Tomb Raider hands-on preview: The birth of a hero

The new Lara Croft is a screamer, but a tough one intent on finishing the job. Within the first 30 seconds of a two-hour preview, the 21-year-old heroine had horribly impaled herself, yet summoned the strength to focus on survival and escape the clutches of certain death in blood-tatted clothes less than ideal for the tumultuous situation.

That was only the beginning.

The Tomb Raider reboot is shaping up be one of the best of 2013. Lara Croft is fondly remembered by ‘90s gamers, but her former busty-self, and even gameplay to an extent won’t hold up in a modern world.

With inspiration from the likes of Uncharted, Tomb Raider is bringing a reborn Lara Croft, honing the same intelligence and ambition that has always made her such a strong character, in-line with modern expectations.

After being horrifically injured during the opening minute, Lara’s journey feels like a fight for survival.

After a little under two hours with the game, I’m convinced it has gone in the right direction. Yes, it does feel a lot like Uncharted in many regards, but that isn’t to say it’s Nathan Drake with long hair and a sexy accent. Actually, besides a few basic concepts, the two games aren’t as similar as you might expect.

Tomb Raider has its own distinct take on climbing and combat — the two key mechanics — as well as linear exportation and puzzle solving.

After being horrifically injured during the opening minute, Lara’s journey feels like a fight for survival. She questions herself and is notoriously outmatched at every turn, yet manages to succeed by the skin of her teeth. While she’s persistent, Lara is no superhero.

The island projects an eerie atmosphere of imminent failure with its dark and murky undertones and constant hounding thunderstorms. Art Director Brian Horton explained this is an important aspect of the design but is at its most prevalent during the opening hours.

“The storms and the weather are a big part of the overall aesthetics of the game and serve as a constant presence,” Horton told MMGN. “It doesn’t rain the entire game — in this early section there’s a heavy emphasis on the rain — but it definitely serves as an oppressive part of the foundation of the look of the game and the overall tone.”

Get the Adobe Flash Player to see this video. Watch Episode #1 of Lara’s survival guide.

You’re likely familiar with the demo I played, as it’s an extended version of what was seen at E3. If you went to the EB Expo, you may have even played ten minutes of it.

After momentarily recovering from her injuries, Tomb Raider begins with some testing puzzles — I actually got stuck momentarily. A fire was our main ally during the first 30 minutes, as Lara burnt her way to freedom from an underground would-be-tomb.

While thought-provoking, these early puzzles don’t match the grand designs of yesteryear. They were all about establishing the story of survival until Lara eventually emerged into the world above.

“We still wanted an action-adventure game, but we wanted to put it through a survival filter. We wanted the world and characters to feel more realistic, as believable as we could,” Horton told me about creating the new Lara Croft.

“The number one goal for us with Lara was ‘how do we make her more believable? How do we make her more grounded and emotionally rich?’”

It was evident in the opening minutes. She’s a real person just trying to survive against the odds.

The world above was just as unforgiving. One of Lara’s first tasks is to traverse an unstable log over a perilous waterfall. One ill-fated step and she’s had it.

As I progressed, this deadly premonition was realized through unexpected quick-time events. I’m normally displeased with such tomfoolery — as there’s little joy in mashing a button in-time with an on-screen prompt — but Tomb Raider seems to use it to add tension, much like Resident Evil 4.

One-chance quick-time events were used to fight off wolves and retaliate (whilst unarmed) against a man about to kill Lara in cold-blood. Most of these were unexpected during cut-scenes, ensuring you’re kept on your toes throughout.

The climbing mechanics consist of standard ledge-to-ledge maneuvering and mountain-climbing when Lara acquires the axe. At first, it felt a little overwhelming; like a linear game without an obvious path. Then I remembered Lara’s survival instincts — the substitute for waypoints. Lara can harness her natural abilities to grey-out most of the world except for the area in which she should be heading. It shows where you should be going next and which parts of the environment will be suitable to climb.

“We have done a lot of research on mountain-climbing specifically,” Horton told me “but the main goal was to make sure the controls felt responsive. We wanted the player to feel a new level of fluidity they’ve never felt in a Tomb Raider game.

“We’ve introduce a whole new jump system. That jump system works very well with the axe. When you jump off of a ledge, you don’t just go in one direction, you can actually correct yourself mid-air and use the X-button to attach to a wall.”

Combat was responsive and largely favoured a stealth and silent approach, where possible. Lara is equipped with a swift bow, as well as an obnoxious handgun for when it all goes horribly wrong. I had some issues nailing headshots, but this can be put down to inexperience more than anything else — plus I have a tendency to panic when using slow-loading weapons.

Tomb Raider is shaping up to be every bit the successful reboot we all hoped it would be. It captures the essence of what’s made Lara Croft such a timeless character over the journey, but modernises her with an endearing human quality rarely seen in video games.