E3 2011: Tomb Raider

By Garnett Lee, Jun 13, 2011 10:00am PDT

QUICKTAKE: After resuscitating Lara Croft with three strong Tomb Raider games, developer Crystal Dynamics has chosen to embark on a complete reimaging of the series. The new Tomb Raider begins with the story of Lara's first adventure. She's young, fresh out of college, and one of the spoken goals of the game is to humanize her by showing her vulnerability. That's all well and good, but as a long time Tomb Raider fan, I felt no attraction to new Lara. Beautiful as the game may be, the scared young woman at the center of this game has a long way to go to prove to me she's worthy of the name.

THE DEMO: A two-part demo, the presentation opened with Lara disoriented, hanging upside down, strung up like a spider had wrapped her in a cocoon. As she gathered her wits and looked around she found herself hanging in a sea cave adjacent to a bloody, candle-lit shrine that oozed occult atmosphere. After swinging her way over to catch her wrappings on fire and fall to the ground, she beat a frantic escape through the caves.

The second section highlighted a more open exploration area that started to hearken back to Lara's adventures in her prior life. Starting at a base camp in the hills, she ascends to a wolf den up on a cliff side above an abandoned village. Once at the mouth of the cave, she goes back underground to retrieve a lost radio and survival gear.

DETAILS: The first part of the demo set out to establish the atmosphere for the new game, both visually and in its approach for how the game will play. More than any prior Tomb Raider the action followed a script, with a strong push being felt to Lara moving through the environment to the next event.

The look is very dark, grimy, and bloody. On falling in her escape, Lara lands on an exposed piece of steel rebar that skewers her in the abdomen right where her kidney would be. Despite the realistic look, she shrugs off the grievous injury after holding her side a few moments. After such a grievous wound, it's a bit odd to see her only a few minutes exerting herself to make jumps she can barely span.

Throughout this section, quick time events played a big role in the action. For a series that built its reputation on Lara's acrobatic exploration ability, it seems like a step backward to watch her escape dangerous situations by pressing a button at the right time. For a brief moment in the middle of this stretch she got back to figuring out how to get through an area by solving an environmental puzzle. But after that, the big escape was another cinematic experience of timed button tapping in response to onscreen prompts rather than being in full control.

The second area of the demo offered a little more hope. The abandoned village Lara had to climb through appeared to offer a number of potential routes. In fact, the player running our demo missed a jump and rather than running back around to get to where he fell, started up a different path to ascend to the cave. But once Lara retrieved the missing gear and started making her way out of the den, it was back to quick time events. A ferocious wolf attacked, but fending it off was just a matter of hitting the called for on time.

At the close of the demo we got a little taste of the "base camp" system that serves as a hub for Lara's adventures in the game. At it she can upgrade her survival skills, salvage useable items from the wreckage she brings back from each mission, and fast travel around the world to places she's already been. These elements bring in a game mechanic to match the narrative evolution of Lara from scared and vulnerable to smart and resourceful.

Tomb Raider isn't due out until next year, so a good amount of development time remains. And the developers were up front in saying that they specifically weren't showing combat this time around. This being E3, where every presentation is about dazzling the crowd, it could simply be that this demo was tailored to create the maximum dramatic impact. It certainly achieved that. I found myself in the minority versus the many who saw it and were thrilled. We should get a better feel for how the whole Tomb Raider experience will come together with the inclusion of combat and deeper looks in the coming months.

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