Reimagining Lara Croft - shootist2600 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Reimagining Lara Croft

Lara Croft is a beloved icon in the world of entertainment, though more for what she represents to the medium than any other element of her legacy. But the sense of exploration and adventure that her exploits redefined have since been eclipsed, leaving this trailblazing franchise struggling to regain its footing.

What changed? In general, her audience and, by extension, the industry. We've matured and while that growth was recognized by some, Tomb Raider seemed by comparison to be stuck in the past. Granted, the grid based action of early titles in the series had been replaced, controls became more precise and camera angles improved.

However, challengers such as Naughty Dog's Uncharted have introduced mature, complex characters and compelling storylines to go along with modern, fluid platforming and combat within elaborate set pieces and dynamic scripted events. Crystal Dynamics' new reboot looks to pick up the gauntlet.

My own challenge will be in trying to convey the extent to which the developer has succeeded in that regard based on my own early impressions, and in a manner that will differentiate it from the glut of commentary since release of the game's early gameplay at least as far back as last year's E3.

I'm hopeful my typical phlog will provide some good examples of elements that stood out to me this early in the game and might be harbingers of things to come. To begin, the opening scene (above) of Lara's ill-fated ocean voyage is illustrated with quality production values and direction.

As with later cut scenes, the graphics are detailed, action is well choreographed and accented by dynamic camera angles and edits, and sound is rich and complex. The scene is as thrilling as any action film but, more importantly, establishes a dramatic, perilous storyline.

As you no doubt are aware, this reboot charts Lara's emergence as an artifact hunter, and in the process promises to place her development back on track with a mature character befitting her longtime fans' growth and expectations. Indeed, her character's survival in-game is a metaphor for whether this icon can survive in a genre that has outgrown her.

Crystal Dynamics has gone to great lengths to depict her painstaking maturation as a character in a well documented path to self-confidence and self-sufficiency. Part of her path involves confronting the evils on the island she's washed ashore on, which are creatively and graphically depicted (above).

But the plot is mere vehicle to her personal growth. After all, without such dire circumstances to challenge her physically, spiritually and emotionally, Lara can't convincingly evolve into the heroine we have known from Day 1. Therefore, her bloody, breathless journey is carefully crafted every painful step of the way.

Environments have always been integral to the Tomb Raider experience and in this regard the level design impeccably establishes a palpable sense of place. In the context of such an immersive setting, Lara's development has greater resonance. Her surroundings are impressively detailed, including convincing water and fire animation (above).

Level design in general continues one of the franchise's strong suits. Exploration is the basis for gameplay, and while early on, at least, the path is strictly linear, it nonetheless is supported by creative features, often highly detailed textures, believable scripted sequences and basic environmental puzzles.

Playing on the normal difficulty setting (on PS3), there is more than a little hand holding early on in the form of contextual button icons that appear onscreen and other in-game cues, however, I assume such assists will disappear once the tutorial segment is over. Otherwise, exploration and puzzle solving could be undermined.

In some cases, contextual button icons are a necessary element such as when playing through interactive scripted sequences that involve quick time events. It's true that QTEs are part of Tomb Raider's gameplay but, if early action is any indication, they are a more common feature than I would have guessed.

On more than one occasion early on, Lara has to fight off a pursuer (above). I took too long while establishing a screenshot and was unceremoniously crushed by a boulder in the collapsing tunnel. When successful, your pursuer faces a similar fate. Either way, the game -- to its credit -- doesn't shy away from the consequences.

Thankfully, even when one flubs the timed button presses that accompany such notorious sequences, frustration is kept to a minimum as there are generous checkpoints and load screens are relatively brief. On the other hand, Tomb Raider's QTEs utilize seemingly every button so a keen eye and deft coordination are necessary.

Part of such scripted sequences are dynamic camera angles and animation designed to heighten the tension and add dramatic flair (above). Frankly, the developer does a good job not only of achieving this goal but of having such moments be seamless and unobtrusive. They are at least on par with similar moments in other top tier games.

As with the game's cut scenes, the action in QTEs is well choregraphed for suspenseful sequences that alternate between tense footage and frantic button presses. Though numerous, such interactive moments are well spaced so as not to overwhelm but do demand that you stay engrossed in the action (as if any such encouragement was needed).

The presentation is indeed top notch whether detailed textures, smooth animation, a deep color palette, various ambient noises, quality lighting, score, dialog or voice acting. In general, I could not find much to fault in any area to this point in my playthrough.

Minor issues do appear from time to time, such as water that splashes or sometimes flows in peculiar ways or how Lara's ponytail blows stiffly in the wind (see some images here for examples). More playtime might reveal more egregious issues but thus far they are insignificant.

Effective platforming is necessary for the franchise to remain competitive and thankfully the controls in this regard have been streamlined over time to culminate in the fluid actions of Lara's character in this reboot. Navigating the environment often is intuitive, with relatively seamless transitions from one action to another.

It's interesting to me that seeing the challenge presented by this suspended plane (above) reminded me first of the Uncharted series. While others have implemented such platforming puzzles, Naughty Dog's franchise has done it so well and memorably that Nathan Drake's adventures are top of mind.

That said, this sequence is well implemented and serves to help familiarize gamers with the controls necessary to navigate such an environmental obstacle. The fact that it compares favorably with Uncharted in this regard speaks to how well Crystal Dynamics has learned from the competition.

Simply climbing up a wall is a more dynamic exercise than merely jumping to its top edge, as the game prompts you to press the action button a second time when in the midst of the climb in order to propel your character the rest of the way up taller obstacles (above). Like a double jump, this act adds layers to exploration.

The segment of the game (above) where Lara is searching for shelter from the elements highlights some environmental features that help establish a great sense of place. Once the wind kicks up, trees and branches move independently. Water drops convincingly on Lara, and steam escapes her lips with each exhale. It's all a study in quality animation.

That attention to detail reminds me of other games that shared such meticulous devotion, especially with regard to how foliage is depicted. In Two Worlds 2, when walking through tall grass or other plants, they would move or flatten in relation to your steps. Likewise in Dragon's Dogma, trees all swayed convincingly. Tomb Raider keeps good company in this regard.

The character models, whether in-game (above, top) or in cut scenes (above, bottom), are well conceived and expressive, especially in Lara's case, conveying all the emotion such a traumatic event as her shipwreck can have on someone left to fend for themselves in an inhospitable -- and sometimes hostile -- environment.

Likewise, animation and voice acting thus far faithfully depict the trauma of her experience as she limps, otherwise struggles, or shivers along her journey, and her voice quakes with fear, uncertainty, self doubt and desperation, though even now faint signs of determination and inner strength show through at times.

Hunting (above) helps vary the gameplay from the platforming and basic navigation that appear initially. It also suggests a possible option for the inevitable combat you'll encounter. Thankfully, using a bow and arrow is intuitive and easy to pull off in quick succession as your stalwart prey can require.

This reboot features role playing features such as upgradeable skills. For someone like me who appreciated the opportunity to shape my character and her abilities according to my own gameplay preferences, this element is a welcome addition. However, I wish some skills like retrieving spent arrows (above) were available by default as in other titles.

That's as far as I've gotten in the game to date. Although what I've played has been covered elsewhere, the opportunity to finally play it myself and see the final retail build leaves me encouraged by the direction Crystal Dynamics has taken. A reboot was necessary in retrospect, as Lara had to be reinvented to appeal to the more mature sensibilities of longtime fans.

To that end, her character is unquestionably more realistic and is given an opportunity to grow on us and develop into a more lifelike and relatable individual compared to the legendary fantasy that this icon became. It's a bold move but one that early gameplay suggests was the right one; however, is the gameplay true to the franchise?

Some complain that this reboot borrows too liberally from more successful competitors as far as gameplay is concerned. However, if one considers that the developers are simply incorporating mostly proven mechanics to the gameplay mix, the move makes sense. I'm hoping the rest of the game likewise proves that the endeavor was indeed worthwhile.

For those who didn't preorder Amazon's Tomb Raider: The Final Hours Edition, I thought I'd include screenshots of some of the concept art published in the accompanying art book. Given the standard retail price, I appreciated the addition of this product, which reminded me of the Destroyed Beauty artbook that came with the Gears of War collectors/special edition.

The hardcover book is slightly longer than the PS3 game case, and features several pages of colorful artwork that contributed to the game's design. As I've only just begun the game, many of the illustrations offer a peek at potential future locales, such as the Petra-like edifice (above, left) or the giant figure reminiscent of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (above, right).

More modern environments and hazards mix with more ancient settings to seemingly vary gameplay during the reported 10 to 12 hours of the campaign. Provided Crystal Dynamics can achieve the right balance between old and new, this could help make the experience deeper and richer than otherwise.

The shipwreck graveyard on the stormy coast is one of the first settings of note and helps establish the character of the island to an extent as well as the game's foreboding atmosphere. This illustration (above) no doubt helped developers capture these elements for the game (see earlier screenshots).

Some artwork can't help but remind gamers of similar settings such as the somewhat common Himalayan/Tibetan motif, though filtered through the distinct imagination of the respective artists.

Lara sets her sights not only on Nathan Drake, but on Katniss Everdeen as well.

Character models are lavishly illustrated in these photorealistic illustrations. The characters shown are a refreshingly diverse mix of men and women. In the beginning, they appear in brief cut scenes, but it will be interesting to see how their characters are integrated later on, and how their models animate when, presumably, featured more prominently.

All in all, a nice package and a game that I am very much looking forward to playing more. As a longtime fan, this is a compelling, and necessary, reboot that hopefully manages to properly reinvent Lara Croft while staying true to the franchise's deft combination of exploration, platforming and combat.

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