A very different Tomb Raider requires a very different Lara. Far from the implacable, effortlessly cool protagonist of the original games, the young and isolated Miss Croft is vulnerable, scared and alone, having to rely on her own abilities for the first time in a totally hostile environment. Learning self belief and facing up to the horrors of survival will be just important as climbing, jumping and shooting, and though the press conference footage was all bombast and big explosions, our guided E3 tour through Tomb Raider's opening stages introduced an entirely new and shockingly intimate look at a relateable human being in an impossible situation.
Marooned on a mysterious island and separated from her party, Lara emerged into a lush forest with a storm brewing on the horizon. Desperately seeking shelter, she tentatively picked her way across narrow beams, whimpering and muttering “you can DO this” under her breath, barely fielding the strength of will to place one foot in front of the other. A derelict inverted bomber provided a handy way to shin up a sheer waterfall, and with panels breaking away beneath her grasp, even the fluid Uncharted-esque climbing mechanics proved to be a major exertion for the put-upon heroine.
Finally ducking out of the rain, covered in mud and grime, Lara found the remains of a campfire and a single match – and managed to use it after a few gut-wrenching seconds of uncertainty as the flame flickered and nearly died. Lara's journey from terrified victim to self-assured badass will be a major focus throughout the experience, with every encounter gradually making her stronger in both body and mind.
Once the storm had passed, we were able to get to grips with one of the non-linear “exploration spaces,” which bristle with animals to hunt and salvage to collect in order to upgrade inventory items. These hub zones feature a dynamic ecosystem (wolves hunt and eat deer, for example), and will apparently be accessible via a fast travel system for completionists to explore thoroughly. Requiring a hearty meal after the night's painful exertions, Lara quickly discovered a bow in the possession of a decaying corpse suspended from the treetops, which became accessible after making a few fairly simple jumps and grabs. Once again, these relatively easy (by platforming standards) manoeuvres caused Lara to grunt and pant in pain, driving home the fact that she's nowhere near the implausibly unruffled professional we're so used to controlling. Bringing down a deer using the conventional third-person shooting controls – augmented by a toggled 'Survival Vision' mode that highlighted targets against a muted background– introduced us to Tomb Raider's next biggest new feature: an experience system.
Hunting animals, harvesting kills and exploration rewards Lara with persistent points that gradually yield a selection of skill points, which can be allocated into a number of helpful disciplines at Base Camps. Huntsmanship, for example, improves her skill with the bow; even down to the number of arrows she can find in the environment or pick up from slain enemies. By ensuring that these skills are useful but not entirely essential, Crystal Dynamics plans to add an extra layer of replayability and compulsive drive to the classic series; catering for greedy completionists and speedrunners alike.
After a quick and miserable jaunt through an underground oubliette filled waist-deep with disgusting slime, Lara laid hands on a primitive axe: a valuable 'pry' tool that allows her to apply leverage to various objects in the environment. It proved effective enough at pulling a weak padlock from a rickety door, but when confronted by a sturdy crank in the next area, Lara once again sallied forth into the exploration space to locate salvage, which acts as a persistent upgrade currency. Strengthening the axe with a reinforced haft proved to make the improved tool sturdy enough to rotate the wheel, granting her access into a seemingly abandoned temple.
It soon became apparent that Lara wasn't alone on the island. As well as ravenous wolves (who flocked around her in a tense turret section when she mistakenly placed a foot into a bear trap), the lush jungles also play host to a number of fellow castaways. Her lost companions, such as a hulking but good-natured brute, a wiry American girl and a charming yet ineffectual archeologist, can be relied on for information, support and story progression, but isolation has forced some of the previous inhabitants into full-blown insanity.
A run-in with a deranged knife-wielding ex teacher spiralled into a brutal encounter against a depraved gang of marauders who took Lara captive and began summarily murdering captives. Desperately escaping through the chaotic slaughter, hands bound behind her back, Lara was eventually cornered by a vicious gun-toting psychopath. Whether he intended to kill her – or worse – wasn't entirely clear, but a QTE sequence allowed Lara to squirm from his grasp, struggle for the gun and eventually, even accidentally, shoot him in the face at point blank range.
The camera didn't flinch, but Lara did; crying, retching and clearly horrified by what she'd been through... and what she had been forced to do. This isn't the Lara Croft we knew, indeed, it's events such as this that will serve to forge her into the unflappable heroine we're now familiar with. Picking up the gun, a newly defiant and grimly determined tomb raider steeled herself for the challenges ahead as the screen faded to black. It's powerful stuff, and if the gameplay can match this level of emotional intensity (in terms of tone as well as mechanics), Crystal Dynamics could be making reboot history.
Will this frightened, vunerable Lara gel with the insane, hardcore asskickery we saw from the press conference footage? How relateable is too relateable in an action platformer? And will there be enough... platforming? Stay tuned for our Crystal Dynamics interview to find out.