The Xbox press event trailer for the upcoming reimagining of Tomb Raider is not encouraging. The impression it gives is of a linear shoot-athon that, however pretty, is far removed from the franchise’s exploration and puzzle roots.
Fortunately, as a gameplay demonstration showed us this morning, that trailer appears somewhat unrepresentative of the game as a whole. What we saw was from the game’s first act, and it shows Lara cold, hungry, and alone, wandering through a lush open-world island in search of shelter. Her face streaked with dirt, she negotiates rivers, climbs cliffs and survives a few falls that by rights should have turned the game into a lying-motionless-on-a-forest-floor simulator, but that aside it’s clear that a pinch of realism has crept into the franchise.
The first encouraging signs are found in Lara’s characterisation. Although a preposterously gifted athlete as well as a high-level scholar at age 21, she nevertheless feels well-rounded, muttering affirmations to herself before attempting her next outlandish feat of climbing, expressing doubts about her survival, and showing a welcome cynicism about the motivations of those who cross her path. When forced to shoot a deer so she could eat, her sorrow and regret at ending its life actually feel earned.
As mentioned, the game’s environs are gorgeous. The sections of the island shown are a mixture of dark jungle, vibrant rainforest, dank tombs, and sweeping meadows, all defiantly inhospitable but all rendered with equal attention to detail. Draw distances are great, and a healthy amount of verticality is on display – there are no flat surfaces to be seen.
Pleasingly, navigational hand-holding is minimal. We're told that recognising landmarks is important, and the variety and detail on display means that no two rivers or boulders looked confusingly similar. Lara does have one thing on her side though, a survival instinct represented by a pulse sent out into the environment revealing clues about where to head next. Lara is also far from helpless, able to upgrade weapons via scrap that is littered about the island, and her skills in specific areas such as hunting, climbing and so on level up the more she employs them.
After assembling a campfire, acquiring a bow and axe, and taking care of her hunger, Lara stumbles across another survivor, her friend Sam. Unfortunately Sam had company, and although initially welcoming, said companion proved ultimately untrustworthy, and kidnapped Sam as a helpless Lara watches, foot caught in a jagged bear trap. Other survivors of whatever it was that bought Lara to the island eventually come to her rescue, and a plan of sorts is hatched to retrieve their friend. Unfortunately for the mostly out of their depth explorers, things go poorly, and the group are thrown into mortal peril.
Here the gamer’s friend that is the Quick Time Event sees Lara fight off one of her group’s captors, which kicks off a well-executed stealth section that she completes with hands bound.
Speaking of others who came to the island only to be corrupted by its riches, “Let’s hope we don’t become murderers too,” Lara cautions. To complete her getaway, she does exactly that, and we see a deadness wash across her eyes before the demo ends.
Comparing Tomb Raider to an action-adventure film is pretty apt not only for the game’s many short cinematic touches, but also the stellar voice acting, gritty but not-quite realistic tone, and expansive scope. Uncharted is an obvious touchstone for Crystal Dynamics, yet they don’t appear to have abandoned the core of the last five Tomb Raider games they've developed.
It’s probably wise to maintain a cautiousness around this title until more is revealed, but what was scepticism for us has moved a step towards optimism.