Away from the insanity of the Javits Center show floor, we were able to get some quality time with a pre-beta build of the upcoming Tomb Raider game. From what we saw, fans of the previous entries in the series and action/adventure games in general will want to keep their eyes locked on this one.
The demo started with a bruised and battered young woman (Lara Croft, of course) looking out over a huge expanse of ocean and mountain ranges. This scene looked beautiful enough to be the image on the main menu, but to our surprise a quick nudge of the control stick started moving the character. A visibly damaged Lara — both mentally and physically — had to make her way down the mountain, up the shell of a crashed airplane, and into the forest, where the player is tasked with finding shelter from the intense rainstorm.
Right from the outset, the controls will feel familiar to anyone who has played a Tomb Raider game. There’s a lot of jumping onto ledges and hoisting yourself up, balancing on fallen tree trunks and climbing up vertical surfaces using conveniently placed handholds. The updated graphics engine makes for some truly impressive cinematic moments, and the character model of Lara conveys incredibly realistic movements; her pain comes through to the player effectively through her weary footing and labored gait. The platforming really feels like it has a purpose and isn’t just a fancy and time-consuming way to get from point A to point B. Another nice new touch is the way the camera jostles around as Lara runs faster, giving off the impression of a handheld cameraman trying to keep up.
True to Tomb Raider tradition, the first real mission tasked us with slaughtering an animal. But instead of killing a bunch of endangered cats for no real reason, we had to kill a deer for its meat in order to survive. We aimed the bow with the left trigger, shot with the right trigger — pretty standard fare. Holding the right trigger longer gave us a more powerful shot. It took about four arrows and a lot of chasing before the deer was brought down and our precious meat was acquired.
The final objective was to bring the meat back to camp. This brought to our attention an important aspect of the demo — there is absolutely no heads up display on the screen. To view the map, the player has to hit the ‘back’ button on the controller constantly. The complete lack of a mini-map definitely made for some unneeded menu time, and the Square Enix representative on hand said that the final game will be similar. The lack of a HUD did make the exploration aspect as cinematic as possible, but the method of pathfinding in this build of the game — a sort of sixth-sense that highlighted the objective and washed everything else out — left something to be desired.
We were extremely impressed with what we saw and played of Tomb Raider, especially for such an early build of the game. The classic platforming is still fully intact and the controls are tighter than ever, and the dark turn in the storytelling might be just what the series needs to realize its storytelling potential. Be on the lookout for more announcements straight from Square Enix just before Christmas, including details about the anticipated Collector’s Edition.