Tomb Raider – E3 Preview
Picking favourites has never been easy for me; even at twenty years old, being asked what my favourite things are will be met with a long series of umming and aahing before I shrug, make an excuse and run away. My favourite band changes by the week, I don’t have a favourite show and any discussion about a favourite film normally involves me distracting someone by licking my own elbow. What I’m trying to say is that if I ever find something I can definitively list as a favourite anything then, for me, that’s a pretty monumental achievement. After being consistently wowed by most of what I’d seen at this year’s E3, I thought the week would end with me once again being unable to pick out the shiniest diamond in the rough. I was content to give up my search partway through the final day, and then it happened – I became witness to a presentation that not only repeatedly amazed me, but left my jaw hanging off my face by a single thread.
My history with Tomb Raider has been a mixed, if uneventful, one; I played part of the original and didn’t enjoy it, loved Tomb Raider 2 to the point of multiple play-throughs, then got bored of the third and found myself fine with sitting back and watching the rest of the series from afar, with my curiosity resulting in a quick dalliance with Tomb Raider Legend before once again leaving Lara Croft and her archaeological exploits be. Last year’s reveal during the Microsoft Conference caused a raise in eyebrow and a familiar twitch as I recalled yet another failed jump and the pain of reloading for the umpteenth time that hour, dulled by the overabundance of quick time events. This year’s conference was much the same; containing some great ideas but dulled a bit by the fact that Lara basically seemed to have the reverse Midas touch, which resulted in me taking bets against myself how long it’d take before she gave up, sat in a corner and cried until the building she had hidden inside collapsed, was swept away in a river then destroyed by a mix-up at the nuclear bomb testing facility a few islands over. Sure, it was tough to watch, but there wasn’t really any context to what we’d seen and it was tough to sympathise with her. The presentation behind closed doors changed all of that.
The demo started up just after the sequence that premièred last year, which saw Lara tied up, partially impaled, harassed by crazed savages and almost drowned, and as we sat down, Lara soon attempted to navigate through her surroundings by climbing across a crashed aircraft. One comparison I’d seen made about the new Tomb Raider was that the platforming was similar to the Uncharted series, but I’d improve that by adding “but it’s actually good“. The vast majority of climbing sequences in the latter series descend into you jumping from one wall protrusion to another before one decides to break away or fall apart, causing Smuggy McGee to go “woah” before successfully reaching the other side without any tension or excitement.
When Lara attempted to climb the wreckage, there was a much greater sense of danger, and weirdly enough, it was much more engaging because of a QTE, not in spite of it. As part of the plane suddenly gave way, the player had to hit a button within a split second or else send the poor girl plummeting to her fate, and even a successful traversal left her crumpled on the floor, whimpering in pain. Once she’d recovered, she began to explore the area around her, discovering the backpack of her ally, Sam, before calling out their name and stealing their camera, matches and walkie-talkie.
As she made her next jump, she fumbled and was sent tumbling down into the overgrowth below, but this time, there was a clear context to her constant disaster; she’d only recently been injured and is still new at this platforming business, and her lack of experience arguably makes her pain more unbearable to witness. Eventually, she constructs a base camp, which will let players save their progress, and later level up an impressively large set of skills or upgrade her weapons using any scrap metal she finds scattered around. For once, Lara’s abilities aren’t all there at the beginning, and have to be carefully chosen to suit your playing style as well as help her survive in the wilderness.
The following chapter, subtitled “Woman Versus Wild” tasked the player with helping the injured heroine find some food, and, moments after being startled by a deer, is confronted with a way to hunt some down, thanks to a rotting corpse equipped with a bow and arrow. There’s just one problem – said corpse is stuck in a tree, and if the footage so far has been any indication, she’s not getting away from this unscathed. Lara lamented “oh, you poor soul”, and made her way to the hanging body, before having to encourage herself to proceed, eventually earning herself some hunting equipment and a quick trip to the ground.
As she hunted for food, she drew her bow and stuck an arrow right through the head of an unaware deer, before running over to the slowly dying creature and apologising before putting it out of its misery and cutting it open. Gone are the days of mowing down dinosaurs without so much as a moment of silence, this is a Tomb Raider who actually seems to have a developing personality, and this moment of animal murder is clearly a formative moment for her.
Moving ahead, Lara soon discovers her friends are nearby, and finding them takes her through an abandoned building where she picks up a pry tool, which allows her to force open certain doors and passageways, with that selection being increased if she upgrades it at a nearby base camp. It was also at this point we were told that if Miss Croft is carrying a torch, she can set fire to white cloth, which will reveal new routes or clear the way for her to proceed. Eventually, she comes across one of her friends, who is enjoying a warm fire with an eerily uncomfortable stranger, who soon takes a turn toward the nasty when he kidnaps said friend and literally leaves Lara for the wolves, which is made all the more heinous as her latest batch of bad luck is exacerbated by the bear-trap clenched down on her leg and trapping her in place. Cue a sequence where the former hunter becomes the hunted, and has no room for second chances as the wolves begin leaping out, hungry for flesh. Soon after they’ve been taken down, Croft’s allies appear, helping her out of the bear-trap and assisting in the search for their kidnapped friend. The ever-unfortunate heroine then found herself a victim of yet another stroke on the portrait of bad luck, as she was abandoned by one of her friends, tied up and captured.
Then came the moment that caused a media meltdown and that is still raging on at the time of writing: after a brief stealth section, Lara is discovered by one of her captors, who attempts to rape her, forcing the partially bound girl to fight back in an intensely brutal quick time sequence that features knees to the groin, an ear being bitten off, a head butt and an intense struggle that ends with a bullet through the face of her aggressor. At the risk of a repeat description, ‘brutal’ is truly the only way I could describe it, as the sequence was so intense as to leave me physically uncomfortable as well as left agape.
You’re under no illusions that this is an intensely horrific experience; her captor takes advantage of her vulnerable and partially restricted state to force himself upon her, Croft’s retaliation is born entirely out of desperation, with the resulting gunshot an extremely unpleasant aftermath that focuses clearly on the impact of the gunshot to the man’s face as he slowly breathes his last. This is not a moment that glorifies violence, but one that emphasizes the harsh reality of our heroine’s situation. Despite how others colour it, I don’t believe it’s included for shock value, and it’s one of the major reasons why I left the presentation in shock and awe. Granted, they may be currently suffering a bad case of foot in mouth disease and ongoing criticism for its mere inclusion, but I’ve never seen a game handle something like that, let alone as well as Crystal Dynamics have done.
Apart from that near-jaw-snapping moment, the main reason I feel that Tomb Raider was my personal best in show is simply put: it did everything better. It wasn’t the most original title at the show, but everything present in that demonstration was leaps and bounds above anything else I saw that week. It’s almost like someone took a checklist of things I’d love to see in a game and created something even better. An open-world game that combines platforming, exploration, RPG elements and survival mechanics that actually emphasize a need for survival? Check. Moments of violence that are completely contextually justified and highlight brutality and desperation, and, occasionally, cause physical discomfort rather than glorify? Check. Taking a character completely lacking in personality and only remembered for having massive tits and humanising her by creating a compelling, sympathetic protagonist? Checkmate. Thanks to Lara Croft and Crystal Dynamics, 2013 can’t come soon enough.
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