The last decade of Tomb Raider games has seen a substantial overhaul for its adventuring protagonist, Lara Croft – and the next entry in the series is giving players more control than ever on how they navigate the game.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, out September 14, marks the end of the trilogy that delved into the origins of the classic action heroine to find a character struggling to live up to her legacy.
That’s true on various levels: while developer Crystal Dynamics are to be credited for the handling of the iconic character, it was clear from the sales woes of 2003’s Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness that a major rethink of the series was needed.
We got our first hands-on with the game earlier this year, but in the months since the development team have been quietly working on a number of new changes – including dedicated difficult settings for puzzles, combat, and exploration throughout the game.
Whatever you want, whatever you need
Difficulty has been an ongoing concern throughout the rebooted trilogy. 2013’s Tomb Raider saw Lara as a rookie explorer barely able to survive, more hunted than hunter, in a radical reversal of the butt-kicking but reductive portrayal that launched the original series to success in the early 90s.
Ledges are just out of reach, rope ladders pull taut and threaten to snap under your weight, and it’s clear from Lara’s voice and animations that she’s pushed right to the limit following every move you put her through.
So a rethink of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s difficulty settings seems like a natural extension of the gameplay defining the recent games.
Now, rather than applying a blanket difficulty level to all aspects of the gameplay, players can pick and choose where they want to be challenged, and where they want more of a helping hand.
You might be after tougher puzzles, but not want beefier enemies slowing you down on your way between tombs. Conversely, you might fancy some real edge-of-your seat combat without giving yourself a headache over figuring out your route through the jungle.
We spoke to Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s lead game designer, Heath Smith, and narrative director Jason Dozois about what this means for the players.
“For us it was about solving a problem,” Smith says. “For people who love puzzles? They never want a hint. And the people who don’t like puzzles or aren’t good at them, they want a clue right away, and we knew we needed to find the sweet spot for that.”
The new design choices came directly out of conversations with players and the response to previous games on online message forums.
“We always hear from the community that they want more puzzles and harder puzzles, they want harder combat and traversal, more old school gameplay,” Dozois says. “For people who want to experience it that way, they can do it.”
“There was a group online, called growl: Get Rid Of White Ledges. Some people don’t want any help in exploring the stuff – which never bothered me – but some people want to be in the jungle, completely immersed, with all the hints taken away. And it lets us make the game as difficult as you want it to be.”
Unlike combat, where it’s comparatively simple to tweak hit points, damage stats or the number of enemies, the puzzles and exploration posed more of a challenge, requiring “hundreds of extra lines of code” to allow for the variation the developers wanted.
The four difficulty settings run between easy, normal and hard – with a ‘Deadly Obsession’ setting for those really wanting to be challenged. We’ve run through the main changes you can inflict on yourself below:
For combat, the levels vary the health and damage stats of enemies, the illuminated silhouettes around potential threats, and the amount of ammunition that can scavenged around the map. The easiest setting also adds an aim assist, while the hardest removes HUD markers and health regeneration when you’re getting your fight on.
How do you make exploration harder? By fading or removing the white paint that shows the route Lara needs to take through a level, or reducing the amount of time you have to steady yourself on slippery ledges.
The Deadly Obsession setting gives a real kick in the teeth here by only allowing you to save at base camps, removing the quick save feature entirely and setting you up for a lot of repeat action if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Stuck on a puzzle? Chances are you’ll look to Lara to give you hints on what to do, or check the environment for highlighted objects that can help you complete the task at hand. Raising the difficulty here removes these markers, or even the Survival Instincts mode that helps you see animals or interactable items in the area.