Tomb Raider is looking rather beautiful - that's what I told Senior Art Director Brian Horton after spending some quality time with the game recently. That chat will come later down the line, but for now, I'd like to talk some more about my recent experience with the game.
When you first get hands on with Tomb Raider, you instantly notice the comparisons to Naughty Dog's Uncharted. It has that same cinematic feel, in fact it has lots of other similarities too, so much so that I knew the controls as soon as I picked it up. You can't help but feel that the new Tomb Raider is as much inspired by Uncharted as the latter is by Tomb Raider. This is certainly no bad thing though, because this is Tomb Raider and who wouldn't want it to look as good as Naughty Dog's inspirational series of games?
Thankfully the developers are flattered by comparisons, but they also realise that Tomb Raider is quite a different beast and soon into the game I realised this too. During my time with the game I was treated to the opening levels in which I was introduced to the new Lara for the first time and it's obvious to note straight from the off that this is not the confident woman that we have grown to love. The new Lara is vulnerable and inexperienced in the world of adventuring; She is in a situation that she's not been in before, having been victim of a disastrous crash after her ship, know as the Endurance, was hit by a violent storm and split in two, resulting in her landing on a tropical island, scared, alone and separated from her friends.
So there we have it, atop a mountain all alone, before Lara spots part of the wreckage of her ship and we travel down in the hope of finding some trace of her friends. But this is a dangerous climate and Lara needs food and shelter. Thankfully a corpse hanging from a tree has the answer in the shape of a long disused bow; grave robbing is not the most idea way to gain your first weapon, but a woman has to eat right? After some climbing and hanging from trees, the bow is Lara's and just in time too, since there are some tasty 'live' deers waiting to be killed. It's here we come back to the vulnerability though, because after downing the deer, it's quite clear that Lara is not comfortable with what she has done, even going as far to apologise to the corpse. It's not going to be an easy road, but she has learned her first lesson in survival and she's going to need it.
Once Lara's armed and fed, she finds a camp, which is probably more useful than you think. Camps are Lara's solitude, she can rest here, but she can also upgrade her skills as she grows in strength, allowing her to learn useful abilities, such as being retrieving arrows or even improve her hunting skills. Obviously I only managed to play a small part of the game, so have been unable to see the full effect of the skills menu, however I'm assured that each player will be able to upgrade Lara's skills to suit their own play style.
Another interesting part of the game I noticed was that it's quite open to different play styles. If you are the type who likes to take your time and explore the different areas for treasures and collectables then you can. This means that slow movers can go back to previous areas on the map, rather than being dragged in one direction. Tomb Raider still has its set pieces which will happen no matter what, but at least you are not dragged into them unless you want to be.
Being a Tomb Raider game, animals are not generally your friends and this is obvious even in the early stages. Bears and Wolves are out to get you, which is why it's just as well you have a bow. It's not only animals you'll have to be wary of though, as there is a nasty human presence lurking about which Lara will find herself caught firmly in the middle of. It's not quite clear what direction the story is going in at these early stages, but you can tell Lara is not going to get off this island easily.
The new Tomb Raider is a beautiful game, full of lush jungles and impressive visuals, which in themselves come with stunning cutscenes and acting. Then there is the day/night cycle and the impressive weather system. It's probably not exaggerating to say that when it rains in Tomb Raider, it pours.
It was never going to be easy to reinvent Tomb Raider, this is a classic series after all. Somehow though, Crystal Dynamics seem to have pulled it off and then some. Keep an eye out for Lara in 2013, because she may very well be the biggest star of the year.