Lara Croft is one of gaming’s most recognisable characters. For the latter half of the 90s Tomb Raider framed perceptions of what video games were about - breasts, bullets, and dragging enormous stone cubes around ancient temples. In recent years, though, Lara’s fallen by the wayside to the likes of the Master Chief and that bloke with a moustache in Call of Duty. Crystal Dynamics want to bring Lara back by beginning again, redefining what it is to be a Tomb Raider game in light of all the games that riffed on the original.
It’s an origin story
Crystal are reinventing Lara by telling her origin story - learning from the likes of Batman Begins and Casino Royale - but also by inverting the tropes of the series. So while we meet Lara in a familiar set-up, searching for a lost fleet of 13th century Japanese warships, she’s a recently-graduated 21-year-old rookie, lacking confidence and ability.
A storm destroys the ship, sinking half of it in the Pacific ocean, the other half beaching on an island somewhere in the Dragon’s Triangle. The island isn’t uninhabited. The mercenaries who are camping there begin to hunt the ship’s survivors.
It’s about survival
You’re briefly captured at the game's start but manage to escape. In doing so, you fall and cut a gaping wound into your side. That needs to be attended to. You flee out into a rain-storm on the island, chilling you. Meaning you need to find fire. You’ve not eaten since the whole shipwreck thing. So you need to sort out food. These cares aren’t mechanics of the game that need to be repeated often, but the emphasis on this brutal beginning is that the game’s story is one of surviving and overcoming the dangers you face.
Your objectives aren’t grand, your original search for the lost fleet is forgotten in light of the pressing need to regroup with the other survivors and escape the island.
Blend of classic free exploration and new quicktime events
While Crystal clearly have a story to tell - and the worry of early footage of Tomb Raider was that it looked exceedingly linear with little for you to do other than survive quick time events - they’ve balanced their want of a directed tale with what Tomb Raider games are all about: robbing graves protected by physics puzzles.
So, the way the game falls out is that you pass through areas linearly, following the prompts of the story, but each area you pass through becomes a hub you need to return to to explore. Taking notes from Rocksteady’s Batman games, you’ll need to return to the hubs multiple times as some areas are out of reach until you’ve the necessary gear to overcome the puzzles.
Loot and XP are used for upgrades
The loot found in these open areas can be converted into equipment upgrades - making your bow more powerful, your ammo clips larger, your axe more axe-y - and so hub exploration leads to upgrades, which leads to greater hub exploration.
You also gain XP from killing and exploring. This can be spent on skill upgrades at camp (rest areas that act as story breaks and places you can fast travel from). The most spoken of upgrade is “survival instinct”. It paints your vision in monochrome, except for characters and interactive objects, which are brought out in colour.
While the focus is on Lara being hurt by a set of nasty mercenaries, an island constructed almost entirely out of sharp rocks and otherwise hard surfaces, there are hints that the mystical methods of mashing Lara up still remain.
In the recent Survivor trailer there’s a shot of a thing dressed in full samurai armour that looks intent on doing Lara’s face a nasty.
It's not mature in that way
Crystal are really pushing the boat out in wanting to make a character who develops over the course of the game and has a little more going on than a waif-thin body that can bafflingly push about a giant cube of ancient stone but they've not pushed it into more adult territory. An early trailer showed the scene in which Lara first kills someone. It's a drawn out fight that ends with her shooting her aggressor, though not before there's a suggestion of him having sexually assaulted her. Crystal Dynamics studio head, Darrell Gallagher, has said that ""sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game."
So, not to worry, it's plain old physical assault that we'll be needing to cope with in Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider is due out on 5 March, 2013. It's available to pre-order on Steam.