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- Developer: Crystal Dynamics
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows
- Release Date: 5 March, 2013
- Price: TBC
Tomb Raider is the only game I played twice at Eurogamer. After queuing for twenty minutes the first time, I knew I'd have to make the most of Crystal Dynamics' short, sleek beta. There were other games to play, and I could see the line for the Wii U already snaking its way across the entire show floor.
In, out, quick preview; Tomb Raider won't be available until next year anyway, so there can't be much to talk about. 15 minutes later, and I was back in the queue, scribbling notes and anxiously looking around to see if anyone had caught on yet. This was the best game at the expo. I needed another go.
Second time around, I was even more impressed. A gritty reboot of the entire franchise, Tomb Raider sees a young, inexperienced Lara Croft shipwrecked on a tropical island overseen by pirates and smugglers. Survival plays an enormous role. Unlike the straightforward, linear Tomb Raider adventures of yesteryear, Crystal Dynamics' game takes place across a series of small sandboxes, or hubs, where Lara can build a campfire, hunt for food and sort her inventory before moving on with the game proper.
The beta I played involved hunting a deer. After scrambling away from a plane wreck, and finding an abandoned campsite, I looted a bow and arrow from a dead explorer and went to find something to eat. Wandering the forest and clambering up rock faces, it was interesting to see how things have come back around.
Tomb Raider's platforming mechanics borrow heavily from Uncharted - Uncharted's mix of combat, running jumps and treasure is directly inspired by the original Tomb Raider games. It's one of those weird cultural loops, like Street Fighter: The Movie - The Game, where two franchises bounce ideas back and forth, adding to them as they go. Tomb Raider feels like the culmination of a lot of people's work.
And not just in a graphical or mechanical sense. Lara moves with a kind of pained grace, clutching her sides and stopping for breath any time you pull a tricky jump or run down a hill. Physics like these are what the industry has been working on for years. It started with ragdoll models, like the limp baddies in Hitman 2, and has since heralded motion-capture technology, ANT Animation and facial mapping: Assassin's Creed's parkhour; Battlefield 3's soldiers; Tomb Raider's jogging and climbing - this is where we are now.
But that's only half, or maybe even less than half of what made the Tomb Raider demo so impressive. Crystal Dynamics have listened to critics - not the kind of critics who whinge about guns not being powerful enough, or controls feeling awkward. Smart critics, proper critics; the kind of people who look at the games industry and see problems beyond just coding errors.
Tomb Raider's version of Lara Croft is the most convincing female lead I've ever seen in a game. She's strong, and capable, but not in any false, sassy, sexy way - she isn't Aeon Flux, or Bayonetta.
At the same time, she's utterly plausible as a young woman, scared out of her wits.
There was a wonderful/dreadful moment where, having finally contacted her friend via radio, they agreed on where to meet up. But Lara couldn't face the journey; having just killed a deer (with absolutely no nonsense) and cosied up by the campfire, the thought of leaving made her frightened.
"Can't you just come and get me, please?" she tearfully asked her friend. And I felt for her, in ways I'd never expected to. As a schoolboy, Lara's trademark brand of D cups and duel pistols made me curious; as an adult, it made me angry.
To see the industry's most damning archetype behave so humanely, it felt like games were finally making progress; Lara Croft is a wonderful character - pragmatic, emotional, attractive and female. I can't wait to spend more time with her.
And the rape scene controversy, which plagued Tomb Raider's PR campaign, is going to pay off. You'll go through hours, and a lot a hard times with Lara. By the time that sequence comes around, I hope you'll feel as scared, vulnerable and determined as she is. It's about time. Gamers and games treat women as curios and sex objects - I hope Tomb Raider can make men feel, albeit vicariously, what it's like to be leered at.
Crystal Dynamics have listened to critics. With the sexism debate raging harder than ever, on forums, in magazines, and in this article, Tomb Raider and it's new leading woman can't get here quick enough. Undoubtedly, some people will be angry; there will be a lot of fans who miss the old, chesty Lara.
I'm sure, too, that they'll try and sexualise her - the game industry might not be ready to properly process an actual character, especially one with an X chromosome. But ignore all that. From what I've seen, twice, Tomb Raider could be the saving grace of computer game gender relations.
Lara isn't an ass-kicking, buttocked sex symbol like the rest of the so-called "strong" female game characters; nor is she a helpless, grateful damsel like Princess Peach. She's physical: Tomb Raider's graphics engine lets her move and fight with a satisfying clunk; its writers have made her real.
Verily, I loved Tomb Raider. When it comes out next March, I expect it to be one of the best action games I've ever played, and the first, best example of a sympathetic and dimensional female game character. That's a lot to live up to, but Tomb Raider can do it. Get ready.