Over the past number of years, Tomb Raider has gone from one of the most innovative action games to come along to something…well, let’s just say the name has suffered somewhat. Crystal Dynamics announced last year that they would be rebooting the franchise, and boy howdy, have they. Instead of going with a standard adventure game with a retelling of Lara Croft’s origin, the developers instead decided to add in elements of survival horror mixed in with everything else. In this game, Lara is 21, just out of University and on her first archaeology expedition when her ship capsizes in a storm. When she comes to, she’s in a cave, upside-down, tied up, and next to a corpse. Things are most definitely not looking good for young Ms. Croft. It’s explained to us that in the game, Lara may sometimes be called upon to make choices which risk her life, which is shown by a sequence where she has to swing back and forth, literally setting herself (and the ropes) on fire to get down.
Lighting and camera work are very important as they’ve done the camera work in such a way that when Lara is in a cave, or otherwise in a tight place, it zooms in to increase the feeling of being closed-in, then moving back out when open areas are found, giving the game a much-improved sense of scale. Also, Lara quickly finds a torch, and using it for both a light source and a tool is vital, as she can use it to light her path, losing it when going through water. Also, it can be used to set things on fire to get through various areas.
Of course, Tomb Raider definitely needs some action, but with the survival horror bent there’s quite a bit of QTEs used in the game. The developers have taken a page from Heavy Rain and made the QTEs appear in the general area of the action. When Lara is needing to squirm through a break in the cave, the movements are near her arms and legs. When a maniac attempts to capture her, it’s along her legs. It serves to draw the eyes towards the action instead of a giant button at the top or bottom of the screen, and works quite well in this. Naturally, the developers were kind enough to show us what happens when Lara doesn’t escape, and let’s just say that it appears quite dark, especially if you’ve got a vivid imagination, as I do.
The sound quality is also very much in the vein of survival horror. Lara’s not a trained explorer at this point. She’s in over her head, she’s young and she’s flat-out terrified — and it shows. This isn’t Angelina Jolie tossing off quips while facing down the enemy, this is a scared girl, screaming and grunting in response to what she’s experiencing. The music and atmospheric sounds are thematic, working quite well to give the player (or viewer, for that matter) a sense of foreboding as Lara moves along. Adding to this entire thing is the much-improved use of motion capture, not only to show more expressive emotions on the characters’ faces, but also using multiple actors on a stage interacting with each other, so that it appears more real and authentic.
Once out of the cave the game opens up, giving you much more scope and showing off how amazing the graphics in this game seem at this point. The light and water effects are astounding, as are various weather-related effects. This, combined with the aforementioned camera work definitely leads to a visually-appealing game. Lara looks much different than how she was in the 90s. She looks young, hesitant (at first) and definitely affected by the circumstances she’s in. She (and the other characters) bleed, get dirty, and show the effects of their exertions.
Now, unlike most of us, Lara has some skills. In order to incorporate that into the game, Crystal Dynamics have added what they call ‘Survival Instinct’, which means that there are areas where you can use context-sensitive button presses to see through Lara’s eyes, similar to how you could see more details in Arkham Asylum. This can help lead Lara to supplies, let her know when animals are near, or many other things. It allows the player to go find these hidden areas, or know how best (perhaps) to move from place to place. Unlike many other games, Tomb Raider‘s island is not only explorable, but you can return to previously-explored areas as you unlock new methods of travel, allowing you to find even more areas as you go.
Once out of the cave, the developers skipped ahead a bit, bringing her into contact with Conrad Roth, the captain of the ship as well as Lara’s mentor, just in time for him to be attacked by wolves. Unlike many games, the action here is brutal and bloody. The wolves tear a hole in Conrad’s leg, and you can actually see the skin peel away, the muscle visible beneath. Sanitary adventure game, this is not. Once Lara gets Conrad to a camp, she has to find a transmitter, which was left in a wolves’ den. Again, there’s a lot of exploration in the game, and Lara can either take the obvious route, or she can find her own way up to where the cave is. Of course, the wolves aren’t going to peacefully let her invade their den, and more combat (and QTEs) allow her to finally get to the transmitter, then back out to the camp. At this point we’re shown that the camps can be used as places to improve Lara’s skills (by salvaging items you find along the way), which allow us to take her along the path from scared young girl to confident young adventurer, ready to take on whatever may come at her. Players will also be able to shift from a camp to any other that they’ve visited (as mentioned before). She’ll also unlock additional tools (such as a climbing axe) to allow her different methods of exploration.
While Tomb Raider will involve some combat, it wasn’t shown off at E3, so there’s no telling how much will be QTEs (although quite well-done) or traditional weapons-and-melee action. Make little mistake, the tone of the game is dark. Almost too dark when you consider Lara’s gender and age at the time of the game. The goal, of course, is to make Lara Croft an actual character that we care about as opposed to the action heroine who shrugs off everything that we’ve seen for the past two decades. If the E3 demo is anything to judge by, the future appears quite promising for young Ms. Croft.