Games of 2012: Tomb Raider

Drawing inspiration from James Bond and Batman as it treads the dark path to reinvention...

Tomb Raider is a gaming institution. First released back in 1996, this new game represents the tenth outing for Lara Croft, who returns with 35 million lifetime sales behind her.

However, Tomb Raider is also (somewhat poetically) a relic - a series in desperate need of revival. The unrealistically curvy first-lady of gaming has become something of a joke in popular culture; intrinsic to the stereotype of gamers as bedroom dwelling nerds with unrealistic ideals for what women should be.

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While new developer Crystal Dynamics have made her a more relevant action heroine, even their last Tomb Raider game, 2008's Underword, feels as if it belongs to a past generation, the basic formula having changed little since 1996. And there's Uncharted...

Naughty Dog and Nathan Drake have flamboyantly stolen the Tomb Raider template for adventure. Something had to change, and with this new - simply named reboot - it has. Rather than trying to out-Uncharted Drake, Crystal are treading a darker path.

This isn't about ostentatious, Indiana Jones-style adventuring: it's a gritty origins story that batters the young Lara Croft into the action icon the world is familiar with. "We took over Tomb Raider back in 2003 and our first game - Legend - was always part of a trilogy along with Anniversary and Underworld," says Crystal Dynamics brand director, Karl Stewart, speaking exclusively to PSM3.

"About half way through we decided that we wanted to put our own stamp on the franchise, to make it relevant again."

Lara is no longer a twinkle-toed princess, stealing priceless statues like a one-woman British Empire - she's human, vulnerable. It's this idea of the 'breakable' lead character that makes Tomb Raider so compelling, so unlike any other game of 2012.

"You never really knew Lara before: you understand that she's this beautiful looking girl with rich parents and cool pair of guns, and that she could pay to do whatever she wanted, says Stewart. "However, our research showed that the fact she could pay to do anything never felt very realistic - people couldn't relate to it - so we created a girl who isn't in that situation. She wants to be a member of the crew, she wants to be part of the team, and she's just going on her first adventure.

"It's what they did with James Bond in Casino Royale - we saw him with feelings like revenge and jealousy, and that let people see the character in a new light. And that's what we're looking to do with Tomb Raider - we want people to really feel the emotional connection."


Most action games teach us that we're unstoppable. We can hide behind cover to heal bullet-wounds, we can strap our bodies with health-packs to salve stabbings. There is no penalty for taking an axe to the shoulder - we're able to retaliate with the strength and ferocity of a fighting fit warrior, fresh as the day we were deployed. Tomb Raider turns that assumption on its head. Lara is a vulnerable hero. She whimpers while squeezing through tight corridors in unstable, claustrophobic cave-systems. She mutters to herself about staying alive as her torch is extinguished by a rush of water, or a blast of air.

When she rips an arrow or a piece of rock from her body - injuries she quite realistically sustains throughout the game - you feel her pain as the offending item tears her skin and she screams. As Stewart explains: "You're not going to take a 20ft jump off a cliff, because injury will play a big part in the game's realism. When Lara is injured you won't be able to climb as freely".

And although you're sitting in front of a screen, pad in hand, you still feel genuine concern for Lara. In the back of your mind, you know you can restart from the last save point if she's crushed by a tumbling boulder, but the threat of demise is acute when you're so closely, painfully connected with your on-screen character.

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