Tomb Raider hands on preview – can it beat Uncharted at its own game?

Watching a young Miss Croft embark on the most traumatic gap year of all time was agonizing enough when someone was holding the controller – the youngster’s subjected to tortures that’d make Chuck Norris brace – but finally getting hands-on with Tomb Raider is an infinitely more extremity-numbing experience.

Seeing Lara fight off a wolf is one thing but when you’re at the reins each attack seems so much more vicious. Choosing to descend into an underground tunnel that leads God knows where is flipping madness. Even drawing your bow sets off a few splinter-worries, because in the early hours of Tomb Raider Lara’s extremely vulnerable, inexperienced and afraid – and Crystal Dynamics exploits that brilliantly.

That isn’t to say that Lara’s inept or anything, she can navigate vertical terrain like Nathan Drake’s rock climbing instructor and fling an arrow like Legolas when the occasion calls for it. Rather, it’s her fear and sense of being well out of her comfort zone that’s conveyed so effectively, through her desperate gasps for breath, the pep-talks she gives herself before navigating a dangerous obstacle, and her anguished countenance in cut-scenes.

Lara’s two-dimensional quipping had grown stale in her last few outings and her re-imagining addresses that brilliantly. In fact she was so capable in Underworld and Anniversary that it almost felt like you were little more than a tagalong as she got on with it.

Here, Crystal Dynamics evoke a parental relationship a bit like the relationship between Joel and Ellie in the Last Of Us, replacing the on-screen guardian with your quivering hands. That’s probably what the studio meant when they rather clumsily suggested that moments like an attempted groping by a gun-toting Neanderthal make you root for her in a way that you haven’t previously. Although it’s just as evident as she totters through a jump puzzle as when she’s fending off unwanted advances.

And just as any parent goes through that chest-swelling moment as they watch their sprog cycle down the cul-de-sac without stablisers, you’ll see and feel Lara adapt to her hostile surroundings – gradually – as the hours roll by. The base camps you use to save and rest in each of the island’s hub areas also give you chance to improve young Croft’s abilities (like her effectiveness with the bow) and upgrade the gear she finds among the wartime ruins and eerie cult artefacts. To do so, you’ll need to harvest the pelts of the fauna you kill for self-improvement and keep an eye out for supply crates and bring them back to your base to bolster equipment.

We used parts to make a hammer we prised out of a dead man’s chest strong enough to manipulate a giant cog: you might take a different route. It’s a slightly illusion-shattering mechanic in a game that otherwise plays immersively and cinematically (sure, we’ll say it, like the Uncharted series) but in telling Lara’s rite of passage, her first adventure and how she gained such prowess, it beats a Rocky montage.

Let’s explain the Uncharted parity, because it feels unfair not to. Lara was scaling Chinese ruins, nicking speedboats in Venice and braining T-Rexes long before Naughty Dog’s masterpieces hit the shelves, but on earlier consoles she was never about fluidity of movement, believable dialog or bleeding-edge mo-cap tech: she turned like a truck and maintained the same sassy expression like the wind changed.