Tomb Raider E3 demo: how Crystal Dynamics has reinvented Lara

Instead of trying to retrace its steps, Crystal Dynamics is going somewhere entirely new with Lara – shying away from the bombastic set-pieces of its contemporary, and instead constantly playing up her innocence and fear to produce a more intimate, emotionally-driven game than any previous Raider.

“That’s a deliberate design decision” explains Stewart. “When she’s heavy breathing, you’re almost heavy breathing with her. When she’s in water, you’re holding your breath with her. We want the player to feel a connection with her that’s more than going through the motions.”

When he talks of heavy breathing, he doesn’t mean it in a titillating way. New Lara ain’t that kinda girl, and you’re given constant reminders that this is a terrifying situation for her – and via actual gameplay rather than cut-scenes. When, ten minutes in, she reluctantly knocks a dead body out of a tree to acquire a bow, you’re given the objective of finding food – in other words, killing and munching some of the local wildlife.

But being new to the weapon, the targeting is deliberately clumsy, and even Stewart – who, bear in mind, plays this on a daily basis – fires a few air shots before finally nailing a deer in the rump. As Lara learns more about her surroundings – and you upgrade weapons and skills by stopping off at campsites scattered around the island – she’ll clearly become more like ‘classic’ Lara. But the overriding sense is of a frightened loner in a place she doesn’t understand, not a sultry sexpot waiting to be papped near a waterfall.

“Lara had become a caricature of herself,” explains Stewart of the need to completely reboot her. “A little bit arrogant, a little bit egotistical – you never felt that bond or connection.” As if to punish her for that overconfidence in her previous life, Lara is soon in peril again, with her only hope of salvation the weapon she pilfered earlier – getting her foot caught in a bear trap and having to use the bow to fend off a pack of salivating wolves in near total darkness.

Only the occasional flash of lightning gives away their location, although on this occasion our gal’s ineptitude is offset with a bullet-time mechanic that kicks in when a wolf leaps at her – enough time to get a second shot in if the first is wonky.

Despite being early in the game, it’s a set-piece that’s at once fun, inventive and genuinely tense, but even that’s bested later on. Shortly after meeting fellow survivor Sam, the pair are kidnapped by a gang of mercenaries – but when a fight breaks out among the crims, Lara attempts to stealthily leave the camp.

Hunted down by a torch-wielding merc, she’s attacked and forced to either fight back or die in a Heavy Rain-style QTE. After matching button prompts and shaking the left stick to fend him off and grab his gun (the timing window’s tight – get this wrong and that’s one ‘brains blown out’ death coming your way), you’re prompted to hit square to open fire – and in an instant, you’ve turned Lara into a first-time killer.

And there our half-hour in her presence ends, just as things have really begun to heat up. Even so, it’s been more than long enough to demonstrate that starting afresh with Tomb Raider was absolutely the correct move from Crystal Dynamics, despite the fan backlash it initially attracted.

On this evidence, Stewart isn’t merely fulfilling his promise to make this a more ‘personal’ Lara experience – he and his team are also in with a chance of creating one of PlayStation’s most emotive games. And if it does come up short, at least the ‘top ten Lara deaths’ will make for quite the startling pictorial.