As I sat in a darkened theater behind closed doors at E3, watching poor Lara Croft nearly fall off a cliff, tumble down hills, and bang her head on virtually everything in sight during a guided demo of the new Tomb Raider, my editor leaned towards me and whispered, “She’s having a bad day.”
Was she ever. The Tomb Raider reboot, which will have no connection to the previous entries in the series and is meant to serve as an origin story for Lara, features some pretty rough-and-tumble scenarios for the spirited protagonist. In fact — and I hesitate to use the term since it’s a little overused — this is probably one of the most visceral gaming experiences I’ve come across in some time.
As she runs, Lara’s breathing is almost always audible, as are her occasional grunts and screams when she jumps, falls, or otherwise suffers one of her many scrapes and bruises. She even goes as far as to occasionally mutter, “Okay,” or “I can do this,” before attempting something particularly daring. It’s all part of what makes the experience so gritty and helps you get a feel for how much of a mental and physical toll the experience is having on Lara. She’s not invincible, and the game makes sure you know that.
So at the opening of the demo, we discovered that Lara had been aboard a ship, the Endurance, which was shipwrecked, leaving her stranded on an island and separated from her fellow crewmates. And while her first objective was to search for them — which, at one point, involved a platforming segment in which she scrambled around the remains of a crashed airplane as it hung off a cliff — that changed quickly as it began to rain. Hard. A thunderstorm was rolling in, and now the main objective was to find shelter from the storm. And this is when I began to feel a sense of relief.
See, when I witnessed the gameplay demo of Tomb Raider during Microsoft’s press conference, it mostly revolved around her shooting bad guys and completing quicktime events during a seemingly non-stop action sequence. It didn’t capture the essence of Tomb Raider, it didn’t feel like part of the franchise of which I had become so fond, involving exploration, puzzle solving, platforming, and combat against wild, ferocious beasts.
But here, I was getting a glimpse at the other side of Tomb Raider, the side that paid tribute to the game’s roots. To see that the objective was not “shoot bad guys in the face,” but rather, “find shelter,” was both reassuring and refreshing. I had been under the impression that Tomb Raider had become just another third-person shooter, but now I know that’s not the case.
So we watched as Lara took shelter beneath a rocky overhang, collecting rainwater to drink and attempting to fight the cold by starting a fire. Seeing her discover that she only had one match with which to try to start her fire created a completely different type of tension that, in a rare move these days, didn’t involve violence (or even another human being for that matter). I was actually a little surprised to find that I was holding my breath as she prepared to strike the match. She was successful in starting her fire, but after falling asleep for a short time, she woke up and realized that she needed to find food.
The storm had cleared by the time she got up, and she began to roam around the island’s jungle territory, which not only looked lush and serene, but was complimented by the sound of bird cries and running water (between the aspect of having to find nourishment and the jungle setting, I was reminded a bit of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater). As our guide navigated Lara through the jungle, he explained that this was one of the game’s many “exploration spaces” in which there is no linear path through the area or to her goal. Eventually, he found, hanging from a tree, a corpse with a bow slung over its back. I thought it was especially clever how our guide had to climb the tree and time his lean out to grab the bow just at the right moment as the body was swinging towards Lara.
Once she had acquired the bow and some arrows that were scattered about, Lara did some good old-fashioned deer hunting. After quite a few misses (damn deer are awfully skittish), our guide finally nailed one and had Lara go over to harvest some meat from it…only to find that it was still clinging to life. At this point, we were once again reminded that this is very much a pre-transformation Lara, a character that is not as tough and is much more naive than the Lara we’ve usually seen: clearly struggling, she whispered, “I’m sorry,” before stabbing it fatally with an arrow and slicing it open.
After this rather harrowing experience for Lara, she returned to base camp (thanks to the game’s “Survival Instinct” feature, which is basically a pulse that highlights the direction of your current objective) and this is when we got a glimpse of the game’s XP and skill progression system. Whenever you establish a base camp — like Lara did by starting a fire in her makeshift shelter — you can return to it to use it as a home base for enhancing your tools and abilities after earning XP. XP is earned by killing enemies, completing objectives, or can be “harvested” from animal corpses. In this case, by killing the deer and acquiring food to eat, Lara had earned enough XP to spend a Survival Skill point, which our guide chose to spend on the Arrow Retriever skill (allowing Lara to pull arrows out of targets and reuse them).
At this point, things started to get a little more third-person shooter-y as Lara finally stumbled across some other survivors, only to find that they had befriended some strangers who were very obviously sketchy folk. Almost immediately, one of Lara’s friends was kidnapped, after which she got her leg clamped in a bear trap (seriously, worst day ever), fought off wolves with her bow and arrow whilst wounded, and then made a miraculous recovery and continued her pursuit with another crewmember from the Endurance.
It was nice to see that some puzzle solving was still mixed in at this point, though; for instance, we saw that she could use fire to burn through certain obstacles and clear paths for herself. At one point, she also needed to use the handle of her pry axe to crank a wheel, but in order to make it strong enough to do so, she needed to collect wood salvage from around the woods to upgrade her weapon at a base camp. These sort of deviations were a good way to switch things up so it wasn’t just sustained running and gunning.
But eventually things ramped up again, and the demo closed with the real serious ass-kicking that we witnessed in the demo played during the Microsoft press conference. Lara was eventually abducted herself and, when tasked with escaping from her captors’ base camp, things get more than a little serious.
There was a minor stealth aspect in play as our guide navigated Lara (whose hands were bound, leaving her unable to attack) from cover to cover, evading the flashlights of her enemies. But eventually she was spotted and, through a series of quicktime events, Lara freed herself, fought off her attacker and, well, shot him in the face to mark the end of the demo. It was an absolutely brutal final sequence, one that left her sobbing and covered in blood, but it was a perfect demonstration of how this is a much more mature Tomb Raider, one that’s more about surviving than just romping around looking for treasure.
And that’s why at the end of it all, I didn’t mind that there were some of those more action-oriented sequences, filled with quicktime events and shooting up human enemies: because those aren’t the only methods the game uses to convey that Lara is really struggling to survive. In showing where Lara Croft came from, Tomb Raider doesn’t forget where it came from, integrating the exploration, the platforming, the puzzling, and the fighting against nature that made the originals so great.
So yeah, Lara had a rough day. She had rough couple of days, actually, and I’m sure the game has more than a few in store for her. But it’s all part of transforming Lara Croft into the hardened heroine that we’ve come to know and love today.
Tomb Raider will be released on March 5, 2013 for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.