Tomb Raider Preview Part 1
B.C. Johnson / Aug 16th, 2012 No Comments
Tomb Raider needs a reboot like George Lucas needs retirement. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have banded together to reinvigorate the franchise. Who would have guessed that not only would Tomb Raider be a hugely anticipated title again in 2013, but that it might be the most exciting title of the year?
Lara Croft and her audience have plowed through ten games and two films of various and hotly-debated quality. Crystal Dynamics has been its newest steward, and have lately attempted to inject some new blood into a floundering yet still world-famous property. Lara Croft and the Guardians of Light introduced a completely different take on the Tomb Raider formula, going so far as to eject the Tomb Raider name altogether and instead offer up an isometric co-operative experience more in common with Gauntlet-style beat-em-ups than the usual fare.
In 2013, we’ll get an origin story and a reboot all in one, and we’ll finally learn how a normal British woman with Bruce Waynian wealth and a posh upbringing became the baddest, dual-wieldiest, tiger-punchingest, swan-diviest, dinosaur-battlingest woman in video games.
The new entry, smartly titled just Tomb Raider, strips away not only the one-dimensional personality of Lara Croft but in fact the titular gameplay itself. Tomb Raider is now Uncharted but through a mirror, darkly. If Nathan Drake’s heart-rattling tales take cues from cinematic pulp-adventure like Indiana Jones or “Romancing the Stone,” this Tomb Raider shows us an ugly vision of survival and brutality more in common with “28 Days Later” or “The Grey.”
This Tomb Raider is about climbing teetering structures that collapse at just the right moment (or the wrong moment, depending on how you look at it). The developers make fantastic use of the setting, giving Lara Croft more than cliffs and ruins to climb and jump over. Derelict ships from a dozen time periods, crashed WWII Zero aircraft and make-shift shelters all make exciting and collapsible ladders for the neophyte raider.
Having to climb a ridge and then a tree to retrieve a dangling bow from a trussed-up corpse is exhilarating and it happens in the first level of the game. Lara eventually learns to use her climbing axe as a zip-line handle, winging across death-defying gaps and gorgeous terrain with Ezio Auditore-like speed. Quick-Time Events, that wildly maligned game mechanic, even play a small part in the platforming, forcing you to keep an eye out on particularly difficult ledges and grips.
Lara is just as agile as ever, leaping and ducking and rolling, even if it looks like she’s enjoying it less than ever. To call Tomb Raider snuff-lite might be exaggeration, but Lara Croft takes falls, spills, slams, and spikes like the developers are angry at her.
Fire is a huge element in the game as well, not only providing light and much-needed warmth but also as a weapon and a tool. Parts of the environment are flammable, which can either be spotted by a keen eye or through the games Survival Instincts, a black-and-white filter that shows Lara burnable objects and objectives. There are dusty crates or collapsed timber block exits, hanging lanterns that can be severed and dropped to the ground like little bombs, and the ubiquitous leaking barrel of gasoline for your flamey-death pleasure. It’s also possible to light an arrow on fire once it’s drawn, which can be used to ignite flammable substances, pretend to be at Helms Deep, or to just deliver a burning missile into a dirty pirate’s body.
“A Survivor is Born” is the tag line, but it might be more fitting to say a survivor is carved out of wood by a pain-chisel. Lara Croft is young, naive, and unprepared for the trial ahead. Though the trailers feature her hunting deer for food and drinking rain water, the survival aspects of the game are more flavor than gameplay. You don’t have a food, water, or exposure meter, and are simply taking cues from the story. When the plot says Lara is hungry, you put a deer down with a clumsy shot and a surprisingly effective and tragic apology to the dying animal. Well, just before she guts it with an arrow and devours its delectable insides, anyway.
Like every game under the sun nowadays (where’s my caaaaane?), Tomb Raider features a few light RPG elements to mirror Lara’s progression from Tomb Victim to Tomb Raider, a nice touch that marries the plot and the gameplay together. Experience points are gained as you progress, either from exploration, combat, platforming, or finding new equipment. These experience points can be traded for skill points, which can be used to upgrade Lara’s fledgling badassery.
The trick is, Lara can only upgrade her skills at base camp, which is usually just a lightable campfire and a bit of shelter. Base camps, numbering almost a hundred, are discovered as you progress and placed strategically enough that you’re never too far from a warm fire and a bit of venison. At base camp, you can open a menu detailing available upgrades. Under the Ingenuity skill alone there are a dozen upgrades that improve performance, including: Increased Ammo Capacity, Safe Landing, Advanced Salvaging, and Arrow Retrieval.
Lara is new to the murder business, but after a bit of bumps and bruises and a pirate grope or two she takes to it nicely. Her first human kill is tragic, played as a dehumanizing, dramatic moment for the protagonist. Lara learns to use her agility and speed to her advantage because she is definitely outnumbered on the island.
In one playthrough, Lara creeps up on a pair of chatty pirates by skimming a low wall near them. She whips out her bow and takes out one of the three without the other two noticing. She eventually cuts the remaining mooks’ conversation short with an arrow through the skull of a particularly chatty pirate. The last living mook kicks over a nearby table in a nice display of enemy AI and lights Lara up with a machine gun.
Lara has a bow and doesn’t even try to stand her ground. The player leaps Lara across a gap separating her and her enemy, jumps away from another volley, and rolls behind the only available cover – free standing barrels that look older than O.J. Simpson jokes (zing?). Her cover disintegrates in seconds under another volley and the horrified player jets to another piece of cover that doesn’t hold up any better. In a desperate act, the player charges the machine gunner as he reloads and hockey-checks him off the dizzying cliff behind him, where I assume he fell into a pile of marshmellows and survived to see his family again.
The moment is fast-paced, brutal, and terrifying, modeling perfectly the sense that Lara is a woman over her head but resourceful and tough enough to pull through.
This is the first of a two part preview of Tomb Raider. Part 2 will run on Thursday, August 23.
tags: lara croft , preview , square enix , tomb raider , uncharted