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E3: Crystal's Tomb Raider vies for Game of the Show

Lara Croft's going back to the basics, but is her island vacation gone horribly wrong pure brilliance or utter blasphemy? We took a look at the game and spoke with its creators to find out.

It's that smirk. That's what's missing. In all the ads – all the old commercials, all the promo pics – Lara Croft always had this cocky half-smile that casually crept its way across her face. You may not have noticed it, given that Lara had other, er, assets that practically exerted their own gravitational pulls on people's eyes. Back then, she was essentially a cartoon character – outrageous in every way. Outrageously confident, outrageously capable, outrageously gifted in, you know, certain regions. And that's why – when face-to-face with the new Lara Croft – it's that smirk's absence that I notice most. The cartoon is dead. The credits have rolled. Lara's not a superhero anymore, and it's written all over her face. She's terrified. And with good reason.

The demo I was shown began with Lara awakening in a dank, disturbingly silent cave, suspended some 20 feet off the ground upside-down in some sort of makeshift straight jacket. So basically, just throw a few spiders in there and you'd have pretty much every major human phobia in the book. Very nearly paralyzed with terror, she eventually worked up the courage to swing in the direction of some fire, which quickly devoured her grime-encrusted bonds – nearly gobbling her up in the process. Which would be quite upsetting, except – oh yeah – gravity.

Lara dropped like a rock, except with much softer skin, leading to the next painful complication in what was surely the worst 15 seconds of her life: a jagged iron pipe. Right through her hip. She cried out in agony while clutching at the cringe-inducing wound. Then – after a quick, sharp breath – she wrenched it right out of her body, and I nearly fainted. Put simply, it wasn't pretty. In fact, it was downright gruesome. Some have gone so far as to call it “torture porn,” comparing it to film franchises like SAW. Crystal Dynamics, however, definitely isn't making Lara go through hell and back for the fun of it.

Some have gone so far as to call it “torture porn”

“A lot of those people only saw the six minute demo yesterday. And I'd love for them to read some of the articles that are coming out about the full demonstration, because we had to condense a 15 minute experience into five-and-a-half minutes. So you saw a lot of things that were condensed together, which is not the vision for our game necessarily. You also saw a couple of quick-time events that were really mashed together,” global brand director Karl Stewart told VG247 in a post-demo interview.

“Horror's probably a touch too far. We want to make it real. We moved our T-rating to an M-rating because we don't believe we can tell that story of survival on an island by a young girl in a T-rated space. I mean, everything would have to be all soft and fluffy [laughs]. But we don't want to push the game into a bloodfest sort of gore-type horror game.”

Down the rabbit hole

Still in all-too-visible pain, Lara staggered down a tunnel and into the next portion of the cave. And what rolled out the welcome mat? If you said “a cave unicorn,” uh, what? It was a corpse, is what we're getting at. More specifically, it was strapped to a wall and surrounded by hundreds of candles. Yeah, whoever took Lara captive clearly had more than a few screws loose. Lara – more frightened than ever – ventured onward, pausing only to light a torch and use it to ignite an explosive barrel and blow away some debris. Then he grabbed her. A shaggy looking silhouette took Lara by the leg, but – via a quick QTE – she was able to kick him in the face until he remembered that legs are quite proficient at kicking people in the face. As soon as she scrambled away, a portion of the cave – already dislodged from the explosion – came tumbling down, and that was that. “Come on! Come back!” whatever-he-was pleaded from behind a mass of boulders as Lara hobbled away.

Lara then pressed her way through an incredibly claustrophobic tunnel, completely submerged in water from the neck-down. The tension here was much subtler than it had been earlier – a welcome demonstration that Crystal Dynamics isn't just relying on impalements and fire to get players' hearts pounding. Fortunately, the tunnel gave way to another clearing before too long, and the demonstrator took the chance to show off Lara's “survival instincts” vision mode.

In a nutshell, it highlights nearby objects that you can actually use to your advantage – for instance, for puzzle-solving. That then fed into a simple puzzle that saw Lara burn ropes until a large cage-type object (Again, if anyone's recently lost a few screws, please come to the lost-and-found desk) clattered to the ground, clearing the way for another cave passage to be blown open.

The E3 2011 gameplay presentation.

This time, though, the cave didn't take so kindly to Lara's creative liberties concerning what constitutes a door. “I've got to get out of here!” Lara cried as the whole place began to violently shake. She broke into a desperate sprint, leaping and dodging quite nimbly for someone with a giant superfluous hole in her side. Then he grabbed her. Again.

Another QTE engaged, but this time, the captor's crazed babble took on a different tone. “Help you!” he rasped. Seconds later, a falling boulder crushed his head. Curious. Chin-stroking would have to wait, however, given that Lara was about to fall off a cliff. With Lara feebly clawing at a ledge as the ground stretched its craggy maw to swallow her whole, things seemed pretty darn bleak.

Her face. For a brief moment, Lara's facial expression changed. Make no mistake, though: this was a shift nearly as tectonic as the quake happening all around her. But it wasn't a superheroic smirk. Rather, it was determination to simply survive. So she scrambled – on all fours – up a nearly vertical surface, toward a thin ray of light. After a short QTE, she made it. Hands caked in blood from clawing at pure rock, Lara collapsed onto stable ground and breathed the world's most tremendous sigh of relief. And so did everyone watching the demo.

E32011 cinematic trailer. This is not the Lara
we know.

Lone wolf

Our demonstrator then jumped forward a couple days in the game's timeline. Lara still looked scared witless and hopelessly out-of-sorts, but she was significantly more alive than I'd have expected of most people in her situation. Fortunately, help was on the way. Sort of. Lara spotted another survivor – her mentor, Roth, no less – outside of a nearby forest and just about jumped for joy. Then she noticed that he was being attacked. By wolves. The two managed to frighten off their frothy mouthed foes, but Roth's left calf looked like a slab of raw meat. Manly man that he was, Roth insisted that he didn't need medical attention. Then he collapsed face-first. Lara, desperate to keep him alive, raced off to recover necessary supplies to patch him up.

Unfortunately, said supplies were in a cave inhabited by an unnaturally large wolf. More natural, however, was the wolf's reaction to an unwelcome visitor: namely, attacking. With the wolf's teeth rapidly clamping down on her leg, Lara – again, through a QTE – fumbled for her knife and flailed until the wolf slumped into a lifeless heap. Somewhat shockingly, she then added: “Sorry, it was me or you.” Granted, all of it – the constant QTEs, Lara's general lack of malice – is incredibly deliberate on Crystal Dynamics' part. And, although he wouldn't go so far as to give specifics, Stewart implied that his team's take on Tomb Raider doesn't necessarily stick to its guns – or lack thereof.

“At this stage, our goal is to introduce the player to a character they don't know,” he explained. “A young girl, straight out of college. It's going to take a little time in the campaign to really help us get across the fact that she's grown. So now she's just met Roth, she's got the radio, she doesn't really believe in herself. He's got to force her – to say 'You've got to go and do this. You're the only person who can.'”

“So one of the things about the game is that there's a lot of emphasis on psychological growth. So, for us to say 'Here's our Lara in the first day or two,' and then 'Oh hey, here's a gun; go kill somebody' will break you from what we're trying to sell. We will show combat when we feel like the character has evolved sufficiently to the point where it's relevant for her to have to fight for her life in a different way.”

In addition, he mentioned the island's “ecosystem” of natives and god-only-knows-what-else – explaining that Crystal Dynamics is keeping things nice and vague so that players will have something to uncover. And of course, more friendly faces are in the cards as well. “All we're talking about right now is Lara and her fight for survival,” he said. “But yes, she will come across other people. But right now we're not going to get into how she kind of relates to those characters.”

Dirty deeds

After some light platforming – which was entirely player-controlled, unlike the sticky jumping of, say, Uncharted – Lara got Roth back on his feet. Figuratively speaking. Seeing as, underneath all the bandages, Roth's leg was still about as structurally sound as a submarine made of submarine sandwiches, he couldn't take his radio to the nearest tower and call for help. Really though, given the island's penchant for unspeakable horrors, it would've been a tall order even for the healthiest of individuals. Lara, understandably, wasn't too pleased that it was now all up to her. In a moment that very narrowly straddled the line between heartwarming and cheesy, Roth proceeded to pep talk Lara back into action. “After all, you're a Croft,” he concluded. “I don't think I'm that kind of Croft,” Lara fired back. “Sure you are,” said Roth. “You just don't know it yet.”

After handing her a climbing axe, Roth sent a slightly less terrified Lara on her way. And though I unfortunately didn't get to see the axe in action (the demo's end was, er, rather abrupt), items of its ilk will be crucial to Tomb Raider's pacing.

“What you saw today was something called 'gear gating.' Basically, you'll come into a space and see the magnitude of it. [You'll realize] that you'll be able to explore this space many different times, but it's all about the gear you have to allow you to do that. We want players to feel like they have an element of freedom and control, but we're still driving to continue telling the story,” Stewart explained.

“We're not an open-world game. In order to tell this sort of dynamic, immersive story, you have to have set ways to be able to keep the player engaged. What we've learned from other Tomb Raider games is that – if you keep it very linear – people are like 'Well, you just guide me on rails, from ledge-to-ledge.'”

Don't call it a revamp

Tomb Raider definitely made a strong first impression, but after such a short glimpse of the game, it's hard not to come away with more questions than answers. How will the pace and tension hold up? Will Lara's character growth be compelling enough to support a whole story? Will she even be likable? Will the dialog pass muster in a post-Uncharted world? How will non-QTE combat turn out? Will the idea of a survival-focus live up to its potential, or will it just be an early game gimmick?

At the end of the day, it was a highly scripted showcase sans any real combat, puzzling, or platforming. Sure, the game looks intense as hell, but enough smoke and mirrors can be the difference between a single sparkler and full-blown fireworks show. At the very least, however, there's solace to be had in the fact that this is absolutely the game Crystal Dynamics wants to make. Everything before this? Just a warm up.

"This is Crystal's time to be able to take the franchise and try and create something very visceral, very different, and sort of put our stamp on Tomb Raider."

“The key thing to point out is that – when Core Designs finished Angel of Darkness and we began with Legend – really, we continued the character. We didn't change anything. She still lost her parents. She still went through the same story. So what we wanted wasn't a re-imagining at that point in time. It was basically just us continuing their story with our take on it,” said Stewart.

“When we finished Underworld, we made a decision that – now – this is Crystal's time to be able to take the franchise and try and create something very visceral, very different, and sort of put our stamp on the Tomb Raider franchise. So we don't really look at past Tomb Raiders like Legend as sort of a rebirth. They were more of a Crystal take on a pre-existing IP. One which we were extremely proud to work on. It got us to what you see today.”

So yeah, the cartoonish smirk is gone – possibly for good – but I have a feeling I won't be missing it too terribly much.

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