Welcome to hell: the first hours of Tomb Raider show a woman on the run
Disclaimer: Square Enix paid for air travel and a one-night hotel stay. Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot was always attention-grabbing, even before the controversy over its “Crossroads” trailer. It looked dark and brutal, something quite opposite for the hot pants-wearing heroine of yesteryear. But how did it play once it was experienced outside the showfloors of E3 and PAX? Crystal Dynamics invited the Report to find out, and gave us three uninterrupted hours with the game, away from handlers and PR. In fact I played in a dark room, with the curtains drawn. I was able to play anything in the game's first three hours, and there would be no one interrupting or guiding the experience unless I asked.
Welcome to hell
Tomb Raider doesn't so much start off with a bang as a catastrophe. We're introduced to the new Lara Croft in a beautiful CG opening; a young archeologist out to “make her mark” and find adventure. The Endurance, her ship, crashes, and just after you watch Lara nearly drown and subsequently plummet into the ocean's depths, the game proper begins.Lara managed to make her way to shore, where she attempted to catch her breath. The rest of the Endurance's crew was gathered atop a nearby cliff, and Lara called out to them. A figure struck Lara on the back of the head, and the screen went black. When she woke, she was upside down, wrapped in what looked like a blood-stained leather canvas that wouldn't be out of place in a Silent Hill game. A cultish-looking altar decked in red candles was nearby, and another body, long since dead, hung alongside Lara. Lara swung side-to-side until her wrappings could reach the nearby flames. The fire engulfed her, but it also destroyed enough of the cocoon to free her; she broke loose, and crashed into a pit of human bones and wreckage, where a piece of metal pierced her abdomen. Lara ripped the rod from her side and pushed forward through the cavern, where she found one of her crewmates dead, strung up before another altar. As she moved beyond the grisly scene, she waded through chin-high water that nearly filled a small path through the rock. After that, she crawled through a claustrophobia-inducing gap in the cavern, where she was grabbed by a man. She kicked him off as boulders fell on the crawlspace, crushing the pursuer and starting a chain reaction. Lara scrambles toward a small beam of light as the tunnel around her collapses, narrowly escaping entombment. This was the game's tutorial area, and it's been shown before. Most video games have tutorials which teach you camera control and button assignments, but Tomb Raider teaches something different: that this island and the people on it will not hesitate to kill you. The game's introductory segment goes a long way to reinforcing that, and it does so without mercy or hesitation. It felt like it'd taken me an hour to get Lara standing in clear sunlight, when in reality it had been just a handful of minutes. We're used to games that are intense, but Tomb Raider seems to invoke something close to the fight or flight response as you play.
Just a hop, skip, and a juuu – oh God, don't look down
Although the volume starts out cranked to 11, it doesn't stay that way. Once Lara exited the cavern, things began to slow down. If you played Tomb Raider at PAX Prime this year, this is where your demo started. There's a lengthy platforming segment where Lara must scale a crashed plane and cross a fallen tree over a cliff, and each obstacle contains its own sense of drama. It's very much like Uncharted in this sense. As Lara crossed the tree for example, the camera panned overhead to give a sense of vertigo, and the tree wobbled under Lara's footsteps. These moments are exciting in their own right, but it's not the bombardment of the collapsed cavern. The game has a sense of pacing, and you can feel when you've moved from one sequence to the next. The game looks amazing with tons of detail, but Lara's movements aren't quite as smooth as they could be, and her jumps in particular can feel jerky and overdramatic. Regardless of the context of each jump, it feels like her animation is always meant to convey a life or death situation. The accompanying grunts and whines are constant, and while they work well in some situations, they feel a bit too much in others.
Embrace the hunter within
As Lara made her way inland, she found a portable radio, which she later used to contact other survivors of the Endurance. She took shelter from the developing storm by making camp underneath a rocky overhang, where she shivered like a small dog in the cold. With her last match, she successfully started a fire and, having spent all her energy, fell asleep. When she woke up, she was hungry. It was time to hunt for food. Lara moved into the forest, where she found a wooden bow attached to another corpse. Pulling the left trigger pulls up the bow, while the right trigger draws the string. A small circle indicates the strength of Lara's pull, and releasing the trigger sends an arrow flying. In this case, the arrow collided into a nearby deer. Although it's not the most lethal, the bow is the most satisfying weapon to use; pulling the string tight feels appropriately tense, and the distinct thwip! of the arrows gives the weapon a sense of punch. Deer aren't the only things Lara will hunt, and the bow and arrow won't be Lara's only weapon. I acquired a handgun, climbing axe, and assault rifle in the game's opening hours, though the latter of these only had one clip of ammo, and I never found a refill. Lara is not a walking armory, nor is she a remorseless killing machine. Instead of quipping one-liners and jokes, Lara will occasionally say things like, “You don't have to do this!” She's scared to kill, but cornered. It's an interesting dynamic.Fights are exceptionally deadly and using cover is both essential to survival and risky. Those crates you're hiding behind are wooden, and some of these scavengers fire flaming arrows. When you survive a brush with enemies you'll often be sighing with relief instead of cheering. Lara isn't a superhero.
A survivor isn't born, she's molded
Kills give Lara XP, which are fed back into her skills. These skills come in “Survival,” “Hunter,” and “Brawler” flavors, and you can upgrade Lara's abilities or give her new ones altogether. Survival upgrades focus on resources and increased XP, Hunter upgrades focus on weapons, and Brawler upgrades focus on melee. Here's how it works: once you've acquired enough XP, you earn a skill point, which you then spend on one of several abilities. You could increase the time Lara can hold her bow's string at max pull, or give her the ability to recover arrows from fallen enemies. Survival upgrades boost the amount of XP and salvage you can recover, so I figured these would be the best to start with, as they'd prove to be the most beneficial down the road. Even in the earliest sections the game seems to prompt you to think in the long term. The upgrade menus are accessed at camp sites scattered throughout the game, where you can also upgrade your weapons, provided you've recovered enough salvage by breaking open crates found on the island. Tomb Raider can feel almost suffocating due to its minimal HUD and reticle displays, but the leveling system is very game-y, with a good number of menus and selections separating you from Lara and the island. As with Far Cry 3, the game tries to blend character, game, and story progression into one system. The difference here is Lara won't develop a tattoo sleeve every time she picks a skill. Lara apologized as she approached the deer, which lay kicking futilely and whining in pain. She plunged an arrow into the beast's neck and stomach, slicing it open. Lara had the meat she needed. She returned to camp, where her radio crackled with the voice of Roth, Lara's mentor.
The game's plot takes off at a galloping pace from this point, and while I don't want to spoil anything, it's not quite the “survivor in dire straits” story you might expect. It's also not the action-packed Lady Bond/Indiana Jones adventure of previous Tomb Raider games. This new Tomb Raider lies somewhere in the middle. Trailers and screenshots thus far have shown the game to be exceptionally dark, but by the time I was done with my play-time, Lara had re-united with her mentor and pushed herself beyond her initial, paralyzing fear. I'd also ditched spooky caves for jungles, mountainsides, waterfalls, and abandoned WWII installations. Although the game is always giving you an objective, design is not so linear as some demos or videos may suggest. There are lots of pleasantly large, open hub areas, each with a camp site that not only acts as a place of access for upgrades, but waypoint system as well. Once Lara discovers a camp, she can fast travel to it at her leisure. Each map is also chock-full of secret items. Some of these items are simple collectibles that net XP, while others help provide context and clues as to what's happening on the island. You might find a mask from an ancient Chinese dynasty, or a journal written by a soldier who was stationed on the island during WWII. The island has a rich history, with a surprising variety of environments. When I entered a cave from one side, which faced deteriorating Chinese architecture in a grassy jungle, I wasn't expecting to emerge in a WWII base covered in snow. Snow in the middle of a tropical island? Ships and planes from all eras wrecked upon the shores? A possible cult of scavengers? Yes, there is something strange and perhaps mystical happening here. Lara Croft has seen Atlantis and held Excalibur in games past, and that sense of magic and mystery hasn't been abandoned for this reboot. Neither has tomb raiding, for that matter. It's just been skinned a little differently.
Raider of the lost tombs
Earlier I mentioned the tutorial section of the game, in the gloomy caverns of the island. This is where players face the first puzzle of Tomb Raider. As Lara entered into a large chamber of the caves, a waterfall doused her torch. To her left was the exit, but it was blocked by debris. The debris was flammable, but another waterfall stood between Lara and the only source of fire. Behind the waterfall was a pulley system, with two cages attached on either end, though one was tied to two posts in the ground. Lara could set fire to these bindings, which dropped one of the cages down to water level. Crates began to flow into the lowered cage, and these too, were set ablaze. Since the weight was now off-set, Lara had to scale and jump onto the cage which was previously tied down to raise the cage with the flaming boxes. When she did, they tipped into yet another cage. This cage bypassed the waterfall and dumped out near the flammable debris blocking Lara's exit. She scaled the platforms in the room once again and banged against the cage, rattling the flaming boxes loose. They splashed down in the water, and, still on fire, moved to the debris. The fire spread to fuel barrels, which exploded, dramatically clearing Lara's path. If you were concerned that puzzles had been left on the cutting floor in favor of action or scenes of brutality, don't worry; the quintessential Tomb Raider puzzles are still here, and they still require Rube Goldberg-influenced thinking. The game's main plot will have you move through several such areas, but there are also areas called Challenge Tombs, which bring puzzles even more to the forefront of game play. There's no giant wheel turning, no orbs to place into receptacles, so nothing like previous Tomb Raider games – at least not that I saw – but these still feel like satisfying brain-teasers, and should you complete one, you'll net a large XP and salvage bonus.
Action, platforming, and exploration: Tomb Raider divides itself quite evenly across these three styles of play, and it always feels like you're making progress, because something is always happening. When Lara isn't caught up in intense firefights, she's uncovering a mystery. When she's not uncovering a mystery, she's exploring and digging up history; all appropriate things which jump to mind when you hear the name “Lara Croft.” This new Tomb Raider may be a reboot, but there is deep connection to the games which spawned Lara's legacy, and fans of the series will feel more at home than they might think. In the span of three hours, I watched Lara Croft get burned, impaled, shot, sliced, choked, caught in a bear trap, and bitten by wolves. I watched her fall down a seemingly endless chasm and wade through chin-high water in a cave. I watched her scale mountains and fight hordes of vicious scavengers. “You can do this,” she told herself as she stood before each towering obstacle. I believed her.