Crafting a New Croft
When I was invited to head to San Francisco last week to get an extended hands-on look at Crystal Dynamics’ upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, I almost didn’t want to go. I say that not because I was feeling negative about what I’d seen so far—the exact opposite, actually. Tomb Raider is one of the big-name games for 2013 that I’m most interested in on a personal level, and as fun as it is to see pieces and segments of games long before they’re released to retail shelves, doing so also ruins some of the mystery and surprise that typically awaits you when you play a game for the first time.
But, I went—because as much as I didn’t want to spoil any of the surprises in store for this new interpretation of Lara Croft, I’ve also been dying to know more about how the game is going to turn out. If you listen to enough discussions on the internet, it’s easy to start to feel as if Tomb Raider is turning into a disaster of epic proportions. It’s just a clone of Uncharted! Lara’s going to constantly get violated! They’re giving us a main female character that we’ll need to protect! Lara’s suddenly forgotten how to swim—WTF Crystal Dynamics?!
I arrived at Crystal Dynamics HQ a bit early for my appointment, and once I figured out the complex method for gaining access to their offices—turns out, you have to pick up a phone and dial the front desk—I was given a seat, a controller, and told to enjoy my time with the game. Up until that point, all most media had seen of Tomb Raider was bits and pieces of the adventure, pulled from random moments early in the game. This day, I was going to be allowed to start from the very beginning, and play through what would be considered the first two chapters—taking however long that process would require.
WARNING: The following contains spoilers in terms of some elements that unfold in the early portion of Tomb Raider. Read at your own discretion.
Tomb Raider kicks off with the CG cutscene that the world is now long familiar with: Lara in her cabin, listening to music, when suddenly something goes wrong, and our heroine finds herself plunging underwater. In terms of set-up, this introduction is as violent in pacing as it is in content; no sooner have we met Lara, and she’s already in peril. I couldn’t help but feel like I wish there had been more normalcy before all of this happened—more set-up, more calm before chaos. In a way, it makes me think of zombie movies. Typically, we either come in when the world has already gone to hell, or we get enough pre-downfall time to get grounded before all that happens. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a tiny point to obsess about—but it was something that stood out to me right away.
The game starts up as Lara finds herself washed up on shore. Nearby, she can hear a group of other survivors trying to make sense of the situation. Her attempt to grab their attention is in vain, as suddenly a mysterious figure knocks Miss Croft over the head. Again she awakens, but this time, hanging upside-down in a mysterious cave. Strapped to the ceiling in close proximity are what we assume to be previous victims; scattered all around the ground are bones, torches, and other miscellaneous items. Lara is alone, scared, and confused, but she knows one thing—she needs to find a way down as soon as she possibly can.
Making it out of that cave—and away from an adversary that we assume is the man who put her into that situation in the first place—is Lara’s first real act of survival. During this, I also get a chance to experience the game’s first real puzzle elements. Puzzle-solving was a big piece of the original Tomb Raider, and I was glad to be subjected to such challenges right away. Figuring out the basics of what I could and couldn’t interact with came via a sort of “survival vision” that Lara can call up; if that sounds similar to features from other titles such as Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham City, you’d be right. Thankfully, knowing what might come into play—and figuring out what to do with them—are two different things. The solution to this puzzle was not only logical, but also made sense in the confines of the world it existed in; I’m always appreciative of puzzles that don’t feel like bizarre outsiders compared to the rest of their surroundings.
At one point during Lara’s escape, she’s forced to traverse through water with only inches of clearance for breathing. Something happens here that instantly catches my eye—and it’s an element that continues throughout my play session. Every now and then, Lara would reach her hand up, touching the hard rock above as she passed by it. Some time later, while navigating her along a cliff, I notice Lara running her hand along the side cliff face whenever she got close enough. In terms of building the game, details like these are such small moments of animation—but they gave me this sense that Lara really is there, interacting with her environment.
Next, I come to the portion of the game that’s seen the most exposure up to this point. Finally afforded a moment of peace, Lara begins to take in the situation she’s now forced to face. It’s an island—somewhere—and while she knows that others have survived the shipwreck, she still doesn’t know how many are alive or where they’ve gone. I take Lara through the basics of what survival will require: climbing, scavenging, hunting. Finally making contact with another member of her crew thanks to a salvaged radio, Lara heads off—newly-acquired bow in tow—to find out what awaits her next.
As I play, something becomes abundantly clear: this is not Uncharted. At their cores, both games share familiar concepts and similar gameplay elements. The more I experience of Tomb Raider, however, the more I appreciate that the new Lara Croft is not Nathan Drake with breasts. (Funny, of course, because Drake was originally accused of being “Dude Raider”.) Granted, two-and-a-half hours of experience with this new Tomb Raider makes it hard to truly appreciate what the full game will be like—but it feels like its own game, even if I can’t fully explain all of the reasons behind that emotion.
Maybe part of it comes from what the game’s willing to put Lara through—an element that’s come to become more than a little controversial. Being fair, it’s hard to not see Tomb Raider as some level of “torture porn,” as the kids like to say. Lara gets hit, skewered, dropped onto rocks, shot, caught in a bear trap, and put through a variety of other hardships I now forget—and that’s just in the opening acts of the game.
The attacks on Lara’s well-being aren’t just physical—they’re also mental and emotional. After being reunited with a group of her compatriots, the survivors are taken hostage by a rogue element who calls the island home. In a moment of confusion, Lara escapes—only to be found by one of the group’s leaders just as she’s about to reach freedom. The two struggle, and Lara ends up pinned down by the man, her hands fighting his for control over his pistol. Rapid button presses help Lara angle the gun further and further up, until finally, it discharges—right into the man’s face.
This is the first time in Tomb Raider that Lara kills another human being, and I watch as the realization of what she’s just done fully washes over her. She stumbles backward, looking at the slumped-over body, fighting the urge to get sick at the sight. When reviewing the PSP horror game Corpse Party last year, I noted how refreshing it was to see a game that allowed its characters to actually react to the events unfolding around them. This is the Lara I wanted to see coming into Tomb Raider—somebody who seems real, somebody who expresses emotion over what she’s going through, somebody to whom all of this isn’t common place.
Unfortunately, that euphoria doesn’t last long—and I come across what ends up being a major point of concern I have for Tomb Raider from this experience. Indeed, Crystal Dynamics has built an amazing amount of power and weight behind that first human kill for Lara. After that, however, it isn’t long before additional kills come fast and abundant. I imagined being put into situations where it would be a young bow-toting girl pitted against clans of brutal warriors—situations where Lara would be better off fleeing than fighting, and where taking another’s life would be a regrettable last resort.
Such ideas change when Lara picks up that contested handgun. From the moment she has it in her hands, Lara has no trouble using it: she displays no awkwardness in using it; no difficulty in hitting targets; little regret in using it. I’ve argued before about my frustration over Uncharted and its ridiculous body count at the hands of Mr. Drake—so, perhaps selfishly, I wanted to see Tomb Raider present us with a Lara that would walk a different route. It’s entirely possible that the game will allow players to sneak through situations without needing to off Lara’s foes, but my experience was that there was little to dissuade me from taking the easier route of blood-thirsty revenge.
I know—Tomb Raider is a game. Games tend to feature main characters fighting against the odds and taking down entire armies of enemies; a lot of folks seem to eat that up. I’d just like to have seen Crystal Dynamics take a bolder approach to this aspect—especially given how, in other ways, they’re showing a lot of care in building up Lara as more than just a sexy avatar to control.
The chunk of the game we’re presented this day ends with Lara trying to make use of a radio tower to call for help. Existing as part of a World War II-era base, Lara simply needs to slip in, flip a few switches, and then place an order for a little rescuing. Of course, things are never that easy in videogameville—and to get the giant, looming radio tower back online, Lara’ll have to climb all of the way to the top of it.
Up until this point, it was hard not to notice the careful work that Crystal Dynamics seems to be putting into Tomb Raider’s camera direction. Angles, placement, focus—so many little details that can completely change the tone or atmosphere of a game and its attempts at storytelling. More than anywhere else, here—with Lara fighting the fear of climbing a tower that seems to be reaching straight to Heaven—I fully appreciate that effort. In so many other games, we’d see our protagonist from behind as they make their way up the various methods of ascension. As Lara climbs, we see her hands as they struggle to keep their grip; we see her face, and what she’s going through to reach her goal.
At this moment, I feel like the men and women at Crystal Dynamics love Lara Croft. Sure, that may sound cheesy—and a little weird, depending on your interpretation of “love”—but I get the impression that the development team legitimately cares not only about who Lara is and how she’s presented, but also how the player sees her. It’s evident in the little things, like those purposeless hand animations. It speaks in the quiet moments, when the game slows down for long enough for Lara to process what’s happening around her. It’s displayed on her face, when we’re shown that her reactions are the best way for us to understand what the game is doing to her.
With Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics wants to present to us a Lara Croft that is weak and fragile and afraid and vulnerable, but also a Lara Croft that is strong and brave and capable and versatile. The question is, can the new Tomb Raider live up to the new Lara Croft—and I came to understand that I can’t understand that just yet.
In many ways, Tomb Raider feels fresh, daring, and exciting; in other ways, I worry that neither its ideas nor its creators will be capable of fully realizing their goals. What I can say—with certainty—is that while my expectations for Tomb Raider are now a little more realistic, my excitement is still just as genuine.