Surviving and learning to fight back as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

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Surviving and learning to fight back as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider
A lot can happen in the span of two hours. In Tomb Raider, I witnessed a young Lara Croft change from unsure archaeologist assistant to a survivor, willing to do whatever it takes to save her friends and protect herself.

Tomb Raider is a reboot of the iconic series and heroine therein, and the story of a world-class explorer coming into her own. After being stranded on an island seemingly lost to the world since World War II, the naive youngster grows into the confident and strong Lara Croft we've known all along.
%Gallery-172529%The first half hour or so is pretty tough to watch. Lara is battered and goes through hell as she tries to dodge pursuers, thrashes against rocks and is brought to the brink of pneumonia. This sets up a more timid and unsure Lara early on, doing much to establish her unease and inability to deal with the serious situation at hand.

The island itself holds no shortage of danger for Lara, its jagged rocks and constant cold rain the milieu of adversity during the opening moments of Tomb Raider. After her ship crashes and Lara loses her crew, she must set up a base camp and hunt for food to make it through the night. Bloodied and bruised, Lara clumsily pushes her way through the woods, finds a bow and the first few combat encounters are triggered.

Tomb Raider's opening action segments lean heavily on QTE thrills, but the early scenarios presented more than make up for the fact that you're mashing buttons to stay alive. There's one particularly scary sequence in which Lara is stuck in a bear trap with nothing but her bow – a section meant to teach aiming. Lara watches the ruffling bushes directly in front of her with her bow drawn and must take down pouncing wolves looking for a quick, bloody snack. And failure is just as jarring as it has ever been in the series. Watching Lara die in any number of scenarios is brutal.

Brief moments of hope and humanity break through the haze of horrors on the island, however. Some of my favorite moments from the hands-on demo were when she'd talk to herself while warming up at the camp fires. It makes the character feel more human and listening to her try and rationalize what's happening and work through it is character insight rarely seen in any video game, let alone a Tomb Raider game.

This is just one of the ways developer Crystal Dynamics has tried to make Lara feel more human and her struggles more believable. "It's been very important to us from the start that if we were going to go and tell an origin story that we started with a young girl full of ambition, full of the desire to become an adventurer and treasure seeker, but it doesn't come easy and it shouldn't come easy," Crystal Dynamics global brand director Karl Stewart told Joystiq. "It should be something you've earned. And along this journey she goes through a lot of emotional changes and physical changes – she goes from being this girl who was left for dead hanging upside down to becoming this fighter, this person who is motivated to do what she has to do. And the story was very important to us because we want the player to feel like when they finish the game, this is a Lara Croft they can have an association with; this is a Lara Croft they now understand."

After Lara makes it away from her captors, she links back up with her crew. We're introduced to them through b-roll breadcumbs Lara accesses on her friend's camera, which she finds in the wreckage of the boat crash. But it doesn't take long before the military force of the island finds Lara and the lead archaeologist on this expedition, a weak man who surrenders immediately and allows both to be taken into captivity.

"She goes from being this girl who was left for dead hanging upside down to becoming this fighter, this person who is motivated to do what she has to do." – Karl Stewart, Crystal Dynamics global brand director

The next event is the controversial scene where Lara is held captive by the bad guys, with a particularly nasty Russian taking liberties with Lara's body. He ogles and feels her up while she's tied, a particularly tough scene to behold – especially given all I'd been through with Lara leading up to this point. And despite the controversy this scene caused, Stewart told me "nothing has changed whatsoever in that entire scene" since it was first shown to press months ago. It's in this scene where Lara seems to turn a corner, deciding to fight back against her aggressors with the player fastened in as the driver for Lara's newfound empowerment. To Crystal Dynamics, the scene is essential to the story Tomb Raider is trying to tell.

"It's a major turning point in our character. There are very few games that take the seriousness of a situation like that and bring it into the forefront in a way that it challenges how to think. And that we believe is one of the changes we try to make in video game development and story-telling, that we don't just want to plunk a girl on an island, give her two guns and say go kill the bad guys. That's not real – if we're going to have you fight to survive, then there's situations that you're going to come across that you're pushed to the limits emotionally. And when she kills that guy and she throws the gun on the ground and nearly barfs and cries, you feel it. There's a gravity to that situation. You play, you feel it."

It's the type of storytelling that lends itself well to a Mature-rated video game. Initially Tomb Raider was going to be rated Teen, but Stewart says the theme of survival just wouldn't have worked within the confines of a Teen-rated game. "When you try and put the T wrapper around survival, it doesn't work because you can't bring tension or emotion to a situation when a wolf attacks you and the screen goes black and you're left to your imagination – you don't feel it. The idea of us going to a M-rated space is not to have her say curse words, it's more about we want you to feel like when you turn every single corner, there's an element of danger and you really then start thinking about the world around you and start making choices based on the repercussions of your choices. So, for us, the death sequences are a staple of Tomb Raider – they've always been there and they always will be. They have to be horrific because they're horrific situations."

As the demo progressed and I found myself nearing the end, I kept wondering if I was going to see any of the old Tomb Raider series rear its head. After some more light exploration, one stealth sequence before infiltrating a dilapidated Japanese WWII base, and finally a full-on base assault led by one woman with a bow-and-arrow, it was obvious that Tomb Raider was not only a reboot of the character but of its original genre classification. Crystal Dynamics isn't making a game full of stone levers and intimidating ancient decor, and I was completely fine with that. In two hours of playing Tomb Raider, I had already wrestled with more emotions than I had with any prior entry in the series – well, maybe except for the awfulness that was Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness.

"Anybody can build a game where it's got exploration and puzzle-solving," Stewart added. "There aren't many games that don't give you a gun until 90 minutes in, that's unheard of, but for us it's about putting you in a situation where you feel like she's had to struggle with a life-and-death situation and now she's empowered and motivated to be able to move forward. When you see the progression, she turns a corner – she has the bow, she kills some wolves and she's hunted deer, so she's had to fend for herself but not in the same way as when she has to kill the guy because he's trying to kill her. But as soon as that happens, her entire psyche changes. It's basically kill or be killed. And as the game progresses, she has to protect the people around her."
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