As one of the more promising ‘reboots’ of recent times, a lot is riding on Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider. Gamers have fond memories of a particular type of Lara Croft; a strong, independent adventurer whose assets went far beyond the physical ones the early games tended to focus on. Rather, her wit, intelligence and tenacity were strong character traits that raised her above so many macho heroes filling the videogame landscape at the time (and up until recently, really), and as such, stripping her of any of this as a means to build her back up again, for a modern audience and gaming platform, is as precarious a position as half the ledges you’ll be diving for in the game.
With that in mind, I was offered the chance to get hands-on with Tomb Raider, and came away from just under two hours with it somewhat sold on its new direction, and a little concerned that the character the team is vying for might not play as nicely with its gameplay foundation, despite a lot of care having gone into remaining true to Lara's legacy.
For the most part, you’ve already likely seen most of what I played. It was the E3 demo we were all shown this year and included that infamous ‘sexual assault’ scene, but I won’t get bogged down in all of that, rather I’ll spend time talking about how the island, a character in an of itself, speaks to the player by way of design and art-direction, and how our new, down and out Lara Croft answers.
Like so many other titles that kick things off in heavy-handed storytelling, Tomb Raider drops players in the literal and figurative deep-end as Lara and a team of archaeologists and adventurers -- filming an expedition for TV -- found themselves on a sinking ship that has been torn in half. Without giving too much away, Lara is separated from the rest of the survivors and finds herself fighting against an entity no one would expect to come across at the tail end of escaping a sinking ship. This island then, is anything but
a paradise and we quickly learn that not everything is always as it seems.
Early on in Lara’s fight for survival, we learn about two major systems players will be utilising often throughout their adventure: fire and physics. In inviting form, the team at Crystal Dynamics, though dropping us into what seems more fitting in a survival-horror title, kick things off with a bit of puzzle-solving. It’s not as thought-intensive as you might be used to at earlier points in other Tomb Raider game, but to maintain a point, this reboot is about stripping Lara back so that she can grow, at the hands of the player, into the heroine we all know and love, only with a more modern context.
Moreover, this isn’t actually a bad thing. Not every puzzle you’re going to face in the game is built around grand locks for opening ancient doors, often they’re simply about survival and moving on, which is another major point to this game: pacing.
Once Lara has escaped her would-be tomb, you're given free control of her in the open for the first time. Standing on a slight cliff face, to your right is both majesty and chaos in the stunning illumination of your wrecked ship as it rests just offshore. The sun rises in glorious lighting behind it and the island invites you to glimpse at others who’ve also fallen to its devilish pull from the Pacific. However, as inviting as the plane wreckage in front of me was, I tried to jump to it and died before I'd even touched it -- a deathly reminder that while open, the game is anything
In fact there are a few jarring reminders that this reboot is more in name and character only, with archaic hard-fail quick time events offering gruesome deaths, and showing little in the way of progressive game design. There are saving graces here, though they are few and far between. Some climbing and leaping challenges, for example, will force you to react a second time to your first interaction as beams and handholds give way to Lara’s handholds. However, a simple press of a button in timed response is all that’s needed to maintain your progression, and once you learn how these play out, they’re easy enough to manage and work through.
The really meaty stuff actually rears its head when the island opens up for you, and you have a small playground to bound around in. I cannot understate just how well-designed all of these more open areas I visited were, and each offered tantalising paths for me to explore. And there’s a lot to actually discover on the island. I won’t give any of this away, but you’re clearly not the first people to arrive here, and throughout the ages each visitor has left an indelible mark on and beneath its surface, adding to its character I mentioned before.
The island can be a moody person, if you were to characterise it, with portions being pelted with heavy rain and gusts of wind, others ablaze in chaos and turmoil and still more baked in sun-soaked beauty. While reasonably linear in its story-driving component (read: player progression), the island is always a thing of light and dark beauty and is a place I cannot wait to get back into and learn more about.
But the key reason you’re here is to learn more about who Lara Croft actually is, and it’s in the player-choices for her accrued skills that the game appears to be heading in the right direction. Skill points can be spent on a number of attributes such as Animal Instinct which helps you spot or find rare animals and food sources, or Survivalist which rewards you with extra goodies when looting animal corpses or food caches and so on. There are two areas you can bolster: Survivor and Hunter plus a lot more I didn’t really have a chance to ultimately explore (or understand the benefits of), and while it is most definitely RPG-lite, it’s a solid way to give players a sense of personal progression in a game that is really just trying to drive you through an epic story.
Other RPG-type components also come in the form of collecting salvage which can be then used to upgrade weapons and items. Early on you’ll earn a bow, which can be used to hunt animals for food sources, or to take out enemies stealthily as you come into areas where it’s not all guns-a-blazing.
But this brings me to my last concern with the game, because about halfway through my hands-on I played out that gruesome first-kill sequence, which I will continue to play up as jarring and definitive. However, despite this Lara tends to ease into killing a bit too easy
for me. Every now and then you’re reminded of the impact of her survival situation through comments she makes, but I’d have much preferred an option for her to approach certain combat sequences in non-lethal ways, and to only go lethal when it was absolutely necessary. At least in the early parts of the game. I’m comfortable with the idea that she becomes a calculating adventurer who is not afraid to pull the trigger and stare danger and evil in the face, but given the point of all this is to establish that sentiment over a reasonably lengthy narrative it’s worrying that you’re rushed into being comfortable pulling killing so early on.
Obviously my near two-hours with the game is by no means a total indication on how most of my concerns will play out over what we’re told can be a 20+ hour gameplay session, but that they’re so present so early is cause for concern. The good news is that the island’s design in both level and art respects is top-notch, the combat is decent at times (headshots were an issue for me at a couple of encounters though), and the verticality the team has offered creates a different approach to how you engage the badguys, which is all good, I just hope we get to see more exploration and character development and less in the way of enemy walls and bottlenecks.
Thankfully, in the character department, my short glimpse of the story ahead looked more than promising with multilayered support characters adding to an already heady narrative. And again, I can’t stress enough just how important the character of the game’s environment is, and it’s a playspace you can file in league with other memorable environments such as BioShock’s Rapture or Batman’s Arkham Island and Arkham City.
As far as nailing their goal to reboot a much-loved and beloved videogame character, I honestly can’t say in the affirmative or negative. All of the components are there, but more time with the game’s systems, characters, story and environment is needed.