Tomb Raider Hands-On Preview [Microsoft X-Series, Spring 2013]

Sometimes change is necessary. Of course, the same is true of reboots, which can sometimes save a formerly popular franchise from running its course, no matter which entertainment medium you’re speaking about. Sure, doing so is certainly a risk, but it’s one worth taking if you’re hoping to extend the lifecycle of one of your prized properties.

In recent years, reboots and revamps haven’t been rarities, and the results have been quite successful. That’s why, after analyzing the market, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics decided that stripping things down and going back to the beginning would be best for their beloved Tomb Raider franchise and its iconic heroine, Lara Croft. That made sense, considering that it seemed as if the busty adventurer had been surpassed by other, more popular, intellectual properties. In fact, it not only seemed like the best decision for the series, but also the only real option that would give it a chance of remaining popular and noteworthy for years to come.

I must admit that, after hearing about the aforementioned decision, and seeing the game’s first trailer, it quickly rose to the top of my most-anticipated list. Simply put, it looked amazing, and this is coming from someone who was never able to get into the previously released titles. As such, you can surely imagine the personal intrigue and great interest that came with the news that the game would be available for demonstration this week in Toronto.

After making my way into Microsoft’s quaint X-Series Spring 2013 preview event on Wednesday, I made a b-line for the Tomb Raider kiosks. Thankfully, one was open, allowing me to sit down and become enthralled in what I later found out was a two-hour demo. To be honest, I only spent about forty minutes with the game, but I got to experience quite a bit of its visceral opening section. I didn’t play through the whole thing because of time constrictions, and the fact that I didn’t want to play too much, as I felt it would lessen the impact of the first part of my inaugural play through upon the game’s release.

Right from the get-go, Tomb Raider‘s visual fidelity caught my attention. The simple truth is that it’s beautiful, with impressive lighting effects and animations. Adding to that, its forested world feels fresh and alive, with dangerous wolves, crazed humans, perilous geometry and hidden collectibles. This really is a reinvigorated experience, there’s no denying that.

If you quickly recall the E3 trailer mentioned above, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of the section I started out in. That’s because it had Lara seeking the exit of a dark and dank cave, which had nothing to offer her but a bit of fire. Picking up the controller made it my duty to see that she made it out of there, and it didn’t take too long before I was out in the wilderness. However, things quickly changed for the worse after that particular moment of character-based exhilaration.

Since I don’t like spoilers, I’m not going to go into detail regarding the plot developments that I experienced during my time with the game. Instead, I’ll just state that the wolves aren’t the only living creatures you’ll need to worry about when you step into the shoes of this new, self-aware, and much more human version of Lara Croft. As such, the combat system quickly evolved from simple bow and arrow shooting to bullet-based encounters using mechanical weaponry, with an additional option for stealthy takedowns.

From the time I picked up the controller to the time I set it down, Tomb Raider had me enthralled. From making my way through the aforementioned cave, to dealing with unexpected enemies and looking for salvage to upgrade weapons, the game showed its well-designed wares with style. There were stealth sections, all-out combat scenarios, occasional quick-time events and simple exploration segments, not to mention puzzles. None of those elements ever felt too difficult or hard to control, nor did they lack the Tomb Raider feel. However, I did find that the aiming was a little bit off, making perfect headshots a bit of a challenge to pull off. Then again, I wasn’t playing the final version of the game, so that issue has probably been fixed.

Now that I’ve spent some hands-on time with this rebooted version of Tomb Raider, I’m almost positive that it will be the series’ first release to pique and maintain my interest from its opening scene through to its closing credits. Crystal Dynamics has obviously put a lot of effort and time into creating a rich and modern origins story, which plays about as well as it looks. Needless to say, early March cannot come soon enough.