Tomb Raider preview: The best killers aren’t born, they’re made

Lara Croft has evolved over time from agile, puzzle-solving treasure hunter into a loot-seeking mass murderer (of bad guys and sharp-toothed animals) who also solves puzzles. But with the new Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics is re-envisioning the character for present-day audiences in its upcoming reboot. She’s still going to shoot at various two-legged and four-legged creatures using an assortment of weapons, but the hope is that you’ll pick up some sense of the journey that she takes from wide-eyed wanderer to tough girl adventurer as her gritty tale of island survival unfolds.

Square Enix offered a new look at how the March 5, 2013 release is progressing during a recent media tour, picking up not long after Lara is forced, for the first time in her life, to kill another human. It’s roughly three hours into the story and a handful of hub camps – all of which are connected by a fast travel system – have already been discovered. The latest location sees Lara hooking back up with Roth, the captain of the wrecked ship that stranded them both (and others) on the island. He’s also something of a mentor figure to the young Lara.

Roth is freshly injured when the two meet, following an unfortunate run-in with a wolf that ended with the beast slipping off with Roth’s food pack. The island may be filled with wildlife to hunt, but the food pack contained a  more important item: the transmitter from the wrecked ship’s lifeboat. This device is the best hope that Lara, Roth, and their fellow survivors have of escaping the Dragon’s Triangle island and the scavengers that make a life there. It’s somewhere nearby, nestled away in the wolf’s cave.

Roth’s leg injury prevents him from helping Lara retrieve the transmitter personally, but he provides some assistance in the form of a sturdy hand axe. Lara’s key equipment upgrades in Tomb Raider are all motivated by story events. The cutscene that plays over her reunion with Roth offers a peek at this young treasure hunter-in-the-making — “You’re a Croft,” Roth gently reminds her — but it also serves to justify the arrival of this new tool.

Prior to receiving the hand axe, Lara’s traversal capabilities are limited to how far up a wall she can propel herself toward a ledge. The axe allows her to actually scale vertical surfaces; not every surface in the game, mind you, but stretches of bare, relatively flat wall. The game’s Survival Instinct visual overlay highlights climbable surfaces with a golden glow, making them easy to spot.

The act of retrieving the transmitter sees Lara exploring the hub space that this chunk of story unfolds in. There are multiple open world-ish locations like these scattered throughout the game, and this not-insignificant chunk of world is apparently the smallest. The area is centered around an unoccupied, makeshift encampment built at the base of a valley. Mountains loom high all around, and each obvious point of interest – notably a blinking radio tower at the top of the highest peak – is accessible with the right tools. Some tools won’t come Lara’s way until later, and backtracking players can expect to frequently discover new places to visit in these familiar locations.

Lara faces down the wolf in a brief, yet frantic QTE and then returns to Roth, who tells her that she’ll need to get the transmitter up to the nearby radio tower in order to reach the outside world. So begins a climb that mixes equal bits of platforming and combat, with a dash of puzzle-solving thrown in. Lara may be untrained in the ways of survival, but she is astoundingly agile, to the point that you can even tweak her direction of movement mid-jump. The path to the radio tower starts simply enough, with wall climbing, ledge grabbing and the like, but it’s not long before the path leads into a series of caves and tunnels populated by the island’s scavengers.

Little is known so far about this antogonistic force in Tomb Raider. They were on the island long before Lara and her shipwrecked mates arrived, a good 20-30 years. Surprisingly, there are no children at all to be found on the island in spite of the length of time that the scavengers have lived there. It turns out that there’s a very specific story-related reason for this, but it’s the stuff of spoilers and therefore not being discussed prior to the game’s release.

Combat has a very brutal feel to it, with the camera pulling in tight on Lara’s shoulder whenever her bowstring is drawn back or her gun is brought to bear. The scavengers are a hardy bunch for this underpowered, early game version of Lara – skill upgrades improve various player-chosen attributes over time – absorbing multiple arrows and/or bullets before they fall. The wisest course in most encounters is to employ stealth and tactical retreats, luring lone enemies or smaller groups away from the herd.

A lengthy stretch of combat eventually spills into the radio tower’s support facility, with Lara ending up trapped in a room as it slowly fills with gas while a machine gun-toting scavenger watches her choke on the other side. There’s some light puzzle-solving to be done here, first in escaping the room and then in taking care of the scavenger. The solution leads to another cutscene in which Lara picks up the machine gun, adding it to her arsenal. Yet again we see an example of the story motivating an upgrade to the player’s capabilities.

This is what Crystal Dynamics is aiming to do with Tomb Raider. Lara needs to be redeveloped as a character for a modern audience, but that means starting her from square one. She’s not exactly useless when she’s first starting out, but there’s a big difference between a fit and athletic newcomer to the realities of the real world, and a hardened thrill-seeker who’s been carved from her experiences. The story unfolds over a period of weeks rather than years, and the hope is that the life-or-death situations that players repeatedly overcome as Lara paint a convincing portrait of her development as a person.

The demo concludes with Lara reaching the radio tower and scaling it to connect the transmitter with a maintenance panel at the top of it. Players are in control through every inch of her ascent, pushing her forward using the left thumbstick. Once at the top, there are dials in the maintenance panel to be spun as you search for a clear frequency to transmit on. This active participation in what could have easily been rendered as a cutscene speaks to a principal goal for Crystal Dynamics: it’s more about the journey than the end result. All of us already know where Lara Croft is headed; Tomb Raider will merely allow us to guide her there for ourselves.

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