Tomb Raider: We go hands-on with Lara's darkest game yet
16th Sep 2012 | 17:00
Nathan Drake occasionally reaches out to touch a wall in passing. Batman's suit gets more tattered the further into Arkham City you venture. But nowhere have we seen such wanton physicality as in Crystal Dynamics' short demo of its upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. The re-invented Lara Croft goes through so much impactful agony as she stumbles through the 30 minute segment we get to play, we're almost constantly wincing.
At various points Lara gets strangled, falls from vertigo-inducing heights, gets savaged by wolves and has her ankle crunched in a bear trap. These are not the short sharp, ineffectual knocks and scrapes that certain other heroes may take in the course of action. Every hit Lara takes she feels, and you feel through her, thanks to some amazing animation and striking sound design.
That aforementioned bear trap has Lara limping about until she can find a camp to recuperate. But don't start thinking that Lara has gone all soft. This origin story knows that Ms Croft is destined to become one of the world's greatest action stars. It asks, what would a person have to go through for the taking of life to become as easy as it is for the likes of Lara, Drake and Batman? The answer? Pain, suffering and the discovery of an intense inner strength.
After spending the night in a makeshift shelter, we begin to explore our immediate surroundings. Rather than throw us into one giant sandbox world, the world of Tomb Raider is presented through massive hubs. The first of these we discover after following a bubbling brook down a short incline, which opens up into a huge expanse of thickly wooded forest.
Your time in Tomb Raider is taken up primarily with the main story, the objectives for which periodically flash up briefly on an otherwise barren interface. Find food, we're told. We spy a corpse with a bow in a tree and are soon clambering up for it. Using the bow will be instinctive to anyone who's fired a weapon in a third-person shooter, as we find out hunting deer for some much needed grub. Lara sorrowfully approaches the grunting form of her felled deer, and apologises as she puts it out of its misery with an arrowhead. A significant moment for Lara, it being the first life she snuffs out, and a noteworthy counterpoint to the ultra-violence ahead.
A particularly potent element to Tomb Raider's narrative is its use of human characters. In previous Tomb Raider games a sense of isolation was crafted through the exploration of vast empty tombs, with long periods of time permeated with hardly any sound apart from the occasional grunt of Ms Croft herself. In 2013's Tomb Raider there are plenty of homosapien folk, including irritating intellectual Dr Whitman and a hulking bloke called Reyes. Not to mention the vicious enemies you'll encounter along the way. So, if this new Tomb Raider wants to build upon what has gone before, how can it give Lara these emotionally involving characters to bounce off, while still encouraging a sense of remoteness? The answer is all in the island itself.
What happened to the people on this island? Why are they insane and so eager to kill Lara? Why have so many ships ended up here? These are the initial mysteries that are apparent from the offset but there's a deep story to delve into. After snatching the bow from the poor dead chap's skeletal cadaver, we stumbled upon an overturned truck, unnoticeable from one side due to the overgrowth of foliage covering it.
Climbing into the back of its rotten wooden trailer we find a weathered old diary detailing the last moments of the bow's previous owner, a Japanese soldier, sent to the island during World War 2. Later on, as we make our way up some oddly placed stone steps, we find a letter written by a father, searching for his missing daughter, who ominously disappeared in the direction you're heading. Lara mentions a Queen Himiko, as she passes a large stone effigy.
Not only are these snippets of story enticing, but the environments you traverse tell their own story. We enter a decrepit bunker, covered in moss. Grabbing a lit torch from a mantle (who lit that?) we climb down a pit into a hidden tunnel, covered with odd paintings, only to emerge into a rotten meat filled den of debauchery, littered with discarded beer cans and rife with flies.
A lot has been said about the violence, and the bloodthirsty finale, culminating in a do-or-die gun shuffle with a freakish survivor with something other than Lara's axe on his mind, is certainly hard hitting. But it's not without context and it's not frivolous or light-hearted either. If it's shocking, that's because it's supposed to be shocking. This isn't a game about titillation or a big-breasted heroine posing for the cameras. This is about a woman discovering her own strength to overcome adversity and become a legend. No one said she was going to have an easy ride.