There are tombs again. Tombs that Lara raids. Hallelujah.
Despite being a longtime fan of the Tomb Raider franchise, I didn't love the 2013 game. Partly because there weren't many raided tombs, but that's only scratching the surface of my disappointments with the latest Tomb Raider adventure. To be clear, there was nothing wrong with the Tomb Raider reboot as a game. There was, in fact, a lot right with it; it just didn't feel like a Tomb Raider game to me, and Lara didn't feel like Lara.
With its E3 2015 behind-closed-doors presentation, Crystal Dynamics promised a return to many of the things I felt were missing. There were both subtle nods – Lara saying that she feels like herself again – and decidedly unsubtle ones – the devs going over time to make sure we saw tombs being raided – to the awareness that Lara needed to be more like Lara. Heck, the very title of the game, “Rise of the Tomb Raider”, practically admits that she wasn't, in fact, the tomb raider the last time around.
A theme of survival is fine, but Lara does what she does to do more than survive: she does it to feel alive. The reasons for this in past games have been a complex mix of thrill-seeking and heavy doses of mommy and daddy issues, and Lara's complex relationship with her father seemed to be back to the forefront in the demo. There were also prominent nods to the spirit of adventure, and that's a critical element to Lara's character that I felt was lacking in the last game until it was shoehorned in right at the very end.
However, for those who loved the reboot, that survival action gameplay is alive and well, along with new interactive environmental elements, an improved crafting and upgrades system, and an interesting bag of combat tricks that encourage players to “approach combat intelligently”. There's also a translation system that offers gameplay-based rewards as well as more narrative for doing some puzzle-based quests.
The demo also involved fighting a lot of really pissed off bears.
The story nuggets that were given teased locations in Siberia as well as the Northwest border of Syria. In the span of minutes, Lara is frozen, battered, double-crossed, shot at, and has a close encounter with a bunch of scorpions. That sense of vulnerability that at times borders on feeling like you're playing torture porn is definitely still present, but there are also moments where Lara seems happy and awestruck as opposed to pained. This is a good thing.
In terms of audio/visual performance, it was an early build, so I have no idea how many of the little hiccups will be in the finished game when it releases on November 10th. In case you're curious, though, Lara trudging through ankle-high snow didn't quite look convincing – her legs were out of sync with the paths carved out of the snow to a degree that was distracting. Her hair also seems a bit overactive and artificial-looking. Her face, on the other hand, has never before seemed so expressive, with nuanced emotions and a landscape of tiny cuts and scrapes layered atop the new girl-next-door quality I still haven't gotten used to. Lara's dialogue is still recited with an abundance of earnestness, and while I still miss her previous incarnation's steely delivery, I get why that creative choice was made for this still-new direction.
Overall, I'm optimistic that there's much more for long-time Lara fans to enjoy this time around. Crystal Dynamics cares enough about Lara Croft to want the player to care about her as well. While it won't be quite the game I want it to be, Rise of the Tomb Raider is still one I’m excited to play.