Before Crystal Dynamics' new Tomb Raider, few would have associated Lara Croft with the survival horror genre. With the new game, one of the most recognizable ladies in gaming goes through another reboot, following the studios' successful digital title Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which was a major departure from the Tomb Raider most of us are accustomed to.
The newest Tomb Raider certainly looks a great deal more familiar than Guardian of Light, dropping players back in the third-person saddle as Lara, who has a whole new puzzle-ridden island to explore. Yet developers have added a survival horror twist by dialing back the clock and presenting us with a different Lara, one significantly less experienced and confident. When this incarnation of Lara is shipwrecked and thrust into a desperate struggle for survival, results can be pretty terrifying.
Gameplay: Living Environments
As with any survival horror title, Tomb Raider places heavy emphasis on environments, which can turn against the player just as easily as it can be used to Lara's advantage. The game plays heavily with light and claustrophobic spaces, which are reflective of Lara's own fear and uncertainty. Traversal challenges -- how to get from point A to B -- are always present, and seemingly small decisions like choosing one path over another to reach your destination can lead to unexpected consequences.
The environment can be your friend, too. When faced with a seemingly impossible situation, players can turn on Lara's special survivalist vision to highlight key objects in her immediate surroundings. The logic behind this, according to developers, is to give the player insight into Lara's mind and show us how she sees things. This system doesn't actually tell you what to do with the objects, just points out what/where they are. How Lara uses this knowledge relies entirely on you.
Aside from critical thinking, you're also going to need a quick reflexes, because Tomb Raider makes ample use of quick time events (QTE). Subtle indicators like nearby footsteps or a shadow across the wall often precede sudden attacks, triggering a QTE. These range from typical button spamming to following specific prompts.
Light, as you might imagine, is extremely important to our girl. During the early sections of the game shown to us in the closed demo, Lara arms herself with a torch, but being in a semi-submerged cavern doesn't make things easy. As such, her source of light must be relit regularly at various lamps around the cave, adding a sense of urgency to her situation -- as if bleeding from her kidney weren't urgent enough.
Lara won't be spending all her time on the island crawling through tunnels, thankfully. An entire world exists beyond these cave networks, and each time you emerge, you'll be rewarded with another gorgeous vista. Exploration, as you might imagine, is a large part of Tomb Raider, and each area you visit can be revisited later via fast travel, available at Lara's base camp. Dynamic weather ensures that every return trip to camp or any other area yields a slightly different experience.
Progression: A Survivor is Born
The Lara we meet at the start of Tomb Raider isn't exactly the same woman we've become acquainted to through previous titles. This is more like an origins story, in which we see Lara evolve into a survivor, a true Croft. The gameplay reflects her evolution as well, unlocking more tools and skills as the story progresses.
Within the first few minutes of the demo, we see Lara set herself on fire to break free of her bonds, wind up impaled on a piece of rebar, and get repeatedly assaulted by some crazy guy with a pick axe. Yeah, most of us would probably curl up and die quietly in her situation, but fortunately for her, all she needs to get by are a torch and proper instincts. Later on, story events reward Lara with a climbing axe, which unlocks a variety of new abilities for our girl -- an example of how the progression works.
Back at camp, where the crippled Captain Conrad Roth is always ready to offer Lara words of inspiration, players can purchase additional upgrades and craft new gear. Your options here will expand as our heroine grows.
Seeing the direction Crystal Dynamics is taking Tomb Raider definitely has us intrigued, especially when the gaming community is still debating the validity of new survival horror games. Lara Croft certainly isn't a name we associate with the genre, but that isn't dissuading developers. The game already looks fantastic, and the gameplay sounds solid, assuming you don't have any issues with QTEs.
Tomb Raider isn't expected for release until Fall 2012, and we can't wait to see more.