The first time I ever laid eyes on Tomb
Raider was in 1996. I had bought the game for a friend for
his birthday, not knowing anything about it. When I gave it to him we
jumped onto his PC to give it a spin. I was speechless. I was in awe of
the 3 dimensional world and captivated by the excitement contained
within; the thrills of dungeon crawling and treasure hunting, the foxy
accent of that Lara Croft character, and the startled excitement of
running away from dinosaurs. I watched my friend play for three hours
straight before I finally wiped the drool off my chin.
I remember that day well. But with so many more Tomb Raider titles, cartoons, movies, comics and action figures that followed suit over the next decade and a half eventually I had had enough of Lara and felt the franchise had really moved away from the simple magic of the first game.
So, when we lined up in the Press Boxes at E3 this year to check out the new Tomb Raider my expectations weren't all that high. Being an MMO-junkie I admittedly hadn't been following the new Tomb Raider game so I knew next to nothing about it going in.
"Lazy presentation!" crossed my mind as I chuckled to myself. What I didn't expect was that Tomb Raider really could speak for itself. The following 27 minutes of watching nothing but gameplay were among the best 27 minutes of all of E3.
The demo began with our familiar heroine, Lara, who had been just recently escaped kidnapping and found herself alone on a mountain path on an island. The game is sort of a prequel in the way that we see Lara for the first time as a younger, inexperienced girl. As our host began weaving down the path, climbing obstacles and balancing on a fallen log over a perilous drop the game began to look more and more to be in the style of Uncharted. And I liked Uncharted. The first few moments of Tomb Raider had already gained my attention and I began to watch with more interest as Lara continued on.
Rain began to fall and Lara ducked under an overhang in the mountain to take shelter. A cutscene took place at that point which elevated my moderate interest to full-fledged captivation. Lara was shivering in the rain and was in communication with a team over the radio. This was her only connection to anyone else and the emotion of being scared and alone in the rain was conveyed in lifelike clarity on the screen. I felt bad for her, but moreso I actually felt some of her panic as her voice trembled slightly and her eyes lightly squinted, fighting back tears. This was a new Lara. She wasn't some omnipotent hero who wouldn't bat an eye at a full guerilla outfit blasting guns. She was fragile, scared, and very real. But as she pushed on into the wilderness after a short night's rest it was easy to feel the determination in her as well.
Frankly, I don't remember the last time I felt that kind of connection with a character in a video game. It's cool to be a bad-ass but during this demo I realized the potency of good character development that is rarely, if ever seen outside of epic story-driven RPGs. Tomb Raider by gameplay is an action game but Crystal Dynamics has reached a brilliant level of character portrayal. Once attached to a character in any story every event, every arc, every action and environment is brought to dramatic life.
Tomb Raider contains other RPG elements to keep you hooked into the dubious world in which Lara struggles. At camp (camps are laid out in several areas and unlock as you discover them) you'll receive goals or quests. Many of these unfold into an almost open world. For instance, after Lara's cold and wet night she was very hungry and needed to find food. She ventured further down the path and into a dense forest where she found a bow strung up in a tree along with some poor chap who had died days or weeks before. Lara uneasily climbed the tree and precariously ventured across its limbs to knock down the corpse and bow. Now equipped with a projectile weapon she was able to hunt deer for food.
In other games this would be simple sport. Shoot deer. Eat meat. But not in Tomb Raider. After figuring out how to successfully stalk prey Lara was finally able to kill a deer. But instead of a quick "collect meat" press of a button followed by a gratuitous nom-nom-nom, a cutscene took place. This was the first time Lara had to kill anything in her life and it bothered her in a very real way. The cutscene showed her battling a duality between the morality of taking a life and the will to survive. This was an unexpected epic moment and again our emotional strings were pulled as we could actually feel Lara's inner conflict.
The rest of the demo played out with an equal amount of surprises and re-introductions of themes and systems that make Tomb Raider an unequalled masterpiece of engaging story, character relation, and emotional connection. If you thought Lara's difficulty with killing a deer was dramatic wait until you see how she reacts when she has to take her first human life.
The demo ended and I was frozen in my chair, unsure of how to make a macho re-entry into the real world. I quickly thought back to the beginning of the demo and how I had thought playing the game with no developer narrative was an easy way out of having to do a real presentation. How wrong I was. This game really does speak for itself. No narration necessary, or even wanted!
I shook my head to wake myself a bit, and wiped the drool off my chin. Now that was Tomb Raider. And that is one hell of a thing.
Walking out of the theater I noticed over a dozen awards for the game from various outlets. After seeing the demo it was easy to understand why.
Tomb Raider is scheduled for release in Spring of 2013.