Video games may not have been around for as nearly as films have been or even classic literature, but there are a few characters as iconic as protagonists like Hamlet or film icons like Han Solo. Characters like Link and Mario are timeless video game characters who have manage to stay relevant as the years have gone by. One character who in a lot of ways broke a few of the longtime molds of the video game industry was none other than Lara Croft, the star of the Tomb Raider franchise. For nearly twenty years Ms. Croft has entertained us but now she faces her greatest adversary: a major video game reboot that essentially changes everything we once know about the dual pistol wielding, shorts wearing femme fatale adventurer.
As close as Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series may be to our gaming hearts, the fact that the series is being rebooted once again wasn’t exactly something that people were excited for. After rebooting the series twice in one generation with Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and Tomb Raider: Legend, I think gamers were slightly burned out by the franchise but didn’t officially want to say adieu to Ms. Croft for good. So here we are, almost at the end of the current console generation with a new rugged take on the Tomb Raider franchise set for release that may or may not eclipse a certain other video game adventurer to become our go-to game for cinematic action-adventure goodness.
Like some of the other games I saw at E3 this year I sadly didn’t have any hands-on time with the new Tomb Raider reboot. For whatever reason Square Enix may have had, the game was merely being shown in a behind closed doors capacity with a demo showcasing a sizeable chunk from the first act. As a gamer that grew up playing the Tomb Raider series and who may or may not have had a crush on a digital character as a young lad I was certainly a bit bummed that I couldn’t get any hands-on time but was nonetheless excited to see what the team at Crystal Dynamics was doing with the game.
Over the last year or so we’ve seen quite a bit of Tomb Raider such as that breathtaking CG trailer from E3 2011 and some simple gameplay snippets that featured a version of Lara that moaned at nearly everything. But at E3 last week I managed to see that while Crystal Dynamics is doing some entirely new things in the Tomb Raider series they’re still going to give us what matters most: a game ripe with adventure and plenty of moments to feel like a hero.
The E3 2012 presentation for Tomb Raider started off in a rather traditional way with Lara overlooking a beautiful vista. With the setting sun reflecting in the water and crashed ships jutting out in a jagged yet beautiful way, the tone of the demo was solid from the get go and it helped that the visuals managed to convey a certain sense of awe. But once Lara began to move and traverse the terrain it was obvious that this isn’t the same Lara or Tomb Raider that we’re used to. Running near the cliff of a mountain path Lara constantly held the side of her stomach with one of her arms, no doubt because crashing on an unknown island will cause a busted rib or two.
What was interesting about the notion of an injured Lara was that it was conveyed through her animation of her bracing her stomach as opposed to merely having -25HP yet moving like she’s an Olympic class sprinter. In some ways it was nice to see a version of Lara that wasn’t a complete super being of some kind as she seemed like a regular flesh & blood person that was indeed susceptible to injury as opposed to being the distant cousin of Wonder Woman. Even better, I appreciated the level of detail Crystal Dynamics seems to be putting into Lara’s character model, both through her animation for certain levels of battle damage and for when she finds herself slightly dirty after exploring certain areas.
I’ve probably yapped about Lara’s animation and general vibe too much as the key question on your mind may be whether or not the new Tomb Raider follows in the steps of the previous games by being platform heavy. I’ll be upfront in saying that not much of the presentation featured Lara clambering, shimmying, or doing extraordinary jumps, but there was a small section near the beginning which showed off her basic skills. Seeing Lara do some basic traversal on the wreckage of an airplane did make me feel safe that Crystal Dynamics weren’t throwing platforming out the window completely as Lara had to do some basic jumps and grabs, albeit reminiscent of Uncharted, in order to proceed to find her missing colleagues.
The platforming in the E3 presentation didn’t look like it was old-school Tomb Raider in how it required precise skill, but it also didn’t look overly automated like the Assassin’s Creed games tend to be nor were there any annoying glowing or appropriately colored objects that screamed “I’m an object you can grab!” I do hope that there are more advanced platforming areas in Tomb Raider, but I am willing to prepare myself for an experience that isn’t solely built on such a thing as the game is doing some nifty things, one of which revolves around a version of Lara we can mold ourselves.
Since the new Tomb Raider game is a reboot and tells the first story in Lara’s presumably long career as an adventurer, Lara really isn’t in tip top shape nor does she have the fine survival instinct of someone like Bear Gyrlls. So along the way in Lara’s adventure she’ll earn XP for things, whether it’s completing the previously mentioned airplane wreckage platforming segment or completing an in-game objective like finding resources or her fellow survivors. Gaining XP in a Tomb Raider game may sound silly and like it’s a concession made to appease a more casual based audience, but it does have major significance to how the game is played.
After finding herself alone in the forest with rain falling from the night sky, Lara proceeded to take refuge and that’s where the demo showcased the new component of Tomb Raider: setting up a base camp. For the first time in a Tomb Raider game it’s possible to customize the specific features and survival skills of Lara, whether it’s being able to pull arrows from dead enemies, thus saving ammo, or having a stronger utility axe. The base camp section featured a relatively simple menu interface which can only be accessed at certain points in the game when Lara has downtime and is “resting”, or at least taking a breather from having mercs and god knows what else try to kill her.
The base camp and XP element of Tomb Raider looks like a rather nice addition to the game as it’s essentially a skill tree that gamers can choose to upgrade as they see fit, thus the experience I may have with Tomb Raider may be different compared to my buddy. I doubt upgrading Lara’s skills with XP will result in a mini-RPG type situation through grinding as XP seemed like it was handed out in the demo rather regularly though not to the point of defeating its purpose.
Lara’s days of toting dual pistols seems to be a thing of the past as her weapon of choice is now a bow & arrow, which she needed to retrieve in a rather unexpected way in the demo. The demo didn’t show Lara use her bow & arrow against human enemies, but I did see her hunt a deer to get some food and in a later section use it to fend off some not so nice wolves. As a base weapon the bow & arrow looked respectable and like it was easy to control, even if the Producer demoing the game wasn’t the best shot at times.
After gathering herself Lara eventually finds one of her friends who then had the unfortunate luck of being kidnapped by a man who may not have been on the boat with Lara. The first of two major dialog scenes in the demo, I was pleased with the direction the game was taking as it didn’t have that slight cheesy element of the previous Tomb Raider games, either because the sexual tones were being played up too high or because the premise and dialogue were B-movie grade.
It was interesting to see the dynamics in the cutscenes as Lara seemed sure of herself in a few ways but at other times she was clearly a novice adventurer who was a bit bummed out about getting her ass handed to her all the time. I wouldn’t say that Lara was mousy in the game as far as her voice and acting is concerned, but at times the performance did seem a bit uneven or like it was hitting some awkward dramatic tones which may have suited the moment but seemed weird nonetheless. Aside from Lara’s somewhat too soft voice and her weird line reading, I was happy to see secondary characters that were fleshed out and in some cases later turned on Lara. I don’t know if that would be a mega spoiler for some people, but at one point in the demo a fellow colleague of Lara turns on her in the hopes of finding whatever mysteries rest on the island, an element that may or may not involve an ancient Japanese goddess.
As far as exploration goes, the new Tomb Raider game looks to be handling that in a linear way; or at least it is near the start of the adventure. Crystal Dynamics didn’t opt to show us a massive part of the world for Lara to explore in the demo as she merely traversed along a basic forest section and a weird tomb like structure that seemed to be evoking shades of Saw if it had a tribal motif. The forest sections featured in the demo, in which Lara hunted a deer and searched for salvage to upgrade her ax, were modeled with loads of detail and foliage that didn’t look like it consisted of one texture wrapped over a model made of ten polygons. With that said, there didn’t seem to be too much in the room for actual exploration. The first forest section (the deer hunting section) was rather small, so much so that it wouldn’t had been a problem if Lara i.e. the gamer missed shooting the deer on the first go as it would’ve merely ran away a few feet. The same closed feel was also present in the salvaging section which was the most “gamey” part of the demo as Lara had to smash conveniently located wooden crates to strengthen her axe.
I don’t know if it’s right to worry about the scope of the exploration elements in Tomb Raider, but it was slightly disappointing to merely see a location with no real elements to explore or figure out like in the old games. Very reminiscent of how some of the stages in Uncharted are handled, there was a nice scope in the Tomb Raider demo sections, including a creepy underground tunnel featuring mystery meat reminiscent of what Hilary Briss served in The League of Gentlemen, but it was an obvious point A to point B experience as opposed to a grand puzzle or sandbox that could be explored.
If there was one thing the Tomb Raider demo showed it’s that Crystal Dynamics is really keen on providing variety in the game as opposed to brief stints of special action scenarios. Whether it’s throwing in a platforming section or an area in which Lara needs to hunt to replenish her energy, there was never a moment in the demo in which the game was stuck on one constant mode. Maybe that’s a sign of potential A.D.D game design, but seeing Lara explore, or rather experience, a creepy area, and then proceed to battle wolves while her foot is trapped in a bear trap, and then later do a bit of stealth action as mercs are burning an area did show that we could have a rather busy game on our hands that isn’t overly action packed but instead knows how to give gamers plenty of moments to hook them in.
Tomb Raider is a very different game compared to what we played in the golden era of the franchise during the PS1 era but in a good way. There’s certainly a level of familiarity to the game as seeing Lara Croft climb structures or battle wolves will bring back old memories, but the game is certainly its own beast as it’s not dredging up old plots or characters and simply adding slight alterations for the sake of being “new”.
From top to bottom Tomb Raider is an original action game that may have some shades of Uncharted to it, but when can that ever be a bad thing? The more “guided” or “cinematic” experience Tomb Raider is aiming to provide may not go over well with those who liked to spend twenty minutes exploring every nook and cranny of a tomb, but the reboot of the franchise could ultimately be the best thing for the series as its providing a level of realism that could make Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider brand continue to live on for the next twenty years.