Tomb Raider: Reboot or Deboot?

When the original PlayStation arrived in the mid nineties, it brought GRAPHICS FROM THE THIRD DIMENSION!  Game designers were mostly baffled by this mysterious new dimension, and many of the early PlayStation games used 3D character models that still behaved like they were in 2D worlds.  Then Lara Croft came along…She was an instant icon.  A busty vixen with a pair of uzis who fought dinosaurs.  She became the focus of the franchise, and most people failed to see past her pointy D-cups to realize what made really the game great.

Tomb Raider was exceptional because those tombs that Lara raided were 3D environments that players had to explore using all of Lara’s abilities.  Lara didn’t just run from left to right jumping on convenient platforms.  She had to climb up steep caverns, swim down through underwater rivers, and even make the occasion leap of faith from the lion’s head (Or Sphinx’s head).  Players could only progress through the game if they THOUGHT in three dimensions.

Tomb Raider 2 was an improvement on the first game, but the franchise lost its luster as sequel, after sequel, after sequel offered “The same but bigger” or “More weapons” and “Now with stealth missions”.

Eventually the franchise was rebooted, prebooted, debooted, brought into the next generation, brought to yet another console generation, and updated for the 21st Century.  Lara got new guns, new moves, and new equipment, but the series has never regained the groundbreaking feel of the first game.

Now that the current console gen is in its final year, Lara is getting one more reboot that will take advantage of everything that Square Enix and developer Crystal Dynamics have learned about modern consoles.  Hopefully this time will be the charm.

The fourth game in the series, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation had a level where players controlled a young Lara on her first adventure.  In the upcoming reboot, the developer is basing the entire game on a similar premise.  Rather than a supremely competent raider of tombs, Lara is a young woman just learning survival skills and combat.

We played a demo at the New York Comic Con and got a taste of one of the early levels; it’s definitely taking the franchise on an interesting path.  The story follows Lara struggling to survive on a jungle island after being shipwrecked.  She’s on the run from human enemies but no supernatural creatures were shown in the demo, even though magical monsters are a staple of the series.

However, hunger, cold and the elements are just as dangerous as mummies from Atlantis, and Lara has to deal with the basics of shelter and food.… and that means hunting with a bow and arrow.

After teaching players how to control Lara’s jumping and climbing skill, the demo put a bow in their hands and plopped Lara into a section of the jungle that happened to full of deer.  Adorable, delicious deer.

No vegetarian option was on the menu, so players had to use the bow to bring down bambi and pals.  The bow is inaccurate, takes time to draw back fully, and if a poorly-aimed shot hit anywhere besides a vital organ, that meant dinner would run away (Taking one of Lara’s limited arrows with it).

This forced players to think like a stealthy hunter, and required patience.  It successfully conveyed the sense of frustration that an inexperienced huntress might feel when desperately trying to capture a meal.

Fortunately, among Lara’s new abilities in this game are her survival instincts.  At the tap of a button, she’s able to survey her surroundings with the heightened awareness of a born survivor.  This highlights noteworthy items hidden around the jungle, in a manner not too different from the “Detective Mode” in the recent Batman games.

The demo had a very brief sequence that showed how players will be able to develop Lara’s survival skills in an RPG style, by choosing from different features as she levels up.  This seems like an interesting new feature, but the demo was very limited regarding these RPG aspects.  Some of the older Tomb Raider games experimented with having Lara build up various stats during the game (Sprint duration, climbing endurance), but this seems like a much more extensive version of such.

The Tomb Raider reboot is still months away, so there will be many more details to come.  It will arrive in February 2013 for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3, and Explosion.com will have more details as they emerge.