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PREVIEW

TOMB RAIDER

It takes the use of an antiquated World War rifle that cause us to question our past coverage of Tomb Raider.


Context: we're nearing the end of our hands-on with the first three hours (less for the non-studious) of the new-look Lara Croft.

Some we've seen already through hands-off previews, but there's a lot of the new as well. We've washed up on a beach of a mysterious isle, tackled wolves, self-doubt. Climbed cliff faces, conquered combat. Scratched away at the first hints of the isle's mysterious cult and mythology. Killed and been killed.

Throughout all there's a grittiness that we expected, but a quicker shift to all-out warfare we didn't. A claustrophobic clash in the heart of a WW bunker isn't the first time we fight with groups of scavengers, nor is it the last.

Tomb Raider
Fire-bombing enemies need to be taken out first, as your cover points can be burnt to embers.

We hitch the newly discovered rifle to our shoulder as the game cuts to slow motion. The rifle's recoil kicks like a mule and we pump bullets erratically into bodies, lights, walls. We're an inaccurate killing machine.

This is a short while after Lara's much-publicised first pull of the trigger, an unavoidable decision to survive a struggle with her kidnapper. It is, as one colleague wittily puts it post-play, character drama turned Call of Duty. Things definitely escalated quickly.

The speed between that first kill and this mowing down foes seemingly hacks away at the expectation that Lara's descent into accepting the necessities of survival will be slow. "Duck to water" seems more apt, given the heavy shift in tone. Is this the same person who blanched at the thought of hacking apart a deer for food only hours earlier?

But it's a juxtaposition obvious only with that publicity in mind. We're not mentioning our reaction to engaging attackers. It's here, along with game mechanics and that inherent grittiness, that we find real effect to what we've endured. There's a surprising intensity, even fear, to every encounter.

Tomb Raider
Exploration returns us to that age-old Raider conundrum - "how do I make it up there?"

Because there's a lack of voice here from our protagonist as we shoot. No vocal eruption, no obvious catharsis in fighting back against those that have kidnapped friends; murdered, slaughtered. Expectation because, again, of the heavily monologuing see in demos thus far.

Yet in the game proper, confident-boosting litanies are less forced, less present than expected, Lara quietening only hours into the game. It's tutorial by way of central character coaching herself, coaching you, tackling challenges that makeover pre-Croft wouldn't bat an eyelid at.

To NuLara, everything is a challenge. Confidence has to be earned, skill unlocked - an illusion designed to humble.

Even if mechanics and our vast experience in adventures makes, say, the simplest leap to a cliff face a breeze, the run and leap is surprisingly tense.

Two decades ago we felt the serene rush of diving through building-sized statues in caves carved into the centre of the earth. Three hours into this reinvention you'll get as much of a kick by burying a climbing axe into a cliff edge to start your ascent.

The same in firing a pistol, drawing a bead on a scavenger with a bow.

Tomb Raider

And that these simplest actions are wrought with panic, we realise that the narrative's worked. We're self-conscious, awkward even, panic over a larger force that'll kill us hampering confidence.

Yet it makes for great combat.

The combat system's smart. Initially the lack of a cover button seems a crime, but means you play the game as an exploratory adventure than a point to point route through cover points. What Tomb Raider implements, and what proves unfailing in our time playing, is an auto-duck mechanic when Lara is near cover - and only when enemies are nearby. Even hedging out of cover to shoot auto-places you in the correct position.

We scrap with wolves early on, but for the most part we're dealing with attackers of the two-legged variety, and there's a gradually-unlocked versatility in dealing with them.

Tomb Raider
There's a thrill in the simplest moves, were we get a thrill at just repelling points as aerial shortcuts back through areas.
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Relationships play a big part of this new Raider, be it with old friends, scavengers, or hard steel.

Combat skills are upgradable as part of Lara's multi-channeled upgrade system, tinkered with at base camps and gradually unlocked through earning XP in either story or optional explorations.

Each weapon - gun, climbing axe, bow and rifle - can be strengthened, expertise sharpened for more precise aiming, less kickback, or stronger shots.

There's a few Lara-specific upgrades as well, such as a increased survival instinct meter (which annoyingly can't be toggled off manually when switched on, making you wait until its discharged fully).

We soon see stealth takedowns, QTE choke holds as you sneak past guards. A horrible pick-axe finisher that cracks skulls like walnuts. There's the gravel throw, that sees Lara reach down into the dirt and fire that into an attacker's face to blind momentarily. Though with that latter move, the animation distance Lara travels leaves you well past the target on finishing - rightly awkward in performing, but fiddly for gameplay - what should be an early essential becomes an awkward weapon.

Tomb Raider
Hidden tombs offer a slower pace as you're given time to work out logistics to solving their puzzles.

There's a small number of ways to approach each encounter, using environment, cover and skills to down trackers silently or announce your presence with gun fire. Using your environment is important: an early trick sees us knock over a lantern from afar, its flames igniting the wooden hut it's in- and the occupants inside. We're still unsure whether the local wildlife will play a random factor in combat to come.

The silence of arrows is the way to go, pistol only if you're discovered and attackers call for back-up. Early on a failed sneak past a machine gun nest turns into a near-death experience. We're sweating by the end.

By rights though we should have died. The AI's currently not up to scratch - in that moment enemies charged down the cave corridor we'd backed ourselves into, allowing us to pick them off one by one. We see later when downing one of a pair, the survivor's reactions are exaggeratedly slow, crying out in confusion and walking at a snail's-pace to their dead companion only a few feet away. Ample time to line up the next shot.

Tomb Raider
The game still looks incredible, with fire effects that'll you turn away from.

Okay, foes will crouch-run towards cover, or charge, perfectly panicking you into thinking on your feet. But sometimes just shooting enemies in a row is (unsatisfying) strategy enough. Given we've been grounded in the realities of this new world, it'd be great if the AI reflected that too.

That grounding reflects outside the combat situations as well, and we find ourselves responding in ways wholly natural to situations at hand. Crystal Dynamics offers no on-screen hints to puzzles, and it's great to sit and stare at something until a solution presents itself.

There's a particular point early on that has us crowing in delight because of the simple logic in solving it. Without conscious thought we performed a - until then - unknown action, simply because it made sense to do so. We hit a button on the controller, and the puzzle solution unfolded in front of us. Likewise puzzle-heavy tombs focus on physics-based solutions, and from the early ones we see (and there's plenty hidden all around the world) they'll be a welcome diversion.

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To being you'll only have a few seconds to aim your arrow, as the pull will rapidly sap Lara's endurance.

These opening hours lead us through sections well-worn by those multiple hands-off sessions, then into a entirely new plunge through a WW bunker heavy with set-pieces, and onwards to snow-covered mountains and a vertigo-enducing climb up a communications tower.

The sights and dilemmas draw fair comparison to Uncharted, while level design (loading screens aside, this is one interconnected world) feels natural enough to deflect linearity concerns for the moment. Think small hub areas with multiple routes through each, and interconnected by mountainous corridors (horizontal and vertical). With these there's the return of that old Tomb Raider question - "how the hell do I get up there?"

We do have questions about the island's size. The world map's generously bitten into during these first three hours, leading us to wonder about the possibility of other islands or underground networks yet to come (though retreading old ground is also expected). So far it's far away from the hopes we had of another expansive Red Dead or ACIII-style time sink. Whether hunting will become a long-term component or just a quick fix for story reasons (beyond the first kill for food, there's no reason other than murderous to hunt animals) is another unknown.

Tomb Raider
Stealth kills, as with any other action, are approached with trepidation, even if there's a generous distance to initiating them.

Even with a few hours under our belt, it feels like we've barely started digging into the mystery and mechanics that'll make up our time with this new Tomb Raider. And even with a few weeks between our hands-on and writing this preview, we find our thoughts returning to the island regularly. A good sign.

Because just as Ninja Theory are pushing with DMC, the proof is in the playing - marketing and impressions without experience matter little in the end.

And as much as the Cambridge studio has brought a fresh zeal to Dante, so to does this new Lara and her world fire the senses. A story that's worth living, even if the journey's a horrendous life-changer.

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