Lara Croft's return to gaming isn't too far off now, as we're just over a month away from Square Enix's prequel Tomb Raider. This takes a much different approach than previous games in the series, focusing more on Lara's upbringing as a younger woman rather than the able-bodied treasure hunter that we've come to know over the years. That said, Crystal Dynamics is making a peculiar effort here, not including plenty of action, but also the occasional puzzle solving, which helps our heroine develop into the person that she's transformed into in later games.
We recently went hands-on with a near finished build of the game's single player mode – after taking in some multiplayer sessions with a few members of the development team (link: http://www.primagames.com/games/tomb-raider/news/first-look-tomb-raider-multiplayer-and-why-its-mor) -- and came away feeling that it's more along the lines of contemporary adventure games than Tomb Raider releases in the past. That said, you can definitely sense the "Lara Croft" feeling of the game, and it definitely builds for something bigger in the final release of the product.
The first thing you need to realize is that Lara is stuck without her twin pistols at her side. In fact, when she awakens, she's bound head to toe, hanging from the rafters of a torn-down cave. However, she does manage to find a way out, with your help. You simply need to sway her back and forth with her binding (using the analog stick), and she's able to lean towards a fire that cuts through her ropes, sending her crashing to the ground. She's injured, but also mobile, something you'll need to escape this newfound captivity.
From there, you'll realize just how unprepared Lara is for action scenarios. Over the course of several moments in the first level of the game, you'll need to rely on a rapid tapping function on one of the buttons, like when a henchman catches up with you and tries to pull you back within reach of his knife – something that can end your getaway rather easily. These QTE's don't exactly have an original twist to them, but they do make you shift through desperation as you get to the later parts of the cavern.
Here, your fire light is your friend, so you'll want to pick up a stick and light it aflame before moving forward, or else you'll be stuck in the darkness. It does douse itself when you go passing under water (like through a waterfall), but luckily, it doesn't stay damp enough that it can't be relit. From there, you'll encounter a puzzle right out of the old-school books of Tomb Raider, where you'll need to get through some wood planks in order to get through.
Puzzle solving is as simple as looking around your environment and figuring things out – like hopping up on a higher-up platform to move a grate out of the way, then kicking a group of barrels so they line up among the gate. You'll also want to make sure you close off the flow of water nearby (an easy thing to do) so you can light an object on fire and make the barrels explode – thus clearing your path.
The later part of the level involved a crazy escape from the crumbling caverns, scurrying up the side of some loose rocks (by tapping the buttons again) and eventually reaching the surface, trying to locate any other survivors from your boat.
From here, the game does away with the QTE formula in favor of more exploration, as you'll need to move forward into the level to get away from the cave entrance and into shelter, where you nurse your wound from your fall and try to get a local radio working.
One other aspect introduced to us in the demo is the bow, which Lara is able to pick up by climbing up a tree and claiming from a captured (and now dead) guard. She eventually crashes down to the ground with it, but finds some arrows and becomes very adaptable when it comes to hunting. In order to get food into her system, she introduces you to the basics of taking down a nearby deer, using top-notch functionality with the bow. It's a small lesson, to be sure, but one that'll be handy as you face off against tougher opponents later in the game.
The demo for the single player portion of the game was all too brief, but it gave us an idea of what changes Crystal Dynamics is making for the prequel, while at the same time keeping that survival aspect that we've come to know and enjoy in previous Tomb Raider adventures. The gameplay works just fine, even if it's heavy on the quick-time events, and the presentation holds up rather well, setting up a gritty yet satisfying preview of the journey ahead.
You'll be able to experience Tomb Raider for yourself when it hits stores on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on March 5th.