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Tomb Raider wants to take you to a dark place

I thought I had turned my back on Lara Croft. Then she gored herself in the opening sequence of Crystal Dynamics’ new Tomb Raider demo at this year’s E3. When I click links for videos labeled “Tomb Raider," I don’t except to scream “Oh my God this is horrifying!” but that’s exactly what I did. Good job, Crystal Dynamics.

I haven't been interested in the franchise for a long time. It lost me after only the first game. Tomb Raider: Legend came out and piqued my interest when it decided to finally lose the clunky controls, but then the developers lost me again with Underworld and all of its silliness. Though it received mostly positive reviews, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light confused the hell out of me. I'm still not clear what kind of game that was. Maybe it was a dual-joystick shooter?

Depending on how you slice it, Lara's newest outing marks the third or fourth reboot in her rocky history. What efforts has Crystal Dynamics taken to get me come back? How about transforming the long-running franchise from simple action-adventure to a twisted survival-horror complete with a shiny new "M" rating?

 

It's striking just how brutal this game is turning out to be, and I’ve heard more than a few people suggest that it goes a bit too far into “torture porn” territory. While that might be true, the overall package that obscene brutality provides could be exactly what the franchise needs. And I never thought I'd ever get behind a "gritty reboot."…ever.

One of Tomb Raider's biggest flaws has always been its unflappable protagonist. She gained a bit more emotion after the Legends games, but generally speaking, Lara was still primarily a shallow '90s action-movie hero. Being one of the most sexualized females in video-game history didn't do her any favors, either. Her absurd proportions once helped sell games; recently, they’ve turned her into a long-running joke.

With the reboot, Crystal Dynamics has transformed Lara into a svelte young woman with more attention given to her face, which probably makes it easier to show those genuine human emotions like pants-soiling fear.

Horror would have been impossible for the old Lara. Old school, dinosaur-kicking, Mjolnir-throwing Lara didn't know real fear. She was billed as calm, unstoppable huntress. Now, the E3 demo opens with her scared out of her wits and falling Mortal Kombat style onto irresponsibly placed sharp things. That’s not a condition for failure, mind you. That’s just how Lara starts the game: getting impaled before the screen gingerly prompts the player to remove the object from her side.

Crystal Dynamics continued to show off more interesting stuff. The way Lara interacted with her environment has seen much improved. She shied away from fire. While swimming through a dim tunnel, she looked over her shoulder to check for pursuers.

Lara’s voice lost the stuffiness from previous games, and she constantly talked herself throughout the craziness going on around her. Her frantic mutterings imply that she isn’t as confident in her abilities as her alternate, older persona. These are all very promising touches.

They focused the entire demonstration on creepy atmosphere. They constructed a dark world where Lara is mortal, underequipped, unprepared and everything is out to mess her up — in a very unforgiving Limbo kind of way. These guys are straight up making a survival-horror game, and I couldn't be more stoked.

I love survival horror. I think it's one of the most underrated genres, and in a market where Naughty Dog took the old tomb-raiding formula and created Uncharted, something had to be done to make Ms. Croft relevant again.


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