Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Is everything about Tomb Raider about to change?

Let's hope so.

When the Game Informer cover dropped earlier in the week, I told my buddy Blue about it. He said,
"Yeah, I don't really give a shit about Tomb Raider."

"Well, me neither," I agreed, "there hasn't been a really good once since... Um. Since... okay, yeah - but if someone took the general conceit of a Tomb Raider game and combined that with the advancements that have been made in terms of 3D platforming, action and story? That's a great game. That sounds like a game I want to play."
Well, this is the internet, and the Game Informer article is out - and it seems like Crystal Dynamics are doing all that and more. Much more. Previews often view upcoming titles through rose-colored glasses, so it's wise to consume them with a grain of salt - but still, the game described in the article is one I want to play.

Let's begin with Lara. Except we shouldn't call her that - this is new Lara.

When the game begins, New Lara won't have (or want) the armaments you see here. New Lara is the twenty-one year old heir to the Croft fortune - but more importantly, legacy - and while she is encumbered by a lack of confidence, she wants to prove herself equal to her heritage.

Turning down a guaranteed position at a prestigious school, she sets out with the marine salvage vessel Endurance to get some real-world experience. The ship gets wrecked on a mysterious island, and real-world experience starts kicking New Lara's ass.

* * *

She finds herself, along with some comrades, hanging from the ceiling thusly - properly screwed - and starts frantically swinging herself to try to find some method of getting free. As she swings, she bumps a hanging corpse nearby into some candles, and the resulting proliferation of flame burns the body free.

So, having introduced this puzzle-solving rule - fire burns wood and cloth - the player is left with little alternative but to swing New Lara into the candles, and hope she doesn't get burned alive before she's able to wriggle free. This is all gameplay, by the way.

* * *

As she crashes to the floor, she gets a spike through her side. Ouch. Gonna' have to pull that out - and you bet it's gonna' be gameplay.

Shortly thereafter, a fellow happens across her. He grabs her legs and tries to get her under control - fighting him off is all gameplay - all the while saying "Stop it! Stop it! Shhh! Help - I'm trying to help you!" If you fail to get him off, he helpfully stabs New Lara through the chest.

* * *

If New Lara escapes, solves some puzzles and opens the way forward by way of explosives, the crazy dude will show up again - this time, getting separated by a cave-in. If New Lara isn't quick enough in her escape, though, she'll find her legs pinned by a boulder, and seconds later a rock will dash her brains out like mint jelly.

* * *

I hope you're getting the new vibe, here. Knife-wielding maniacs, a protagonist who is nearly the antithesis of her indestructible, teflon-coated previous incarnation and brutal, bloody deaths - Crystal Dymanics is referring to it as "survival adventure."

Locking all this down is mo-cap work that goes full to bear - body, face and voice - to really sell New Lara and the trauma she suffers. After her previously mentioned skewering, New Lara squeezes through a gap, and a jutting rock scrapes her wound - New Lara's hand instinctively goes to the hole in her side. Little touches.

When a survivor of the Endurance wreck tells Lara the only way to get a signal out is to climb up to a radio tower (which leads to another fully playable action-packed escape sequence), New Lara reacts with fear, and lack of confidence. This isn't Old Lara, who'd eagerly climb a tower fashioned of razor blades, occasionally doing splits to show off a bit on the way up - this is the traumatized and rightfully terrified New Lara, and she's seen things in the past few hours. New Lara understands that everything on this bloody island is out to kill her - but what she doesn't see yet is that all these trials will serve to make her worthy of her family's legacy.

She will be stronger. Faster. Better than she was before.

* * *

...and this leads us to the second surprising revelation about the reboot - this is not a linear game. This is, for lack of a better term, a Metroidvania. A Zelda-like. A Darksiders-ish open-world(ish) game, with many areas blocked off at the beginning of her adventure. As New Lara gains new puzzle-solving tool-slash-weapons and discovers the limits of her physical ability, she'll be able to reach previously inaccessible areas and continue to explore the island.

* * *

Scattered throughout the game world are base camps, where New Lara can cobble together upgrades for items or improve her abilities, and fast-travel to previously visited locations. She'll also have to find food and water, it seems, to survive.

Also worthy of note is the abandonment of Old Lara's lock-on targeting system. When New Lara shoots a gun, it will be as her modern adventuring counterparts Nathan Drake or Isaac Clarke do - by aiming. A big step, but the she looks up to it.

* * *

Crystal Dynamics is clearly taking the whole idea of a reboot very, very seriously. This is an ambitious turn for the franchise - one that could pay off significantly, if they're able to deliver. The article explicitly states that their ambition here is to bring the franchise up to par with other modern adventure titles, and perhaps even best them - which, I should point out, is precisely what I'd hoped they would.

Whether or not they'll succeed remains to be seen, but at the very least I'm willing to call Lara's redesign a hit. No longer the two-dimensional cover model of years past, New Lara is what we've come to demand of our modern, realistic video game protagonists - human.

It's notable that in eye-tracking tests Crystal Dynamics have done with the new design, viewers are consistently drawn to one place, as they look at her - everyone looks into New Lara's piercing brown eyes - perhaps because, this time, there's the sense of something in there.

This is very, very promising, CD. Throw everything you've got at this. Make it work. Make it great. It could be exceptional.


  1. Fine... I suppose you've made me give a shit about this game. If I never read the words Tomb Raider, this would fall under the type of game I lean towards.

  2. The first two Crystal Dynamics-produced TR's, Legacy and Anniversary, were great games. Too bad about Underworld.

  3. I thought Legend went a bit off the rails. Anniversary was very good, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't call it great.