Tomb Raider Hands-On Preview - Darkness Reigns
Written Thursday, July 12, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so conflicted upon leaving a preview session. After playing a build of Tomb Raider for the very first time, I stumbled out into the streets of London not sure whether the game is fantastic, horrific, trying too hard, not trying hard enough or... I dunno. Genuine confusion.
Taken from the beginning of the game, the demo introduces the story, as well as many of the gameplay elements we’ll be grappling with later in the adventure. It’s the same section shown off behind closed doors at E3 2012 (previewed by Dan), except this time it’s playable. Now we can finally take control of Lara ourselves.
The demo starts with our young heroine, shipwrecked on an island, heading inland to find her friends. She scared, she’s whimpering and she’s unsure of herself. Much has been made of this aspect of the game; Lara’s journey from a young girl to a fully-fledged badass. The intention is to make her human and vulnerable, to give her an arc. And it works, to a degree.
Yet Crystal Dynamics lacks the storytelling skills of Naughty Dog. Nathan Drake stumbled around, hurt himself, clutched his stomach and lurched from one disaster to another in a completely charming way. That’s how Drake was humanised. With Lara, I’m not sure she’s as sympathetic. Indeed, during the brief demo, I found it hard to connect with her.
This isn’t usually a problem in other games. Often the main character is merely a fairly fearless hero and you project yourself onto them. But here, Crystal Dynamics has scripted a constant internal monologue where Lara encourages herself to get through scrapes with an incessant “you can do this” chatter, punctuated by guttural, uncomfortable groans. It’s just a bit much.
Occasionally, Lara does things that are completely out of character too. In one section she is forced to kill a deer for food, an act she clearly finds highly distressing. As she would, she’s just a normal girl. But she knows exactly how to skin, gut and fillet the poor little thing. It just doesn’t fit with who she is.
Later there’s a section that comes at the end of a long platforming sequence. Throughout, Lara is visibly and verbally struggling to make each small jump. But then out of nowhere she leaps, grabs a branch and does a swinging, swirling flip like a 14 year-old Russian gymnast. It crumbles your belief in her as a character.
Now, all of this may sound very nit-picky, like wondering why Mario is so nimble when he’s a fat little plumber. But you don’t question Mario’s ability because he lives in a comic book world. Your suspension of disbelief is altered accordingly. Tomb Raider, meanwhile, is very much grounded in reality. On the evidence of the demo, Crystal Dynamics has built a cinematic, largely believable world, then stumbled a little in realising the protagonist.
In addition to this, it’s a remarkably grubby, violent game. Almost unsettlingly so. During my hands-on, Lara took an arrow to the leg, was choked to death, was attacked by wolves, had a rusty bear trap snap around her ankle, and was shot in the face from point blank range, disfiguring her face and exposing her eye socket. You only glimpse the latter briefly, but it’s genuinely nasty.
Add this to the rain and dirt, the odd touchy-feely islander, the deer skinning and the realistic way in which it’s all presented and Crystal Dynamics wasn’t mucking around when it said that Tomb Raider would be a gritty reinvention. Time will tell if they’ve taken it too far.
On the subject of going too far, it’s probably time to address the elephant in the room. I’m not going to linger on the subject, but it’s fair to say that Tomb Raider has nothing to apologise for in relation to the recent rape controversy. All of that simply has very little to do with the game itself. To be honest, the unnecessary cleavage shots were more unsavory. And that’s the first and last you’ll hear from us on the subject.
Let’s talk about the good stuff. Tomb Raider is an uncommonly great looking game. The environments alone are fantastic. Our demo moved from beachside cliff tops overlooking windswept beaches, to lush dark green forests, via moody caverns and shadowy enemy encampments in the space of just under 30 mins. Every one was a stunner.
There’s an awful lot of effects going on too. Rain and mud splatters, embers drift up into the air, sunlight bursts evocatively through tree canopies, campfires cast flickering shadows. If this is how the game ends up looking on consoles then we’re in for a real treat.
The gameplay enjoyably varied. Cognitive dissonance aside, Lara leaps around pleasingly in the platforming sections, climbing and clambering in a vaguely Uncharted fashion. Just like Naughty Dog’s finest work a lot of these sections spice up the drama too, as evidenced by the collapsing crashed plane encountered early on. This approach is not as fresh as it once was, but it does the trick.
Elsewhere, combat is sharp and Lara’s bow is quick and powerful. It may have been the weapon of choice for pretty much every game at this year’s E3, but I’d be surprised if many can match Tomb Raider for execution.
While levels are largely linear, there are a number of open hubs throughout the game, within which you can explore, hunt and collect scrap to upgrade your items. The area I encountered wasn’t huge, but it gave the impression of size through clever level design. It affords the player just the right amount of freedom. Or at least, the illusion of it.
Throw in the tighter, puzzle-solving and platforming area, plus some light stealth sections and Tomb Raider looks to have many of the ingredients needed for a fine adventure. Let’s just hope they don’t overdo the QTE’s, a sprinkling of which appeared in the demo.
So perhaps you can now understand my confusion. Many aspects of the Tomb Raider demo were impressive, yet still those issues with character, storytelling and general tone persist. It was at turns grubby, grim, troubling, brilliant, beautiful and distasteful, hence my confusion. I don’t know if I’m going to like Tomb Raider once it comes out, but I definitely want to play more.
Tomb Raider is scheduled for a March 5th and March 8th 2013 release in North America and Europe respectively.