Games of 2012: Tomb Raider
2nd Jan 2012 | 15:00
Tomb Raider is a gaming institution. First released back in 1996, this new game represents the tenth outing for Lara Croft, who returns with 35 million lifetime sales behind her.
However, Tomb Raider is also (somewhat poetically) a relic - a series in desperate need of revival. The unrealistically curvy first-lady of gaming has become something of a joke in popular culture; intrinsic to the stereotype of gamers as bedroom dwelling nerds with unrealistic ideals for what women should be.
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While new developer Crystal Dynamics have made her a more relevant action heroine, even their last Tomb Raider game, 2008's Underword, feels as if it belongs to a past generation, the basic formula having changed little since 1996. And there's Uncharted...
Naughty Dog and Nathan Drake have flamboyantly stolen the Tomb Raider template for adventure. Something had to change, and with this new - simply named reboot - it has. Rather than trying to out-Uncharted Drake, Crystal are treading a darker path.
This isn't about ostentatious, Indiana Jones-style adventuring: it's a gritty origins story that batters the young Lara Croft into the action icon the world is familiar with. "We took over Tomb Raider back in 2003 and our first game - Legend - was always part of a trilogy along with Anniversary and Underworld," says Crystal Dynamics brand director, Karl Stewart, speaking exclusively to PSM3.
"About half way through we decided that we wanted to put our own stamp on the franchise, to make it relevant again."
Lara is no longer a twinkle-toed princess, stealing priceless statues like a one-woman British Empire - she's human, vulnerable. It's this idea of the 'breakable' lead character that makes Tomb Raider so compelling, so unlike any other game of 2012.
"You never really knew Lara before: you understand that she's this beautiful looking girl with rich parents and cool pair of guns, and that she could pay to do whatever she wanted, says Stewart. "However, our research showed that the fact she could pay to do anything never felt very realistic - people couldn't relate to it - so we created a girl who isn't in that situation. She wants to be a member of the crew, she wants to be part of the team, and she's just going on her first adventure.
"It's what they did with James Bond in Casino Royale - we saw him with feelings like revenge and jealousy, and that let people see the character in a new light. And that's what we're looking to do with Tomb Raider - we want people to really feel the emotional connection."
Most action games teach us that we're unstoppable. We can hide behind cover to heal bullet-wounds, we can strap our bodies with health-packs to salve stabbings. There is no penalty for taking an axe to the shoulder - we're able to retaliate with the strength and ferocity of a fighting fit warrior, fresh as the day we were deployed. Tomb Raider turns that assumption on its head. Lara is a vulnerable hero. She whimpers while squeezing through tight corridors in unstable, claustrophobic cave-systems. She mutters to herself about staying alive as her torch is extinguished by a rush of water, or a blast of air.
When she rips an arrow or a piece of rock from her body - injuries she quite realistically sustains throughout the game - you feel her pain as the offending item tears her skin and she screams. As Stewart explains: "You're not going to take a 20ft jump off a cliff, because injury will play a big part in the game's realism. When Lara is injured you won't be able to climb as freely".
And although you're sitting in front of a screen, pad in hand, you still feel genuine concern for Lara. In the back of your mind, you know you can restart from the last save point if she's crushed by a tumbling boulder, but the threat of demise is acute when you're so closely, painfully connected with your on-screen character.
LICENSE TO CROFT
That's not to say all traces of the original Tomb Raider are gone. "We took inspiration of course from the new Batman, but also from the new James Bond," explains Stewart. "Those are two stories that are new, but have very firm pillars - we know who Bruce Wayne is, we know what he's about for example. If you look at James Bond, you know he's a British agent and that he has a license to kill, but if you look at the different time periods of Bond: they always delivered something exciting, and something you look forward to going to the movies to watch. But you can't give those older Bonds to today's audiences".
In contrast, Tomb Raider 2012 is very, very relevant. "Bond used to be this guy who travelled to exotic places and saw the world - but anyone can do that now by hopping on a Rynair flight for less than £100. Just having a movie set in the Algarve just doesn't seem that exotic any more.
"So what they did was they made it more of an emotional, more visceral experience and allowed you to get close to the character. That's how we've approached Tomb Raider. It's not about how big we can make an explosion, it's about how close we can get the player to a character, and how closely they can take the journey with them".
While we've seen Lara struggling to survive during the E3 2011 demo, we've also been given a taste of how she'll navigate the mysterious island she's shipwrecked on. She moves much like Nathan Drake, and the camera tracks her dynamically as she leaps and climbs, heightening the scale of bigger scenes and emphasising the claustrophobia of tighter areas.
With the emphasis on making Lara feel like a real, believable character the animations need to be spot on - and they are. She moves like a realistic object within the world - again like the Nathan Drake of Uncharted 3 - tripping over rocks that jut out of the ground, pushing her body through tight spaces, leaning against objects as she struggles to regain her breath.
So far, we've seen her interact with elements like fire and water (she can light torches, and in turn set things on fire, but conversely water will extinguish any flames she creates), but haven't yet found out how she'll cope with things like extreme cold, or cloying vegetation and extreme darkness - all of which are prevalent on the island she's stranded on.
How will you explore that island? It's a balancing job for Crystal Dynamics. While the E3 demo was very scripted and QTE heavy, it isn't very representative of the action as a whole. "We wanted to be able to give the player the freedom to move around and really be the treasure hunter and explorer," says Stewart. "But at the same time we want to be able to tell players to go from point A to B and tell them a really rich story; really immerse them in the world.
"So we've built these hub areas, which are connected across the whole island. When you first arrive in an area you'll need to go from point A to B to get through the story objective, but once you've cleared the area you'll be able to fast-travel back to it and really explore it to find new things and unlock new parts of the game." Oddly, the closest comparison is Lego Harry Potter; its plastic Hogwarts - simply a series of environments linked by loading screens - are stuffed with secrets and fresh areas that are opened up as players learn new spells and hit specific objectives. So it is with Tomb Raider.
That's not to say you'll have a huge, Skyrim-like inventory. This is a survival game after all. "The idea is for us to keep Lara's tool-set fairly limited," says Stewart. "At the same time we want the player to feel as if they've got the tools for success in their hands. A great example is the climbing axe. In the early stages it helps Lara to traverse the environment, but over time she's going to have to use it in different ways; so she'll use it in combat or to prise open new areas, for example. And that's the same for most of the tools in the game - we don't want them to just do one thing, they need to do five or six."
The island isn't all gloom and doom, as screens suggest. "The island is a varied place - it's a character in itself", reveals Karl. "You're going to visit the beach, it's going to be night-time, you're going to have different experiences." Combat is also under wraps - for now. "We've moved away from the 'lock-on' targeting to something unique that fits in with the world. We're cautious about talking combat without showing it."
It's a much-needed refresh for a legendary series fast losing its relevance. If Crystal can pull it off, this'll not only be one of the best reboots of this generation, but one of the bravest, most progressive games of 2012.