Brutal.  That’s the best word to describe the recent Tomb Raider demo we had the privilege of experiencing at the 2012 GameStop Expo.  First, this isn’t the same Lara Croft or even Tomb Raider video game that took the world by storm in the 90s.  She doesn’t run around kicking butt while spouting witty one-liners.  This Lara’s younger, inexperienced, and absolutely terrified by her unfortunate situation of being stranded on some inhospitable island, hungry, and pelted with rain.  It was such an intense experience, the game felt more like survival horror than some Indiana Jones style adventure.  Intrigued?  You definitely should be.

The demo began on a cliff, with Lara staring out at ship wreckage.  From there, we plunged into a forest, sliding down mountains, making uncomfortable leaps, and tiptoeing across debris.  A few minutes later, we stumbled upon a dead and unidentifiable person hanging upside down from a tree.  Turns out, the unfortunate soul had something we desperately needed, a bow.  To get it, we shimmied up the side of a wall, climbed a tree, and made a stressful grab for the corpse.  This being the revamped Tomb Raider, retrieving the bow caused Lara and her new decomposing friend to fall onto the hard, rain-soaked earth.  The fact that she got up, unscathed, was surprising to say the least.

After making sure she had no broken bones, we collected some conveniently placed arrows off the ground and killed animals, the goal to acquire food.  This was clearly the developers’ way of showcasing combat mechanics, and we found it to be surprisingly responsive and enjoyable.  There’s a great sense of satisfaction that comes from squeezing the left trigger to go into aiming mode, lining up the target, and then nailing the sucker with the right trigger.  Thankfully, there’s no shortage of critters to hunt, and we had little trouble slaughtering deer, rabbits, and birds.  Then, it was a simple matter of walking up to Lara’s victim and gutting it with a press of a button, whereupon which she collected meat.

Through all of this, the audio and cinematics remained top notch.  We normally don’t play video games using headsets, but feel Tomb Raider absolutely requires this to absorb the full experience.  It’s clear the designers want to convey a newfound sense of dread and intensity never before experienced in a video game, and this was on full display in the demo, as every scream, fall, and sound effect rattled our eardrums with thunderous impact.  It’s rare that we empathize with a video game character, and this is exactly what happened with Lara.  There’s no invincibility star in Tomb Raider.  She’s human, and is therefore vulnerable to pain.  As such, any sense of empowerment went right out the window as we continuously saw the heroine flirt with death.  Each time, we feared the worst and hoped she was OK.  

Thankfully, there’s a Survival/Skills system in place to help transform Lara into a more efficient killing machine.  You’ll earn experience points (XP) throughout the game, which you can then spend at base camp to pick up various abilities, from Hunter (spot animals more easily) to Arrow Retrieval (pick up arrows from dead enemies).  

On that note, we walked away from Square Enix’s Tomb Raider thoroughly impressed.  We don’t know about you, but we haven’t been this excited for a Lara Croft game in years, and the fact that everyone involved continues to keep the story and various gameplay elements a mystery increases the intrigue.  That said, we plan to keep a close eye on this game leading up to its March 5, 2013 release.