Tomb Raider hands on preview – can it beat Uncharted at its own game?
But releasing an action adventure title without an awareness of how far Naughty Dog’s raised the bar would be disastrous, and second by second that’s why Tomb Raider really impresses: by matching Drake’s seamless animations, creating a sense of place and of danger, and by demonstrating very smart level design.
Case in point: early on, when we’re just getting to grips with the bow. We need to hunt and kill one of the deer in the forest ahead of us in order to survive, but no matter how far the hunt takes us into the undergrowth we’re not lost after we gut (and apologise to) the wheezing food-beast, because the whole area has a stream running through it. When we enter the level, we’re next to a waterfall, so we know that finding our way back to base camp is as simple as following the stream up- er, stream.
It’s the breathtaking train sequences and collapsing ballrooms that we remember Drake’s adventures for being so great, but not getting stuck and frustrated in one area for any length of time is just as important to the experience.
Tomb Raider’s tone is undoubtedly darker, though. In the brief period during our hands-on when Lara had any friendly faces around her, they spoke of the missing member of the party – the girl who’d been killed by a fanatical cult that populates the island. They too are scared, disoriented and jittery – if any one of them tried a one liner they’d incur nothing but silence and dirty looks.
Later in the game we see that those occultists have made a whole macabre village deep in the centre of the island, crafted from wartime remains. Observing the scale of their base is fearsome, taking your mindset from Tom Hanks in castaway to Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Similarly, the combat in that early phase keeps you in a state of vulnerability that’s worlds away from the usual third-person action fare.
The bow takes us a second or two to load, feels purposely unwieldy, and it can take a few arrows to fell a charging wolf. We’ve yet to see Lara in her more traditional ‘holding an assault rifle while wearing Berettas as garters’ role in this reboot, and we’d be happy not to. Lara’s makeshift weaponry makes sense with her story and surroundings, and it’s great to see a developer take a bit of a risk and shy away from explosions and gunfire in favour of a gritty survival experience.
Then there’s the visuals. They really can’t be overstated: the game typifies the period towards a platform’s life cycle when developers are old hands with the hardware, and have learned how to squeeze the last drops from each millimetre of ageing silicon. You know, the good bit. Like many games scheduled to rock up on PS3 next year, it’s gorgeous. Drop-the-controller-and-stare gorgeous, and it knows it.
New chapters begin with what looks like concept art and is quickly revealed by a rush of wind or an idle Lara animation to be in-engine loveliness. Often the opening vista gives you an idea of the level’s structure as well as caressing your retinas, showing you a ravine you need to cross, or a temple to reach.
It’s a bit of design that like many others in Tomb Raider conjures images of devs furiously brainstorming the best way to tackle an element that most games don’t seem to give two binary values about, and when all those elements combine in an extended play you’re left wondering why every game doesn’t do mechanic X as effortlessly. Tomb Raider’s the real deal, and it already feels polished enough to ship. Lord knows what the team will achieve between now and March, but we’ll be wheeling out the big numbers in anticipation for next spring.