It's been a long and eventful journey for gaming's leading lady.
Eidos Montreal has just unveiled the first slivers of information regarding the upcoming Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the origin trilogy started by Crystal Dynamics in 2013 that took Lara Croft, one of gaming's most iconic characters, and redefined her, showing us for the first time how she became the famous archaeologist-come-warrior. It has been a long road to this point though, and the Croft we've seen come into her own over the past two games (including Rise of the Tomb Raider) is a far cry from how she started out three console generations ago.
Back in 1996, we were treated to our first outing in the Tomb Raider franchise with Core Design's PC, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn title of the same name, giving us the classic puzzle-driven tomb raiding, dodgy controls, and pointy breasts that we all remember. The game that introduced this all-action hero stands as a true milestone for the industry, even if it doesn't quite stand the test of time if you try to jump back into the adventure today.
Here the action was built around the classic Indiana Jones-esque formula of venturing into exotic hidden locations, shooting at the baddies who were protecting the loot, and doing a whole load of cool action shots as you do so, Tomb Raider upping the ante somewhat by throwing wild dinosaur scenes into the mix too. One only needs to listen to the dialogue to hear what we mean ("it ain't over till the fat lady sings" one henchman cries as Croft escapes the opera in Tomb Raider Chronicles); this was a game driven by its mechanics, by shooting and looting, not by the story nor the characters hidden within. Core tasked us with solving logic-driven puzzles while traversing complex structures, but the studio mixed things up with outrageous action sequences that had Lara fighting prehistoric creatures alongside endangered species.
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This formula continued in the sequels II and III, as well as The Last Revelation, Chronicles, and Game Boy Color title Curse of the Sword, because it worked. Gamers liked the approach of simple action revolving around a badass woman with a near-supernatural ability to fend off all kinds of wildlife and henchmen. There was some deviation to the structure within these games, like Chronicles which had a selection of different stories linked together loosely as part of an anthology.
This continued in much the same way with the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, perpetuating this image of Croft as a sex symbol with actor Angelina Jolie taking the role, sporting the same revealing tank tops and shorts as her virtual counterpart. The film and its sequel were all about the bombastic action, as one trailer alone has enough flips to last a lifetime, and the wild, unrealistic nature of it all shines through. Sure, there were catsuits to spice things up a bit, as we saw in Chronicles too, but all in all it was more attractive tomb raiding with the most attractive of tomb raiders.
Despite a jump to PS2 with The Angel of Darkness and an emphasis on more modern environments away from the ancient tombs themselves, there wasn't much of a difference tonally and in terms of overall structure, which is perhaps the reason why we got a break of three years after that release in 2003. Despite that though, the return in 2006 with Legend and Anniversary didn't see too much of a change, as we still got the same old Lara, except this time looking better with the improved technical capabilities and shooting more bad guys.
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Moving from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics wasn't exactly smooth either. "They just took it and ran," said former Core programmer Gavin Rummery in an interview. "It felt like a robbery, honestly. It felt like we'd been raided ourselves and the thing had been stolen." You see, after Angel of Darkness publisher Eidos decided that a change was needed, and so it was that Crystal Dynamics took the reins.
It's not as if this period was without innovation though, as before 2013 we saw the release of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010), and this changes the third-person gameplay formula in favour of isometric action. These are innovations that continued past 2013 into Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris and even mobile puzzler Lara Croft GO, but these weren't fully-fledged titles. These were more like spin-offs, mobile title Lara Croft: Relic Runner being another example, so in fact it's really Tomb Raider: Underworld that stands as the last main entry of the noughties.
Just like with Angel of Darkness there was an issue with 2008's Tomb Raider Underworld as well, so much so that publisher Eidos Interactive revealed that sales failed to meet expectations. Clearly there was something up, and something needed to be done with long-term gaming icon Lara Croft, which is why we had another reasonably long hiatus in Croft's journey.
We can't talk about the new era of Tomb Raider without mentioning Uncharted though. This new trilogy is clearly post-Uncharted, which means they're not just about treasure hunting and shooting up the place, but instead they rely on characterisation as part of the action-adventure experience. This means more cutscenes, more personal growth in the heroes we meet, and much more emphasis on why these things are taking place.
2013's reboot/prequel simply titled Tomb Raider was a game that from the very start approached Lara Croft very differently. She didn't begin as an experienced explorer but instead was an ambitious starry-eyed young woman who is forced to survive after her expedition crashes on a mysterious island. She's not fighting to get her way, nor is she here to steal and make witty remarks; she's alone and afraid and backed into a corner where her only option is to do what needs to be done or die without hope. It seems this was a change in reaction to franchise fatigue, showing us a new side of Lara.
"Because we've sort of restarted Lara again, we could choose which elements we wanted to keep from her character and her backstory, and which we wanted to discard," lead writer Rhianna Pratchett told us back in 2013. "I wouldn't say we've discarded a huge amount actually, but we've brought different traits to the surface that were perhaps always there in previous games but were maybe lost a little bit along the way."
From the very start we see that this is not a veteran adventurer in other ways too, as she's constantly being belittled for believing in far-fetched myths and trying to lead the crew into danger, but throughout the course of the game we come to realise that she's not naive, just merely throwing off the shackles of cynicism to look at the world in a different way to her contemporaries, which eventually leads her not only to find the treasure she's after (not for monetary gain, we might add), but also helps her save her friends and be the hero she's destined to be.
Like we mentioned though, this is just the first entry in her origin story, so she isn't the fully shaped hero she needs to be by the end of the first game. That's just the beginning, one that sees her eventually grow comfortable with killing people as she discovers forces that will do the same to try and get what they want (the Trinity organisation, present throughout the origin trilogy), as well as asserting herself when others around her tell her she's wrong.
This continues into Rise of the Tomb Raider, where we see a more confident and assured Lara venture to find the treasure that her father never could. By examining his writings, she finds that he wasn't the washed up lunatic society portrayed him as, but was like her; a visionary who was ridiculed for thinking in ways others couldn't. Taking her friend Jonah and memories of her father, she ventures to Syria and Siberia to find what he sought.
In this game alone though there's a huge leap in her character arc (an arc that wasn't really even present in the 17 years before), and we saw her fight against those who would see her fail - like her old step-mother-figure Ana - as well as those who are actively trying to kill her. She's not fighting to survive here, but fighting to thrive, solving mysteries that have lain unsolved for centuries while secretive organisations flounder around her.
What's more is that she's not eye-candy anymore. Sure, she's not dressed like a nun, but she's not defined by what's on her chest, and she has more to her character than simply making quips and being able to kill dudes with backflips. Instead, she's a woman with very human flaws, but succeeds in spite of them, overcoming the odds and adversity all around her and even within herself to prove she's worthy of being the Tomb Raider, not only to herself but to us.
Perhaps the biggest development in her character is due to come in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a game coming later this year that we've already previewed. Even in the short demo we played there are several key things that should help realise what level design director Arne Oehme calls her "defining moment".
Up until now we've seen her become comfortable with killing, and doing what she needs to in order to get what she wants, whether that be taking lives or destroying priceless artifacts, but now we see her wrestle with the consequences of her actions, which should be a point of maturity for the still-young woman. When she makes a rash decision in the game's opening - which we played - she sets into motion a catastrophic series of events that'll devastate the lives of many others, and she's not only witness to it but held accountable too.
What's more is that Croft has come from being someone who's comfortable with murder to someone who excels at it, and in the trailer below you can see she's now more like the Predator, stalking her prey in the jungle before sending them to meet their maker, always remaining unseen. She started the origin story alone and afraid, but has now become the fear itself, using her isolation to hide in the jungle and be the stalker in the shadows her enemies never see.
As if this wasn't indicative enough of a wider change in the perception of Lara Croft, this year also saw the arrival of a brand new film that threw Alicia Vikander into the role, with events that echo those of the 2013 game in the sense that she starts vulnerable, and then through adversity is shaped into the role that we all know and love. Her motivations are important too, as it's all about legacy and doing what's right, whether that be pursuing her father's dream or taking down the sinister Trinity organisation.
What comes of Lara Croft after this final instalment in her origin story is unknown, but what we do know is that new developer Eidos Montreal has a big task on its hands. This isn't the Lara we knew back in 2006, nor is it the fresh-faced Croft we saw more recently in 2013, but a new Lara Croft coming to a defining moment in her story. And instead of feeling the fear this time around, now she's the danger lurking in the shadows. Instead of tentatively seizing opportunity, she's grabbing it by the jugular, and we can't wait to stalk through the jungles when we're thrown into her shoes once again later this year.