Where do you go after you reach the height of success? Why, back to the start, of course. Lara Croft is no stranger to rebirth, as she led a string of successful PS1 and Dreamcast releases over the years before succumbing to Core's unlikable The Angel of Darkness, then re-emerging under the direction of developer Crystal Dynamics for a trio of worthwhile adventures. But now the team is trying something drastically new: instead of telling the video game icon's continued story, it's going back to where she first got her start in a reboot.
Tomb Raider, slated for a release in 2013, catches Lara in her younger years around the age of 16. This was well before she became the confident, sexy treasure hunter as we know her today, merely setting out to make her mark on the world.
It all begins on a ship called the Endurance, which is being helmed by her friend Conrad Roth. Over the course of her voyage, trouble emerges in the form of a tropical storm, which rips the ship in half and leaves her stranded on an island. This is no pleasure cruise, as this desolate place is filled with all sorts of danger. Not only does she have to struggle with animal inhabitants and trying to find food and water, but she's soon pitted against an even more dangerous force – a group of mercenaries who are hellbent on killing all of the survivors for an as-of-yet unspecified purpose. She'll need to rely on every bit of her survival skills in order to escape alive.
This younger version is not the femme fatale that you've known. In the early goings of the game, you'll have to gain your bearings and start to learn about the habits of exploration by using whatever tools you can get your hands on, from a torch and makeshift bow and arrow set, in order to survive. Early encounters require you to struggle to survive, while some other situations will force you to repeatedly mash buttons in order to crawl out of harm's way.
It's this realism angle, compared to simply running into a room and shooting everything, that really makes Tomb Raider stand out from the pack. Crystal Dynamics set out to make this experience different than most adventure games, with Lara being vulnerable yet dedicated enough to figure her way out of a terrible situation. So far, it's telling a compelling story of how she came to be that confident figure, while making sure that the journey itself isn't quite so easy.
The best attitude to approach this opening chapter of the series is with a fresh state of mind. You'll die once or twice before you start getting the hang of just what Lara is capable of, then taking those instincts into perspective as you begin moving through the game. Even with weapons, you'll find that not every shot is a lethal one and sometimes you'll need to rely on stealth to avoid discovery by several men. (After all, that's a lot for this young Lara Croft to overcome.) There are also some situations where you'll need breakneck timing in order to get through, like flying through the wilderness with a parachute and avoiding collisions with trees that can chip away at your health.
For this new game, Crystal Dynamics went with an extraordinary new graphics engine so you can literally see every gritty aspect of the game. The character models are staggeringly good and even though Lara is a much younger version of the character we know today, you can see some of her familiar traits. The attention to detail in a number of the levels is equally staggering, as you actually feel like you're making your way around an articulately designed island, rather than just running through your paces around part of it. It appears the developer also addressed issues with camera angles as well - from the time we spent with the demo, we didn't run into one instance where the viewpoint of the game worked against us. Even in up close combat, we could see everything.
The game also benefits from a fresh batch of voice actors. Leading the pack is Camille Luddington, who replaces Keeley Hawes, the previous voiceover artist for Lara. It's a good replacement, as you can hear the young desperation in her voice, yet the kind of familiar traits that remind you of who this girl will become.
We still have a bit of Tomb Raider to play through before its March 5th release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 next year, so we'll be checking back in with more impressions and details on the game soon. This may not be your typical Lara adventure, but we assure you – that isn't a bad thing.