It's not often you see a game developer go with a complete reboot of a popular franchise. And when it does happen, it's usually a reboot that's planned accordingly and carefully by that game's publisher. Go too far into an origin story, and you could very well forget the roots where the hero (or the villain) came from. Forge ahead with something completely off-base, and you'll alienate everyone with a bad product.
The latest reboot isn't just any old franchise, though -- this is "Tomb Raider." Many gamers from this generation have grown up following the adventures of the British treasure hunter, embracing her savvy wit and cavalier attitude while ogling her well-trained body. She's been a hit across many mediums, including movies (with Angelina Jolie), comics and other products, but the upcoming "Tomb Raider" game – simply titled "Tomb Raider" -- wipes that legacy away. Rather than controlling an unstoppable, gun-toting, can-do woman with a roar, you're instead taking over Lara at a young age, when she's just starting to get an idea of what she can really do. It's a risky move by developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square Enix, but thus far, it's also a fascinating one.
The game, due out for release mid-next year, follows young Lara as she boards the HMS Endurance, setting out on her very first expedition. She's merely sitting around and chilling when trouble emerges. The ship runs into chaos, with explosions and parts of it being ripped from its foundation. At one point, Lara even finds herself at the risk of drowning, trapped in an underwater chamber. Eventually, she does reach a point where she can join the rest of the crew, but a mistimed jump leaves her floating in the murky water.
When she comes to, she finds herself tied up in a cavern, deep underneath a Japanese cavern. Unsure of where she is (and also, what happened to the ship), Lara begins her quest for survival. Unable to free herself with a knife or pistols, she has to rely on physics, swinging back and forth until the rope she's tied to breaks free. She eventually does, only to land midway on a spike, leaving her slightly injured and showing you that she's far from the nimble, confident heroine we've become accustomed to. Following this short segment, her adventure begins, as she attempts to find out what's going on and seek out the rest of her crew.
This new survival approach to "Tomb Raider" may alienate fans who have gotten used to the fast-moving, guns-blazing style of the previous games, but it's an approach that works remarkably well, as Lara acts as she would in the real world, rather than automatically figuring out what to do next. Several scenarios throughout the game will test her will, whether she's struggling to get free from a knife-toting savage, scrambling to avoid being crushed in a tunnel that's caving in, or outsmarting a wolf who wouldn't mind snacking on her. You can't just pull out a gun to resolve the problem; you have to fight your way out of it.
From the demo footage we saw last month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, it's clear that Crystal Dynamics isn't coming up short when it comes to the token "Tomb Raider" intensity. Throughout the two stages that were screened for us, Lara had too many close calls to count. At one point, they even showed her getting killed because the user didn't react quickly enough to the on-screen prompts. It's a frightening moment, one that shows just how human Lara is. (Luckily, with the right buttons, you won't have to endure such pain.)
There's plenty of action in "Tomb Raider," so don't think this is just some survival horror jaunt. Lara will find herself in situations where she'll fend off enemies, though she'll do it with a manual aim system rather than locking on to the nearest character in previous outings. We didn't see too much of this combat in action yet, but we have faith that Crystal Dynamics will make it work, keeping it exciting while still leaning heavily on the realism factor.
In addition to fighting, Lara will also need to quickly get out of some situations in order to avoid certain death. We mentioned the tunnel, and it's a thrilling sequence where Lara crawls her way out to daylight. However, this climb is anything but easy. At first, a thug grabs her leg, and she quickly has to kick him off in an "it's you or me" situation, sending him flying into a pit. From there, she has to maneuver up the slope of the tunnel with quickly timed button presses while occasionally dodging incoming rocks and other obstacles that could spell the end of her ascent. The game should have several moments such as these throughout, where you'll have to act quickly or risk putting Lara in harm's way.
Along with action and fighting scenarios, Lara will also need to use her cunning to solve puzzles. For instance, in one part of the demo, she finds herself trapped in part of the underground cavern with a door blocking her way. In order to get through it, she'll need to time certain objects to be in certain spots, such as a metal cage sitting overhead that needs to be lowered to give the door some leverage, or an explosive element in order to clear the path. Elemental items also prove useful during the course of her adventure. Darkly lit areas will require a torch so you can see what surrounds you. Lara can find fire in a number of spots throughout the cavern, though there is some challenge to keeping it lit in tighter areas, such as a crevasse where Lara is up to her neck in water.
After seeing parts of the first stage, which concluded with Lara looking out amidst a sea of abandoned Spanish ships, we went to the second level, where she has successfully found the captain of the Endurance following the wreck -- though he's in bad shape. In order to keep him alive, Lara has to maneuver through an empty Japanese monastery, with rusty tin roofs and collapsing woodwork, to a wolf's den, where medicine and a radio are located. After climbing around structures and getting to the den, she'll enter a battle of wills against the wolf, where she'll need every ounce of her strength to avoid being its dinner. Again, intensity is a key factor -- and Lara doesn't have a pistol to rely on.
One distinct difference that players will notice between this game and the last major "Tomb Raider" game, 2008's "Underworld," are the visuals. Gone are the plain textures that the previous release was comprised of, replaced by vibrant, unbelievably sharp backdrops that paint a world of chaos. The underground caverns are exceptionally well done, particularly when the camera zooms in and gives you a slight sense of claustrophobia as you inch towards the next room. The lighting effects are second to none, as well. When Lara lights a torch, you actually see the flames flicker against her character and the surrounding area.
As always, Lara herself is quite a spectacle. Over the course of her adventure, you'll not only see (and tend to) the injuries she acquires, but you'll also notice smaller things, such as the soot that builds up from climbing along walls and floors and little blood specks from where an enemy tried to do some damage. There are still some unfinished animations that could use tending to, but considering the game won't be out for at least a year, Crystal Dynamics has more than enough time to address them.
For the game's audio, rather than turn to the same actresses who voiced Lara Croft in previous "Tomb Raider" games (most recently Keeley Hawes), they turned to a yet-unnamed young actress to fill the role. From what we heard, she's quite convincing, even showing dread at one point after killing a wolf. ("It was either you or me.") The sound effects are terrific, particularly during the cave-in, where you could practically hear the place coming down all around you as you scamper towards a way out. And the game should also have a terrific orchestral soundtrack, to add to the adventurous spirit that it conveys.
As far as the comic book front, Top Cow published an ongoing "Tomb Raider" series from 1999-2005, but this new story, featuring a younger (and less bold) Croft, should definitely open the door to a new series, perhaps one that ties in with events that occur during the game -- or maybe even after. Crystal Dynamics was mum on this at the time, but anything's possible, especially considering Lara's popularity -- at any age.
Even though she is clearly not the same heroine that fans grew up with, this new take on the "Tomb Raider" legacy is strikingly original and, at times, absolutely breathtaking. The sense of adventure is raw and unbridled, and the gameplay looks like it'll live up to Crystal Dynamics' gold standard, even if some things aren't as easy this time around. (Hey, since when is survival easy, anyway?) Though the game's not expected to hit stores until the fall of 2012, there's no question that Lara Croft's return will be a welcome one when "Tomb Raider" comes out this time next year.