Lara is a wreck. Perhaps the shipwreck of the Endurance that lies battered on the rocks below her is meant to echo her current psychological state? If so, then that’s some subtle paralleling that the developers have added. If not, then I’m reading too much into the scene that opens the hands-on demo at rAge 2012.
The area that Lara is standing in is called the Coastal Bluffs, and it looks incredible. The sea swirls furiously below her, and the bits of ship debris and rubbish thrown about by the wreck creates a desolate atmosphere. Lara is clutching her side, her blood stained top getting progressively filthier as the rain and mud intensifies. Every step she takes is a struggle, with her effort conveyed through the gasps and visible flinches as I begin to guide her down a pathway and deeper into the island.
This is a very different Tomb Raider. The over-confident Lara that we’ve known for over a decade is nowhere to be seen. Every obstacle is scary and potentially lethal. A few metres down the path, Lara and I came across a large chasm; the only way across was to balance over a fallen log. In previous Tomb Raider titles this would have been second nature and not even worth another thought. Now, however, the previously simple crossing is worth its own cut-scene. As I carefully balanced Lara across the log, the camera swirled as her anguish and fear intensified. “I can do this” has become her mantra; the constant need to reassure herself highlighting the fact that she is alone and terrified.
In Tomb Raider, your objectives are constantly shifting. This is no longer a level-based game where you’re tasked with looting forgotten ruins and uncovering artefacts. The opening sequences on hand at rAge were all about survival. The objective was simple: try to find other survivors. Upon locating a backpack with a radio in it, the objective shifted to having to find shelter. The storm had intensified and Lara was beginning to physically shake from the cold.
A rocky overhang that had previously been used as somebody’s camp became Lara’s new base camp. The base camps will act as a focal point between objectives; a place for Lara to upgrade skills that help with her survival.
Hunting for something to eat was the next step in Lara’s recovery. As we left the camp and made our way deeper into the forest, Lara’s movements began improving; she no longer clutched her side and her running became more confident. As we rounded a corner in the rocky pathway, a buck stood in a clearing a few metres away. That would be breakfast, but as I moved Lara towards the buck, she tripped over a tree root, startling some crows which made the buck disappear into the undergrowth.
After procuring a bow from the corpse of a man strung up in a tree, I was introduced to the shooting mechanics. Left trigger drew the bow string and right trigger would fire. The longer left trigger was held, the more powerful the draw on the bow and the more lethal the shot. The hunt for the buck had begun.
The area had a number of pathways and ledges to stalk the animal from. It required a bit of stealth as the creature was incredibly skittish. My first shot did little more than wound the thing, and Lara was forced to rush forward for a better shot as the buck limped away. The second arrow hit it in the neck and the buck went down. Killing and then skinning the animal was another trauma for Lara and she constantly apologised to the animal as she plunged an arrow into its stomach and began tearing the carcass open.
Now that food had been acquired, it was time to return to the camp fire presumably to cook the food. We had, however, become a little lost in the warren of pathways and outcrops but fortunately Lara has access to an overhead map. Pressing the left bumper on the controller also activates a sort of sixth sense effect that overlays an objective marker in the world, but it also drains the colour from the scene. This mechanic wasn’t formally introduced in the demo and I actually discovered it by accident. Hopefully there will be a believable explanation for this in the full game.
Activating the fire at the base camp brought up a skill tree. Hunting animals (I’d also taken the opportunity to shoot rabbits and crows with the bow) grants XP for spending on skills that will help Lara survive. The skills all fall under an Ingenuity label, and in turn there are three tiers (bronze, silver and gold) for each skill. Three were open for me to choose: Arrow Retrieval, Survivalist (grants Lara XP from certain plants and extra XP from hunting animals) and Hunter (makes spotting animals easier). Selecting a skill brought the demo to an end, with the captain of the Endurance contacting Lara over the radio.
This Tomb Raider reboot is going to be very different. As far as I can tell from this hands-on, it’s become a character driven game entirely focused on Lara’s struggle to survive. It’s a bold move to strip away the signature traits that make up Lara Croft’s character; she’s one of gaming’s icons so the potential to ruffle fan feathers is immense. The thing is, however, I’ve never ever felt connected to Lara in any of the previous games. In the half-hour I spent with this traumatised, young Lara, I felt more invested in her survival and plight than I ever have. I’ve played every Tomb Raider game to date and none of them have made me care about Lara like this one has. It’s going to be a very different journey and a very different tone for the series, but I cannot wait to experience the whole thing.