E3: Tomb Raider Impressions

Originally Posted on June 17, 2011: Link.

Before we start this preview of the Tomb Raider reboot, I need you to do something for me: completely disregard everything you ever thought or knew about the old Lara Croft. Forget about the twin pistols, the short shorts, the ponytail, and the killing of dinosaurs. You can also forget about locking your butler in the freezer in your mansion (I know, I’ll miss that too).

Heed my call, because this game will be a complete reimagining of everything you were ever accustomed to, from the way Lara Croft looks, behaves, performs, and reacts to the new world she finds herself in. Instead of the sharp-tongued badass of old, this Lara is inexperienced, vulnerable, and unsure of herself.

Lara Croft, fresh out of college, finds herself shipwrecked on a mysterious island, trapped and without a method to get back home. After being knocked unconscious, Lara wakes up to find herself hanging upside down, bounded by cloth. Caught in a drastic situation, she is forced to use the trickling flames from a row of nearby candles to burn the garment off of her. In a rapid sequence of events, she falls over 40 feet down a shaft, hits the side of a rock, and lands on a sharp rebar that she has to pull out of her gut. Moments later, after limping to a nearby chamber, she discovers that she was about to become offered up in some sort of ritual sacrifice. Holy shit.

In another early section of the game, we soon found out that her only real friend on the doomed island is Captain Conrad Roth, her mentor that brought her to this frightening place. After being injured by a group of marauders and sensing a very frightened Lara, Conrad puts all of his faith into her to find out what they can possibly do to escape the dire situation that they find themselves in.

This sets the stage for the rest of the game and perhaps even in future titles, where she will learn to gain that courage and strength necessary for her to handle these circumstances with confidence. The determination to help Conrad is certainly the step in the right direction for her.

Tomb Raider also takes a very cinematic approach in its presentation. The only time something appears on the User Interface is when Lara approaches context-sensitive objects, such as when she reaches for a torch stuck in the wall or turn a crank to raise a gate. There is also no health bar; Lara will gradually look more beat up and exhausted the more damage she takes until she’s practically crawling on the ground. By keeping what is featured on screen to the bare minimum, the sheer weight of the world wears heavy on the player.

As opposed to someone like Nathan Drake who only seems like your normal everyday man but is instead a mass-murdering hero, every time Lara encountered a human or some sort of creature, there was no sense of sport with what she doing. She even goes so far as to apologize to the attacker for having to protect herself from certain death. And when death does occur, it can get pretty gruesome, as we witnessed Lara’s skull being crushed by a falling boulder when the person playing the demo intentionally failed to follow the QTE.

Only half of the game really takes place in these closed types of environments. The other half expands into an open world, with multiple paths for Lara to take and different areas to traverse.

One of the best features of these outdoor areas were the jaw-dropping weather effects. Seeing Lara fight against the torrential rain while scrambling up one of many ledges really captivated me as someone with a fond love for story and character-driven games. The sheer weight of the world is also intriguing, with our heroine moving and interacting with different surfaces in order to get from place to place.

To help her on her adventure, players will be able to upgrade Lara’s equipment, moves, and skills, which will be very important on her adventure. Equipment in particular is key, as she will only be able to traverse certain areas with the right tool. Thanks to the game’s Fast Travel system, however, players will be able to return to areas of the world they visited prior in order to reach these places and discover more secrets of the island.

As you may expect in a Tomb Raider game, there are also quite a number of different puzzles to solve, and with the help of her “Survival Instinct”, she is able to see the different objects and important areas around her that will help her put the clues together to help her escape.

It is clear that the main focus of the game is character performance. Every single voice actor has been fully motion-captured from head to toe, and were placed in the same room on a stage in order to interact directly with one another. This ensures that the interaction between the performers are fluid and lifelike. Instead of putting the focus squarely on the shooting and platforming aspects of the franchise, it appears as though the developers threw out all the obstacles that blocked the player from enjoying the story itself.

Things are dirty, bloody, and downright miserable for Lara, and they want the player to understand what she is going through. This is certainly a game that is targeted at helping gamers feel the highs and lows of her journey, and with the developers looking to toss out any recognition of prior Tomb Raider games, it is one that they hope people will become very familiar with. From what I beared witness to, I think I may learn to love the new Lara Croft.

If Crystal Dynamics is able to improve upon the features that are making this game prodigious, we may have an instant classic on our hands. Lord knows they will have plenty of time to do just that — the game won’t be coming out until next Fall. Maybe that will be enough time for them to completely redo the rather dubious voice acting.

In the meantime, feel free to check out the live gameplay demonstration at E3 below and see why my perception of Tomb Raider has changed for the better.

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