On a bitterly cold Tuesday in central London, I was summoned to an evening at BAFTA HQ to attend Crystal Dynamic’s Developer’s Q&A for their forthcoming ‘rebirth’ (we can’t call it a reboot apparently) of the Tomb Raider franchise.
On hand were studio head Darrell Gallagher, creative director Noah Hughes and seasoned games writer Rhianna Pratchett, to defend their baby which had spent the past four years in gestation.
A brief history lesson for the uninitiated: Crystal Dynamics were entrusted with the Tomb Raider franchise back in 2003 and have since released several games in the series, including the fastest selling installment, Tomb Raider Legend. The most recent iteration of Croft’s adventures was seen in the annoyingly isometric shooter, Guardian Of Light, released as a download-only for PSN and XBox Marketplace.
Over the years, the franchise has been passed over numerous studios, each with their own visions of how Lara’s latest quest should be formed – Crystal have decided to do what all good think-tanks do when they run out of ideas – reboot and start again. (There. I said it).
Tomb Raider is an origins story in all but name.
As with famous figures such as Bond and Batman, sometimes it’s a good idea to wipe the slate clean where others have dropped the ball. Here, the team at Crystal Dynamics have rebuilt Ms. Croft from scratch – dropping the dual guns, shrinking her bulging bosoms slightly (this is an origins story, afterall) and sticking some khaki slacks over the sexy denim shorts of yesteryear.
Seventeen years of other people’s inputs is a lengthy legacy to dissect, and in some respects you can forgive Crystal Dynamics for wanting to start afresh. Restructuring the IP is a difficult balancing act as there are three distinct audiences: the newcomers, the hardcore fans and those of us who bored of trying to make Lara grab a ledge for the umpteenth time and repeatedly listened to her bones break as she hit the deck. (You can tell which camp I was in.)
Lara is ‘reborn’ as something of a naive young woman. No longer does she bear the tropes that brought her sex symbol status, but in its place an air of vulnerability of a girl on a journey to become an independent woman. Her tale is heavily inspired by real-life survivor stories, such as Alive and 127 Hours, of being isolated and adapting to harsh environments to overcome the odds.
She’s no longer dual-wielding desert eagles, but packing a singular firearm, a more practical climbing spike and a (pre-Hunger Games) bow. The streamlining and reconfiguration of Lara’s inventory is a shift to a less whimsical and fantastical heroine, but a person grounded in reality, and in turn, a character that is relatable.
Partially behind this transition towards a feminist role-model is the writer, Rhianna Pratchett, whose previous form (Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge) seats her firmly in the driving seat of pushing positively strong female characters into traditionally male dominated genres. Reassuringly, she is also a gamer and has played the first three games in the series, which should set some questioning minds at rest.
What she reveals about Lara is that this girl is still the feisty wise-cracking spinster of her later years, just hidden under layers of youthful exuberance, self belief and shyness. It is the discovery of the character’s roots that will lead us to the bold woman that she eventually became. And as with all good storytelling, there’s an emotional arc; inevitable betrayal, self belief and a strong emotive heartbeat that perpetuates the whole narrative forward.
Sadly, if you’re hoping for a backstory on her relationship with her parents – you’ll need to look elsewhere.
The entire game cinematics have been motion captured to within an inch of its life by professional actors, including the lead voice, Camilla Luddington. Known for playing Kate Middleton in that horrendous TV movie, Kate & Wills, and lesser known (but known by mucky pups) for being the sexually-charged nanny in the raunchy Californication.
Crystal Dynamics are adamant that this is an ‘experience driven game’ that is not led by limitations or has its hand held by the narrative. They are certain that the mechanics and the level of interactivity brought to the forefront of Tomb Raider’s architecture will be the deciding factor, helping elevate it to the echelons of similar action adventure games of late.
It seemed as if many people at the event were more preoccupied with drinking, eating the free buffet and schmoozing with Square Enix than actually playing the game – so lucky for me, I had a good stab at navigating Lara across some treacherous rain-soaked plane-crashed terrain on the XBox.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the smoothness of the frame rate – there’s very minimal pop-in. Add to this the dynamic weather/environment systems have a random edges to them instead of a preordained patterns and you’re already into some serious visual mana.
You are given huge vistas and massive areas to traverse at leisure, with the direction not always inherently clear – something solved with the ‘instinct’ trigger button which will point a compass in the right direction to prevent any ‘stuck for two hours’ frustration. In addition, there’s a near map that reveals itself slowly in the HUD.
These are all optional – so if you prefer Lara to be old school in her navigation, then you can fumble your way around at will.
Another boon is the creation of multiple paths to reach checkpoints – I noticed this particularly during some of the rock climbing sequences where I could move over different designated areas to get to my goal. En route, I also discovered a few secrets….
It appears that there are several collectibles to be attained: treasures (a la Uncharted), secret tombs to be raided (similar to Assassin’s Creed’s tombs) and additional perks that can be looted from chests scattered about.
Lara feels and moves like Ezio from Assassin’s Creed. The camera is nice and low, can be moved with the right stick, which swings and moves swiftly enough to maneuver into desired positions.
She has a relatively simplistic combat system akin to Nathan Drake in Uncharted. It’s much more arcade-like, with simple combos to be struck, stealth kills and one button context-specific finishers.
Lara’s bow and arrow is a little finicky to get to grips with. She releases her arrows and targets with less panache than seen in other games of this ilk, though the gunplay is lovingly accurate and feels much stronger with a miniature reticule appearing around your character’s hands. Unfortunately, save for a stray chicken, I was unable to utilise the bow and arrow for hunting food* in this particular section.
Every kill, item, secret you acquire in the game grants you XP which can be used to upgrade skills and weapons in your arsenal. These can be seen in their full glory through the rotating pause menu screen that makes a lovely little screencap of your current whereabouts as you hit it.
New toys include climbing with the new hiking axe is simplistic requires little effort – but does negate the often laborious climbing animations and subsequent plummeting as seen in previous installments.
The fluidity of the cinematics show that there has been some real high-end TLC given to the thought process of the game, lest we forget about the lead actress being fully mo-capped for her entire performance to add real authenticity.
This sizeable chunk of the game had me sold within moments – the playability, the expanse of playable area to freely explore and the luscious dynamic environments smacks of some real attention to detail. No – this is not the jump, grab and hope of the Tomb Raiders of old, and in many ways thank god it isn’t. That was a tired and passed sell-by-date formulae that is best kept for retro gamers.
Some may argue that this is merely a rip off of the Uncharted series – and that is undeniable. By default, a treasure hunter in a 3rd person action adventure game is always going to be difficult to distinguish on current consoles, but what Tomb Raider seems to be doing differently is muting the stereotypes and bringing an emotive element to Lara that we’ve not dabbled in adequately in games gone by.
We’re not dealing with a female who is famed for her torso but instead a young woman on a life changing adventure that is a far cry from the Indiana Jones imitations that we’ve previously bore witness to. And to that, I’ll gladly raise a flame-lit torch.
Tomb Raider is out on XBox, PS3 and PC on 5th March.