Tomb Raider is making some ambitious changes to Lara Croft's world, but can Crystal Dynamics' first 3 hours live up to expectations?
Published on Dec 3, 2012
Tomb Raider is Crystal Dynamics' chance to reboot Lara. With so many games encroaching on what had previously been the preserve of Core Design and Ms Croft, Tomb Raider has to take a chance and do somthing new.
Can Crystal Dynamics successfully reinvent Lara and rebuild her brand from scratch? We spoke to creative director, Noah Hughes, to find out just how Crystal Dynamics was approaching design on Tomb Raider.
And, to see for ourselves we played through the first three hours of Tomb Raider...
Unto the breach
Time: 0:59 After watching the opening CGI cutscene (it’s the same one Square Enix released a while ago) that sees young Lara violently thrown into the water, Tomb Raider neatly switches to the impressive in-game engine.
As she struggles to reach the surface and catch her breath we get a glimpse of the weather-beaten island that’s to become Lara’s home for next traumatic few days (at least we assume it’s days).
Lara succeeds in reaching the surface, crawls onto the beach and collapses, unconscious. We don’t think we’ve ever seen her react to a bad situation so clumsily and it’s an interesting set-up to Crystal Dynamics’ reboot.
Time: 8:45 It turns out Lara’s opening few moments see her captured by an unseen menace in the same sequence that was showcased to the press when Tomb Raider was first shown off.
Hanging from the ceiling in some sort of cocoon, Lara has two swing herself back and for in order to set the rope that’s holding her up on fire. It’s the first of a few physical puzzles that Tomb Raider establishes early on and it sees her fall and then impaled on the spikes below.
These opening moments have been well documented and it’s easy to see why Crystal Dynamics wanted to use them to show Tomb Raider's new direction. Time: 10:05 Limping and bleeding, Lara pushes on and discovers she is in fact inside a cave system with lots of creepy, ritualistic markings on the wall. There are broken boxes and parts of wooden ships everywhere.
Lara discovers a torch and uses it to light a set of boxes on fire, clearing the path forward. What follows is yet another physical puzzle that sees Lara using fire and a counter lever to explode yet more boxes that are in her way.
Tomb Raider's hub environments take a while to come into their own but are perfect places to explore with Lara's increasing abilities.
Time: 12:01 These first moments are tense, moody and dense with detail. Lara talks to herself to keep her spirits up and incidentally lets players know what’s going on and what they should be doing.
Things come to a head when her captor catches up with her and is noticeably a bit miffed that she’s managed to escape. Queue lots of running and screaming as she attempts to escape.
The cave begins to collapse after an explosion and the scene ends with Lara scrambling up out of the darkness to a pinprick of light (The Descent style) with the player mashing LT and RT as fast as they can.
Once she reaches the surface Lara stands and the player is treated to a stunning view of the bay and the title comes into view. One thing is for sure, Tomb Raider has never been this cinematic and the debt owed to the Uncharted series is clear.
Finding her friends
Time: 13:38 Not knowing what to do or where to go, Lara begins to travel down the cliff to the beach below. It’s here that we’re a treated to a few of Lara’s first fumbles.
Attempting to balance on a log isn’t an easy thing to do and it seems Crystal Dynamics is going out of its way to reinforce just how green this new Lara is.
Lara’s talking to herself and remembering the teachings of her mentor, Roth. As Lara makes her way in-land we’re treated to some climbing as she scales a derelict plane hanging from a tree and eventually a corpse dangling from some nearby branches provides Lara with a bow and arrow.
So far the only exposition that’s important has been to get Lara to safety, find food and then eventually shelter and a fire. No tombs have been discovered and the only enemies we’ve seen was the one ghoulish man that attempted to kill Lara in the caves.
Hunting & skills
Time: 16:23 After taking down a dear and building a fire, Lara finally has a moment to reflect. With a bow and arrow and a small wooden axe she’s at least armed, but it’s also a chance to take a look at Tomb Raider’s new XP system.
Skill points are awarded for finding ‘Salvage’ parts and performing certain actions, like taking down a dear for food. Hunting, like so many of the games that have presented it over the last few months, is a slow and steady affair.
Lara is able to utilise her Instinct by pressing LB, which highlights animal footprints and their direction of travel.
Lara also has a skill tree that’s divided up into three distinct areas:
Survivor upgrades see you able to improve Lara’s animal instincts for hunting and her climbing agility. Hunter upgrades improve her shots and ability to lift heavy objects and Brawler improves Lara’s ability to fight hand-to-hand. You can give her extra abilities such as ‘Dirty Tricks’ or ‘Axe Strikes’.
This is one of the actual tombs Lara can discover. Once you've worked out the quick puzzle you can get Lara's hands on a secret artifact.
These are some of the initial abilities Lara has access to and they’ll eventually open out to much more powerful moves. Tomb Raider might be about exploring the events that made Lara the characters we all know, but Crystal Dynamics isn’t wasting any time proving that Lara has what it takes.
Pulling herself together
Time 17:02 Still at the campfire Lara has a bit of a cry. We’ve certainly never seen this side of her before. As well as acting as quick-travel locations Crystal Dynamics uses the campfires as a way of furthering the plot and explain back-story.
Using a camera Lara watches footage of the voyage and we’re introduced to the major players on board. Roth is Lara’s mentor and father figure. A friend of the same age, Sam, is also introduced as well as an expected motley crew of sailors.
After re-watching the events that lead to their shipwreck, Lara attempts to contact any survivors with a radio. A group from the ship answers and instead of saying she’ll make her way to them Lara asks to be rescued.
Unfortunately, that can’t happen and Lara’s forced into making the trip herself, even if she’s cold, frightened and alone.
Time: 35:24 Lara makes her way to her friend’s location and when she gets there she finds the others have left and only Sam and a strange man remain guarding a campfire. The old man is Mathias and he’s been marooned here for some time.
Not one to ask questions or worry Lara promptly falls asleep thinking everything’s as safe as they are going to be. How much she has to learn. When Lara wakes up, Sam and Mathias are gone and scruffy looking men are burning down the forest and derelict buildings.
They’re killing any survivors they find and Lara’s forced to escape.
A time to kill
Time: 36:54 Without a weapon Lara is forced to sneak around the men and using cover she’s able to avoid their sight. Lara doesn’t ‘stick’ to cover like Drake or Fenix, rather adapt to whatever’s around her naturally. It gives her a much more organic feeling to moving around the environment, but it’s certainly unlike anything any previous Tomb Raider has attempted.
Lara’s not known for her stealth, or subtly for that matter, but hiding behind walls and scrambling to get into cover makes for an interesting twist. With the forest burning all around, with embers flying and people screaming, there’s a cinematic edge to this latest Tomb Raider.
There are a number of moments in Tomb Raider's first few hours where it can look really impressive.
Lara doesn’t get far, though, and after attempting to hide from her captors she’s spotted and we’re treated to the infamous first kill. A quick QTE instigates the action as she kicks her foe away and after a struggle on the floor, Lara fights for control of his gun, eventually flinching as it goes off and takes half of the guy’s head with it.
It’s a horrible scene. It’s dark, dirty and Lara is left covered in mud and blood as she escapes into the night.
Time: 1:14:33 Now that Lara’s killed her first person it seems she can’t stop doing it. Making her way further into the island, with its strange architecture presenting a mixture of Mayan and Inca structures, Lara finds herself surrounded by enemies.
It’s here that the cinematic nature of the gameplay is reinforced. Lara approaches quietly. Armed with either her pistol or bow she can approach situations loud or quiet. Overhearing the conversations also gives Lara and the player insight what’s going on and why these guys are stuck on this island.
It’s a mystery best left for the game to explain and Lara’s only real motivation is to survive. Attacking with the bow she can take the guys down easily and even sneaking up on them sees her able to quickly and quietly take them out with a swift (and violent) motion.
On the standard difficulty these guys go down with two/three arrows and gunshots, but Lara can always finish them off with a quick slice of her axe.
She’ll more than likely be spotted at some point and it’s here where the enemies show off their teamwork AI. Using fire arrows to draw the player from cover and continually moving around the environment themselves, Lara has to keep on her toes.
Combat is fast and, like much of Tomb Raider, focused on providing a cinematic quality to the gameplay.
Time: 1:35:02 After a few fierce firefights, with Lara remarking on how easy it was to take a human life, she moves to the interior of the island. Despite ample opportunity for the campfires to provide respites and XP assignment, the narrative of Tomb Raider has continued to push events forward giving very little time for exploration or even checking out an actual tomb.
Moving about the environment reveals buildings that can’t be entered (they’re roped off) and other seemingly incidental details that could reveal themselves to be accessible areas later into the game. There’s clearly a heavy Metroid influence, but within the first 3 hours of gameplay this is only really touched on.
Enemy encounters like this require QTE button presses to survive.
Time: 1:50:02 Lara’s given the chance to explore her surroundings and some of the ruins on her own and as well as hunting and picking up salvage points it’s a chance to see if there really are any actual tombs to discover.
After receiving a radio distress call from Roth, Lara makes her way across to his location. She finds him fighting off a pack of wolves that have managed to take a chunk out of his side. Lara rescues Roth and he informs her that they need to get a radio transmission out if they’re to survive.
Handing Lara a metal pickaxe that allows her to scale certain surfaces, Lara is informed she has to head up to the wolf’s lair and retrieve Roth’s pack that contains the ability to send out a long-range transmission.
Lara is once again reluctant claiming she doesn’t think she’s ‘that kind of Croft’, but Roth is having none of it.
The wolf's lair
Time: 2:05:45 Entering into the wolf’s den is creepy enough without having one of them jump out at you. Wolf’s were the first enemy Lara ever killed in Tomb Raider but these things are aggressive and think nothing of actively stalking Lara in the long grass before choosing their moment to jump out at her.
Retrieving the bag, though, Lara makes it back to Roth who then informs her she has to make it to the radio tower at the top of the mountain in order to send out the distress signal. She’s not happy about it.
Time: 2:25:57 Lara begins making her way up to the old WWII tower and with Roth's pickaxe opening up access to new areas, we’re finally given the chance to explore a tomb.
Though it does somewhat go against the urgency of the narrative, Lara is able to enter a cave system and make her way to a tomb that contains a puzzle and subsequent reward on completion. You have to go out of your way to discover these tombs on your first trip through the environment. Lara will also be able to return to each area and explore them fully, even if we’re currently not able to.
Hit them where it hurts
Time: 2:31:26 Lara has to keep moving though and it’s entering the WWII base that sees Tomb Raider become much more of a shooter than we’d first expected. Lara switches between weapons in the same way as Nathan Drake or Marcus Fenix and moving further into the buildings sees the setpieces take a turn for the dramatic (not to mention explosive).
It’s inside these new buildings that Lara takes out a small army of enemies. Using a shotgun and an AK47 she’s able to move from cover to cover picking them off with ease. The enemies call out her movements, shouting at each other to bring in reinforcements.
Eventually, Lara has to fight an armoured soldier carrying a shield. Jumping out of his way and attacking his exposed backside is the only way forward.
Sneaking up on enemies is easier than facing them head on, but Tomb Raider attempts to balance its action and stealth.
Time: 2:48:26 It seems the derelict WWII base is home to hundreds of men and Lara has to lay waste to them all. With the walls inside covered in more creepy writing and references to the wider world, Tomb Raider is slowly giving up its secret. Though even Lara must be confused by the scrawl, ‘the storm is watching you’.
But there’s not time to worry about that now. Lara has to climb.
Send for help
Time: 2:56:45 It might be falling apart, but Lara’s climb to the top of the radio tower is much more reminiscent of her earlier adventures. With no one left to shoot at her (they’re all dead or dying in the base below) Lara is able to simply rely on her climbing ability.
Crystal Dymanics takes this opportunity to showcase some fancy new camera angles that highlight Lara’s physical excursion as she climbs up the crumbling tower. Platforming here is accurate and unencumbered by irritating moments, but overall it’s hard to escape Naughty Dog’s influence despite the obvious beauty and scale of the scene in front of Lara.
Time: 2:59:27 Lara manages to get the signal out of a quick QTE fix of the radio equipment, but despite the triumphant music and feeling of success we can’t help, but feel this is just the beginning and Lara’s ordeal is only just beginning.