GameGrin were lucky enough to have an in-depth hands-on preview with Crystal Dynamics' reimagining of Tomb Raider at this year's gamescom.
Two things were immediately apparent on beginning the demo on offer. Firstly, this was an exceptionally pretty demo: We were playing the Xbox 360 version and it's fair to say this game appears to push the console to its limits. Character modelling and animation were superb, with mud, blood and sweat effects being particularly realistic. Simple touches, like the way the local plant life blew and waved with the breeze, really brought through a sense of realism.
The second immediate positive was the extremely intuitive control system. Only once did we need to glance at the controls guide and from there-on-in it was smooth sailing all the way. Even the more complex moves like double jumping came naturally, despite not being initially aware that these moves were possible.
The first section of the demo found Lara atop a jungle cliff, tasked with searching the surrounding area for fellow survivors of her recent shipwreck, which opened into a substantive platforming section. At first Lara climbed and jumped her way across the cliff top, dexterously and effortlessly. Then there was the obligatory 'balance over the log bridge' bit, which is seemingly a staple of modern platforming gaming these days, followed by a climbing sequence up a crashed plane hanging from the jungle canopy. This plane-climbing scene was the first introduction to quick time events in the demo, with fast button pressing required to avoid falling to an untimely death. During this initial section there was also a particularly ominous - but easily missed - moment when two human skulls can be seen hanging from the treetops.
By this point a storm is brewing and Lara's priorities shift to finding shelter and making camp. After finding a suitable spot our heroine lit a camp fire and was rewarded with a generous sum of XP - a sign of things to come, but more on that shortly. After a bit of R&R, Lara was feeling a little peckish and decided she needed to grab some munchies. Luckily, she found herself a bow and a few arrows from a poor unfortunate who had met his end hanging upside down in a nearby tree. By the looks of him, he met his maker some time ago.
Bow and arrow in hand, Lara set out hunting and after a short trek bagged herself a deer. On skinning the beast we were met with another hefty grant of XP. Here we noted something of an inconsistency between the narrative design and the game's reward structure; in slaying the beast we saw a cut scene in which resourceful Lara looked distraught at ending this noble animal's life, but the fact that an XP award was granted for doing so promoted us to immediately embark on a genocide of all the local fauna to gain those precious points. As a result, the poignancy of the scene was somewhat lost on us.
Deer meat and XP in hand Lara returned to her camp fire, where we found that we had accumulated enough points in our recent bout of extermination to gain a level up on the brand new skills tree. At this point, we are offered a choice of three upgrades: -
- Arrow Retrieval - Exactly what it says on the tin: Recover arrows from the bodies of fallen animals and enemies.
- Survivalist - Gain XP from certain plants and more XP from food sources.
- Hunter - Spot animals more easily in 'survival instinct' mode.
Given that time with the demo was short, increased XP seemed like a waste. Given that Lara's arrow supply was diminished after her recent hunting trip arrow retrieval seemed like the best option at the time.
Following another rest at camp, Lara found her way to an old shack and descended through a trapdoor into what could only be described as...... a tomb! During this short section Lara waded waist-deep through filthy water into the main area of the tomb itself, where the walls were lined with the skulls of both humans and animals and where a rotting carcass surrounded by flies can be found.
This section required a little bit of thinking as it involved a puzzle, which required Lara to use a lit torch to burn her way through an otherwise impassable object. While the puzzle itself wasn't too taxing, we found it more difficult than it should have been as we had accidentally put our torch away and could not work out how to relight it. The answer was as simple as approaching a fire source, such as the nearby lit wall brackets, and letting Lara do her work. A simple solution really and one that, in hindsight, should have been obvious to us. In this area Lara found a Japanese Oni Noh Mask, marked as one of three, which let us know that collectables will be a feature in this title.
Moving out of the temple and back into the jungle Lara finally found some human company in the form of a survivor named Sam and a rather suspicious male character that she didn't recognise. Things went downhill quickly and within the minute Lara found herself alone again, stuck in a bear trap and surrounded by a pack of wolves. This was the first scene to introduce any real external danger, as the wolves leap from the bushes to attack and quick reactions were required to take them down; despite the slo-mo effects.
This was also the first scene in which we saw Lara die; which was not a pretty affair. One arrow too slow and a wolf clamped its jaws around Lara's head bit hard several times, to the crunching sound of breaking bones. The brutality of death, along with some of the disturbing images from the tomb scene and the general filth and despair Lara found herself surrounded by really show that this is a much darker title than encountered in any of the previous entries in the Tomb Raider franchise.
After surviving the wolf attack (on the second attempt) Lara was rescued from the trap by a group of survivors and teamed up with one of them for a joint search of the area. On finding a temple-like doorway, with some wolf killing along the way, Lara found that her handy tool for opening doors was of no use here. This served to introduce a further development mechanic other than the aforementioned XP rewards: Lara had to collect 'salvage' from wooden crates dotted around the landscape and use this salvage to upgrade her existing tools. In this case, a more robust lever to pry open a door; but it remains to be seen if the same upgrading system will be applied to weapons as well as tools.
After entering the temple door and almost immediately being captured by a group of "savages" Lara found herself in another sticky situation. Her hands were bound but she managed to get on her feet and had to sneak through the shadows, avoiding patrolling guards, to make good her escape. Although this was a fairly typical stealth sequence the intuitive controls made this an enjoyable enough affair to take part in.
Regardless of how stealthy Miss Croft was in this scheme, she was still spotted and confronted by the leader of this group of kidnappers who grabbed her and pushed her against the wall. The scene that followed was particularly dark, with the violent intentions of this man bordering on the sexual. However, this soon gave way to a quicktime sequence whereby a variety of timed actions and button presses lead to the man being hurt, disarmed and finally shot dead at the hands of our heroine. Beaten, bloody and broken, Lara collapsed to her knees looking truly distraught. At this point, our demo ended.
Overall we enjoyed our experience with Lara Croft in the time we spent together. The demo presented was a good showcase of the things we can expect from the final game, combining platforming, combat, stealth and a light smattering of puzzling into the mix. This is no doubt a very different Tomb Raider than we have seen before; it's dark atmosphere, visceral violence and character development setting it apart from its predecessors. Regardless of this, the intuitive controls, beautiful graphics and enjoyable action presented in the demo make it clear that this is a game to watch out for.