You're a young woman, crash-landed on an uncharted island in the south pacific. You're wounded, it's pouring rain; there are wolves everywhere. Your shipmates are scattered to the wind, and you're starving to death. There are scores of people already inhabiting the island, evil men who are hunting you and your friends for some unknown, deadly purpose.
You are so hosed.
Oh, but also, your name happens to be Lara Croft, so that probably improves your chances somewhat.
That's the setup for Crystal Dynamics' much-discussed, much-anticipated reboot of Tomb Raider, due out in early March of 2013. Last week I headed down to Crystal Dynamics' headquarters to play through the first two acts—a couple hours, taking my time—of the game. It's a striking location: Crystal Dynamics' offices are located in a shiny, futuristic office park situated near a marina at the end of a long, mostly-empty causeway outside of Redwood City. It feels like something out of Demolition Man grafted onto something out of Dexter.
But what am I saying? You don't care about office parks. You care about Tomb Raider. Here's what I picked up from my time with the game. In addition to playing the demo, I spoke for a while with creative director Noah Hughes, who was able to shed some light on a few things I was wondering about.
If you're looking for my elevator-pitch summary, here goes: "It's like a grittier, semi-open-world Uncharted starring a young woman. The writing's good. It's pretty fun."
- The parts that I played started with the initial crash, as well as Lara's abduction and eventual escape from the terrifying cavern. To see that in action, check out this video from E3 2011. After that, I played through the next few sections of the Island, hunting for food and taking shelter before re-connecting with several of Lara's crew members, helping her mentor Roth get medical aid, and fighting my way through an enemy base to the top of a radio tower to send a distress call.
- The story of the first two chapters provided a solid arc—it wasn't all terror and distress in the dark. Hughes came back to this again and again: It was important, he thought, that people get a sense of how this story has a real arc. So while it may begin grim and horrifying, even by the end of the second act, Lara had grown a ton, and risen to every challenge put in front of her. It didn't feel contrived, it felt believable, and it made me like her as a character. If the rest of the game can keep up that momentum and arc, this story could really be something.
- The game uses Lara's video camera to do flashbacks to fill in backstory. In one I saw, her friend Sam is interviewing her in their dorm room, explaining Lara's genius for books and history. Another showed the expedition's celebrity figurehead Whitmanon the deck of their ship, grumbling over the reality-show style stuff he was resorting to in lieu of any real discovery.
- In the story, Lara a theory about tracking down Yamata—she has a theory that no one else in her party will believe. Especially not Whitman, the ponce. Lara wants everyone in the group to go to the Dragon's Triangle, and convinces the salty leader Roth to take them there. He clearly likes Lara and so he backs her play. So in a sense, this is all her fault.
- On to game stuff. There's an experience point system, and Lara earns them for doing just about everything. XP can be used to buy skills.
- Skills are broken into three categories, each of which can be mastered as you purchase skills with XP. "Survivor" is about climbing, exploring and, well, surviving—these skills give Lara higher damage tolerance, the ability to get more gear upon looting, faster climbing, and the like. "Hunter" skills are about using weapons, actually, and not hunting animals—they grant abilities like quickly shooting pistols point-blank and using an arrow to stab an enemy up-close, Legolas style. "Brawler" skills center around fighting, letting you throw dirt in your enemies' eyes and dodge attacks.
- You spend XP in base camps—you can't just upgrade anytime you'd like. In camp, Lara cooks and eats food, recharges, and spends her skill points. The camps are really like waypoints, as well—they're scattered pretty liberally throughout the map, and you can fast-travel to any you've been to if you want to go back and get collectibles.
- There are, of course, also collectibles in the game—these take the form of collectible relics, like past Tomb Raider games. There look to be 20 to 30 of these, and they're scattered about the world. There are also documents to collect. It seems like some documents are found, but others turn up through the story, like the pages from Lara's journal. In the documents page, the writer of each document will it aloud. Lara reads her own journal entries out loud each time you arrive at camp, which is a neat bit of streamlining.
- The first relic I found was "a traditional Noh mask" that represented "a hateful woman in the guise of a demon." Perhaps these natives have issues with ladies…
- All of Lara's gear can be upgraded using salvage gathered from around the island and looted off of dead enemies. The bow won't be a boring bow for long—you can add fire, napalm and explosive arrows to it, among other upgrades.
- The game features a bow and arrow that feels good—hold left trigger to aim, raise tension with the right trigger. Hold it too long, and your aim will waver until Lara has to release the shot. (There's a skill to increase the amount of time she can hold.)
- Like Assassin's Creed and Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider features a hunting system, where you must stalk and take down prey in the woods. It was unclear to me how much you'll get out of killing multiple animals, though.
- The comes close to showing Lara skinning a deer, but then cuts away. So, yet another game that doesn't really want to show what skinning an animal really looks like.
- Tomb Raider has a cinematic camera much like Uncharted—as Lara runs through the woods, the camera bobs and weaves, tracking her movement like a cameraman would. It gives the game a rolling, physical feel.
- The game has a smart workaround to the problem of an invasive HUD—you press LB to see your objective marker, but once it fades, it's faded for good. Other than that, there's nothing on screen but Lara and the world around her. It's not exactly Arkham City's detective mode, but it's a good way to remind yourself of waypoints and get a hint in puzzles if you're stuck. Are you seeing this, Far Cry 3
- Weirdly, the opening levels have quivers of arrows lying all over the place. Sort of breaks the illusion, but I guess you have to get arrows somehow.
- At one point shortly after escaping, I met up with Lara's friend Sam (short for Samantha), who had met a dude named Mathias. He was so obviously evil I'm surprised he doesn't have horns. Of course, Lara doesn't suspect him. Alas. She fell asleep and when she woke up, Sam and Mathias were both gone. I fear for Sam, you guys.
- The game has something of a "Hub" design, where parts of the map are semi-open and have collectibles and side-objectives strewn throughout. I went through two hubs all told; Hughes told me that players will be able to return to hubs and will find them somewhat changed, either the time of day and weather will be different, or Lara will look different or have great that allows her to access places she couldn't before. In that way, there's a bit of Metroidvania to Tomb Raider.
- One new piece of gear for Tomb Raider is Lara's climbing axe—by the middle of the second act, she's got a climbing axe that she can use to pick her way up certain rock faces. It's cool, and adds a lateral feel to some of the puzzles and environments. And of course, you can also use it to wail on dudes.
- It sounds like in addition to her climbing axe, Lara will get her rope from past games. "We always try to give you new gear," said Hughes, "and wherever possible, allow it to affect combat and environment traversal. The rope has traversal and combat uses. We try to give the player a variety of progression, some of them are keys to the areas."
- Bad dudes are on the island as well, and they speak with appropriately foreign bad dude accents. German, from the sound of it. After finding another of her party members, Lara gets captured, along with some of her crew, and her hands are tied behind her back. The evil Germans appear to be rounding up shipwreck survivors as part of their usual routine. BUT, Lara managed to slip away, and at this point, it was time to sneak past them. Get spotted, and you'll get an arrow to the neck.
- The sexually-charged assault scene that became so controversial after E3 remains. As Lara's sneaking away, she's caught by a specific dude who had originally tied her hands. He leers at her and touches her neck and her waist, before she fights back and brutally kills him. Playing the sequence, in context, I didn't find it needless or offensive. However, it is really intense, and I could easily imagine it upsetting anyone who has been the victim of a sexual assault. It's likely the most intense, fraught moment in the entire game. It's the first time Lara ever kills someone, and she's driven to do it in a really intense way. She knees the guy in the gut, then bites off his ear, fights with him for his gun, and blows his brains out. It's a primal scene, and a close call. Afterwards, she's kneeling in the rain, and cries out: "Oh, god." It's not treated lightly, but it didn't really feel exploitative. Its inclusion still merits debate, but in context it feels like an honest treatment of the subject matter. What's the difference between sexually charged assault, sexual assault, and rape? I can't say. To me, the scene felt somewhere between the first two options on that spectrum.
- Of course, like 30 minutes later, she's clearing out whole rooms full of dudes without batting an eye. So, there's that.
- Back to gameplay. You'll be sneaking a lot in Tomb Raider, and stealth is contextual—Lara crouches behind "waist-high walls" when she gets close enough. The stealth system doesn't feel nearly as robust as in any of the stealth games that were released this fall, but it gets the job done. I had a hard time taking out more than a few guys without getting spotted, except in one sequence where they were clearly arranged so I could take them all down in order. It feels more or less like the stealth sequences in Uncharted 2 and 3, for better or for worse.
- Once it's time to start fighting, things quickly begin to feel even more Unchartedey. Combat is tricky—it feels entirely different from past Tomb Raider games, with an emphasis on cover and taking down enemies at long range. You won't be doing any backflips while shooting. Aiming is a bit floaty, and the game doesn't quite feel designed to be played as a shooter. That said, I hadn't really upgraded at all, so that could have something to do with it. But if I had to call it, I'd say Tomb Raider will succeed more on its story, puzzles and exploration than it will on its gunplay.
- The weather effects are quite lovely—the camera makes itself known again as wind-blown raindrops cover it in water. Later, the setting sun glares above white-topped mountains. Crystal Dynamics has learned a thing or two about framing from Naughty Dog, and are working the Xbox 360 for all its worth.
- Lara gets on the horn to Roth after killing five dudes. "It's scary how easy it was," she says. When she despairs, he reminds her that she'll be okay, because she's a Croft. "I don't think I'm that kind of Croft." I sort of think she is, but we'll see.
- The game has actual tombs that you raid. Whoda thunk it? These are side-mission puzzle rooms that open up on the map as you go. I did the game's first one, which involved a fairly simple weight/counterweight pulley puzzle. It's nice to see that the game will feature this kind of thing, given that Crystal Dynamics has proven so adept at puzzle design in the past.
- At the end of each side-tomb, you'll find a big chest that Lara will open. "Tomb Raided," says the pop-up. I asked Hughes if there had been any internal debate with this tongue-in-cheek joke. "We are still having discussions," he said. "Most of the game takes itself so seriously, and there's a certain charm to it, but it is off-tone."
- The side-tombs will allow for lots of good puzzles, but Hughes said they probably won't match the scale of the sweeping puzzles in Underworld. (Bummer!) "We try to challenge the player appropriately, but the scale is often not as grand. It's not so much that that was unliked, it's that we did, from a pacing perspective, we tried to let you spend an hour on something if you want, but we tried not to make you spend too much time on any one thing. If the player wants to progress, there is something new ever 20 minutes or so."
- Everything I saw was grounded in reality—human opponents, an real-feeling island to navigate. But past Tomb Raider games have always featured an Indiana Jones-like dash of the supernatural. (To a ruinous extreme in later games in the series.) Will this game have supernatural junk? Hughes was cagey, but hinted that it would. "We try to emphasize the concept of believability over realism. So to answer the question directly, we explore deeper into the mysteries of the island as you'd expect. And as you'd sort of also expect, with the tone being set, that we'd also do it in a believable and grounded way. But that's different than realism, right? There's an aspect of a Tomb Raider story that sort of is that impossible adventure, and we try to deliver that."
- Hughes said that the PC version of Tomb Raider shouldn't disappoint. "When I ship a game that people feel doesn't maximize their hardware, that's disappointing. We look at them as a big part of our audience, it's probably true with any game, but with a lot of Tomb Raider fans enjoyed the original game on PC."
- I hit a stone wall when asking about multiplayer. Given how great the co-op puzzles in Guardian of Light were, I was wondering if Crystal Dynamics had ever entertained the idea of some sort of co-op for Tomb Raider. But, PR stepped in and (nicely) shut the line of questioning down, so I got no word on possible multiplayer.
- In the scene at the end of the demo, Lara climbs a radio tower, the metal ladder giving way as she makes her way to dizzying heights, snow and wind blowing as a radiant sun sets. It set off every single Uncharted 2 alarm in my brain. Not saying it's a bad thing, just saying.
My overall impression of Tomb Raider was positive. The game looks lovely, the performances are strong, the puzzles seem smart, provided they ramp up in difficulty to the extent that hardcore series fans like me want. The combat is a bit floaty and stealth is weird, but as long as those two things aren't the main focus of the game, it should still be fine. Moreover, Crystal Dynamics looks to be succeeding in its goal of re-creating a more human Lara Croft; the opening hours play like a gritty but surprisingly believable origin story. I'll have more specific thoughts about Lara's evolution later on today or tomorrow (Hughes and I chatted quite a bit about how Crystal Dynamics has approached her character), and more on Tomb Raider later this week.