If you’ve been out of the game a while, you might remember Lara Croft as somewhat pointier in the chest region than she will be circa 2013. High profile re-imaginings are all the rage right now, and Crystal Dynamics are currently tied with Ninja Theory in just how far they can reinvent Lara and Dante respectively without instigating a gamer-wide spate of cereal chokings.
Where Dante has been edgified to a fault (think boozing and threesomes and smoking, gawd), Lara’s rebirth has much more in common with the likes of Spec Ops: The Line and the recent Far Cry 3, especially. In fact its similarities to the latter are so apparent as to be striking: Very early on you’re given a bow — one of the two signature tools that Crystal Dynamics are hoping will become iconic to this “new” franchise — and tasked with hunting game.
But it’s Lara’s journey from tremble-ina to tough-as-nails that really recalls Jason’s own metamorphosis, except here it’s not simply encompassed by one scene in which she kills a guy and goes “Oh dear I’m a monster” before instantly running amok with an AK-47. Shipwrecked off the coast of Yamatai (a real place of ongoing debate amongst Japanese historians), Lara comes to on the shore and is immediately clubbed into unconsciousness.
She wakes up dangling from the ceiling of a cave in a neat hessian sack, the first QTE of the game (there are many, but they’re brief) being to swing her back and forth until she sets herself on fire and, by extension, the rope hanging her upside down. She lands right on top of a tetanus-inducing iron spike and from then on proceeds to worm her way out of this nasty labyrinth, dodging cave ins and madmen all the while. When she finally does emerge into the wind and rain, she’s so pathetic she can barely get a fire started.
She huddles by it, shivering. Conrad Roth pings her on her walkie-talkie, and she couldn’t be more relieved. He’s her mentor, her father figure, and he wants her to rendezvous with him a little deeper into the island. Lara visibly falters when she hears this. “Can you come and get me?” she whimpers.
This is where Lara begins as a person, and she doesn’t become a super-woman in the blink of a cut-scene, either. Naturally, Roth’s not coming to get her, and it’s here where you get your first proper taste of how new Bambi-face Lara gets around. They are fantastic. She runs, jumps, rolls and climbs so fluidly and with such efficiency and relaxed precision — Assassin’s Creed, take note — it eventually makes the island of Yamatai a wonderland of possibilities.
It’s unfortunate it doesn’t open up properly until you’re almost two hours in, but being that this is effectively an all-new origin story with a fairly hefty tale to tell, there’s a lot of ground to cover leading up to the point where Roth gives Lara the game’s second iconic tool, the climbing axe, and she can mountaineer up sheer cliffs like a spider possessed.
Of course, by the time you get to that point, you’ll undoubtedly have spread a few points among your skill trees. Tomb Raider has some very, very lite RPG elements (you seemingly earn XP for doing nothing?), and once you “level up,” you can drop a point into, say, the Survivor tree to help with your hunting and salvaging, useful because you need animal and junk parts to upgrade your weapons and tools (hello again, Far Cry 3). The Brawler tree is particularly cool, including a whole raft of dirty tricks Lara can employ when engaged in fisticuffs, such as scooting swiftly to the side and hurling dirt in her opponent’s face.
Which you might end up doing quite a bit of, because if there’s one classic element Crystal Dynamics have really chosen to renege on here, it’s Lara’s formerly iconic dual-wielded 9mms. You get a gun, of course, and the cover system is as fluid and intuitive as the rest of it – but it really becomes all about the tools. Expect Lara’s bow and her climbing axe to feature prominently in future fan art, not her pea-shooter. Their importance is asserted in even the most seemingly unrelated contexts: Upgrade Lara so she can silently take out guys from behind, for instance, and she’ll whip her bow up over their heads and choke them to death against it.
Tomb Raider is shaping up to be not just what the franchise needs, but also the industry at large. The easy fun of its gameplay aside, it is undeniably brutal and is arguably one of the first games to really put a heroine through the same sort of violent trials we often take for granted in our leading men. Expect much more than Indiana Jones in a Supré tank-top next year.