Part 3: New World, Be Brave
Some critics found Tomb Raider too guided, whether it was the hand-holding of push-forward-to-win set-pieces or the general urgency of objectives that made casual exploration feel like you were doing something wrong. When you’ve an angry Scotsman yelling for help, it seems misguided to stop and smell the daisies.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Siberian climate rules out any hot nose-on-daisy action, but does show interest in Lara wandering from the beaten path. Hughes is keen to point out that environments aren’t merely backgrounds to a story, but rife with threats; vicious predators and weather conditions that conspire against her.
But the landscape boasts secrets that make the threats worth facing. “Certainly when we’re talking about the critical path we want to make sure everyone understands what they need to do,” he explains, “but we want to cater to that feeling that you’re discovering things that not everybody can, so we create a spectrum of challenge as it relates to exploration and signposting.”
In Tomb Raider the spectrum began and ended with GPS caches and diary entries. These asides return, but in a pleasingly organic fashion, such as when Lara happens across a mysterious stone obelisk and begins to theorise out loud about its purpose. “At some point Lara will decipher the monolith and it’ll take her somewhere interesting,” says Hughes, relishing his role as treasure-hider. We do spot odd throwbacks to Tomb Raider’s softer touch, specifically the white scuffs denoting a climbable ledge.
That said, our demo is showing key story moments – that critical path Crystal Dynamics is keen to underline – and Hughes says we can expect acrobatics with a little more bite. “My hope is that we maintain a certain intuitiveness and ease to the platforming controls, but what the environment asks of you keeps you on your toes,” he says. “I don’t want to be mean, but I’ll be happy if we see a greater equalisation of deaths from the environment as in combat.” That the game’s director, Brian Horton, plummets to his doom in the opening avalanche escape suggests the team has nailed the sweet spot.
As well as these improvements, Crystal Dynamics is expanding on Tomb Raider’s brilliant underlying structure - the drip-feed of gear unlocks that saw Lara reappraising territory to find new routes. Okay, so emptying her pockets with an avalanche is a tad extreme, but the sense of progression should be worth it. “We liked that relationship between these hubs that you come back to with more gear and gaining new gear. To be honest, there’ll be some old favourites, but we set out to make sure that this adventure is fresh, so whether she’s finding or crafting new gear, we will expand on her repertoire,” says Hughes. Finishing secondary tasks will even earn ‘exotic’ kit. Yes, it does get more exotic than a bow made from deer guts.
A short demo can’t do progression justice, so we hop forward to a later point in the game when Lara is more tooled-up. Her torn climbing outfit has been swapped for a sturdier wolf-coloured number – you can fill in the gaps – and her improved arsenal has her ready to face her bear oppressor from the earlier escape. Trekking back to its cave reveals what a difference time of day and weather can make to your perception of the world; without Mother Nature throwing a hissy fit you can better spot potential resources and paths that beg you to follow them.
Not today, though, as we’re all going on a bear hunt. Fear level: marginally scared, and that’s with a gun. The tunnel to its den is not a wise battleground, so Lara fires an arrow to tempt it out. Emerging in a flurry of claws, we see liberal use of Lara’s returning evasive lunge to duck under its swinging paws, blasts of slow-motion emphasising their ferocity.
A strike to her back splatters the screen’s edges with blood, indicating a deeper wound that requires manual healing. This is no harder than tapping LB, but with no leaves to hand she’s forced to limp over to a life-saving shrub. Auto-ducking into nearby cover she replenishes her poison arrows, soon thudding into the bear with a puff of toxic green.
Ten or so shots later and it falls with an almighty crunch. Entering the lair of the slain beast Lara discovers evidence of a camp, apparently proving that the Mongol horde also pursued Kitezh. It’s here that we finally appreciate Hughes’ vision: further into the cave we find an ancient Greek ship stuck preserved in a frozen waterfall. A secret tomb, a reward for having the guts to leave the path and face your fears.