The Average Gamer

Tomb Raider Preview: Hands-On with the First Three Hours

Tomb Raider - Shrine
I’m torn on the new Tomb Raider. I spent some time with the opening three hours of the game and, while I welcome the strong characters and the open areas, I spent so much time man-shooting that I… well, let’s just admit it. I got bored.

Historically, Tomb Raider has always been Lara vs The Environment. You’d take her on a journey, finding your way together through a treacherous set of caves or tombs or jungle. You’d show her levers that you’d spotted out of the corner of your eye from high vantage points. When beset by the local wildlife, you’d teach her how to backflip and she’d show you her ridiculously steady aim. If you pointed her at a cliff and told her to jump, she’d jump and if she plummeted to her death, it was entirely your fault.

New Lara does her own thing.

Tomb Raider - Injured LaraThe game opens with Lara’s expedition boat being destroyed by a storm. She washes up on shore, sees her expedition group picking themselves up nearby and is promptly bopped on the head by a mysterious stranger. The next time we see her, she’s dangling from an upside down cocoon next to an altar, and thus begins the first of our puzzles; how to get down. As it turns out, this isn’t a complex one because all you can do is swing left and right until the rope catches fire and Lara plummets to the ground, impaling herself on a spike.

She’s all right though. Lara’s a tough bird who can rip out a spike without any worry about bleeding out from the entry and exit wounds. Sure, she has to walk hunched over for a while, rather like you and I would if we’d developed a stitch from running too hard, but after dunking the wound in the waist-deep water that fills the sacrificial chamber, she’s right as rain.

I guided her down the only corridor, listening to her moan and yelp as the ground rumbled around her. However, while the game looks great, with water drops glistening off the low rock ceilings in the light of her flaming torch, you very rarely get a sense of peril. Lara makes apprehensive noises when the water level rises to almost cover her face but as there’s nothing for me to do, I simply assume that she’ll be fine. The game has presented no other options than forwards or backwards, so there’s clearly nothing to worry about.

The rumbles get louder and once Lara climbs out of the watery tunnel, she starts running of her own accord. A man shouts and grabs her and she fends him off, leaping between some collapsing rocks. I twiddle my thumbs because this is all cutscene.

In a later section, Lara is climbing across the broken carcass of a crashed aeroplane and lets out a shout because a piece has broken off in her hand. I couldn’t care less because the X button prompt hasn’t popped up, so I know she’s in no danger. I’m so disengaged from the action in these scripted scenes that game feels more about pushing the analogue stick in the right direction and waiting for a prompt than about helping Lara to escape her predicament. We’re not journeying together. I’m pushing buttons when a character in a film sometimes forgets how to walk or jump.

It’s not all like this. Tomb Raider seems to have three distinct modes – scripted survival with puzzles, open exploration, and the aforementioned man-shooting.

Tomb Raider - Lara with a TorchThere were two puzzles in those first three hours – in the first, I had to clear some debris from a blocked tunnel. In the second, I didn’t even realise it was a puzzle until I’d stumbled upon the solution. Both were solved by fire. In fact, pretty much everything involves Lara setting things on fire. They should have just called it Tomb Raider: The Phoenix Rises.

Between the puzzles and the shooty bits, you’ll find open areas to explore and this is where it feels more like classic Tomb Raider. You’ll see bits of wreckage from a distance and figure out how to reach it by way of jumping across branches, climbing cliffs and leaping across chasms. More often than not you’ll be rewarded with an odd artifact, or a strange bit of Japanese history that expands on the island’s story. It’s a haven for explorers and collectors, though the only real gameplay advantage lies in grinding for scrap so you can upgrade your gear.

While the main thrust of the story is told through the scripted gameplay moments, writer Rhianna Pratchett (Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge) establishes the key characters of Lara’s expedition group within minutes, through a series of flashbacks that set up the team’s backstory. Yes, I got bored of the shooting, but I absolutely want to know what each of Lara’s expedition group is doing and why. Perhaps I’ll play it on easy mode.

Tomb Raider - Hunt to eatAt the risk of sounding like a prat, the biggest problem I had in this preview was the massive ludonarrative dissonance between story and gameplay. Publishers Square Enix have been saying for months that this game is about Lara turning into the powerful woman that we know. As Community Manager Meagan Marie put it in our Tomb Raider interview, “The team’s been working it very, very, very hard to make sure that character arc, from just trying to survive to being a survivor to being reactive to being proactive. That’s something that’s very organic and believable and its extremely hard to do.”

This all happens in the space of 30 minutes. If you’ve watched any of the trailers, you’ll know that there’s the key moment of her first kill – Lara balks at killing a deer for food, but needs must because apparently there are no edible plants or bushes on the island. We get a close-up of her anguished face as she watches the deer die. Now she’s a hunter. Later, she’s assaulted by a man and in the struggle, she shoots him. Another close-up of her angst as she looks down on her handiwork. Now she’s a person who’ll kill to protect herself.

It feels like only five minutes after that, she needs to climb a radio tower to send out a distress call. There are dozens of men in the way. Bang, bang, bang, they’re all dead. Hey, let’s shoot up some lanterns to burn the place down as well because why not? Everyone else is doing it.

Tomb Raider - Village ZiplineWhat’s that, the door’s locked and there are more men coming to get me on the other side? That’s okay, just turn on the gas and lob another lantern through the window. Boom.

Now she’s a monster.

I mean, sure, she whimpers a bit when she’s hiding badly behind some crates and she’ll probably cry over them in a later cutscene at a campfire but at heart, new Lara is a monster. She has a pickaxe and the ability to scale sheer cliff walls, for heaven’s sake. Couldn’t she just sneak around the radio station and up the tower? Nah, the people there may or may not be in cahoots with the group in the jungle who captured your frieds. Best charge through the main entrance and kill everyone, just to be sure.

With this mix of game styles and the addition of multiplayer modes, new Tomb Raider will be an odd one. Uncharted fans will probably love it for the spectacle, even though Lara seems more whimpering survivor than wise-cracking hero. I like the few puzzles I saw. I like exploring the environments. I like discovering the story. However, much of the action is disconnected from me as the player and the emphasis on murder risks destroying Lara altogether. I’m reserving judgement until the full game is out.

Tomb Raider will be out on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 from 5th March 2013.