Stace Harman takes a spoiler-free look at the first three hours of Tomb Raider and speaks to Crystal Dynamics about the reinvention of one of gaming’s best-loved action heroes. New gameplay footage included.
Crystal Dynamics’ efforts to reinvigorate the franchise are on course to be triumphantly successful. If the remainder of the game lives up to its opening 20% then the finished article will be an absolute joy.
When attempting a franchise reboot, there is a gulf to be negotiated between careful planning and successful execution. After all, it is a difficult thing to create an experience that feels at once new and familiar. In order to deliver content that not only appeases the scepticism of long-term fans but also exceeds their expectations requires a custodian with a fundamental understanding of the intellectual property at hand. A reboot must also create an experience compelling enough for those without prior knowledge of the franchise and has to win back those that long ago turned their back on it.
While modern films featuring the likes of Batman, Bond and Spider-Man have decades of source material that can be thematically referenced or playfully alluded to, Tomb Raider has just 15 years under its belt: not all of them are good. The challenge for Crystal Dynamics, then, is not only to make Lara Croft relevant once more, but to do so in a way that takes account of the current zeitgeist for narrative delivery, level design and game play tropes, while keeping everything feeling fresh and exciting.
With these concerns at the forefront of my mind it is with a certain amount of professional curiosity and personal trepidation that I accept the invitation from Square Enix to spend a morning playing through the opening hours of Tomb Raider. It is therefore with no small measure of genuine relief that I can report Crystal Dynamics’ efforts to reinvigorate the franchise are on course to be triumphantly successful. If the remainder of the game lives up to its opening 20% then the finished article will be an absolute joy.
It should not be taken for granted that the delivery of Lara’s maiden voyage is all plain sailing or that missteps might not still be made. The inclusion of one feature in particular has concerned me since it was outlined and subsequently demonstrated: that feature is Survival Instinct.
Survival Instinct is a variation of the popular system seen in the likes of the Arkham and Assassin’s Creed series and in another of Square Enix’s recent titles, Hitman: Absolution. However, unlike these games, there is no conceivable narrative justification for why a 21-year-old Ms Croft, who up to now has spent more time studying than surviving, would have such senses.
Fortunately, the first three hours of Tomb Raider suggest Survival Instinct is an entirely optional mechanic. From time spent in Lara’s adventure and then speaking with creative director Noah Hughes, it’s evident that a lot of work has gone to ensure that Tomb Raider’s world is one of clearly defined goals and logically constructed elements. Thus, navigation can be achieved by way of natural landmarks and collectibles can be discovered through good, old fashioned exploration.
Thanks to an approximation of real world physics, piecing together how puzzle components interact with one another is often a matter of predicting tangible cause and effect. This more natural approach replaces Lara’s prescient knowledge that pulling a lever in a far off location will have a knock-on effect elsewhere. Survival Instinct, then, will simply facilitate a more direct approach for those who might wish to quicken the pace of the action, rather than being used as a crutch to help overcome obtuse game design.
2013’s entry is the tenth Tomb Raider game and Crystal Dynamics’ fourth since assuming the mantle in 2006. Tomb Raider launches March 5 2013.
Tomb Raider is penned by Rhianna Pratchett. Rhianna’s other video game writing credits include scripts for Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge and Overlord.
The contents of the Tomb Raider US collector’s edition were revealed last month.
Crystal Dynamics predicts Tomb Raider to be around 12-15 hours long, and says a sequel is possible should the 2013 reboot be successful. Based on the three hours I spent with the game, I’d say a sequel is a shoe-in.
“[Survival Instinct] really touches on the core vision of allowing different play styles,” explains Hughes. “The goal is that if people want for something to happening every twenty minutes or want to quickly get from one new thing to another, I want this game to be able to provide that for them. At the same time I really want people to be able to explore; we could have told our story in a much more linear way, but for me then it wouldn’t be a Tomb Raider game.”
While there are still plenty of instances of delivering this story by way of tried and tested cut-scenes, they are deftly penned and convincingly delivered. However, it’s the incidental narrative touches that really add depth to Lara’s adventure. Seeking respite at one of the base camps, either to upgrade Lara’s authentically crude toolset and arsenal or to unlock new skills, will often trigger a voiceover. Here, Lara contemplates her predicament, ponders recent events and muses on what might have become of her fellow survivors.
Similarly, discovering one of the puzzle-laden secondary tombs reveals a wealth of incidental details that lend more ominous overtones to the story and fleshes out the origins of the island’s aggressive and offbeat inhabitants. Even recovered treasures hold the potential for bonus story tidbits or more tangible game play rewards, which finally offers a reason to depict 3D models of artefacts that can be rotated and zoomed in on.
Crystal Dynamics is delivering on exploration, narrative and an adaptable game play experience that can be tailored to suit a variety of play styles. What, then, can it do to address one of Lara’s greatest weaknesses? Combat has often felt out of place in Tomb Raider titles of old; a tiresome, uninspiring mix of running back and forth, combined with somersaulting this way and that as round after infinite round is pumped into human adversaries and animal assailants. Thankfully, Lara benefits from the advancement of combat in a 3D space, which the adventure genre has undergone in her absence.
“The combat system itself is overhauled because we wanted something more modern but we also wanted something that was Lara-like,” Hughes reveals. “So, we have things like fluid cover that you’re not stuck to and we try to give advantages to higher ground so that you’re motivated to move during combat.”
Lara instinctively crouches as she approaches cover, which allows her to stalk lone adversaries and manually line up silent shots with her bow and arrow. The fluid cover also means that, when all hell breaks lose, she can move from one piece of destructible cover to the next or break cover altogether and close in for some crunchy and upgradeable melee attacks. Happily, it appears that combat in the Tomb Raider of 2013 will feature more strategy and much less champion-Zebedee-jumping, as Hughes summarises, “[Lara’s] acrobatic, yes, but she’s not a world class gymnast.” Moreover, she no longer resembles a character from The Magic Roundabout.
While three hours spent with Tomb Raider feels long enough to be assured of Crystal Dynamics’ ability to deliver on its promises, it’s not nearly long enough to sate my appetite for Lara’s latest adventure. The mechanical elements of Tomb Raider appear to be sound, and a special mention must go to both the visual arts team and the audio composers and engineers. Tomb Raider’s rugged beauty is complemented by a potent aural atmosphere, keenly highlighted as the roar of a wind-lashed jungle gives way to the eerie quiet of a subterranean cave system.
In truth, I could go on, but 1,200 spoiler-free words should surely be enough to relay a simple, underlying truth: Lara is back, her presence is relevant and she’s set to reclaim her place as video gaming’s leading lady.
Tomb Raider launches on PC, PS3, and 360 on March 5 2013.
Disclosure: Stace spent three hours at Square Enix’s office in London to create this preview. He drank one cup of tea in the process.