When we last left Lara Croft, she was on an island of shipwrecks, having lost her innocence as a young woman. She had killed her attackers in the name of survival. Not just one of them, but a whole bloody army of them. Lara Croft grew up fast — as if she were on a speed run through her own life — in the Tomb Raider reboot of 2013. And now she’s ready to do more of the same as a somewhat older and more intellectual explorer-adventurer in Rise of the Tomb Raider, which debuts as an Xbox timed exclusive on November 10.
I’ve seen the first couple of hours of the game in a preview for the press arranged by Microsoft and Square Enix, which are taking the game to the Xbox One and Xbox 360 game consoles first. Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of Microsoft’s big bets to expand the audience for the Xbox One, which is still being outsold about two-to-one by Sony’s PlayStation 4. The great thing about the new game is that it continues the development of Lara Croft as a character, it has a deep story that takes you on a grand adventure, and it has plenty of beautiful places to explore. Above all, it explores Lara as a full human being, rather than just a swaggering and cocky female hero.
“We were excited to tell the next chapter in Lara’s story,” said Noah Hughes, creative director at developer Crystal Dynamics, in an interview with GamesBeat. “A lot of that was about taking what she learned on the island in the last game and applying it to a great tomb-raiding expedition. We inspired ourselves with real-world explorers like Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Everest. We wanted that sense of an epic expedition.”
He added, “Also, as a chapter in Lara’s story, we wanted to show her becoming the Tomb Raider. This was her opportunity to take those skills that she learned and proactively apply them to unlocking the secrets of the past. These are still formative expeditions, yeah. The first one was sort of the origin story. But we still had room to see her begin to grow into the hero that she becomes. In this case, it’s a fulfillment of beginning to realize her identity as the hero.”
That’s a long leap from the Lara Croft that was little more than a male sexual fantasy at the beginning. Lara Croft has become much more of a universal hero because the storytellers have recast her as a symbol of female empowerment, self-reliance, and independence. She raids tombs but does so in the name of a larger cause. And she always has to overcome incredible odds and tap her inner reservoirs of courage that she doesn’t know she has.
“One of our goals with the reboot was the characterization of Lara, celebrating her aspirational nature,” Hughes said. “We talked about someone who is athletic and brilliant and driven. For me it was fun to continue to use Lara to inspire ourselves to make a better game. In some ways Lara embodies adventure. We wanted to capture the idea of the most fun adventure we could take Lara on, something that showcases her tomb-raiding instincts and her ability to survive and her resourcefulness to start with nothing and build herself back up.”
The Xbox One version of Lara Croft is someone you can fall in love with. She’s got hair that waves in the wind like real hair. Puffs of mist fly from her mouth as she breathes out the Siberian air. Her face looks real, though it could be more expressive now and then during the cut scenes. The voice acting is superb. The sound effects and music are dramatic. It really does make you feel like you’re in a Hollywood blockbuster movie, without Angelina Jolie. When Lara runs in the freezing cold, she brings her arms up to her chest as if she were freezing and trembling. That’s the kind of subtle, vulnerable reaction that makes Lara Croft seem like a real person stuck in an incredible journey.
Lost in Siberia
The start of the game takes us to an ice-covered mountain wall in Siberia, where we learn how to climb up a mountain using ice picks and mountaineering spike boots. Lara Croft has to risk her life amid a gathering snowstorm on the narrow clefts and paths of the mountain. She’s separated from her companion by an avalanche, and she barely survives as she races to get out of the way of the tumbling snow. That snow was so real and crunchy that I stopped and admired it … after I was safe, of course.
She wanders into a snow-covered forest where she finds an abandoned camp and has to forage for food. Players of the previous game will be familiar with the base camp, or a tent on a level where Lara can upgrade her weapons, skills, and inventory of goods. As she does so, we get a flashback to one of her memories of her father, who was also an archaeologist and explorer. She discovered he was on to a secret related to the Fountain of Life, which promised immortality. But another criminal organization, dubbed Trinity, was also on march to find it.
The story moves to an apartment in London, two weeks earlier, where Lara picked up more of the information that her father was tracking. She realizes that when she was young, her father passed on some vital clues to the search for the fountain. This scene is where we start to see some of Lara’s own intellectual capacity. And she figures out that she has to go to Siberia as her first stop on a worldwide journey.
As the story returns to the Siberian base camp, Lara has to find food. She collects wood to craft arrows for her bow and shoots animals such as deer. She has to relearn her survival skills fast to deal with wolves and a rather large giant bear that gets in her way. The bear skinned me a few times as I tried to outrun it. I finally escaped and learned I had to find some poison mushrooms to make a toxic potion. I dipped the arrows in the poison and had to fire a bunch of them into the bear. That whole process took an exceedingly long time, and I figured this game was going to take me 100 hours to finish.
But I got past the bear, only to find human enemies who were much less sympathetic. These mercenaries belonged to Trinity, which was still racing Lara to find whatever it is she needs to find. I found that I had to deal with three or four enemies in the forest at once. If I took out one in a noisy way, the others would find me and kill me. So I found a way to get up to a perch. From there, I fired arrows into two of the enemies. I jumped down on top of a third, and then came up behind a fourth and broke his neck with my bow.
That enabled me to move through a path into cave. I went forward on the main path. That led me to a logging town in a valley. It was overrun with the forces of Trinity, which was at war with the local residents of the town. As Lara, I had to sneak past some guards and find some local allies. When I couldn’t hide anymore, I just attacked. I picked up a gun along the way, and that came in very handy.
Once I found my allies, I had to win them over. One of them isn’t sure whether to trust Lara yet, so he asked her to undertake some tasks first. That’s where my Siberian adventure ended. I felt that Hughes hit the experience on the head as he said, “I think, have a unique blend of both openness and story-driven pacing. We find players will often not just play through the story and then come back to exploring. You pace the game yourself by choosing to explore for a little while and then pushing the story forward again. We almost get the best of both worlds in that sense, where you can have the fast-paced roller coaster ride, but you can also just get lost in a world and feel alone and discover things that no one else discovers.”
The ancient place in Syria
The next level took me to the northwestern border of Syria, among some mountains in the desert. Lara was traveling in a jeep when an attack helicopter came out of nowhere an attacked. It reminded me of the devilish helicopter in Uncharted 2: Drake’s Fortune. Lara escaped and found her way to a hidden entrance to an ancient tomb.
She had to go through a series of puzzles, avoid deadly traps, and then deal with crumbling stones as she sought to read the tale of the ancient prophet on murals painted on the walls. Some of those puzzles kept me wondering for a while. You had to do things like shoot swinging ropes in order to avoid sudden death from the traps. It was fun gameplay, but it felt like it was getting in the way of the unfolding story.
Just as she found the grave of a prophet, she ran into Trinity again. The thugs set explosives in the place. Lara hid in a coffin, only to surprise the Trinity’s leader. She grabbed the detonator and set off the bombs — destroying much of the tomb that she can come to explore — to keep Trinity from getting what they wanted.
The story certainly seems like it will hold my attention. Although some of it seems very similar to the Uncharted series, the circumstances and characters are different enough that it feels like just another story in a huge genre of adventure games. I do miss the transformation of Lara that was much more evident in the previous game.
But Hughes makes a good point.
“One thing I love, even in the original Tomb Raider, is that sense of determination that Lara has,” he said. “To your point, we expressed that in the last game, but we also have that archaeological brilliance, almost like a Sherlock Holmes or something. She’s an intellectual hero as well as a physical hero. Part of what we wanted to do was reveal some of those other facets, even showing that in game design choices. Things like the language system that celebrate her growth as not just a survivor, but also an explorer of ancient secrets.”
He added, “Also, we’re trying to get at what makes someone like her tick. I mentioned the Everest explorers. This idea that someone would put their life on the line in order to push beyond the boundaries of human achievement was inspiring to us. We tried to capture some of that human spirit you find in those classic stories of discovery and expedition and infuse that aspect of Lara’s character in this game.”
Lara Croft is always changing. That’s why this Tomb Raider game isn’t boring, and why I really want to find out what happens in what looks like will be another epic adventure.