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E3 2012: Tomb Raider [Preview]

8 Jun 2012  by   Tim McDonald

Tomb Raider is going to live or die for me based on one thing, and that thing is how realistically Lara evolves.

At E3 this year, we’ve seen two distinct segments. First, we saw Tomb Raider at the Microsoft press conference, showing Lara as being more like the adventurer we know from past games. She takes cover from mounted machinegun fire; she snipes people with bows; she drops gas lamps on their heads; she fires a shotgun into human beings at point-blank range without batting an eyelid. In short: she murders, with a complete lack of visible remorse.

Then, on the showfloor, we see a segment set shortly after last year’s cave escape showcase, taken from the start of the game. Having escaped the cave, Lara finds a radio by a wrecked lifeboat, and – while trying to follow the trail of potential survivors – ends up getting caught in a storm. Soaked to the bone and shivering from the cold, she manages to fight shelter for the night at a fireplace, protected from the elements by an overhanging cliff.

Early on, then, survival is paramount, although the devs are keen to stress that these are to provide context in terms of Lara doing what it takes to stay alive, rather than discrete gameplay mechanics. Once the storm clears up, her next priority is food: Lara heads out into the forest and, before long, stumbles across a corpse hanging upside down from a tree, with a bow strapped around it. After a spot of mild platforming she’s clambered up to it and, in her attempt to remove the bow, ends up falling back to the forest floor, bringing the corpse with her.

Clearly, this is Lara as an amateur. She’s lacking the catlike grace, agility, and confidence that marked her out all those years ago. She’s a scared young girl, stumbling and falling over uneven terrain, and she’s wholly out of her depth.

But the next scene, I think, is what really sets her character: in order to eat, she’s forced to kill a deer. Kill it she does – first shooting it with her bow, and then cutting meat off it with her knife – but she’s whispering apologies the entire time.

All of this, incidentally, offers experience, with new abilities purchased from base camps (those aforementioned campfires, dotted around the island). The idea, apparently, is for Lara to grow as a character and as a skilled adventurer along with you, as a player. Your first bow target is a harmless deer rather than a hostile human, giving you a chance to get used to the bow in a “safe” environment. Clever design.

Anyway. Once she’s got the meat she heads back to base camp and finally gets in touch with one of her old shipmates via radio, who tells her to meet up with him. She heads on out once more and – after cutting through another building, and venturing through a creepy basement area lined with human skulls and strange symbol – meets up with a friend, who’s sitting with one of the islanders.

From here, things erupt a little in a manner you’ve likely seen in the Crossroads trailer. The islander pulls a knife on her friend, and Lara stumbles into bear trap while trying to gather the nerve to shoot him with the bow. Before long, Lara and a few others are captured by a further group of island scavengers with guns, and – when Lara tries to escape – she’s forced to kill one of them by turning his own gun on him, in a kill-or-be-killed moment. Splattered with another human being’s blood and clearly traumatised, she limps out of the camp.

Now go back and read the second paragraph again.

There’s a massive disconnect between Lara at the start of the game – the terrified, traumatised girl – and Lara at whatever point that stage demo takes place, at which point she’s gunning people down with abandon. It’s almost unbelievable, in fact.

Which is my one worry with Tomb Raider. The game itself looks fantastic: it’s unspeakably gorgeous, with the island flowing with life and dripping with atmosphere; the combat looks well-tuned and enjoyable; the platforming and physics puzzles generally look pretty well thought out. But the evolution of Lara Croft as a character leaves me a little uncertain.

Bluntly put, I suspect it’s going to be the difference between Tomb Raider being a good game and being a fantastic game. (I’m still allowing for the possibility that it turns out to be repetitive and awful, of course, but so far I’ve seen nothing to indicate that.) If there’s a jarring shift between your controlling Lara as a robot death machine, and your watching Lara as a traumatised girl in cutscenes, it’s going to feel horribly disjointed – and I’m not entirely sure how realistically this evolution can be done unless it’s fuelled by something as generic as rage or hate overpowering the guilt of murder. If it’s done like that, then… well, I’m not quite sure how this seemingly sympathetic character could possibly turn into the character we know from the earlier Tomb Raider games.

I suspect I’ll be able to write an entire article on this subject when the game comes out on 5 March 2013, but for now I’m going to give Tomb Raider the benefit of the doubt because, despite my fears, it’s looking good. If this E3 has done anything for Tomb Raider, it’s given me even more incentive to see the scenes between those that’ve been on show.

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