, while altering puzzles to make them more challenging. Provided options are well-implemented game-wide, this could be a great way to keep players engaged to completion.

Your thoughts

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is set for a September 14, 2018, release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PCs, with preorders starting at $59.99. In the meantime, we expect more news at Gamescom 2018 later this month ahead of its full launch. Let us know your thoughts on the game so far in the comments section below.

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.