There can be no real doubt that at the top of influential female gaming characters, Lara Croft sits pretty at the top of the list. Nintendo fans might argue for Princess Peach, but frankly she's a Stockholm Syndrome sufferer who does bugger all apart from merrily lead a witless plumber on an increasingly dangerous dance. I've never seen Peach scale a mountain or cap a dinosaur in the face, have you? Anyway, I'm digressing already, in the world of gaming power fantasy, Lara stands as a beacon - giving women the kickass role model they deserve whilst simultaneously being a pin up for gaming's male stereotype. Aloof, capable and exacting - let's just say she's ace for short - she could certainly teach that young upstart Nathan Drake a thing or two.
Although probably not any more.
Of all of Crystal Dynamics' ventures into the Tomb Raider series, I'm going to have to say that it was their last one - the almost-unofficial spin-off that was Lara Croft and the Guardians of Light - that seemed to play the best. Moving away from the traditional template for Lara's adventures, Guardians of Light was an isometric, co-operative action-puzzle-platformer that made use of a cracking physics engine and jettisoned Lara's trademark isolation to explore co-operative potential to great effect. Having inherited the series from Core around a third of the way through the last decade, one gets the feeling that studio's been itching to put their own stamp on proceedings. It is as if, bursting with ideas and concepts, CD have finally been fully handed the reins to the franchise. Which brings us to this game.
The Lara in front of us is completely unrecognisable from her past self, aside from her plummy English accent of course. This one looks like she's seen the zombie apocalypse: she's frightened, shivering, talking to herself to calm her nerves, covered in mud and grime and blood and sweat and she's clutching at a gory hole in her lower abdomen, desperately trying to prevent too much blood loss. She's also much younger than before, a recent graduate at 21, quite literally fresh off of the boat - shipwrecked during her first archaeological expedition after leaving university.
As some of you may have witnessed in the E3 trailer, consciousness after the accident brings with it new and dangerous surroundings: she's suspended upside down from the roof of an underground cave, bound tightly by ropes. Things look dicey, indeed. Thankfully, there's a flaming torch nearby and so, with a bit of wriggling, contortion and deft use of the game's physics engine, Lara is able to set herself on fire and burn through the ropes. Yes, that's right, set herself on fire. We're not in Kansas any more. To borrow a phrase from Bad Boys II, shit just got real.
It gets worse. Naturally, being suspended from the ceiling, there's a bit of a drop and Lara falls screaming to the floor, only to meet the pointy end of a piece of rebar, which impales her straight through the abdomen. She let's out a yelp of pain, her breathing rate increases dramatically and she staggers to her feet, only to pull the metal from her body with another series of painful noises. It lasts a couple of seconds, but it feels like longer and, when it's all over, there's just an incredibly scared, wounded young lady stood in front of the camera, whimpering and talking to herself in the hopes of calming down, and all you want to do is reach out and tell her that everything's going to be alright...although you don't believe it for a second.
This is Tomb Raider, though, and although the emotional impact is striking and incredibly well done - more sympathetic survival horror than anything else at this stage - becoming the legend that will be Lara Croft requires more than tears and a metal stick. On that note, our demonstrator begins to search for a way out. A bit of scouting reveals a low slung crevice that can be crawled through, and Lara is about halfway through the tunnel when something grabs her from behind. Massive drums kick in and struggling sounds, shrieks and screams fill our ears as one of Lara's captors attempts to take her back.
Waggling the left stick frantically - Crystal Dynamics calls it 'Smart Response' but no amount of dressing up can disguise the fact that these are plain old Quick Time Events - makes Lara kick her assailant in the face and scramble out just before the crawl-space collapses in on itself. But we were also privy to the brief cinematic that unfolds if you fail to rescue Lara: more screaming, the glint of a blade and a disturbing whisper that promises 'it'll all be over soon'.
Thankfully, QTEs only cropped up a couple of times - there's another one later on which sees the player mashing the triggers to propel Lara up a watery cliff face and out into the sunlight once more - and we were able to check out a couple of large scale puzzles. Fire is presented as a key mechanics early on, an assembled torch giving Lara the opportunity to burn her way through to new rooms and set barrels and crates on fire. A larger cavern reveals a subterranean river with a waterfall splitting a fire source from a collection of explosive flotsam. Thankfully, a bit of area exploration yields an elevated cage stuffed with flammable debris and, after a spot of vertical platforming and some more physics-based shenanigans, it's not long before Lara is sending down a hefty pile of potential detonators. One explosion and that aforementioned cliff scramble later, and Lara emerges outside once more.
It was here that Crystal Dynamics' demo revealed some gameplay staples more commonly associated with the series: namely wild animals and acrobatic platforming. A chance meeting with the wrecked ship's captain, Roth, reveals a desperate need for a medical pack - lost to the island's inhabitants who've gone and stashed it in a wolf den.
As she moves further into a nearby ruined village, Lara makes use of her 'Survival Instinct', again another feature that seems one part Eagle Vision (thanks, Ezio) and one part Detective Mode (thanks, Batman). In this case, the new perspective allows Lara to follow the wolf tracks and see exactly where she's meant to be going. The routes up the mountainside look fairly freeform, another nod perhaps to Assassin's Creed and, indeed, the platforming itself at least seemsto take a few leaves out of the Book of Desmond and his ancestors.
Once in the wolf cave, first aid kit and radio transmitter safely secured, it's time to hotfoot it back to Roth. Except it's around this time that a massive canine beast attacks Lara. A confusing mini-maelstrom of action gives way to a flurry of knife stabs as Lara eventually slays the giant wolf. But there's none of the detachment here yet. 'I'm sorry,' says Lara, quietly. 'It was either you or me.'
After patching Roth up - he's set up as a mentor figure, teaching the young Lara everything she comes to rely on in later adventures - it's made clear that someone is going to have to get to the top of the nearby mountain peak and try to use the radio transmitter to call for help. With Roth's leg - savaged by the wolves - unable to support his weight, it's up to Lara. 'Of course you can do it,' says Roth, 'you're a Croft'. Lara has her reservations, but with no other option than to wait for something or someone unfriendly to find and do awful things to them, she agrees. A spot of rope climbing, roof-hopping and vine swinging later and Roth presents her with rock climbing instruments and bids her good luck.
Just before she leaves and the demo ends, though ,we're given a quick look at the game's Basecamp system. Much in the same way as in Red Dead Redemption, this little temporary spots of solace will allow Lara to teleport and fast-travel between areas, purchase upgrades and items and also use the scraps and other seemingly throwaway pieces scavenged on her journey to salvage and craft new items for use.
Tomb Raider is looking very promising indeed, and I for one really like what CD have done in terms of characterisation. The new Lara will probably prove divisive, and some may not react well to the fact that her inner monologue is no longer quite so 'inner'. But I rather think it works. To give her a companion or a sidekick would perhaps balance out the exposition a little better, but it would also completely undermine what Tomb Raider is: one woman's struggle for survival. She's a more vulnerable character in this new beginning, but already there's a hint of the determination and the steel - to do what must be done to survive.
As presentations go, it was one of the few at the expo that really made me feel something, and I haven't quite put my finger on why that is just yet. Perhaps it stems from the radical shift in concept for a character I thought I knew. Perhaps it comes from a double dose of realism - both the actions and, more importantly, Lara's reactions were seriously affecting, and not just to me. Everyone in my demo was completely transfixed. From the looks of things it's going to be a good character piece and we already know that Crystal Dynamics can create and implement challenging gameplay and fine puzzles. But can they sustain such promise over the course of a whole game? We'll have to wait and see. One thing's for certain, mind: you can definitely add me to that pre-order list.