The new Tomb Raider is a thrilling, intense and at times disturbing game that surprised me by how satisfying it was.
While the old Tomb Raider games were a bit like an Indiana Jones movie featuring ridiculously over-sized boobs and a silly, fun tone, the upcoming reboot is dark and hardcore with a feel more like Deliverance meets The Descent.
I recently played the first few hours of Tomb Raider, and especially as a fan of exploitation and horror cinema, I loved it.
The spectacular intro of this origin story / reboot has the franchise’s main character, Lara Croft, endure a shipwreck somewhere off the coast of Japan. She washes ashore on an island along with about 10 other of the ship’s crew members.
As she cries out for the attention of the other survivors, an unseen assailant knocks Lara out. The credits then appear on-screen over a sequence in which her unconscious body is dragged off and into some sort of horrifying tomb.
She wakes up hanging upside down inside this creepy underground lair, which is filled with bones, candles and bodies. The music and camerawork help drive up the tension, shouting loud and clear – this is not your father’s Tomb Raider.
The first thing you have to do as Lara is escape from the cave system. This involves a bit of puzzle-solving, walking around with a flaming torch, wading through neck-high water and a couple of quick-time events. The whole area is filled with blood, bones and general scariness that evokes a number of horror movies.
With the push of a button, things go into ‘Survival Instincts’ mode. Using this, pertinent objects are highlighted, making sure you never get stuck in an area too long, without spelling out exactly how you have to pass it.
There is a bit of violence before you make it back above ground – I won’t spoil what that is, but it further emphasises the danger of the island Lara is stranded on, and that she will have to constantly fight to stay alive. Lara’s demeanour is one of a young woman who is wounded and frightened, yet determined. She’s about as far from Angelina Jolie’s sassy, pouty movie version of the character as you could imagine.
Away from the horrors of the caves, rain starts to pour and Lara shivers in the cold. A Blair Witch Project-style piece of bone art hangs from a tree but will only be seen if you stop to look around, as Lara moves to find shelter. She builds a fire under and manages to make contact with a fellow survivor over a walkie-talkie. Plans are made for a reunion, but only after she has rested and the rain stopped.
Lara also finds a video camera dropped by one of the other survivors and watches footage on it beside her campfire, launching a cinematic that provides a back story to the shipwreck opening. Lara is on a mission to find sacred relics of the Japanese sun queen Himiko. She persuaded the ship’s captain to venture into an area of ocean known as the ‘Dragon’s Triangle’, much to the chagrin of another crew member named Whitman.
When Lara turns the video off, the rain has stopped, and she ventures off in search of food. She finds a bow and arrow on a corpse and uses it to slay a deer, something that clearly troubles her. This segment teaches you the third-person bow control system, which is nice and intuitive. While looking around the jungle, wooden crates and other collectibles provide Lara with ‘salvage’ points.
Arriving at a campfire will allow Lara to rest and presents the player with a menu to spend experience points on skill upgrades, or salvage points on weapon or equipment creation and upgrades.
Leaving her campfire in search of fellow survivors, tribal music attracts Lara into a hut and when she enters, the door closes shut behind her. A passage leads underground and to more skulls, dead animals, hanging meat and the general ominous feel of that original tomb. Once through this underground area and back into the island wilderness, Lara comes across her friend Sam, who we met in the ship video earlier. She is resting with a fairly dodgy chap named Matthias, whom Lara is immediately distrustful of, but falls asleep beside anyway.
Naturally, that doesn’t work out well.
I won’t give away what happens next, but before long, Lara is alone again and desperately fighting off a pack of nasty wolves. Once they’re dispatched, she catches up with a few of the other survivors and helps them in search of the rest.
After a little more exploring, Lara and her friends are ambushed by a gang of thugs. They speak in an Eastern European language for which there are no subtitles, and they are very menacing. A guy who seems to be the leader of the group approaches Lara while the captives stand around with bound wrists and guns pointed at them. He touches her in a predatory manner, causing another captive to protest before being shot.
Chaos spreads as captives try and run away and captors shoot at them and try to catch them. Lara manages to escape. This leads to a challenging and intense sequence in which you have to use cover to evade the baddies. Eventually, the binds are removed from your wrists and you have to use both the bow and guns to dispatch a number of enemies and flee their camp.
After successfully escaping, Lara meets up with the wounded captain of her ship and must embark on quests to get equipment to help him. Her next major accomplishment, which took place at the end of my preview session, was climbing a radio tower to boost communication signal and hopefully get a rescue mission on the way.
Leading up to that was a lot of rock climbing, zip-lining and, of course, killing. One of the enemies was a boss, referred to by his companions as “the big guy”. He basically had massive metal plates over the front of his body, protecting him from Lara’s projectiles. Key to putting him down was his slow, lumbering pace and vulnerable back.
Overall, the game strikes a great balance between action and exploration, but what really makes it succeed is the atmosphere. Despite Lara freaking out when she kills that first deer, as in Far Cry 3 - which also tried to show a naive young person developing quickly into a Rambo-like killing machine - it's hard to take that dramatic shift in personality seriously. But it doesn't really matter.
The intense, grindhouse-style tone of the game made a big impact on me and genuinely surprised me more than a few times during the preview session. If you're an adult and are into entertainment that is as disturbing as it is thrilling, playing this bad boy with the lights off and the sound up is likely to be a massively satisfying gaming experience.
The game I'm looking forward to most in the first half of 2013 is still definitely The Last of Us, followed closely by Grand Theft Auto V. Tomb Raider is now my third-most highly anticipated game after the preview session, which elevated it above BioShock Infinite, SimCity and Aliens: Colonial Marines.
That's a long-winded way of saying that it impressed me hugely and I can't wait to get into the whole thing when it's released March 5.