We've just proposed that the latest incarnation of Lara Croft, a complete reinvention that ejects the last sixteen years of continuity for an all-new origin story and character, and its comparison to Naughty Dog's Uncharted, has parallels to James Bond's return to form post-Jason Bourne. That it's not replication, but a reinvigoration of the franchise.
"I've pulled apart different IPs and really gotten to grips with what it is that is part of our heritage," explains the Crystal Dynamics Global Brand Director. "What is inherently ours, what you can't let go of and what you have to break away from to feel fresh. I think that James Bond is one that we've studied a lot and when you look at the timeline of 007, it got back to one core thing - being culturally relevant."
Being relevant is a challenge far tougher than any the former-high-society-girl-turned-action-archaeologist has faced in the past. Despite a series of games that continually clambered towards greatness, ask any gamer the Lara Croft trademarks and you'd likely get the three Ts: "Twin-guns, T-Rexes and Tits" - violence, ancient horrors and sex. It's those, not locales, villains or fantastic setpieces, that are sadly associated with the franchise, to the point that it's arguable that Lara has been less character, more caricature all this time, ever since that infamous moment when a Core Design employee increased the original model's bust size by some one hundred and fifty, rather than just fifty, percent right back in the original game's development.
After paying its dues and proving its capabilities after it was handed the franchise following Core's remarkable series-suicide with 2003's Angel of Darkness, Crystal Dynamics had license to leave its own mark on Tomb Raider. Six months of development self-doubt ended, as Stewart puts it, when "eventually you realise you've got to be bold."
"One of the foundations was we get away from what she became," he explains. "which was unrelatable in a way. Successful, but you never felt there was any depth...we couldn't do that with the old Lara. There's no affinity there."
That boldness was reinvention, the same that had served cinematic reboots so well with the Batman and Star Trek brands. But more importantly for the studio was not to make the character who'd been the face of the series relevant again, but to create a relevant character, full stop. To ground Lara Croft, make her human, flawed. Real.
Over the course of a twenty minute presentation, Karl proves that's exactly what the team has done. Lara has grown up. Character replaces caricature, and for the first time in sixteen years we feel something new for the gaming icon: empathy.
It's one emotion of many that arises seeing this powerful new reinvention. Emotion is something brought up again and again during the course of the two-part demo, and our interview with Stewart afterwards. It's about creating a character that you can relate to, and which was the hook for "every single situation that we mapped out in the game from day one." The game packs enough punch in the opening three minutes alone: pain, astonishment, fear, excitement and intense claustrophobia. All this encased in a level of immersion that leaves us wide-eyed and our notepad untouched; only a second play-through ("this time with commentary," the director jokes) breaking the spell enough for us to start scribbling impressions.
The briefest of synopsis's - 21-year old Lara and the crew of The Endurance are shipwrecked during a storm - before she and player are plunged into experience that eschews any sense of past familiarity for a sickening survival horror the description of which you usually find splashed over the latest slasher flick in hyperbolic fashion, yet is just basic fact here.
The presentation opens with Lara hanging heavily-bound and upside down from a cavern ceiling. Beside her another sack, occupant either dying or decayed. A torch illuminating the dank surroundings. Crystal plans to drip-feed the game's mechanics to you. The two basics first: physics and fire.
Swinging yourself into the other sack pushes it into the fire, igniting it. another swing and your own bindings catch fire, releasing you into the void below. The camera snaps from above you to the debris-covered floor far below, a sharp rusted nail dwarfing the screen. Lara's body drops right onto it, the spike puncturing through her side. She grunts, you flinch. A short and nasty QTE has her dragging the nail out, screen swimming with her pain. She screams in agony, you grimace. She picks her torn and muck-covered body up and stumbles towards another torch, grabs it. Lara can reignite it off any of the others that are dotted through the cave system, Crystal effectively stripping Lara back to the Dark Ages in terms of survival tools.
The first thing you stumble across is a figure strapped up against a wall, dozens of candles illuminating the scene of mutilation. Lara's voice breaks into a frightened whisper as the impression creeps over you at just how different this game is from its predecessors. What's to follow wrenches the franchise's direction far off the beaten trail of Indiana Jones and into the torturous realm of survival horror, the sort that gets the 18 ratings on the big screen rather than the game genre that's lost its edge in recent years.
We haven't felt the hairs stand on the back of our arms like this since Resident Evil 4. It's not just because the camera pulls in close to Lara's shoulder in the cave sections. It's a comparison we make to hopefully jar you into some understanding at how much of a seismic shift this feels for the series, and how a long-running brand can suddenly feel so fresh, so exciting. On a purely visual level, as Lara crawls through the caverns, and later scales rain-lashed mountainside villages, this trumps nearly everything in the business right now, and makes it near impossible to believe the game is running on the same propriety engine that powered both the last trilogy and Guardian of Light.
A few stand out moments from the first half of the demo; Lara plunging neck-deep into water to wade through a tight tunnel, the top of her head scraping along the jutting rocks in the ceiling, the camera pulled in incredibly tight to emphasise the tension. Crystal Dynamics brought in a cinematographer to choreograph such tight zooms, and purposely altered lessened the control stick input so your movements are slowed. It's far too easy to feel her losing battle with claustrophobia here.
Another; a crawl through a tunnel on the floor is halted by a shadowy figure suddenly lunging out of the darkness behind and trying to drag Lara back. Again, a QTE is used for best effect, mistiming seeing the figure plunge a pick through Lara's neck, her body contorting in pain as she dies. Even if you escape, the sense of despair that arises during the struggle and the increased heart-rate, remains for some time.
It interweaves genuine feelings of disgust, fear and terror with such seamless effect that you've grown to expect only from the finest horror films. There's definitely parallels with the crop of horror films that were in vogue in the last decade, the horror and torture porn genres that spilled out of the likes of Saw. But unlike certain examples there that classified women as either eye-candy, prey, or both, the opening cavern sequence here, until you escape through a tiny seam into a cliffside ledge and onto the island proper, has more in comma with the situational horror and strong female leads from Neil Marshall's 2000 cave-diving horror The Descent.
"Descent was a huge inspiration for us," Karl agrees when we put the comparison to him afterwards., "But there's actually two others in there that people haven't gotten yet...there's the subconscious feeling that you've seen or felt it before, or experienced it before, but now you're going through it with a character, who you're just starting to understand." It's a hell of place to have a hand in a character's development. But shows that from the off, Lara's wits and muscles are all she needs to survive, to reacquaint us with the character's strengths.
Though these moments hit with all the power of a hammer to the chest, they're only part of what this new Tomb Raider is about. Puzzles are apparent, but still grounded in the two basic principles; physics and fire.
A puzzle mid-way through the cavern escape sees a pile of explosive petrol barrels and other debris blocking an exit, but separated from a igniting torch by a flame-dousing waterfall. A series of rope pulleys emptying the contents of a shark cage that's used as a flotsam collector into a nearby funnel serves as both hint and solution, and leads to a cinematic set-piece that finally sees Lara run from the collapsing den and crawl out into the island proper.
"I'm still in complete control of Lara," Karl shouts over the booming crashes, lifting the Xbox 360 controller and showing her slides down crumbling hills moving in conjunction with his thumb push on the stick. Another QTE - something he promises isn't overused in the game, and only appearing in volume here as a way to easy you into the world - with rapid alternating trigger taps to clamber uphill and Lara's out - and only then does the game's logo flash up on screen, along with a pan around one of the island's beaches, and the many wreckages there. Broken bodies of ships, Spanish armadas, Viking longboats, a World War II Destroyer, clutch to the shoreline, and suggests at least part of the mystery of this isle.
Day 2 becomes Day 4 (and part one of the demo becomes the second) as a loading screen with voiceover is utilised to record Lara's thoughts and bring you to speed as to the story. It's something that won't be in the final game - the team wants the entire experience to be one seamless adventure (no loading screens!) - but helps set the scene for now.
We're transplanted to a mountain village whose population has just doubled as Lara comes to the aid of Endurance Captain Conrad Roth's aid, who's just lost his medical kit, radio and most of his calf muscle to a hungry pack of wolves.
For the first time since the presentation began, we're back on familiar turf, or more precisely, clambering all over it. The camera pans back and we follow Lara swallows her fear and starts running and pulling herself up through the village as she chases the pack of wolves back to their den. None of the previous Tomb Raiders have so stunningly rendered a storm-ravaged mountainside, nor allowed Lara the freedom of movement far removed from her stiff and anally-accurate predecessor, letting her scramble up walls, haul herself onto roofs or frantically grab ledges after a misplaced jump.
The cliff-side village isn't huge, but Steward debuts the game's tracking mode anyway. Labelled 'Survival Instinct', a button press will outlinesany relevant objects in the world with a golden hue - such as the wolf tracks here. To keep away from anyone automatically keeping this switched on at all times like Arkham Asylum's Detective Mode, Crystal has made sure it only works when Lara is still. One very nervy den dash later, tracking the ever-loudening beeps of the radio, and that sees Lara filled with remorse after her first kill, stabbing an attacking wolf, proves Stewart's boast right (a Lara who only kills when it's survival or death, and a Tomb Raider who spends as much time escaping tombs as she does going into them.)
The presentation ends with a rain-lashed and bloody Croft gripping a climbing axe and ready to ascend distant cliffs and the radio tower nestled atop of them to signal for help, and a greater understanding of how the game's progression will be measured.
The island, a fictional take on the Bermuda Triangle, just off the south-east coast of Japan and called The Dragon's Triangle, will operate as a hub world, with multiple massive areas like the one we've seen several sequences from, and each with its own secrets and hidden areas that will only be revealed as Lara uncovers the right equipment to progress. 'Ability Gating' as Karl coins it and a nod to the tradition of explorative adventures like Metroid and Castlevania. Camp sites act as upgrade points, letting you craft new gear from collected salvage, and purchase upgrades. Exactly what these upgrades are and how they work Stewart won't say - but it's something, given the repeated emphasis on the 'real-world' Lara, we're curious to see how it works. We can't imagine this to go down the route of strength upgrades, something the ill-fated Angel of Darkness bore like a cross.
But there's a long time before we dig into that. The game's on course for release sometime in 2012, with likely another twelve months on the development cycle. What we see today is massively impressive and we hope that the full game doesn't diminish those hopes. Our only comparison is to the last time Crystal Dynamics let loose with its own interpretation of Lara - and that resulted in one of the finest Tomb Raider experiences this generation; the fantastic Guardian of Light.
If there's one thing to give us hope is the character we've come face to face with, and for all intents and purposes it's the first time. Stewart reenforces the fact Lara Croft will never adorn the shorts and tight top, or any of the failings of her precedessor. "We'll never get back to that ," he exclaims, motioning towards the statue. "In terms of personality she will always be human. She'll challenge herself and debate as she starts to feel more confident, but certainly she'll never become the caricature of the person she once was."
You can check out our massive gallery of new screenshots and artwork right here.
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