Violently shivering from starvation and hypothermia, a dirty, shambling, bloodied, and not so adept Lara Croft takes a drink from rainwater before huddling next to a camp fire. After our behind closed doors look at developer Crystal Dynamics’ new Tomb Raider, it’s clear that Lara isn’t quite the highly sexualized, skilled hunter and killer that she used to be in past games. On the contrary, Lara is now a vulnerable 20-something who is just trying to survive.
The only similarity to the old action adventure style Tomb Raider games was climbing around the jungle scape. Almost. As Lara clambered up a crashed 1940s plane that was lodged in a waterfall, a quick button mashing sequence prevented her from losing her grip. Footage like what we’ve posted up top shows Lara becoming a bit more adept as she goes along, but there’s no telling if this minor touch of notable struggle will speak to her vulnerability throughout the rest of the game.
Shortly after making a campfire, Lara ventured into what Crystal Dynamics calls an exploration space, which is really an open area where you can explore for supplies and avoid or combat enemies. A fall from a tree later, and Lara was off hunting deer. Once she took it down, she apologized to the moaning, dying animal before plunging an arrow into it again and again, sobbing and clearly breaking down. The quivering voice and pained, tear and mud stricken face really sold it.
Killing deer, gathering supplies, and performing just about any task in the game seemed to increase XP that could be cashed in for survival skills at any given campfire. This seems to be the game’s representation of Lara regaining her strength and becoming better at surviving, as some of the skills we saw included being able to retrieve arrows, as well as being able to collect and eat plants within the exploration spaces.
The game isn’t just about crazed survivors and gathering food. Survivors of the ship that Lara was on all have their own weaknesses. In one sequence, she chased after a crazed man who took her friend hostage, all before Lara stumbled down a muddy slope and caught her foot in a bear trap. After she screamed in pained torment, the camera shifted behind her and the player had to fend off wolves jumping through the surrounding vegetation during flashes of thunder and lightning. The tension was established well, with leaves rustling before each wolf jumped out to the light of the storm, leaving Lara a brief moment to take them out in slow motion with her bow.
One of the most notable touches about Tomb Raider was the part about horror moves like The Hills Have Eyes that make me the most uncomfortable, women’s sexuality making them a target. Crazed survivors, after taking out some of Lara’s friends, singled out Lara and made subtle lurid attempts at what seemed like the beginning of rape. A quick button prompt and another smart camera switch had Lara knee the leader of the crazed islanders in the groin before snatching his gun and blowing half his face off . We then see Lara utterly emotionally exhausted, choking out an “oh, god!” to the background noise of the leader sputtering and twitching in a pool of his own blood.
I remember playing the old Tomb Raider games back on PC in the ’90s, and this is quite different from those and even the contemporary Tomb Raider Legend games. As to be expected, the visuals and technical prowess of the franchise have progressed beautifully to the lush jungles and believable emotional acting. More importantly, Crystal Dynamics is taking the character of Lara Croft in a brave direction. As far as we’ve seen with the developer walkthroughs, gone are the days of Lara wearing skimpy bathing suits and being treated to the obvious leer of close up camera shots. This Lara still isn’t hard on the eyes, but her physical weakness contrasts with her emotional fortitude to better humanize a character with questionable origins as an obviously idealized sex object.
This is the second time we’ve seen Tomb Raider behind closed doors at E3, so here’s to hoping that the game plays as well as it looks and that Crystal Dynamics commits to a character that’s more human than the typical archetypes of damsel in distress or sexualized badass.
Expect to hear more about Tomb Raider from us closer to the game’s launch on March 5, 2013