The Tomb Raider games have a long and storied history that isn’t always awesome. Some of them have rocked and some of them have sucked. The series was run aground with quick and souless sequels built on a not so unchecked sexism and exploitation and then revived with more earnest attempts to deliver the character in a more realistic and grounded way. Now we have a full reset of the series with an ultra realistic redesign of Lara Croft that follows her as she is just getting started in the adventuring life and all the trials and tribulations that entails.
We’ve seen a lot of material from the reboot already but the live demo they showed us at E3 gets a bit more into the heart of the character and gave us a look at what sorts of things Lara is going to have to deal with during the game. The demo started after a crash as Lara is trying to survive in the wilderness on her own and reconnect with the other survivors of her party. The graphics shown in the demo were very good and really spoke to the level of detail this game is going to have and how just how much attention the team paid to those details. The cut scenes shown were seamless with the game play and the graphics themselves speak volumes about the more serious and adult tone of the game.
Right away you can tell the stakes are higher in this game as Lara is no longer the bulletproof badass she was in the other games but rather a much more vulnerable character who is very capable of injury and harm. Post-crash Lara is bloody and bruised and her climbing, while capable, is labored and desperate. The wilderness is being dumped on by rain and she needs to find shelter and warmth. This is not a version of Tomb Raider we’ve ever seen.
The demo proceeds to show Lara explore the environment, eventually finding a bow and arrow and making a fire in a over hanging out cropping of rocks and then going out to look for game. This kind of business might sound mundane and boring but from what the demo showed this does not seem like the case. The emphasis here is survival complete with a survival instincts mode that functions as radar for Lara to find things that can help her. This way you aren’t wandering aimlessly around the environment trying to figure out what the hell you are supposed to do next. The world is much more open than previous games and as such the survival instincts helps keep it fun and not tedious. Further along those lines you will gain XP to spend on survival skills that will make the experience even deeper. Add in primitive weapons and the ability to salvage to upgrade tools and you have a much more visceral and hardcore experience than we have gotten in previous efforts.
As mentioned above Lara has to hunt game for food which seems to be a theme emerging with games coming out next year, particularly hunting with a bow and arrow. One of the unique things here though is the emotional piece to the hunting that shows Lara regret having to kill the animal but being willing to do it to survive. As the game shifts to her coming across some survivors as well as some hostiles haranguing them we see this theme playing out further as Lara tries to avoid violence and,when that fails, Lara doing what she has to do to survive. The dialogue that plays out in the cut scenes is fairly good and the voice acting slides from good to decent as the drama starts to ramp up. Things go south and start to get a bit rapey as Lara is set upon by an atypically adult villain in a video game and Lara struggles for her life. Part of this struggle includes ultimately biting off the attackers ear and eventually shooting him in the face. Lara’s reaction to the attack and killing shows here vulnerability and provides even more emotional content to the game.
This rape scene has been criticized by some as being sexist and I really don’t understand that. For a game to go from showing disproportional boobs and shorty shorts to depicting a life and death struggle and the aftermath of doing what is necessary to survive suggests exceptional growth. Sure if the content was used in a cheap or exploitative way then I would see the objection but as it is handled here it is an important and visceral moment. If you don’t take games seriously on their face then of course any suggestion of rape cheapens and exploits it but this is obviously a narrow view and one that I do not share. This sense of reality and consequence is important for games as they mature.
After the Uncharted series, the bar has been raised quite a bit for this kind of game and it looks like Tomb Raider means to hurdle over the bar by providing a new and different experience. The shift to gritty and mature from light and goofy serves to set this game apart from others of the type and I am looking forward to jumping into the other material the game has to offer.