Some stories are in the telling. In our medium, they're in the playing. After a trail of tabloid headlines and reaction, we clamped headsets on and settled down to play "that" section of Tomb Raider with a post-E3 demo.
It's actually the first hands-on we've had with the game since it's announcement last year, and compared to what we've seen between then and now this demo is but a small segment, scraping close to an hour if you're generous and meticulous with your time, half of that if you charge through.
We're early on in the game, following Lara as she learns the survival basics, gets her first upgrade, makes her first kills: there's as much hesitation between spearing a deer as there is discomfort pulling the trigger on a human. A huge differentiation from the easily-grown body count of the originals.
Control is similar to that of the past, but with technology making the animations look smoother, but its entirely down to the studio's new direction for the ever-learning Lara that they're more realistic: jumps have an awkward air to them, leaps hurt when smacking into the dirt. Shame then there's a line drawn between cut-scene injuries and running animations - we could see this Lara limping a bit more.
This is an ad:
The shift to giving everything proper weight translates to the bow as well. Snatched early on from a hanging body, it emulates the heavy pull needed to draw it through a increasing rumble in the joypad. Hold too long, and Lara's strength will sap and you'll release.
A small gully that serves as a training ground is quickly cleared of wildlife - arrows are dotted generously around for now, but an upgrade letting us pull used shafts back out of downed animals suggest forging will become a necessity. Animals spook realistically, and there comes a moment when we jump as a deer charges us from the undergrowth.
We need only kill one deer, and while making that call is interestingly conflicted we're soon on an extinction run for bow practice. Exactly what collecting animal meat will grant beyond a single story element (Lara's starvation used only as mission driver rather than having any gameplay consequence) is currently unknown: we get a "it'll be talked about later" response when we ask a spokesperson.
This is an ad:
The frequent self-assurances that grated during trailers aren't as repetitive or heavy-handed in context; as Lara finds herself alone its supposed to vocalise her fear (you can draw the conclusion that these will slowly disappear as she grows experienced in self-survival) and as in-game pointer for players: too obvious for life-long fans, but clearly there for the newer audience Crystal Dyamics are trying to pull in.
For all the new things being ushered in with this reboot, its ironic that one of the biggest was attempted before, and Eidos were nearly castrated for it. The upgrade system, letting you increase Lara's athleticism and combat options echoes similar attempts over a decade ago with the franchise's weakest entry Angel of Darkness. Then the idea had merit but was botched in execution. Today exchanging XP for character-altering abilities is the done thing, and fits naturally in with Lara's increasing skills.
Everything grants you XP, though there's are baseline skill points acquired through story, exploration will earn you significantly more and allow you to expand your skills, and flicking through the current list, they're worth the effort. Lara can develop into a efficient and showy killer.
And it's this shift that's the hinge to Lara's development at this point, something that concludes the demo. Captured alongside her follow adventurers, an escape attempt sees their captors hunt down the fleeing bodies and leaving Lara unguarded for vital seconds.
The fully-controlled section sees you having to sneak through wandering guards, and the sequence is played a lot more dramatically and cinematically than you expect. Due to sweeping flashlights, ever-rotating groups and frequent exposure to at least one set of eyes if you don't keep moving, fear very naturally steals up on you. You've got to watch the sequence to appreciate the graphics here. The clash of background fires and shadowy bodies in the night time murk looks fantastic.
We make a point to get caught, and what results is a short death sequence that makes it worth not letting it happen again. Death here more realistic - a gunshot, the vibration of the hit, the gargle of blood, blackness. It's abrupt and to the point, but the restart is at least quick to reload and putting you right back at the start of the section.
It's a briefness matched by mistaking the timed QTE sequence at the demo's end, a brief but brutal death at the end of a bullet. Success and the results are the same, only it's Lara pulling the pistol trigger come the end. A camera pan and she's thrown into focus, coated in blood, breathing heavy. A swelling of music and - cut.
A year on and it still feels like trip-feed. And that's the problem. We're still left unsure as to how big, how open the game will be. How combat will play out. How exploration will feature, or if this will be more linear than previous chronicles. A multitude of questions, and still no nearer to understanding how Lara's resurrection will play out.
As for the story, we understand roughly what Lara's arc is supposed to be in this, and a small demo, mission brief or interview outline isn't enough to show how deftly or otherwise the studio's managing to explain it. Proof will only come through sitting down with headsets on and playing through the entirety of the adventure - that will better justify its worth and defend choices than marketing that, by its very nature, can't give the whole picture until the actual release.