We haven’t really heard much from Lara since last year’s E3 when she escaped capture from her kidnapper. This year’s demo picks up where that one left off, showing Lara escaping out onto the rest of the island where the survivors of the Endurance have washed ashore. As she stands there on the bluffs looking out at the crippled ship, she is, at that moment, definitely not the Tomb Raider we’ve come to know. Instead, she’s a vulnerable, scared, 21-year-old college graduate who has no idea what to do next.
As she moves out to search for other survivors, you can sense her unease as she balances her way across a log bridge over a yawning chasm. In any other Tomb Raider game, she’d move across the log with practiced, almost stylish ease. Here, you can feel her uncertainty, both through the animation and through the performance of the actress voicing her lines.
Amid all the infernal demons and fanged monstrosities shown in other demos at this year’s show, this moment stands out as particularly disturbing. As with Sony’s The Last of Us, the key is that the drama is on a human scale that makes it harder to dismiss. Shelter and fire are this game’s equivalent of the BFG and no skyscraper-sized monsters are likely to affect me as much as seeing Lara lean out off of a branch to grab a bow off a dead man hung up in a tree.
Lara’s first job is quite literally to survive by finding food and starting a fire. Through the very act of living off the land, Lara will get better at the various skills that are required to survive in the wild. And while she slowly gains mastery of the world around her, the nagging possibility that other survivors are out there keeps her yearning to be rescued. It’s a great reversal for the character, so when she hears the ship captain’s voice come in over the radio, she immediately sets out to find him.
On the way, she hears strange noises coming from a small, seemingly abandoned cabin. Looking inside, she sees lots of tribal paintings and hears the music is coming from a hole in the ground. In the only part of the demo that seemed to go against this great character the developers have built, Lara decides to climb down into the hole to explore. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for her character, but it works against the sense that she’s just looking for someone to get her out of the situation.
In any case, she emerges unscathed and, without giving any of the story details away, ends up reunited with some members of her group. The newly reunited group decides to split up, with one group looking for the captain, and Lara and Dr. Whitman heading off to look for her friend Sam, who, long story short, was also kidnapped by a stranger on the island. Lara and the doctor stumble upon a strange camp with more of the unusual signs they’ve seen scattered around the island. There’s a crank that Lara needs to turn in order to open a sealed door, but first she’ll need to upgrade the improvised hatchet she found down in the hole where she first heard the music.
This leads nicely into some of the open world aspects of the game. Lara can find salvage crates all around the island, and then use the raw materials in those crates to upgrade her equipment and weapons. Along the way, she’ll also have to fend off wolf attacks, so there’s a nice balance between the need for better stuff and the danger in getting it. New survival skills open up as well, allowing Lara to become even more proficient at the types of things that might be useful in a tomb-raiding context. Even better, there’s a lot of player choice here, so you can build the type of Lara you want to play.
Again, I don’t want to give away the story, but things don’t end well for Dr. Whitman or Lara as they move further into the environment looking for Sam. It’s here that the first real turns of Lara’s character start to make sense as she grows increasingly suspicious of strangers and even more frustrated by the trusting naivete of her companions. It’s hinted in this sequence that some of Lara’s responses are colored by her experiences with her father, which makes her an even more intriguing character.
Rest assured though, that Lara does eventually grow into the heroine you’re used to seeing. We saw a level from later in the game where Lara is riding down a channel in a massive flood, and steering a parachute through the treetops, and stumbling upon an ancient temple. But it’s the idea that we’re seeing how this character became who she is, and that it’s all viewed through the lens of a very primal and iconic survival story that really has me interested in seeing more.