It is the pioneers who define our future. Pioneers such as Lord Richard Croft, but genius and madness often go hand in hand. Croft has spent many years both at his desk at Croft Manor and on expeditions searching for the key to unlock eternal life. A lofty target, and one he never managed to find. Now his daughter Lara steps up to carry the torch. No matter the cost. However, she's not the only one who gets wind of the key to eternal life.
Lara Croft stands with her buddy Jonah at the foot of a mountain. It's rather windy. Wrapped up in layers of appropriate clothing, the two are still shivering. Lara hopes to find an ancient, lost city beyond the snowy peak. Our path to the summit is heavily scripted, largely because it's conceived as a graphically impressive tutorial. Lara has a snowstorm blowing around her ears before the first platforming sections start, and we're using two climbing axes to scale this fragile glacial ice. The ice looks fantastic, you can tell which steps will cause you trouble. Only a daring swing while hanging from the safety rope saves Lara's life.
Next there's a flashback to events two weeks prior. Lara crouches down in her swanky apartment and we learn that she has discovered something that shines new light on her father's work. His obsession with the secret of eternal life had ruined him and his reputation, and now Lara wants to go to Syria to redeem him. The sarcophagus of a legendary prophet is thought to be there - and in it the artefact of eternal life. It's all story and background thus far, not much in terms of actual game. It's almost brave of Crystal Dynamics to dare take it this slow, but it works and sets us up nicely for the adventure that lies ahead. Game director Brian Horton promises 35 to 40 hours of gameplay for completionists, while the main story takes around 12 to 15 hours.
Once in Syria the game takes its slow and there's still a rather static pace after more than half an hour. Lara climbs into a cave, squeezes through narrow passages, cue some sort of surprise. "Yikes". It's only later one wonders why Lara is afraid of skeletons. And scorpions. Snakes. Alright, we can see that, but all the other stuff? We press three buttons to pass through a crack in the wall. We dodge and disable traps. We're still in the tutorial. Quicktime events are triggered occasionally but never frustrate or annoy. Lara finds the sarcophagus and, of course, it's empty. Suddenly an armed unit blasts through the temple ceiling. A scarred commander and his elite squad now surround the sarcophagus. The man tells his people to watch out - they should have listened to him...
Lara returns empty handed to Croft Manor in Surrey. Almost. A symbol she saw in Syria reveals the way to the next destination. Kitezh, an ancient city in Siberia. Lara wants to continue straight away. Her buddy Jonah does not want to lose any more friends, "If you would wait five minutes, then you would see," he says. But of course it's hopeless, because Lara is a Croft.
It's in Siberia that the game finally opens up. After Lara ignites her first campfire, fans can relax. They're finally able to roam freely. The game world split into regions. You can explore it to gather resources or seek out small challenges, or you can follow the story. Much of this goes hand in hand anyway, but distractions are around every corner. Lara can upgrade her weapons, craft new ammunition types or produce all kinds of equipment such as ammunition holders, or make bags from bearskins and feathers. Many of these actions are rewarded with experience points that feed into the skill points system. There are three forms to shape Lara with: Brawler, Hunter and Survivor. We can of course mix these to our heart's content. If you follow one direction, however, the game will either become action-heavy or stealth-focussed. Both styles have their own charm, and that's why game director Brian Horton wants all styles to be viable and rewarding.
It's difficult picking a path. We enjoy the rough manner in which Lara stealth kills by hand or with her axe, but we also like how she performs silent kills with the bow, as well as enjoy the loud bangs of her rifle. No matter which style you prefer, the controls work perfectly. They're completely intuitive and Lara fluently alternates between aggressive and more passive actions. She uses oil lamps as molotov cocktails, or throws gas cans in the air and ignites them with a bullet. Equally she can hide in some bushes and strangle an enemy without breaking her cover. The young lady is well versed in the ways of combat, and shows no mercy.
Lara really is looking her best and it is largely down to the little details, like when she squeezes her dripping braid dry after crawling out of a cave. She shivers from cold yet trudges on through the deep snow. She has become a credible, modern action heroine whose appeal stems from the fact that she is smart, athletic, good looking and brave, almost foolishly brave. There is much to suffer through. She looks exhausted, but that makes her more convincing than ever. The evolution of this icon is a sight to behold and Lara shows she is second to no other video game heroine.
The game world is interesting and varied, populated by numerous animals that Lara sometimes needs to hunt. Whether Syrian desert or dense Siberian forest, everything looks very authentic and provides the perfect backdrop for the story. Our highlight was the optional Challenge Tombs. The first extra challenge can be found in an icy hell. Lara needs to board a frozen Byzantine ship absurdly hanging from a glacier. It may be optional, but the reward found in a large treasure chest was extremely valuable. Lara can now shoot two arrows in quick succession, without a new arrow having to be pulled out of the quiver. Rapid-fire bow unlocked. A nice prize for solving a little puzzle that involved a bit of timing and some climbing skills.
The second Challenge Tomb was something of a revelation. In a Siberian camp Lara lets a tree trunk fall down onto a wooden plate to open the way into a cave system that stretches deep down underground. Lara must climb and dive, operate old mechanisms and change the water levels. There's a huge mysterious cave to explore and conquer. Lara becomes the adventurer you used to know. Such tombs will be available in each region, and they represent the spirit of the original Tomb Raider, just much grander and more polished. You can even find camps in the caves allowing you to quick travel in and out. Horton tells us that every Challenge Tomb has its own little story and shines some light on the universe.
Whether we'll find allies in the tombs is still unclear. But they are part of the story, and you'll encounter rivals and enemies. In Siberia there was a girl named Sofia (who looked like she could be the sister of Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn). She pointed her bow at Lara's head, not very friendly behaviour, and disappeared as suddenly as she had appeared. Later we meet a bearded hunter who asked us to sabotage some radio equipment. The reward is a lock pick, so we happily took on the quest. The potential reward opens doors behind which we might well find one of the 59 relics and other collectables that contribute to the twenty hours of side content.
Regarding multiplayer there was no news. Brian Horton told us in our interview: "We have no statement to make currently." The game developer also didn't want to comment on the additional map packs, which can be found in the game, but apparently also can be bought via Xbox Marketplace. We will have to wait a few more weeks for the details on that. As for another game following this one, Horton only said: "Anything can happen".
Rise of the Tomb Raider is already an impressive and very polished game, even if the version we played was not yet final. It was a shrewd, albeit costly move by Microsoft, to secure this wonderful action-adventure as an exclusive. PC and PS4 players have to wait a while longer, the latter a full extra year. At that time Lara Croft will be up against her counterpart, Nathan Drake. Maybe she has what it takes to outdo Drake. We actually prefer her as a character...