Tomb Raider Eyes-On Preview: Lara Suffers In Tropical Hell
Tomb Raider is turning heads for all of the wrong reasons. Each of Cyrstal Dynamics’ reveals has seen Lara battered, bloodied, beaten senseless, and her recent brush with what appears to be attempted rape is currently grabbing headlines like mad.
Are we forgetting that there’s a game beneath all of this shock value?
Sure, Tomb Raider constantly highlights the fact that Lara is going through the grinder, but it’s a trend that splits opinions across the board.
After seeing the game in action at E3 recently, we’re surprised that Crystal Dynamics hasn’t shown more raw gameplay in action before now, rather than just focusing on abusing poor Lara as much as possible.
We’re leading with this slant because Tomb Raider’s gameplay is actually very intriguing – mixing a heavy dose of Uncharted’s set piece-driven clambering with open world survival elements.
So let’s forget about the need for shock and awe for a second, and dive deeper into Tomb Raider’s gameplay.
Tomb Raider forces Lara to become a hero in a harsh new world
Crystal Dynamics has always stated that Tomb Raider is a reboot, and this means re-tooling Lara’s origin story. Rather than coddle players with limp, uninspiring tutorials that show you the ropes, the player will be thrown right into the deep end from the start, learning as they go.
This reflects Lara’s predicament, as she wakes up on a perilous Japanese island somewhere in the Devil’s Sea. Forced to grow up fast and become the Lara we remember from her PlayStation heyday, this is a no-holds barred experience that flits between moments of utter madness to eerie tranquillity at the drop of a hat.
Taking place after the demo reel shown at Microsoft’s pre-E3 conference last year, Lara wanders down a hill, clutching her side in pain. The only way up the other side is to climb up the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber.
Lara isn’t quite the action hero just yet, as she frequently misses jumps, slips and painfully suffers the consequences, but the execution is superb, taking more than a few cues from the Uncharted series. Finding some supplies among the wreckage, the flagging Lara finds a place to shelter for the night, lights a small fire and huddles up.
Tomb Raider is a survival horror game
Survival is a key element here, and yes, there is also horror. You feel under-skilled, dangerously low on supplies and jumping at shadows around every turn. It’s Lara versus the world, and it always feels like the world is winning. This is the art of a true survival horror experience.
The next day, Lara heads off across the island in search of other survivors, and this is where the scale and ambition of Tomb Raider starts to become clear. This is also when the violence angle gives way to gameplay, becoming less relevant to the overall experience.
Making her way through the sprawling woods, Lara encounters a dead man hanging upside down from a tree, clutching a bow. Climbing the tree, Lara takes the bow and starts hunting for food with little success.
Underlining her lack of skill, Lara barely manages to wound a deer for food, before putting it out of its misery with an arrowhead. We’re told that these large open areas allow for a degree of free roaming and hunting, and that they will get bigger as the game goes on.
However, the illusion that the environment is one of Lara’s main enemies is skewed slightly as she encounters another campfire – which serves as a save point – because just the night before fire seemed to be such a rare commodity, but now there are fires everywhere.
Tomb Raider teaches you to pick your friends and enemies carefully
At one point, Lara trudges through a dank cave and encounters a man talking to her friend Sam. The guy claims to be a fellow survivor, but something about his demeanour is cold, calculating and unsettling. It’s clear that something is amiss with him.
There is a real sense of menacing unease surrounding whether or not Lara should trust the guy and sure enough, the mysterious figure quickly puts a knife to Sam’s throat and hauls her off into the jungle.
Showing her naivety, Lara gives chase in blind pursuit but runs straight into a bear trap that clenches sickeningly around her leg. Hollering in pain, Lara’s woes worsen as a pack of wolves appear and start attacking her. It’s at this point that – once again – gameplay has receded to make way for more senseless violence.
In a flash of unflinched focus, Lara takes aim with her bow and this time, makes short work of the wolves. This moment gives us a glimpse of the skilled hero Lara will eventually become, and the pacing is dead on. More flashes like this please.
Speaking of the bow combat, it’s a slick mechanic that operates just like you’d expect from a third-person shooter, and Lara will eventually come across a variety firearms as the plot progresses.
We’re just hoping that Tomb Raider doesn’t descend into an all-out shooter in its later stages, and continues to balance action with classic puzzling and climbing.
Tomb Raider includes a number of light RPG elements
We’re now noticing a pattern between Tomb Raider’s quiet moments and bursts of violence as a group of friendly survivors stumbles across Lara and free her from the bear trap. The reunion is short lived as most of the group goes off in search of Sam, leaving Lara and an archaeologist called Whitman behind. Did someone say “Red shirt”?
Of course, Whitman is largely useless, but discovers a sealed door plastered with weird markings. He explains that the symbols mean that the island’s inhabitants worship the Japanese shaman queen Himiko, suggesting the island is home to some kind of cult activity.
Failing to open the door using cranks, Lara goes off in search of salvage to upgrade her axe – which we’re told will prove to be one of Lara’s most valuable assets through the course of Tomb Raider. The axe is used to smash or open things, and is a valuable tool in puzzle solving.
Lara finds salvage and enhances her axe back at base camp. Here, Lara can unlock new gear and abilities that become available after salvaging scrap, and meeting objectives.
This allows Lara to head back to previously inaccessible areas with her new gear and progress where she couldn’t before. It’s a great progression system that smacks of the Zelda series.
Tomb Raider isn’t afraid to push boundaries
With her new axe in hand, Lara and Whitman enter the tomb and are promptly ambushed by a group of heavily armed men, tied up and then hauled off to the woods.
As one of the friendly survivors makes a break for it and is subsequently shot, Lara sees an opening and runs off, arms still tied behind her back.
The pacing is tense as Lara sprints off desperately, while her captors give chase. But of course, she is set upon again, although this time Lara fights the kidnapper, chomping down on the guy’s ear, and then shooting him in the face following a tense QTE struggle.
The violence and sense of dread throughout this whole scene mounts on until the pressure hits breaking point, making Tomb Raider an exhausting experience for the player. Lara too feels the strain, as she breaks down and sobs after killing her attacker.
If this endless torrent of violence aimed squarely at Lara exists to make us feel for her character, then it works to a degree, but there are times when it feels overly gratuitous or needless, as if her plight could have been conveyed in more elegant means.
But again, there is a game beneath all of this menace and it’s shaping up to be something rather special indeed. Visually arresting, expertly paced and full of the exploration, combat and puzzles Tomb Raider made its own back in the 90s, we can’t wait to see how the rest of it plays out.
Want more from Tomb Raider?
- Tomb Raider ‘Attempted Rape’ Scene Reports ‘Incorrect’ – Crystal Dynamics
- Tomb Raider: Lara Gets Battered In New HD Screens – E3 2012
- E3 2012: Tomb Raider Crossroads Gameplay Video