Prior to the upcoming reboot starring video games’ leading lady, Tomb Raider games were improving with every new iteration. Anniversary was a enjoyable remake of the original PlayStation release, Legend was an interesting new tale, and Underworld was a great game looking into Norse mythology amongst other things. So why is it then that Crystal Dynamics have decided that the Lara of old is to breath no more? Why is she being born again as a fresh-faced 20-something with zero survival experience? We got to take the opening two and a half hours or so of the upcoming Tomb Raider for a spin and as it turns out, Lara’s rebirth might be the best thing the series has ever done.
Let’s jump right in with Lara herself. In previous installments, Lara is depicted as a rather cold-hearted woman; someone who’ll do anything and kill anyone to get her hands on a piece of ancient history. She had no qualms about gunning down humans by the truckload and even the most endangered or mythical of species stood no chance. The new Lara however, is fresh-faced and inexperienced. During the game’s opening scenes, she and a team of explorers are on board a ship looking for ancient treasure when Lara points out that they’d be better off heading in a completely new direction. Upon reaching their new destination, the ship and it’s crew capsize and wash up on an island where Lara is knocked out and towed away by the locals. Upon waking up, hanging upside-down, cocooned in a cave, it’s clear from Lara’s terrified response, this isn’t the same Lara that has gunned down tigers and thousands of henchmen.
If you’ve seen any of the trailers or demos shown off at E3, you’ll have got a glimpse at the new young Lara’s first moments on the island as she frees herself from her cocoon and escapes a collapsing cave. You’ll have seen her squeal in pain (perhaps too much) and take down her first enemies. There’s something about actually doing this yourself as opposed to watching it played by someone else that makes it extra special and oddly deeply involving. You’ll follow Lara as she whimpers in the cold around a camp fire, desperate for help. You’ll see her gut a deer and blow a hole through a man’s head in self-defense – neither of which she wants to do. She’ll cry and wail as she battles the elements and her new surroundings and it really works. It has to be said, this is down in part to Camilla Luddington’s voice work which is surprisingly convincing. The trailers and press footage don’t do the acting justice and despite being American for all intents and purposes, Luddington does a great job at convincing you that Lara is in turmoil.
As for the actual action, Tomb Raider opts for a mixture of platforming and action not unlike what you’ve seen in games like Uncharted. It will be the comparison many make but it bears more than a passing resemblance. Combat is less spray and pray than Uncharted though with Lara initially equipped with just a bow. She eventually acquires other weaponry including a pistol and a Japanese World War machine gun but if you’re accurate enough, the bow is all you’ll really need for standard enemies. The enemies seem to be fairly intelligent though, only too happy to pelt you with molotovs and blind you with floodlights so you’ll have to make use of cover (which Lara thankfully deals with without issue) and careful timing.
Tomb Raider also employs two differing upgrades systems: one for Lara herself, and one for her gear. Upon killing enemies, looting, or completing various main and side-objectives, Lara will gain Experience Points which can be spent on one of three categories which make Lara stronger and teach her new abilities. The other upgrades come from Salvage, a currency of sorts obtained by looting dead bodies, breaking crates and more. For specific Salvage values, you can upgrade Lara’s tools and weapons, making them stronger and adding new abilities. Her pistol for example, can be modified to fire in bursts, have a larger magazine or fire full-automatic. The only downside to the system is that Salvage is one and all making decision-making a case of which you want most and can afford rather than what you actually have the materials for. Want extra power to your bow? It uses the same Salvage as the extended barrel on your gun. Somehow.
Despite being on a single island, there are actually a good few, varied locations to visit, even during the game’s opening hours. You’ll move through caves, through forests, through ancient Asian structures and even an abandoned military outpost as you battle to access a radio tower, Far Cry 3 style. Lara is never really alone on her journey despite how the trailers might look, however, as she frequently regroups with fellow survivors and decides on the next move. The other characters are honestly rather forgettable with the exception of Conrad Roth, an old friend of Lara’s who gets into a bit of a pickle with wolves early in the game and enlists Lara to get a med kit from the wolves’ cavern. Because wolves love med kits. Roth comes across as a bit of a father figure to Lara, whose actual birth father has died prior to the game’s events. Other survivors from the ship just aren’t as memorable, perhaps because they’re not on screen much during the game’s early sections aside from flashbacks seen when Lara uncovers a camcorder from the wreckage.
Tomb Raider take a step in a brave new direction with Lara’s reimagining but thankfully, it works. Even in just under three hours with Lara 2k13, I felt far more attached than I had ever been with the Laras of old. Maybe it’s her innocence and the want to protect her as she tries to come to terms with murder and survival. It’s gritty, it’s edgy and it’s great. Even as the Tomb Raider logo flashed up on screen as the build concluded with Lara perched precariously at the top of a radio mast, I wanted more. Thankfully, the game hits stores in March so there’s not long to wait. Definitely one to watch and if the game continues as it did past the three hour mark, it could be a contender for game of the year.