We’ve been running around with Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft for 15 years now, and we’ve been through countless supposed reboots. We’ve seen little girl Lara, dark Lara, new developer Lara, original Lara all over again Lara, DLC Lara… the whole troop. But Lara has always been mostly the same person in mostly the same game. Not this time. The new Tomb Raider isn’t a reboot, it’s a reinvention. And it’s looking phenomenal. Here are five ways the new Lara shocked even us, and how it’s going to do the same to you…
1. It’s freaking dark
The old Tomb Raider games were clearly adventures. This one is practically survival horror. It’s gritty, it’s moody, and a little bit macabre.
Case in point: Our demo began with the very first level of the game, which starts off not with a bang, but with a living nightmare. In the opening scene, a young Lara (23 or so) gets shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. She hits the water, and when she regains consciousness again, she’s not in a Coast Guard boat. Nor is she washed up on a sandy beach, tired but safe. No, she’s hanging upside down in a candlelit cave, cocooned in some kind of full-body canvas wrap. She’s helpless, immobile, and totally alone; there are more wraps hanging around her, but they hold only skeletons.
And this moment – when Lara has clearly been strung up to die like a fly in a spider’s web – is when the game first gives you control of her. Soon, you’ll encounter a fellow passenger – who’s been crucified and flayed – as well as the person who lives in this cave (spoiler: he doesn’t want you to leave). It’s all very morbid and spooky, and much more palpable and immersive than Tomb Raider usually is. You’ll feel things like dread, claustrophobia, urgency and mortal fear much more than in previous games.
2. Lara is a real person now – and you’ll love her
For 15 years, Lara has been Wonder Woman in khakis, a supernaturally cool-as-ice supermodel who never worries, handles every situation with a smart-aleck comment, and finishes every adventure with not a single hair out of place. In short, she’s been a cartoon caricature. But not now.
This time Lara is young, uncertain of herself, and scared out of her mind. Oh, she’s strong and resilient, but she doesn’t know her limits yet. She’s a real girl, terrified and mostly alone, and her vulnerability makes her infinitely more endearing than the old Lara.
She’s also looks and sounds fantastic. The character model is gorgeously detailed right down to her eyes – when you stand idle, she looks concernedly from side to side, wary and watchful. And although we were told the dialogue tracks were placeholder, we can’t imagine them sounding much better. Lara’s accent might have waxed and waned a bit, but the voice actress was nailing the emotion of every scene.
3. It’s beautiful
Graphically, this like no other Tomb Raider you’ve ever seen. We’ve already told you about Lara’s model, but everything around her is equally well-crafted. The way the flame of her torch flickers off the ceiling in a low-hanging passage, the way waterfalls and rivers glisten, the solidity of the caves and the savagery of the wolves and natives (well, native, anyway). Combine that with top-notch cut scene dialogue and direction and it’s clear the dev team isn’t content looking as good as previous Tomb Raiders – they want to go toe to toe with Uncharted 3.
4. There are actual physics
Fire. Water. Cloth. Weight. Inertia. These things all interact with one another in the new Tomb Raider in a very natural (although exaggerated) way. That hanging cocoon straight-jacket you start off in? The way to get out of it is to swing yourself until you knock one of the empty cocoons into a bunch of candles. It catches fire, which in turn ignites a cloth wrapped around a long, wooden beam nearby. When that’s caught fire, you can swing into it and set your own woven wrap aflame. And when that’s burned though (cloth burns really quickly), you break free, but plummet down into a hole in the cave floor, to a chamber below filled with skeletons and ankle-deep water.
These physics affect the puzzles too. One of the first puzzles you’ll encounter takes place in a large cavern with a river running through it. There’s no way out, but there are some explosive kegs on the downstream side of the room – and there’s a waterfall in the middle that will douse your torch if you try to pass through and ignite the kegs directly.
However, the room also houses a sort of weighted sifting machine, consisting of two hanging metal baskets connected by a rope and pulley, set up to remove items from the water. What you have to do is use your torch to burn through the ropes holding the scooping basket in place. It then falls in the water and several crates drift right into it, carried by the current. You set some of those crates on fire, then jump onto the other basket – actually a shark cage – to make the scoop rise, lifting the crates out of the water with it and dumping them into a large holding cart on a raised platform, so you run up the ramp and shoulder-charge the holding cart.
This dumps the crates onto a discard shoot that deposits them back into the river, but on the other side of the waterfall. Seconds later, the kegs blow and there’s your exit. Unfortunately, the whole cave begins to collapse, but what else would you expect?
5. It’s brutal
The word “visceral” is badly overused these days, but there’s no better way to describe the action in the new Tomb Raider. It reminded everyone who saw it of the early 360 game Condemned, mixed with the movie The Descent. As mentioned above, the other games tend to gloss over just how much danger Lara is in pretty much all the time. Tomb Raider constantly reminds you of this by killing Lara as gruesomely as possible.
When Lara falls into that puddle at the beginning, she falls onto a strip of rebar, which spears her in the side and has to be ripped out. When she meets the cave’s resident, he’s a dreadlocked Tom Hanks in Cast Away lookalike with murderous eyes, grabbing your legs as Lara scrambles through a narrow passage. If you don’t kick him off, Lara will get an ice axe in her throat, blood spraying everywhere. If you avoid him this time but not the next, you’ll see Lara crushed by a giant bounder. And in another level, we saw Lara tackled by a wolf, which she tried to fight off by frantically stabbing it repeatedly in the flank with a knife as it tried to sink its teeth into her jugular. We saw both possible endings to this battle, one when Lara succeeded and one when she didn’t – there was a lot of blood.
Jun 17, 2011