Developer: Crystal Dynamics / Publisher: Square Enix / Release Date: March 5th, 2013 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
The “soon-to-be world famous archaeologist”—as a character in one of the opening cut scenes explains—is returning in one of those movie-style re-imaginings that franchise holders are so fond of these days. Lara Croft is young, a little green perhaps, yet adept and still so very hot. However, her story and character evolution is now planned to be complex, the emotions behind her actions refined, and this is supposed to be her true coming out party.
For a franchise that helped encourage PC gamers to add 3D cards to their systems to, ahem, smooth out those jaggies, and went on to inspire big-budget movies, fan fiction, fake mods, cosplayers, and great controversy in a still-maturing videogame marketplace, this new Tomb Raider is set up to be a totally fascinating character investigation.
Who is Lara Croft? What motivates her death-defying spelunking lifestyle? Really, behind that prim English accent and tight tank-top, what makes her tick, and how does she feel with each crazy encounter? This past E3 we witnessed plenty of spunk in a young, apparently inexperienced adventurer. We were treated to thought-provoking cinematography that revealed a curious question: How does she feel about her first kill?
We just spent several hours with the opening scenes of the new game and while it definitely showcased fun, challenging, varied gameplay mechanics and styles, quick-time events and puzzle-solving, the puzzle it hadn’t yet seemed to solve was that most important question: How does Lara Croft feel with each impressive feat, terrifying encounter, or against-all-odds success?
In the first few minutes I’d been impaled in the side by a sharp stick, fallen down deep ravines, swam underwater, dodged through collapsing tunnels, and stuck my heels (of sturdy boots, not stilettos) into the face of some random loon. But at no point had I stopped, smelled the roses…as it were… and outwardly commented “Wow, I’m a badass, and whatever this world throws at me, I’m ready.” (Or whatever an actual Lara Croft writer might suggest as her reaction). I may be playing as Lara Croft, but right now I’m not sure what that means.
Now that’s not to say Lara isn’t displaying any emotion. When you have to shoot Bambi’s mom (then track down and execute it if you don’t pull hard enough on the bow first time) …and then rip open the guts to get at the tender meat, you don’t see the blood and guts, you witness the emotion this person is feeling for the action she’s been forced into. It’s actually more powerful (or I’m just a wuss over animals in danger) than when she kills her first man, which is less harrowing.
What I’m missing is introspection. An internal dialogue of just what the flipping-flip is going on, and how did I just manage to do that. What is perfectly clear through intriguing cut scenes is how Lara got here, how the lead archaeologist on this expedition is a bit of a pansy, how the film crew alongside are likely better support, and how Queen Yamoko and getting inside the Dragon’s Triangle (like Bermuda, it seems, but with, er, dragons) are obsessions. These story elements set up a long-term, island-exploring adventure that’s ripe for Tomb Raider gameplay.
And it delivers quickly. Stealth moments where watching lighted areas to sneak by bad-ass enemies were nerve-wracking; they blended with situations where I thought I might be able to sneak, but when the proverbial hit the fan, I used every weapon (and skill acquired through the upgrade system) to stay alive. That upgrade system is one that means my Lara will likely not have the same exact skills as yours. You start developing simple—but possibly important—skills within packages listed as Hunter or Survivor, but you eventually add a Brawler option (and possibly more, since we covered just three hours or so of the campaign).
So Laras may emerge from this experience with a wealth of varied skills. What I hope is that my Lara emerges with a defined character, attitude, strengths and weaknesses that help shape a new seven-plus game jaunt through her adventures. There’s no doubt that Nathan Drake bit a significant chunk out of Lara Croft’s assets, and the first time I clung to a ledge by the fingertips, it was hard not to be reminded of Uncharted. But there’s also no doubt that the original action heroine is fighting back.
Hopes that a real character will emerge, that gamers of all stripes will embrace is possibly a little too lofty. But the style and focus is cool and the gameplay is traditional in many senses while adding fresh moments in quick-time events, and in some relatively open areas to explore at leisure. The visuals are looking very, very good, conveying through dilapidated villages, rocky ravines, and dense forests a range of locations for Lara to run, jump, climb, explore, shoot, and even grow, blossom if you will.
Now we hope that it all comes together.