Tomb Raider preview: the first two hours

By Andrew Yoon, Dec 04, 2012 6:10am PST

Square Enix invited us to Crystal Dynamics to get hands on with the first two hours of their upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. As the game inches closer to its March release date, it's clear that things are finally coming together. It's also clear that many of the faults I found at E3 are simply not going to be addressed. This is the new Lara Croft, take it or leave it.

My gripes with the game continue to center around its presentation. While marketed as a gritty "survival horror" take on the series, it still feels incredibly silly. Sure, there's a lot of torture porn: Lara getting stabbed through the gut with a rusty iron nail, falling off a tree, or being sexually molested. But the game nary acknowledges the gravitas of her situation, having players running and jumping around the environment with no qualms.

The disconnect between "cinema Lara" and "gameplay Lara" is a common trap that many video games fall in. But what makes Tomb Raider so especially disappointing is that Crystal Dynamics fails to translate the gritty "survivalist" approach to Tomb Raider to gameplay. The hunting sequence seen at E3 is a one-shot only affair. Lara notes her hunger, kills a deer, and never speaks of food ever again. While I didn't expect the game to go all Snake Eater on us, it's odd how often the game simply ignores the various perils Lara finds herself in.

The story also leaves me wanting. There is something genuinely exciting about exploring the island Lara has become stranded on; there's clearly something afoot. However, the narrative's in media res presentation does little to ground the player in the supposedly "more human" Lara. Who is this brash young woman? And why should she care about rescuing any of her crew mates? Spending even a little bit of time establishing these details would have gone a long way in making Lara more relatable, and not just some girl that gets stabbed a lot. (The game later offers flashback sequences, which only proves how much the narrative would've benefited from a bit more grounding.)

Player agency (or the lack thereof) was another concern of mine. Thankfully, there's much more to the game than simply walking from one cutscene to another. However, the inflexible Dragon's Lair-style QTEs still feel like an out-of-place videogaming relic. Too often are the game's most dramatic encounters reduced to die-instantly button-mashing scenarios. Whereas Heavy Rain offered flexibility in its QTE system, missing a button prompt in Tomb Raider always results in Lara instantly dying in some horrific way. I guess it is survival horror, after all.

When the game actually lets you play, it's actually quite fun. While the mechanics will be largely familiar to anyone that's played Uncharted, Tomb Raider seems a bit more deliberately paced. Lara is less shooty and less jumpy than Drake, having to take advantage of stealth more often than her "Dude Raider" peer. The bow and arrow is quite handy not only for making silent kills, but for distracting enemies as well. You'll be able to shoot an arrow past a guard, moving his attention to afford a chance to sneak past him.

Tomb Raider's aggressive AI definitely forces you to take as stealthy of an approach as possible. Killing a guard in the view of another will trigger an alarm that sends a swarm of enemies towards Lara. Using a gun will usually be loud enough to trigger the same response. Sometimes it feels like the AI might be too smart, as they all seem equipped with an infinite supply of Molotov cocktails to render your cover useless. Being discovered usually means getting instantly flanked and dying moments later.

I had trouble earlier on in the game, but taking advantage of the leveling up system quickly turned the tides in my favor. Solving puzzles and killing dudes give Lara XP that can be spent on various upgrades. (Even the XP system emphasizes stealth, rewarding silent kills and headshots with additional XP.) You can upgrade Lara's survival skills, like being able to retrieve your arrows in the environment to help conserve ammo. You can upgrade Lara's combat skills, like unlocking a melee attack that makes one-on-one encounters with enemies far less deadly.

You can also collect materials in the environment to upgrade your weapons and tools. By increasing the power and speed of my bow and arrow, for example, I felt far more competent of a warrior as the game progressed.

It's through these upgrade trees that Crystal Dynamics plans on making good on their promise of making Lara a survivor that evolves into a warrior. And like in other Metroidvania games, Tomb Raider teases players with areas to rediscover once Lara upgrades her abilities--doors that need a stronger axe to unlock, or rocky cliffs that demand a new tool to traverse, for example.

While I'm still genuinely concerned by the complaints I've addressed here, there's something to be said about a game that feels like I've barely scratched the surface after more than two hours of gameplay. The point of Tomb Raider is to see Lara grow--and I'm interested to see if Crystal Dynamics can mature both the character and the gameplay in meaningful ways.

Tomb Raider will be available on March 5th.

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