Tomb Raider – E3 Preview

Title   Tomb Raider
Developer  Crystal Dynamics
Publisher  Square Enix
Platform  PC, PS3, Xbox360
Genre  Action, Adventure
Release Date  Q4 2012
Official Site

Lara's first ever expedition doesn't go as planned

We’d always suspected that Lara was a dirty girl, but if this year’s E3 preview is anything to go by, she’s absolutely filthy… literally.  Yanking the series back to its roots with a full on, perhaps controversial, reboot, developers Crystal Dynamics have thrown Lara in the deep end in a grimy, dark origin story.  Sitting down at the E3 presentation, having already caught a glimpse of the game at the Microsoft press conference the previous day, I was looking forward to seeing what the devs had in store for the hard-as-nails Ms Croft.  Noah Hughes, the Creative Director was on hand to talk us through the story thus far and with a quick caveat about the game being an early dev code, we were thrust into the action.  We jump into Lara’s fine form as she is held captive by a mysterious tribe, bound and suspended upside down from the ceiling of a cavern.  Not an ideal start to her first adventure.

This reboot sees us in the shoes of a 21 year old Lara, fresh out of school and embarking on her first expedition.  She is treasure hunting off the coast of Japan in the salvage vessel Endurance when, a few days in, disaster strikes.  No, they haven’t run across the frozen corpse of Leo Di Caprio but, rather, a spot of inclement weather.  The ship breaks up quicker than the average British boy band, and Lara finds herself shipwrecked on an island off the Japanese coast.  Worse, Facebook is refusing to update her status to ‘held captive by mysterious, lunatic tribe’.

This opening scene was a good chance to get the payer acquainted with the controls and used to the game’s physics and gameplay, as Lara rocks back and forth until she can ignite the sack she is bound in on a nearby torch.  The fall from her bonds onto the hard ground (and a protruding bone) is wince-inducing and the game pulls zero punches as she wrenches the fragment free.  Noah Hughes was keen to state that the character performance is of great importance; they wanted to show that she is human, rather than superhuman and can feel pain.  Believe me, after witnessing that fall, I was feeling pain.  It is here that we begin to see the fresher, younger Lara shine through.  She clearly lacks the survival instincts which have seen her older self chewing up the terrain in past adventures and is frightened and inexperienced, coming across as far more vulnerable than I had expected.

The state of the character and the surroundings in which she finds herself epitomise the darker, more mature tag that has been bandied about in relation to the game.  Lara is bloody and bruised, covered in grime, and sporting some nasty injuries, which she favours realistically as she struggles to find a way out.  The gritty textures of not only Lara’s clothing, but the grim cavern are detailed and suitably dark, and the art style is perhaps one of the most realistic to date.  The waterlogged caverns are sinister, but also bear splashes of colour in the flaming torches and pieces of debris, giving he place a ‘fuller’ feel than just dirty walls and a few bones.  She may not have many just yet, but Lara will have to utilise whatever survival instincts and skills that she can muster to try and escape, but also to learn more about her captors.

As she stumbles through claustrophobic passages, she talks to herself in a vulnerable but realistic manner, her own voice being all she has for some semblance of comfort.  Who or what the tribe is, they are certainly not friendly and the grim, but perversely poetic looking human sacrifice that she comes across is testament to not only that, but again, the more mature direction taken by the game.  Upon reaching a water-filled cavern with some odd cages and mechanics, Lara must use the environment to break free.

One thing that I noticed was the realism in certain gameplay elements, for example, if you wander through a waterfall or get submerged at any time, her torch will naturally go out, leaving the player to find a fresh light source to re-ignite it.  She eventually succeeds in making her escape, but here the game kicks into a QTE as she struggles to free herself from the clasping hands of an enemy, repeatedly booting him back in her frantic scrabble.  Any feeling of apprehension I had over this QTE was immediately killed dead when she made it outside.  For a game which is still apparently an early dev code, the vista was breathtaking.  Standing atop the cliff, the battered Lara looks out over the sweeping shoreline which curves into the distance.  The rocky waters are a veritable graveyard, filled with mournful wrecks from across the centuries; ancient masts protrude from the merciless waters, and modern tankers lay lifeless in the brine while a soft piano score plays over the powerful scene.  Forget the caves and the QTEs, this had my attention.

The developers skip us forward to a later section of the game, which sees Lara in a makeshift camp trying to keep Conrad Roth, Captain of the Endurance, alive; however, without medical supplies, this will be more difficult and she is tasked with retrieving them from a wolves’ lair (who have presumably developed a taste for Germolene).  Lara isn’t all that keen to leave the camp, but she has little choice.  Not only is she lacking confidence and any real survival skills, but she is also short on tools, wielding only a makeshift bow and a flaming torch.  This lack of expertise suits the origin story perfectly.  It is the ideal way to take the player on a journey of discovery, gradually opening up and paying out new skills and abilities as the character learns, as opposed to (as often happens) finding a way to strip the player of these things in order to avoid fully fledged abilities early on.

That had to hurt. A lot.

It is here that we see a new gameplay feature in effect – Lara’s ‘Survival Instinct’.  Triggering this highlights important or relevant things in the environment which can be used to help meet objectives; in this instance, wolf tracks.  As Lara makes her way through a built up area of huts and structures, jumping further than a squeaky teenager playing Amnesia, we get to experience some fluid Assassin’s Creed style platforming, with a smooth, free-flowing feel.  At this point, Noah elaborates about the large and (reasonably) open environment, wherein the player can choose and forge their own path through the terrain, allowing them to fully explore (as far as their current equipment will allow).  It was pointed out that not every path was accessible at this time, but this will change later when she is in possession of better equipment, giving areas instant replayability and upping the exploration quotient.

Having reached the wolves’ lair, we are thrust back into claustrophobic passages, full of the bones of unfortunate souls.  It appears that the island’s wolf population view the wrecked hulks as something akin to vast metal takeaway containers and Lara proceeds with no small amount of trepidation.  Of course, her caution is understandable given that there are no dual pistols ready to glide from sheaths here – as previously stated, she has a torch and a bow.  This is nothing if not a trial by fire for the inexperienced heroine.

It isn’t long before a wolf lunges from the gloom, but rather than ploughing into a decent scrap, we’re left watching another QTE as she wrestles with the beast.  The dev kindly decides to stop hammering X for a moment and we get to enjoy her being ripped apart before restarting from an autosave moments before.  I find myself hoping that this sort of thing will be used sparingly – it would be a crying shame if a dark and dirty game is slapped in the face with the candy floss pillow of multiple QTEs.  Still, the camera work was solid, delivering a ‘Blair Witch’ jerky feel, and this time she beats it down and escapes with the kit.

Outside it is pouring and we survey the rain-swept environment, getting the chance to absorb the surroundings and briefly admire the visuals before Lara sets off back to base camp to patch up the Captain.  Being the slightly less mauled one (Roth’s leg looked positively nasty), Lara is then tasked with getting their transmitter to the radio tower, just visible on the skyline.  Here, we get to see, once again, the odd vulnerability of the young Lara.  She is frightened, panicky, and very reluctant.  Whereas her more gung-ho, face-kicking older versions would have relished the thought of the adventure, she is understandably apprehensive: “I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft.”  The performance capture system used by the team was ideal for getting across the emotion and chemistry between the characters and it is in these scenes, with the Captain as a sort of mentor character, that she begins to gain confidence.

Of course, Base Camp offers more than the chance to jog the story along, and it will act as a sort of hub where the player can upgrade skills, beef up gear using a new salvage system, and combine objects to make weapons.  With a climbing pick now in hand, a new area opens up, along with some great possibilities in terms of exploration, but here, sadly, the demo comes to a close.

From the all too brief half hour, I was more than satisfied that the game is treating the notion of a reboot seriously.  The dark, more mature tone was well played, giving a far grittier, realistic feel than I had expected, but it was Lara herself who was the most compelling.  Young, inexperienced, and with few survival skills, she is presented as a reluctant heroine, refreshingly engaging in her vulnerability.  This makes her the perfect player in an origin story, allowing the developers to realistically grow the character and build her skills without having to knock them all back down first.  For a pre-alpha build, the graphics were well realised, with some quality water and environmental effects.  Most impressive of all, for me at least, were the cinematics – the haunting ship graveyard especially, remaining in my head long after the grubby, bloodied heroine had begun to fade.  One to look out for, and if Crystal Dynamics lay off on the QTEs it may well give the series a boost and convince the grumbling fans that Lara’s first expedition gone wrong is one worth digging into.

Tomb Raider is set for a Q3 2012 release – some time to wait, folks.

Last five articles by Lorna



  1. Ben Ben says:

    I’m really liking the new look Lara, less boobs – more S&M. Not to sure about the QTEs but we’ll see how that goes I guess.

  2. Rook says:

    I read part way through this until it got to stuff I haven’t already seen in the E3 video and I am really looking forward to this. I have played nearly all the Tomb Raider games (Angel Of Darkness was too broken for me to persevere) and the later games have all had linear paths for you to travel and less exploration and puzzle solving so I hope this reboot helps put all the back in place. And hopefully less item collection just for the sake of an making an achievement/trophy.

  3. Lorna Lorna says:

    @ Rook – I have the nasty feeling that there will be a bit of a collectathon because the game world is much more open now. Also, you can go back and access some areas again and use new equipment, so I think they’ll be tucking away some pain in the arse things to find for the achievements :(

    @ Ben – Agreed, the fresh, young Lara looks great and I’m loving the gritty direction they have taken… shame about the QTEs though.

  4. Samuel Samuel says:

    Smaller tits and more S&M sounds like my idea of a good sexual partner! Pity she’s still just polygons and textures… oh well.

    I’ve not played a Tomb Raider in ages now, the last few were pretty dire. My favourite is still Tomb Raider 2, and that’s positively ancient. I’ll be keeping half an eye on this, but I’m still not sure about it yet. It looks gorgeous, but QTEs are a turn off, and it’s going to have to be special after the last few Tomb Raider titles.

    I do love how the reboot puts her in a first adventure just off the coast of Japan, when Square Enix now owns the franchise. Shameless!

  5. Tania Tania says:

    Wow, this sounds really good. I’ve never played a Tomb Raider game before but am tempted to give this one a go when it comes out. One to keep my eye on for sure.

  6. Lauren says:

    I am kind of looking forward to this game but, like everyone else has said, I’m not sure about the QTEs. I am terrible with those even though I know the controllers really well. I just get nervous when I’m under pressure so naturally, I screw up a lot. Unless they come up with a way to keep the QTE going if you miss a cue, like Heavy Rain did. I don’t much like repeating the same scenes in games because it completely ruins the experience.

    As far as character design goes, I love the look. I have to admit, I have never played a Tomb Raider game because I never much cared for the appearance of Lara Croft; if I can’t relate to the character, there’s no fun in being her. I like my female characters strong, and unfortunately there’s a huge lack of them in games. I’m really hoping the reboot Lara can change that for not just Tomb Raider, but for other games as well. I want people to respect women in gaming, and stop objectifying them (I won’t say anymore on the subject).

    Graphically, this game looks amazing. I can’t believe it’s still in pre-Alpha stage. They still have around a year and a half to work on this game, and it already looks great! I just hope they don’t change it drastically from now until the release. As Samuel said, I’m still not completely sure about this one, but I’m definitely keeping it on my radar. (:

    Great article, Lorna.

  7. Chris Toffer says:

    I’ve not played much of the Tomb Raider series after number 3, back in the day. I’ve got the latest ones on my rentals list.

    I’m impressed with the direction they are taking this in, although apprehensive about making the theme last for a full game, and hoping they won’t just cop out with a gun fest towards the end

  8. Edward Edward says:

    This looks fantastic and completely grabbed my attention in the conferences, but I’m really worried about the QTEs. I’ve never liked them and I’m worried it’s going to take away something important from the experience and make it less visceral.

    Fantastic write-up, Lorna :D

Leave a Comment