QUICKTAKE: Tomb Raider attempts to one-up Uncharted at its own game by introducing its own "everyday" heroine. Crystal Dynamics tries to blend cinematic peril seamlessly with gameplay--to mixed results.
THE DEMO: Lara is not having a good day. After surviving her boat crash, she finds herself in quite a dire circumstance. She must find food to eat. But first, she needs a weapon if she plans on adding some protein to her new jungle diet.
She finds a corpse swinging in a tree above, rotting in some kind of trap. The body has a bow, however, so she has no choice but to climb up and reach for the bow. As she grasps the weapon, she loses her balance, sending her plummeting to the ground with a dead body on top of her. At least she has a bow, right?
Although Lara screams in horror, she manages to simply get up and start running to her next objective: a pack of deer. And, apparently, this inexperienced traveler is a master at archery, because it takes her no time to bag and tag some fresh meat. It's odd how easily that came to her, given she had fallen from quite a high distance and should theoretically be traumatized by her recent gruesome encounter.
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DETAILS: Is it ironic to say that Tomb Raider seems to be heavily inspired by Uncharted--considering many had jokingly called Naughty Dog's first game in the franchise "Dude Raider"? Sony's franchise transformed the Tomb Raider formula by introducing a more "everyman" hero, and integrating cinematic sequences into gameplay. Crystal Dynamics is definitely trying to humanize Lara Croft for this reboot, but it comes off as inconsistent.
In one scene, Lara gets caught in a bear trap. After being freed, she briefly limps, only to immediately return to her normal running animation. Given the numerous pained groans and grunts they've recorded for Lara, it's odd that she doesn't actually seem to be in any real danger. Even after falling off a cliff, she's seemingly invincible--an odd direction to go for a game that's being billed as a "survival horror" game of sorts. (It's the same problem I had with Uncharted 3--where a thirsty Drake manages to run and gun his way through the desert without difficulty.)
These kinds of inconsistencies are common, perhaps expected, in games. However, one qualm I have with Tomb Raider's cinematic approach is how often it steals control away from the player. For example, in one scene, one of your companions runs away. Instead of allowing the player to chase after him within the game engine, it automatically moves into a cutscene where, of course, Lara and her companions make a terrible decision. There's not even the illusion of choice, something that's rather crucial for making a video game feel interactive--and not just a movie with playable bits thrown in between.
In the demo's climax, Lara has been captured. Hands tied behind her back, she must run away from the enemy camp. While dramatic, it's another example of how little emergent gameplay Tomb Raider has. There's only one path through this heavily scripted situation. At the end of the path, Lara gets jumped by an armed man. The two struggle over the gun in quite a graphic QTE sequence. As the barrel of the gun moves from Lara's head to the villain's, a prompt to fire the gun appears on screen. Kill or be killed. While it's not much of a choice, at least it was one. Tomb Raider's going to need more moments like that to make it more substantial than what it is now.