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Tomb Raider, the series' reboot from Crystal Dynamics, offers a gritty character-driven route into the Lara Croft history and has in-turn lifted some important tricks from the other games that the original inspired.
The new Tomb Raider offers the experience of playing Lara as she turns from a regular young woman into a hardened survivor. In the first few moments of our demonstration, we witnessed Lara risking burning herself in order to release the ropes that bound her, falling to the distant ground with a painful thud, pulling a sharp object from a wound in her side and kicking away a terrifying assailant in dark, flooded and dirty tunnels.
In my view, the Tomb Raider series has always seemed to be a continuous reiteration in search of the perfect expression of itself. The first Tomb Raider gave the blueprint for an experience which revelled in environmental exploration and survival. As each game has been released different attempts have been made to evolve each of these elements, sometimes with limited success. With their own trilogy of Tomb Raider titles (recently re-released as an HD-revisited box-set) Crystal Dynamics seemed to have found a sweet spot, nearly perfecting the classic formula with fabulous environments, intuitive puzzles, and (largely) balanced combat.
Watching the Tomb Raider reboot the things that struck me initially was how far removed it was from the games in the series I remember playing and how much the highly film and tightly directed experience of Uncharted 2 seemed to loom over it.
Tomb Raider's cut scenes were traditionally breaks in the gameplay, with one of the criticisms being that the story and the exploration often seemed disjointed. One of the strengths of Uncharted was how well the player control sections led seamlessly into moments of storytelling - in this demo, actions more regularly lead to an animated cut-scene. But in these moments, as Lara painfully pulls a spike from her flesh, or resists an attacker or scrambles through a collapsing tunnel, quick time event prompts attempt to keep the player connected to the narrative.
The highly filmic and tightly directed experience of Uncharted 2 seemed to loom over it.
It's not just Uncharted that provides an influence. There is a visual setting called Survival Mode which looks very similar to the Detective Mode from the excellent Batman Arkham Asylum. With this active, puzzle pieces and traversal elements are highlighted in the display. It will be interesting to see how Tomb Raider overcomes Batman's weakest point, in which there was very little incentive for the player to ever switch this mode off. While it enhanced the gameplay, it diminished the enjoyment of the environments and connection to the game world.
But while it would be easy to disparage any elements introduced by other games, surely any influences such as these are evidence of inspiration coming full-circle? The third-person adventure genre -- and Uncharted in particular -- owes much to the impact of Tomb Raider. It seems like a mark of maturity for the game that launched a thousand imitators to acknowledge the improvements that other games have brought to the table in recent years. It certainly appears, from this brief glimpse at E3 that Lara has taken these elements and made them her own, promising an adventure that is, by turns, more intimate, much more character-driven and much more exhilarating (as an action blockbuster) than Tomb Raider has been before.
Lara herself at the forefront.
Where the real stars of the Tomb Raider series have traditionally been the levels themselves, Crystal Dynamics are now putting Lara herself at the forefront of the game and make a genuinely character-driven adventure. Having reached such a level of expertise with a classic formula, it's a real risk to move so far away from it -- but hopefully this is another test of survival from which Lara will grow ever stronger.
Tomb Raider is currently due for release on the XBox 360 and PS3 in the autumn of 2012.
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