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Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider reboot goes big on action...
In an increasingly common move by publishers, Tomb Raider has undergone the reboot process, losing the subtitles and returning to nothing but the original game's moniker. In another similar move to its contemporaries, Lara is grittier than ever before, displaying wounds and accumulating mud at a rate not seen since Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator.
Nolan Hughes, the game's Creative Director, was on hand at this year's E3 to talk us through the new features in Tomb Raider. It begins at a very early stage in Lara's life, and at the tender age of 21 she finds herself shipwrecked in a storm on her way to Japan. Waking up in a desperate situation, it's not long before Lara wrangles her way free and attempts to get herself out of the dangerous cave she has become trapped in. Nolan is proud to sing the praises of the new fire mechanic, which is used to light objects and solve puzzles in the dark and dingy caverns of the island. We were also told to expect other elemental puzzle ingredients later in the game, such as wind, water and friction. For players that are struggling to work out exactly how to progress past the trickier rooms, Lara has access to a 'survival instinct' mode, as long as she stands still, which shows hints of what to do next by illuminating the nearby usable items and ledges.
It's all very much classic Tomb Raiding fare, with a room-by-room progression through both enclosed and exterior locations, beset by a series of puzzles, platforming and combat scenarios. Gunplay allows complete free aim for the first time in a Tomb Raider game, no longer using the lock-on system from previous titles. The shooting is quite violent too, and developer Crystal Dynamics' quest to portray a journey of brutal desperation is clear to see, as Lara wrestles with Wolves and fires at gun-toting militia on a rain-ravaged, desolate island.
This uncompromising display of Lara's exertion is almost made comical however, as her never-ending chorus of sexualised grunts and moans soon becomes rather grating, somewhat breaking the immersion that the game otherwise affords. The action really is relentless, which although exhilarating, is also slightly disappointing when the player inputs are distilled into the Marmite-like gaming trope of the QTE, simplifying the stunts into single button presses.
Elsewhere, the outlook is more positive. Great care and dedication has been taken into making Lara more human than ever before. This is apparent in the hugely detailed character animation, best shown off as Lara stumbles around the environment after receiving a nasty injury. So too is it noticeable in Lara's dialogue, which not only features believable, competent scriptwork, but also utilises a high standard of voice acting. Crystal Dynamics has used full motion capturing to record its actors' performances, so that all body movements, facial expressions and audio are captured at once, producing a more natural, believable set of human avatars. Roth, the only other non-aggressive character we had a chance to see, is a wounded friend of Lara's, and is entirely convincing in his lumbering movements and authentic Yorkshire accent.
Although the core of the gameplay is not dissimilar from other entries from the Tomb Raider franchise, there are some new tools available to Croft. There are plans to include a gear crafting and salvaging system, allowing players to create equipment and weapons as well as improve existing ones. Also upgradable are Lara's 'survival skills', a set of individual abilities that grant her specific attributes, so that each player can develop Lara's skillset as they see fit. This includes the possible implementation of fast-travel, implying that players may be required to retrace their steps throughout the game.
Tomb Raider is a bold new step into a territory that is darker than we've ever seen Lara enter before, with an unprecedented focus upon an emotionally distressing and very human experience. The gameplay mechanics, while still similar to what made Lara famous in the first place, are now adjusted to match this direction, as are the story and character performances. So despite some grumbles about over-exertion and reliance on QTEs, this harrowing take on the classic recipe is perhaps just what this old girl needs.