For 15 years Lara Croft has enamoured gamers and become one of the medium’s most beloved and recognisable heroes. Her once-excessive bust courted many column inches about the characterisation of women in gaming, but as technology, the industry, and gamers themselves mature, so too has the portrayal of the famous Tomb Raider.
Lara isn’t the first character whose appearance has been tweaked over the years. While characters such as Nintendo’s famous mascot, Mario, have only changed – softened – slightly, Devil May Cry’s Dante has been changed and updated so substantially, again fans have screamed bloody murder on forums across the internet.
Changing a character’s appearance is always going to be a gamble. If the developer isn’t prepared to reinvigorate its creation, there’s a chance it could become stale and outdated. On the other hand, the developer can take a risk, go out on a limb and reinvent the character, try something new. It may not always work, but it’s probably better than the alternative. This is the direction Crystal Dynamics is taking with the next Tomb Raider. Lara Croft is back, but not like we’ve seen her before.
Her signature green top and short brown shorts have been given the flick, and her figure is now much more proportioned. This is the new Lara; a young woman in her early 20’s who’s not yet the skilled adventurer we know from the previous titles.
The game kicks off with Lara aboard an expedition boat. Things rapidly take a turn for the worse, and she soon finds herself shipwrecked upon a mysterious island along with other members of the crew. Lara quickly learns the survivors are not alone on this island, and that these others aren’t friendly. She must adapt, and here begins her journey of survival.
Gameplanet spoke recently to Brian Horton, Senior Art Director at Crystal Dynamics to find out where this new entry fits with the previous games.
“It’s a reimagining of the franchise but still the DNA of a Tomb Raider game. It needs to feel like a Tomb Raider game at its soul, but we’re not going to be taking it from here and telling those same stories that you’ve seen in the past. Those games are important, they are a part of her history, but this is a brand new launching point where we are really saying that this is our year one for Lara, and then we are hopefully going to tell new stories after this one.’
Players already familiar with the franchise can still expect much of the gameplay that is the hallmark of the series – exploring, climbing, shooting and puzzle solving – but Crystal Dynamics also wishes to evolve the gameplay by introducing a number of new mechanics, and present a much more cinematic experience.
“We wanted to push our cinematography to the gameplay space. What we’ve tried to do is make the camera speak to the emotion that is going at the time. So when Lara is in a claustrophobic cave, the camera will come in really close to her, or when you get to these exploration spaces the camera will pull out and you can see much more of your surroundings. But we wanted to make sure that even though it was cinematic, we didn’t want the camera to get in the way of the action you were trying to do.”
Isle of plight
As is becoming increasingly common in videogames, Lara can now hunt animals for survival. She can also scavenge items to modify her weapons, and spend experience points to unlock new skills she can perform. These skills can help in the choice for the way the player can approach certain combat situations; using Lara’s bow allows for stealthy takedowns, or alternatively she can go loud with any number of guns.
The island is divided up into large hub areas that Lara will be able to revisit later. She might receive an item that allows her to explore places she previously couldn’t, or she might stumble into a hidden tomb ripe for some eponymous raiding. But the most interesting thing about the island might just be its past, or what exactly it is, something that promises to be revealed over the course of the game.
“This island is a prison for anyone that gets caught in its web,” Horton explains. “It’s got this mystique of a place that sucks ships in and never lets them go. We use a myth called the Dragons Triangle, which is very similar to the Bermuda Triangle. So what you have then is a series of cultures and different layers of history. You have this ancient layer of history, an age of exploration, you get World War II mixed in there, and you have this tribal cult group that’s also on this island.”
Where the Uncharted series began by chasing after Tomb Raider, Uncharted has since formed into an enormous wall for other games to try and knock over – including the series that was one of its inspirations. Crystal Dynamics is definitely giving it a solid shot. It is trying very hard to replicate some of the things Uncharted does so very well, such as the way the camera is positioned in an action sequence or subtle animations such as Lara clasping at a wound she’s recently endured, or putting her hand up to lean against some cover.
Tomb Raider appears on track to deliver a great cinematic action experience. Whether the world will embrace such a radical reinvention of one of its most easily recognised female videogame characters remains to be seen. It’s a bold choice, but one that we’d argue is pushing the series in the right direction.