Tomb Raider preview
Square Enix’s decision to reboot the tired Tomb Raider franchise was an easy one. Developer Crystal Dynamics’ decision to craft an origin story was anything but. In Tomb Raider they take the icon back to her formative years… and put her through hell on Earth.
During our time with the game’s opening few hours Lara goes through more torment, toil and takes more of a beating then most gaming heroes do in entire trilogies. She is put through the meat grinder, the kind of trauma that changes a person – and that is precisely the point. Having survived the storm that tore her research ship the Endurance apart, Lara is within sight of her team before being kidnapped by one of the island’s more insane inhabitants. She awakes to find herself hanging upside down like a piece of hung meat and awaiting a similar fate.
Survival of the fittest
Played out with basic platforming, a physics puzzle and a smattering of QTEs, her escape is the same slice of gameplay that Square Enix debuted Tomb Raider with back at E3 2011. It’s an exhilarating set piece that successfully sets the tone for their new Lara Croft adventure. It’s no secret that this reboot comes in response to the wild success of the Uncharted series, much like it was no secret that Naughty Dog were inspired by the original tales of Ms. Croft. So unsurprisingly there are a lot of similarities to the adventures of Nathan Drake. No more evident early on than when clambering across a rusting World War Two bomber.
There is enough in the first hour to dispel accusations that Tomb Raider is merely an Uncharted clone however. Survival is emphasised with base camps sporadically placed around the sort-of-open environments that form each portion of the game. These hubs bring up a menu that allows players to spend experience points on new abilities that improve three skill trees; survival, combat and hunting. It’s a nice little system that forces players to be conscious of what skills they unlock, and how that may alter the way they play. It would seem however that the ultimate aim is to unlock all the abilities rather than selecting a certain play style as similar systems may have you do. By collecting scrap – which can be taken from boxes littering the environment or from fallen enemies – you can also upgrade weapons and tools.
When the hunted becomes the hunter
In her bid to survive Lara can also hunt animals for meat, but this only seems to be a feature for show. Health is regenerative so hunted meat doesn’t replenish that, it only gathers more experience points. The idea of survival as a gameplay mechanic fades somewhat by the time the action begins, and when it does, it escalates pretty quickly.
When confronted with a kill or be killed situation at the hands of a manic captor, she shoots her attacker point blank in the head, coating her in blood. Horrified by her actions, she witnesses the gargled death throes of her victim. Her first kill. It’s not the most original scene but it works in conveying the panic and horror of Lara’s situation. The voice work of Camilla Luddington as Croft is also pretty good. Any sense of remorse about what she has done is shortly lost however as, in typical video game fashion, killing one person suddenly makes Lara pretty comfortable and adept killing dozens – and no doubt by the game’s end, hundreds.
Combat is again similar to Uncharted. The game will automatically crouch Lara behind any cover if enemies are nearby, which improves things, but many of the factors that hinder Uncharted’s combat are also evident here. When forced into a corner it becomes frustrating, and aiming is often more fidgety than it need be, but this may be a conscious decision due to Lara’s limited skill as a marksman. Lara Croft’s games aren’t famed for their combat though, they’re better known for the environmental puzzles. There were only a handful in the preview we were shown but they were pretty good and required more thought than you might expect. Further puzzles could be found in tombs concealed off the beaten track. Within these tombs are the kind of puzzles Tomb Raider fans crave, it’s just a shame there aren’t more in the core game and that the game hides them away.
In its first few hours Tomb Raider lays out the kind of tools that may see it become a very entertaining and recognisably Lara Croft adventure as it winds on. There’s no denying the influence of Uncharted however, and there will be those who call it a clone, but there is potential here and as always the proof will be in the pudding.
Tomb Raider will be released on March 5th 2013.