Part 2: Survival of the Fittest
Before talking about how ROTTR ups the survival stakes, there’s a silly thing you should know about Crystal Dynamics. Situated on the coast in a glass building, the studio is bathed in a blinding light, forcing its staff to cower below beach parasols. “Every new starter gets a hat or an umbrella,” says Gallagher. It’s funny that Lara’s bruising struggle is built under such mildly irritating conditions, although it could be the secret to channelling her inner turmoil.
One thing’s for sure: as she emerges post-avalanche with her equipment gone, the night closing in and wolf-sized shadows in the surrounding woods, sunburn is the least of her worries. Her first job? Rebuild a base camp, the site used to save and upgrade gear. For this, Lara scavenges wood and pelts. Plants and animals don’t spit out magic XP or the nondescript ‘salvage’ used to upgrade in Tomb Raider, but offer specific materials: wood from saplings, pelt from a deer half-finished by wolves. Leaves are used to heal wounds and common resources let Lara craft special ammo, such as poison-tipped arrowheads.
Gear upgrades require rarer materials, from animals that now respond to time of day. An alpha wolf only emerges at night, for example, bringing with him the hide for a nifty furred hood. You also have choice over what equipment you improve. Your first DIY bow won’t be replaced by shinier models; it has its own upgrade path, should you prefer it to the Compound Bow Lara later finds.
Hughes sees this range as key to bringing improvisation to the game. “All of this adds to player choice, and there’s now a side of our survival action that starts to say, ‘How do you want to leverage the world and the tools?’” he says. “We like [survival action] to deliver the pure baseline of ‘not dying’, but also starting to become powerful in the world because of your understanding and use of it.”
This really comes to the fore in combat. Previously you could get the drop on smaller groups, but when the game wanted it to kick off, it kicked off. Lara can still storm in all guns blazing, but she favours guerrilla warfare. Her first demo encounter, for example, begins not on the ground, but underwater, as a new diving ability (limited to a few seconds) lets her swim towards the bank, pull a Trinity soldier into the murk and drown him. Emerging from the pond she scampers up a tree and pounces on the guard below with a knife through the windpipe.
With the remaining patrol out in the open, Lara sneaks between bushes, throwing empty beer bottles (stealth 101) to distract them. It’s not Metal Gear Solid – it’s lighter on its feet, more about using Lara’s incredible mobility to deliver on the power fantasy of striking fast and playing dirty than waiting out tedious alarm cycles. Get spotted and it simply becomes the excellent cover-based shooter you enjoyed in 2013. Stay hidden and you can continue messing with the guards: our guide throws a downed goon’s crackling radio near a bonfire and waits for his friends to investigate before heaving a fuel canister into the flames. Ka-boom.
The major difference between this and the previous game is what Hughes refers to as “pro-activity” on Lara’s part. “Previously, Lara wanted to escape, so she was heading that direction [points outwards], but in this story she’s seeking to unlock the secrets of the place, so she doesn’t have to be trapped in order to confront its hostilities. That’s not to say she doesn’t get past the point of no return and can’t easily fly back to London on a whim.” While it’s sad we won’t get a level set on an EasyJet flight (a fate worse than Yamatai), that change of circumstance is a refreshing angle after the grim necessity of the reboot.
One such point of no return involves a very angry bear. Having already dined on a Trinity patrol – Lara hears their screams over her radio – he takes a page out of our mum’s dinner-party playbook and ends the soirée with a posh dessert. As he gallops from the cave, our hero bounds up a nearby tree to avoid swiping claws before legging it down a forest path. What’s meant to happen is Lara reaches a tangle of tree roots and performs a nimble QTE to stab a climbing axe into its paws.
What actually happens is she fumbles and sees her head gnawed off in one of those death animations that we all pretend to be too grown-up to enjoy. Striking a neat balance of scripted intensity and a freedom to enact your own escape, it’s a good taste of how Crystal Dynamics is pushing its survival ideas. Funnily enough, a pointy parasol would have probably come in handy. Maybe the staff have the right idea.