I'm only fifteen minutes into my preview session, but Lara Croft is already balancing on a tree trunk wedged perilously between cliff faces. I’ve just navigated a crumbling underground cave network and emerged on a cliff overlooking an ocean. Violent waves are crashing on the rocks below and historical ships lay in ruins at the cliff face, acting as bleak evidence that no one leaves this island alive. If I fall from my trunk we’ll be crushed between the waves and rocks.
It’s a tense moment. Or it is, until I realise that it’s hard to actually tumble off the trunk. Feeling audacious, I push the analog stick on my controller as hard as I can, but this indelicacy goes unpunished. Lara continues on her way with no evidence of lost balance.
Tomb Raider is definitely a reboot, then. It’s a narrative-driven action adventure game, and from what I've seen in the game's first two hours, it’s not at all taxing. Pacing and presentation often stands in for interactivity, in a fashion blatantly reminiscent of Sony's Uncharted series. The first cave network I traverse - before I emerge onto the cliff face - encapsulates the experience: a sprinkling of lite platforming, some puzzle solving, and the fending off of predators via QTE prompts.
Fending off predators takes on a new meaning later of course, as soon as Lara gets a gun. Lara’s first kill is one of the most talked about video game moments of the year: an attempt by devs Crystal Dynamics to lend emotional weight to a gameplay loop involving shooting lots of generic dudes in their face. Tomb Raider’s opening feels like a long buildup to this event, as Lara learns how to hunt deer and upgrade her gear. In one instance, Lara needs to open a door, thus she needs to craft a stronger climbing axe with which to wedge it open. Naturally, she must kill a bunch of animals to strengthen said climbing axe.
After her first human murder though, the result of a kill-or-be-killed encounter, Lara barely flinches at the prospect of murdering foes en masse. Speaking to Tomb Raider’s art director Brian Horton, it’s clear there’s an inherent difficulty balancing gameplay with character depth. “In video games, the mechanic, or the idea of using killing as part of a gameplay loop, has been part of video games forever,” he says. “It’s just something that we’ve grown accustomed to.
“But very few games put that importance and the weight of what killing a person means . So the first kill for Lara had to mean something. It was something that she had to do, but she actually made a choice to do it, in a way. The player makes the choice.”
Following “the first kill”, Tomb Raider temporarily becomes a third-person shooter without a cover mechanic. The shooting is enjoyable enough, but it feels thematically inappropriate. Meanwhile, many of the platforming sections feel rudimentary at best: graspable ledges are quite obviously signposted.
Still, this is early in the game, and directing Lara around the linear landscapes is pleasant enough. Occasionally she’ll stumble across challenge tombs - little self-enclosed puzzles reminiscent of her roots - and happen upon journals sprinkled about the island to provide convenient context and spooks. Halfway through the session I'm tasked with scaling a radio tower that looms on the horizon to send a distress signal, which seems to promise the game’s first truly breathtaking platforming challenge. I need to kill a bunch of guys to get there, but no worries - true platforming awaits!
“As an industry, I think we’ve only just touched the surface of our version of storytelling.” Horton says, again on the challenges of marrying gameplay with narrative. “We’ve been using traditional cinematics, something that’s definitely borrowed from film. But what we’ve tried to do in this game, in addition to telling a story through cinematics, is to tell a story through play. As you’re playing through the world there’s visual storytelling going on everywhere, and there are conversations going on in context with gameplay. One of the powers of our medium is that you can have choice, and story, in addition to what we have to force through cinematics.
“There are certain things we have to get across," Horton continues. "But the things I’m more excited about with the medium is that we’re able to do more visual storytelling and that sort of optional interactive storytelling that you can perceive when, instead of killing a dude you can wait and listen to a conversation. you can get more of the fiction without being forced to stop and wait.”
The team’s determination to tell a great story shines through in every part of the game, from the lovingly rendered jungles and their convincingly torrential weather systems, through to the seamless traversal of the world. No loading screens roam here, unless you die. Horton cites films like Children of Men and Apocalypse Now as inspiration for his art direction, films that “dealt with very horrific things, but dealt with them in a way that makes you feel you could have been there.”
So it’s disappointing that after a protracted series of firefights and one or two short puzzles, I finally make the last victorious steps toward the radio tower... and the game takes control. What could have been a marvellous - transcendental - journey, turns into a cinematic.
Yes, it looks gorgeous, but I don’t feel like I'm there. Which is a shame, because when it lets me play, Tomb Raider is pretty fun.