Tomb Raider Hands-On Preview

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Having played Tomb Raider at the 2012 EB Games Expo back in October, I thought I knew what to expect when I was told I would be getting the chance to play it again. I expected maybe a one hour demo; a combination of all the previous demos we have seen at shows like E3 and Gamescom.

Technically, I was right…but the demo didn’t end there. Oh no, it kept going, and going…it turned into a 2.5 hour demo! That’s potentially a quarter of the game’s story! Read on to discover some great new details and find out my impressions of this, the most extensive look we’ve ever gotten at Tomb Raider.

The demo starts off with a brief cut-scene concerning the crew of Endurance and their “arrival” on the island. It’s on the shore and carries on from the events of the “Turning Point” trailer. I will make it a point to avoid any real story spoilers in this preview, but I think in this instance we all know how it begins. The actual gameplay starts with Lara dangling in the den we first saw footage of back at E3 in 2011.

There are no notable changes to this opening section until we come across the area where the rubble crumbles and the hermit attacks Lara, or as he says is “trying to help you!”. There was a slight addition to the gameplay here as Lara must ignite the fabric above the makeshift platform to the left, which propagates down this beam and burns out some debris that was blocking the path. If you watch the demo, you’ll see these elements in the scene, sans the debris. It was basically streamlined for the purpose of a quicker presentation for the event.

It’s getting hot in here!…

Moving on through the collapsing cave, I did actually die…yes, I’m a noob. I took a second too long after jumping a gap and the rubble came crashing down around Lara. However, the screen just fades to black and you are brought to the beginning of that sequence to retry. It’s very quick, keeping you in the action. Lara escapes, we see our in-game title screen as Lara looks out at all the shipwrecks and we move on. Now, this portion I have already previewed after my play-through at the aforementioned EB Expo 2012. It was nicknamed “the Hunting Demo” at the event. Read that preview here if you haven’t already.

Something of note is that never before seen cut-scenes have been placed in the demo, such as at the point after Lara finds the video camera amongst Sam’s belongings on her way to the cliff-side camp site, where she sits in front of the fire. There were maybe 3 or 4 of these cut-scenes throughout the demo, and they provided some great background on the expedition and the dynamic between the crew. Let’s just leave it at that. Once the hunting demo is over, Lara hears music being played and follows the source inside the hut below the tree where she acquired her bow from the hanging body.

You’ve got a gun Lara, just shoot him!

I climbed a ladder downwards and found an area gamers would recognise from prior released footage. There’s strange markings on the wall, and this is where Lara acquires the pry axe and uses it for the first time to open a heavy door. I climb another ladder, this time up and out of the underground area. Coming out of the other side, Lara discovers Sam, her friend and crew-mate whose gear she found, along with a mysterious man at a camp site. Lara is justly sceptical of this man, but soon passes out from the extreme fatigue of the day. Waking up, she of course finds no trace of the two. We’ve seen this cut-scene before, but it ended much differently with Lara in a stand-off, her bow ready and his knife against Sam’s throat.

Panicked, Lara sets out to find Sam, but runs straight into a bear trap. This is when the howling of wolves enters earshot and the game gets quite tense as bushes rustle and their impending attack draws near. They jump out at Lara, suddenly, initiating a quick-time like event where I had to aim the bow and shoot the wolf before it reached me. After maybe three of these attacks, the rest of the Endurance crew (maybe not exactly all of them) find Lara and release her. The team decides to split up in order to search for Sam, with Lara buddied up with Whitman, who’s…let’s just say, is probably not the most courageous of the bunch. The two get to a little camp-site before Whitman tells Lara to stay put while he takes a look around, with this almost sly look on his face. I came to find later that this wasn’t a misread by me, although I won’t explain why he makes that face. Now you’re intrigued, huh?

Burning down a temple and village…has to be some bad karma.

Lara basically says screw this and gets up, and as control is returned to me, I walk around the semi-enclosed space to see a large crate. I try to open it with the pry axe, but it says that I am required to upgrade it before I can use it on the crate. This is the first true example I have seen of the gear-gated nature of the game, which is something I bring up with Sr. Art Director Brian Horton in an interview that I conducted on the same day. It’s probably best to read that after this preview, so I will link it at the end.

I continue looking for Whitman and hear some more wolves howling, although this time it’s not a scripted encounter. A prompt pops up telling me how to dodge. Everything moved so fast, and I was thinking about my upcoming interview, that some things became a blur, but I believe it was achieved by pressing “B” (the demo was played on the Xbox 360). This move can also be used to close the distance on enemies, move quickly between cover and in conjunction with a certain unlockable ability that I will mention later.

Scrambling for new cover is especially tough in closed off spaces.

I find Whitman at this giant door needing assistance in opening it. It required two cranks of sorts, but one was broken. The pry axe fit just fine…however, it needed to be strengthened. I was then prompted to salvage five general resources in order to be able to complete the upgrade. I did so, and found a camp site nearby to finalise the upgrade. This is when I was introduced to “Lara’s Journals”, where she basically narrates as she makes journal entries, speaking about her experiences on the island. The entries can be accessed in the menu at any time, and I believe there are 10 of them to be written (that could always change). I move on, and after opening the door, Lara and Whitman converse about their theories on the island’s inhabitants…speculating on the possibility that stories of deity worship may be true, as evidence found – such as the markings – seems to point to a cultist/ritualistic origin.

This is where everything truly picks up and things go to hell, almost symbolically in the visuals, as you can see in some of the image. They encounter some thugs, who Whitman gives his gun to. Lara isn’t happy with this plan and so she readies her bow, but gets taken down from behind. They get taken away to a clearing where one brave – or stupid – captive makes a run for it, getting shot for his troubles. This causes panic and everybody attempts to flee, with Lara slipping away successfully. And so begins our first look at stealth gameplay, as I had to move between cover and time my advances between searching gunmen.

WWII Pistol rapid fire mod, which basically enables a burst fire with the press of the “RB” button.

Eventually I came across this flimsy shack, where the semi-infamous “rape” cut-scene plays out. It’s not distasteful, but it’s very tense and I can tell you right now, it goes no further than what we’ve seen. It leads to a struggle for the man’s gun after Lara fights back and kicks him in the groin. The player has to quickly tap the “X” button to point the gun towards the aggressor and off goes his face! Well, not exactly, but it’s pretty gruesome and very effective in helping to communicate the shock, horror and realisation that Lara has taken another’s life.

Gun-play now becomes a two way street. Weapons can be toggled between by using the D-Pad. At this point, the temple and surrounding structures are on fire (see: hell) and I had to shoot my way out of this enemy-infested zone. Stealth is still a factor, and an option. Along the path, I was introduced to a few more mechanics. There was a distraction technique of shooting near an enemy with an arrow to make them investigate, but it honestly just gave away my position. Another was environmental strategy in the form of small gas lanterns, which could be shot down to create a fire.

Time for a stealth take-down.

Then, some hand-to-hand combat is explored. Pressing the “Y” button will simply push/shove an enemy, but sneaking up behind them and holding “Y” would initiate a grapple/silent take-down by which the player must rapidly tap “X” to complete it, choking out the enemy with Lara’s crossbow.  This is utilised often in an area where Lara has to climb the levels of this tower with multiple gunmen standing guard at different points on the path. The final mechanic that is introduced in this section is the use of zip-lines.  Jumping at a zip-line and pressing “X” has Lara slide down using her pry axe. It’s a great short-cut during traversal, but it’s use is not forced and repetitive like in Rage, for instance.

11 Buddhist-looking statues can be lit, like the one in the centre there.

Once out of there, we reach a smaller “Village Hub”. This area is largely platforming/traversal based, which breaks up the tone and pace nicely. After that, we enter the beginnings of the “Coastal Forest” hub. Here I took my time at this point to finally use my salvage points for further upgrades. I gave Lara the means to fight a little dirtier against enemies with a dust throw manoeuvre. This tactic is part of the “Brawler” sub-list, and is the one I briefly referred to earlier that works in conjunction with the dodge. Once a dodge has been activated, pressing “X” has Lara throw dust in a baddie’s eyes, momentarily incapacitating them. And finally, I enabling a quicker shooting and re-shooting of arrows with a bow upgrade, and some scavenging bonuses from boxes and dead bodies.

Captain Conrad Roth…stepping in bear traps too, I see.

After some travelling, Lara comes across Endurance’s Captain, Conrad Roth, who is wounded. He needs medical supplies, but they are not with him. Lara tries to help Roth walk her to its location, but he faints and she has to go it alone. On my way, I came across a GPS cache, which could be collected, in front of a cave entrance. It was an optional tomb on my continuation along the critical path. It’s probably one of the most obvious ones to find. However, walking inside, I was stunted by a high, jagged wall that couldn’t be ascended…yet. I exited, and the primary objective led me to a dark cave where faint movements in the shadows could be seen and it became quickly apparent that a wolf was stalking me.

A bear trap and then a wolf bite…that leg is ravaged! Poor Lara.

On the way out of the cave with the supplies, the wolf attacked and I had to shake the left thumbstick left to right to fight off the wolf. The quick-time like event ends with Lara killing the animal, allowing me to find my way back to Roth. Once I return, they share a brief conversation, which is more like a pep talk for Lara. Roth gives Lara a climbing axe, which enabled me to climb that wall I found earlier and proceed through this hub. I returned to its location. The tomb was quite simple, and the puzzle within had to do with weight distribution. The reward for completing these “side tombs” will usually be a relic, of which I could see 42 listed in the in-game menu.

Other than the relics, there are also a total of 53 documents to be discovered throughout the journey. The subject/type of document ranges from ancient scrolls to Endurance crew diaries. Actually, before opening the big gate with Whitman, I did find an entry of his nearby. Of course, I can’t tell you what it said. What’s nice about these documents is the fact that they are fully narrated in the voice of the person who wrote them, much like Lara’s Journals. I also want to point out the great use of color in player-guidance. It’s obviously not as blatant as in Mirror’s Edge, but points of interest usually feature some white, yellow or red painted wood boards as part of it’s structure, or nearby, that lead you in the right direction.

A great example of player guidance via color and the optional tomb.

Continuing on, outside of the last tomb, a storm had picked up, and climbing up the mountain, I came across a couple enemies at an outpost who were contemplating heading to higher ground. Something I neglected to mention until this point is that enemies are very aggressive; they will throw Molotov cocktails and shoot fiery arrows at your cover to disintegrate it and force you to move. And with a gun in their hands, they’re even deadlier. However, I successfully dispatched of them and progressed further upwards. Eventually daylight would begin to seep in-between the mountainous terrain and it actually began to snow.

At this point, Lara sits at another camp-fire and another flashback plays. Getting a message from Roth on the walkie talkie pushes Lara to forge on, where she encounters some more heavily armed men with machine guns. There’s a broken down utility truck pulled almost exactly out of WWII, and as it happens, I soon after come across what seems like an old WWII base (the Island is off the coast of Japan for those who don’t know yet). At this point, there is a bad guy using a search light, scanning the ground. I then had to time my movements so as to avoid the spotlight, all the while stealthily taking guys out along the way. Now, at this point, I must apologise; I was called in for the interview and so I had to pause the game. However, I was near the demo’s end and had been peaking over to the guy next to me, who was a bit ahead of me.

The ziplines I mentioned earlier. I just wanted to end on a fun screen. Wee!

What laid ahead was Lara making her way to the nearby radio tower in the hopes of being able to send out an SOS. However, there is a mini-boss like encounter outside the doors to this building where Lara is confronted by an armoured opponent carrying a heavy riot-like shield. Past that point, I have no idea how the demo ended although I assume there would have been a quite important cut-scene soon after that would have ended the play-through.

All in all, I must say that I am so excited for Tomb Raider’s release on March 5th. The game is looking and playing phenomenally. If I had one true critique at this point, it would be that Lara can seemingly change direction in the middle of a jump way too easily. It’s a very unrealistic animation and movement in a game that prides itself on being realistic. Otherwise, my experience with Tomb Raider was fantastic. To read the interview I had with Sr. Art Director Brian Horton, go here. I tried to ask questions that weren’t asked of him before, but the man has done so many interviews. I hope you all like it.

I am a graduate of the Bachelor of Interactive Entertainment (w/ major in Games Design) course at Qantm College, Sydney.

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