Will Tomb Raider Venture Off the Beaten Path?

E3 2012: A behind-closed-doors demo sheds just enough light on Tomb Raider to leave us wanting to know even more.

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We know that the upcoming Square Enix reboot of Tomb Raider serves as a kind of origin story for Lara Croft, showing the experience that turned her into the confident and capable adventurer and raider of tombs we're all familiar with. We know that it has a grimmer tone than earlier entries in the series; Lara gets bruised and bloodied, and commits some shocking (but, under the circumstances, necessary) acts to survive. But there's still so much we don't know about the game. The term "dynamic exploration" was mentioned at an E3 press conference, but what does that really mean? We've seen some linear action sequences; how much of the game will consist of this sort of thing? How much freedom to explore will you really have? Will Tomb Raider play like an Uncharted game with a darker tone, or will it have elements that give it an identity of its own?

Today, we saw a behind-closed-doors, non-playable demo that gave us a tantalizing glimpse at the potential answers to some of these questions, but kept much under wraps. Picking up where last year's E3 demo ended, it initially saw Lara moving along narrow ledges and running down narrow paths. The gameplay clearly didn't offer much freedom at this stage, but it gave us an opportunity to take in the impressive natural beauty of Lara's surroundings, as well as her believable animations and the shifting camera angles that emphasized the danger she was in--when crossing a log that bridged a chasm, for instance, the camera looked down on Lara and the yawning abyss below.

At one point, Lara had to climb the wreckage of a crashed plane, and here, the Uncharted influence seemed apparent; the plane began to slide down as she climbed, creating a sense of urgency as she scrambled up before the plane fell down.

Soon, Lara acquired a bow from a corpse, and a bit later, she commented to herself about how hungry she was. As it so happened, a deer was nearby; the player used the bow to fell the creature, and as Lara approached it, she was clearly distraught at having to take the animal's life by hand for her sustenance. This left us wondering if you'll actually need to be aware of things like Lara's hunger and thirst throughout the game and manage them by hunting animals and finding supplies of water, or if this was just a story element. It was clear that various types of animals inhabit parts of the island, and we hope that the island's ecosystem is something you need to rely on throughout the game.

Lara then made her way to a camp, and here, the element of character progression was introduced. Using acquired survival points (which appear to be the game's version of experience points), the player purchased an upgrade that allowed Lara to recover more of her own fired arrows from enemies and animals. Later in the demo, salvage that Lara had collected around the island was used to upgrade a tool, enabling her to use it to open a door she previously couldn't. This glimpse of character progression was promising, but left us wondering just how deep this element runs. How many types of upgrades are there? How much of an impact do they have on the experience? Sadly, these questions went unanswered.

Also unclear was just how much exploration the game will offer. It appeared at times as if there was room to explore off the narrow path that the player followed during the demo, but we have no way of knowing how far the terrain stretches in either direction and what sorts of things you might find if you do go exploring. Rather than taking the opportunity to explore, the demo showcased the kind of fierce action Tomb Raider will offer: at one point, Lara stabbed a wolf through the mouth with an arrow, and at the end of the demo, after an intense struggle with an island inhabitant for the control of a gun, Lara shot him in the head, with grisly results.

But it wasn't this shocking moment of violence that made the biggest impression on us. It was the glimpses we caught of the upgrade system and the potential hint of a need to manage Lara's survival by hunting. Elements like this could help Tomb Raider stand out from the crowd; it's frustrating, then, that so little of what we've seen sheds light on these aspects of the game, focusing instead on the combat and on linear, Uncharted-style platforming sequences. Linear sequences from time to time can ratchet up tension, but we hope they're not what this game is founded on. Lara is an explorer; we're still waiting to discover whether or not the island is a worthy birthplace for her talents.

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