Developers: Crystal Dynamics
Publishers: Square Enix
Even after just three hours of hands-on time, it's impressive to note just how open Tomb Raider can be. Yes, the opening hour is a fairly linear tutorial, but after you've impaled Lara on rebar, had her shoot and gut a deer, killed a man with his own gun, avoided being ritualistically crucified, punched a wolf Liam Neeson-style, and blown up most of a Japanese pagoda, the game unveils one of its many miniature adventure playgrounds - a small sandbox area replete with nooks and crannies for Lara to explore.
The objective is simple: your captain and mentor Roth is critically injured, and wolves (presumably) have snaffled away the first aid kit with the bandages, the antiseptics, and the morphine, and their cave lies high up on a mountainside littered with pagodas and huts in varying stages of dilapidation. As such as it's the perfect environment for a young woman who loves to run, jump, climb, and forage for goodies.
Noh masks and ornate fans litter the area, glimmering ever so slightly in their bid to be uncovered. So too might Lara stumble across diaries and journals from her companions but also existing island inhabitants that begin to add colour to the violent, anarchic picture drawn for us in the first act. A seemingly genteel encounter that turned sour is given even greater context through these pages, presenting a ever-deepening, disturbing picture of what Lara faces as she moves through the jungles and the ruinous topography of the storm-slashed island.
Close encounters with man and beast alike are met with jittery, shaky-cam, close ups of whichever snarling, scrapping pursuer is attempting to harm Lara, and of course a variety of QTEs to make an escape. Thankfully, the early game suggests that QTEs are more of a last resort, in addition to being occasionally deployed when the narrative constricts and demands it. So it is that minor wolves are dispatched with arrows in real-time, only prompting button icons when they overpower Lara and knock her to the ground.
Having retrieved the first aid kit, following a rather stabby meeting with the den mother, Lara's tasked with broadcasting an SOS from a nearby radio tower, handed a climbing tool (essentially an insanely capable mountaineering axe) and some inspirational words by Roth who's not going anywhere. It's from this point that the game truly opens up, giving Lara immense vertical freedom as she's now able to scale craggy walls and cliffs, performing death defying leaps, only to abruptly halt her plummet with a tap of the X button as she latches onto the rock with her blade. Imagine if you crossed Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light with the tombs of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood, and you'll start to get the idea.
And speaking of tombs...the climbing tool gives you your first opportunity to engage in some actual tomb raiding. Eschewing timed-platforming for some physics based puzzling, we found the tomb a short way from the wolves' lair, marked by a few native symbols daubed on the rock face. Sneaking along beside a river, we make our way under a waterfall, sliding deftly through crevice in the rock to find an abandoned campfire and swathes of cave drawings. In the main chamber, an ornate golden chest sits high above the floor in a little side room, and to reach it involves offsetting the balance of a hanging platform by burning the mummified corpses that are weighing it down, and then dashing across to the chest.
Instead of artefacts, you'll uncover something much more useful: salvage parts. Amass enough, and Lara will be able to upgrade the bits and pieces of equipment and weapons that she's plucked from felled enemies and foraged from her surroundings. The bow and guns can be improved to provide greater damage output, increased ammunition capacities, and faster fire rates. A second upgrade tree represents Lara's own skills as a hunter and survivalist. Every enemy neutralised, every collectible uncovered, and provisions cache raided will yield XP points. Earn enough and she'll unlock skill points that can be funnelled into a number of abilities from improved scavenging to melee moves, distraction techniques, and an increased awareness of her surroundings. Following in the footsteps of Batman, Ezio, and (recently) Codename 47, Lara can nudge the shoulder bumper for an overlay of her immediate world - highlighting points of interest and interaction in glowing gold and, once the ability has been unlocked, illuminating nearby enemies and dangers.
Commendably, Crystal Dynamics appear to eschew the temptation to simply fill areas with crates and have you duke it out with cover combat. Lara's greatest strength is her adaptability, and more often than not there are clever avenues of level design that encourage you to distract and flank, or take your enemies by surprise. Even if you do find yourself pinned down, the highly aggressive enemy AI will forcibly try to smoke you out, often literally, with foes bombarding your cover with fire arrows and makeshift molotov cocktails. You have to be fast and decisive, with evasion more of a key component to the combat than hiding behind cover. It's telling that there's not even a dedicated "take cover" button, at least not that we've found thus far, encouraging players to keep moving. You're constantly outnumbered, but that's no bad thing in a game that gives you a chance to take stock of the options available to you, and empowers you be be stealthy and use the environment to your advantage. Shooting a paraffin lantern might only set one of the four guards ahead of you on fire, but the chaos it creates will see you to safety, or provide the perfect distraction to take the rest on.
From what we can tell, the first stages of the game are there to provide contrast, and to make Lara something more than just a one-dimensional action hero. The fear becomes courage, the doubt turns into resolve, and it mirrors the player's own unfamiliarity with a new game. Pacing is key, but the setting, the story, and the mystery surrounding the island appear to be expertly woven into the game's fabric. The opening presents a lot of questions, just as it did in Ubisoft's Far Cry 3 last year, and like that exceptional game, if we want answers, we'll have to find them ourselves.
It's not long before survival instincts begin to trump the snivelling, and the Lara who apologised to the deer she gutted in the first half hour is replaced by a steelier soul, driven by necessity, and calmed by a realisation of her own capabilities. She tells Roth about the man she shot in the face, and he empathises - "That must have been hard," he says. "It was easier than I thought it would be," comes the response. It remains to be seen how her humanity will be dealt with as the bodies she leaves in her wake mount up, so too how the fractious relationships between her companions are intensified and exacerbated by the island's pressures, but we can't wait to find out. Lara's back, and if the hours of hands-on time we've had with the game are anything to go by, she's on track to rewrite the book on action-adventuring once more.