This is Lara Croft like you’ve never seen her before. Robbed of her sass and her swagger, she’s no longer an antiquated videogame icon plucked from a long line of colourless badasses; characters born to single-handedly punch bad guys into a thick pulp and reel off one-liners borrowed from Hollywood. New Lara is endearing, smart and, most importantly, infused with human sensibilities. Cast ashore on an island home only to bastards and their bastard friends, she’s primed for her first romp in more than five years (Guardian of Light withstanding). This is an origins story though, and Lara C hasn’t travelled half way around the world to thump T-Rexes and titillate teenagers. She’s here to examine ancient artifacts. But nobody wants that.
Fifteen-minutes and a blistering cut and run stunt later Lara emerges alone and wounded; a rasping, wheezing, anatomically correct archeologist. Her interest in ancient artifacts rests at absolute zero, replaced instead by a newfound concern with not dying. She quivers in the cold air, watching on as ocean-waves buffet the ship she rode in on – now a husk lost to the sea. As she wavers there on the precipice, breathing in the sheer scale of her island prison, a tender refrain drifts up from the swirl below. But this isn’t music shot through with condescension. Lara’s in no need of pity, she’s merely a human trapped in the throes of some new horror reacting exactly how we’d expect. It’s an important distinction.
The music tapers off leaving Lara with nothing but the waves, the grumbling of distant thunder and her own unsteady breath for company. It’s a glorious moment that, through restraint, quiet and a complete lack of explicit goal, screams change.
Lara is the lynchpin from which everything else has been reworked and the net result is a more believable adventure. That’s not to say this reboot has cast aside any of Tomb Raider’s long-established tenets. The mishmash of combat, platforming, puzzles and exploration remains the lifeblood, but everything has been reworked, reimagined and reshaped to fit around Crystal Dynamics’ newly envisioned Lara.
Nothing is more symptomatic of that than this new playground. The island is a place of madness and madmen; a fascinating and spiteful sprawl where Lost’s exotic paradise collides with melancholy one moment and runaway awe the next; where every cog turns in tandem to create a world in which every cliff edge, every crashed World War 2 fighter plane and every toppled tree trunk spells out in grand capital letters your persistent peril.
The upshot is a promising origins scenario; a complete blank slate for us to witness Lara’s transformation from doe-eyed graduate to wily adventurer. Crystal Dynamics make good use of the baleful setting to examine Lara’s time-honoured pluck and, at times during the three-hour demo, it shares more with a good survival horror game than any of Uncharted’s grand Hollywood-tinted capers.
Despite its sinister edge this a deceptively beautiful world, although it’s rarely ever a welcoming one. The words “No one leaves” etched into the walls may be a touch clumsy, but everything sings to the same cruel tune regardless. If it’s not a wolf-den then it’s a jungle occupied by belligerents, and if it’s not that it’s a cliff-face suspended above a gorge lost to the misty haze some 65 feet down. During the final moments of the preview that sense gives way as Lara ventures out into a new part of the island. It’s less doom and gloom here and more wow, and it’ll be interesting to see how Crystal Dynamics juggle the various themes already apparent.
The newly worked platforming cosies up to the sense of persistent vulnerability but it’s hard to ignore the fact that, as with Uncharted or Enslaved, you’re generally safe. The tedium of holding the analogue stick in the direction you want Lara to go is kept at bay due to savvy use of cinematic cameras that bleed into the action fluidly and help claw back some of the sense of peril that naturally accompanies sashaying along a cliff-edge. There are also some dramatic QTEs and, get this, they’re pretty damn good. Lara herself moves with the fluidity and nimbleness of an Olympian to such a delightful degree that it’s almost to the detriment of the unconfident character we’re introduced to during the early scenes. But it’s easy enough to overlook.
Lara’s prowess in the combat arena is a bit harder to explain away. Combat is an elegant riff on Uncharted’s formula. It’s infrequent, relegated to a handful of brief scenes during the demo, and at its finest and most believable when it’s stealth flavoured; demonstrating that it’s Lara’s brain and not her trigger-finger that’s key to surviving this new adventure. The out-and-out gunplay is never spectacular, and there’s something unspeakably gratifying about the bow and arrow that Lara’s limited arsenal of clumsy World War 2 firearms can’t possibly rival.
That’s alright though, Lara doesn’t last long in open combat and why would she? She’s an academic by trade. Her talents put in her good stead to win a round of QI, not a Mexican standoff. So it’s a touch concerning that during the culminating moments of the preview Crystal Dynamics forgoes the stealth combat in favour of some rote third-person pop-up shooting that flies in the face of the brains-not-brawn Lara so carefully crafted during the opening stint. There’s an almost-boss fight too, although it’s mercifully brief.
It’s a general rule upheld throughout the demo that the more videogamey features struggle to gel with Crystal Dynamic’s fresh vision for the franchise. The profound shock of a particularly gory death early on is undone somewhat by an XP indicator that surfaces on the left of the screen. The ability to upgrade Lara is also at odds with the human character painted with such delicate strokes elsewhere and I could do without the Call of Duty-like weapon upgrading. She’s a 21-year-old history buff after all, not a graduate from the School of Lockheed Martin.
Not that any of this can truly dent newfangled Lara – not so far at least – nor the intoxicating world Crystal Dynamics have seemingly built for her. And other changes are more positive. The hub-sections trade in awe and excitement and break up the more linear areas. There are proper tombs outside of the critical path as well, which focus squarely on the tougher puzzles and platforming. They’re well hidden – I found just one during the preview – but the developer promises there’ll be more to find as you return with new and improved equipment later in the game. So far, it’s promising stuff.
Late in the demo Lara has to clamber up a radio tower that stretches uncharitably high above the island. One character has a shot at lifting her spirits. “You can do it Lara”, he says. “After all, you’re a Croft.”
New Lara pauses, perhaps brooding over a memory of another life spent thumping ancient carnivores on the nose.
“I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft.”
I don’t think she’s that kind of Croft either. This is Tomb Raider laid bare under the laser-like scrutiny of a developer that, while respectful of the franchise, knows it’s in need of a change, and this short glimpse is proof positive that there’s plenty of life left in Lara yet.
This preview was originally published on Strategy Informer.