A lot's been said about the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot so far, and not all of it positive. Sure, it's got production values to rival the Call of Duty series, Hollywood visuals and a crack team of developers that include people who've worked on triple-A games like Assassin's Creed, Gears of War and Red Dead Redemption. But there's also a fear that the sense of wonder and exploration that characterised the series at the height of its popularity has been relegated in favour of action set pieces, that Lara's been disempowered for the sake of an obligatory reboot origin story. And of course, the implications of *that* attempted rape scene on gaming's strongest female icon.
And for the first 20 or so minutes of the game's opening, those fears seem justified. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island (with little preamble to speak of), captured and left for dead in a cave, a teary Lara (aside from one slightly obtuse puzzle) is simply guided down a linear path from one QTE event to the next. Alarm bells start ringing - it's feeling like a scripted roller-coaster that you've been on many times before.But then something wonderful happens. Lara sets up a base camp and, after playing back a guilt-building handycam video to herself showing that her ship's crew have been lead to this treacherous island on the young Lara's insistence that a lost civilisation awaits them, Tomb Raider starts to grow into an altogether different beast. The island begins to open up to you and that familiar hunger to explore your surroundings is both teased and satisfied.What the game's teaser trailers and opening section have so far hidden is how fluidly developers Crystal Dynamics have weaved together tightly scripted sequences and wide open areas for gamers to explore. After setting up that first camp, Lara is then tasked with hunting deer in order to satisfy her hunger. A path down from the camp opens up into a lush forest area that feels expansive and bustling with life. Here Lara finds the bow that will become her signature weapon through the game, and while you can race ahead, slay the deer and complete the objective, there are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore and secrets to uncover. Exploring these open areas is great fun. Crystal Dynamics have worked hard to ditch angular platforming in Tomb Raider in favour of organic forestry, and it pays off - it's easy to get lost among the trees (lost in the good sense), and traversing the environment in order to get a different vantage point from which to view your surroundings is continually satisfying, whether because it helps you spot a collectible audio diary (revealing more info on the creepy island) or an unexplored cave with further treasures awaiting within, or just to get a kick out of Lara's neat new animations. Long gone is the need to line up a precarious jump and perfect the trial-and-error leap; Lara can now swing into, clamber over and slam into obstacles with a physicality that makes each movement feel natural, and the whole experience a lot more fun.
Hitting the left shoulder button triggers Lara's new "Survival Instinct" ability, a spider-sense for spotting trinkets and interactive objects if you find yourself stuck. Thankfully, it's never too revealing, meaning that exploration is still key. But, with an upgrade system included in the game and salvage required to better your equipment when back at base camp, it's a skill that will likely be regularly needed. As well as collecting salvage parts, Lara's exploits will also see her accrue experience points which can be used to improve her own skills, be that increased weapon accuracy or better salvage finds. The systems work within the context of the game too - as these menus can only be accessed at the camps that act as checkpoints dotted around the island, there's the sense that Lara is mulling over her day's activities and becoming better equipped and more comfortable with the dangers surrounding her as a result.Puzzles look set to be organically woven into the game world too, focussing on Lara's interaction with the four elements fire, water, air and earth. Though a little awkwardly delivered, the concept is seen right at the beginning of the game when Lara must ignite an obstacle that sits behind a waterfall, reorganising weights and pulleys and using a torch to ignite floating barrels. There are many flammable barriers littered around the levels hiding secrets too. If used effectively across the entirety of the game, it could push the series beyond block pushing and switch pulling and add some clever physics conundrums into the mix.As mentioned earlier, the game's strong point so far seems to be its ability to move effortlessly between exploratory and scripted or linear sequences. And in the early portion of the game that we saw, Crystal Dynamics seem to have plenty of ideas to keep you on your toes; within a relatively short space of time Lara found herself defending against a pack of wolves while caught in a bear trap, sneaking through an enemy camp with her hands bound, hanging trapped next to a rotting corpse over a high drop and sliding through a crumbling cave in true Tomb Raider fashion. There's still the fear that QTE events could be overused, but the action sequences we've seen that you do have direct control over are breathtaking.
If there's one thing we're not convinced of yet it is buying into the "survival" aspect of the game. From the off, Lara is very capable indeed. So capable in fact that she can shrug off being impaled on a spike and having her leg mauled by a bear trap and still be up and leaping about mere moments later. It's the same problem that befell Far Cry 3; with even the best script and voice acting in the world (and Tomb Raider's cast so far seem to be doing very well in this department) it's still hard to believe your protagonist is a rookie when they can single handedly best a gang of armed foes and leap like a gazelle over a gaping chasm. There's lots left to discover about the new Tomb Raider's single player campaign. So far there's been only the hint of the series' signature supernatural ancient evils (which there is room for even within this more grounded fiction), and we're praying that the game can maintain the balance between exploratory adventuring and action-packed events. But so far everything is clicking into place nicely. All we need now is a secret T-Rex...
Tomb Raider is released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 5th 2013. Click here for a multiplayer preview and check back soon for a full review ahead of the game's launch.