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E3 2011 First Look: Tomb Raider

Grubby girl

The game I was most interested to see this year was Tomb Raider. Of everything on show, this was the one I was most intrigued by, based on Crystal Dynamics' stellar record with the license so far, and the dark, gloomy tone that's promised. Potential levels high. Which means I feel strange coming away from the demo a lot more concerned. Mostly by quick time events.

Don't write this off. Good grief, that would be madness. Crystal Dynamics' record is stunning, with three really stupendous Tomb Raider games, and the utterly brilliant Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light top-down spin-off. There's a reason to have trust in that team. And it wouldn't be the first time an E3 demo was completely unrepresentative of the final game. But boy oh boy did Lara spend a lot of time tapping X.

A 360 demo (as most things were this year, in a surprisingly ill-advised move by most companies - just play the PC version with a 360 controller!) saw Lara brutally wounded and utterly miserable as she crawled and squeezed her way through caverns, before emerging into an equally brutal and grim outside world. All good. If only she could have navigated most of it without hammering at joypad buttons.

In between the QTEs was a lot of exciting content. Clearly a Tomb Raider game needs to include two things: leaping and puzzle solving. And both were in full effect. And both were liberated of their previous confines. One sequence we were shown showed Lara trapped in a tight cave on one side of a pile of wooden rubble. Behind her was a waterfall, and behind that a source of fire. So the puzzle was getting the fire past the torrent of water. This takes on board the fact that things that should catch fire, catch fire. Carry a torch, Lara could burn things around her, with some realistic fire modelling. And getting the fire past the water meant manipulating objects using realistic physics, counter-weighting items, swinging objects about, and so on. While there was clearly only one solution on offer, the route to discovering it - as linear as it might have been - felt like improvisation. And there were dead ends too, potential solutions that didn't work out.

This was somewhat tempered by some absolutely daft symbols floating above everything that could be set on fire. Hopefully this was optional, or just for the early stages of the game, because not only did it look ridiculous, but seemed to spoil half the fun of solving the puzzle.

Throughout all this, Lara was clutching at a gruesome wound in her side. Having been impaled on a stake at the start of the level, she did not immediately get better, but instead staggered around, one arm pressed against the hole, clearly in pain. A scripted wound, certainly, but a demonstration of how much less cartoonish this incarnation of Lara is going to be. And apparently they've recorded very many such animations for injuries, meaning Lara won't spend her whole time in that spritely sprint.

The demo then moved to four days later, and Lara only seemed more miserable. Her narration was deeply depressed and hopeless, her time on the island clearly not a happy one. The 21 year old runs over to another survivor of the shipwreck that brought her there, his leg crushed and dangerously wounded, and sets off to find him aid. Which means it's finally time to see some running and jumping. Which looks splendid. Things look far looser, more free and less prescribed. We were promised that the routes taken were one of many, and indeed it seemed it was freeform climbing in parts. Lara leaps from pole to branch superbly, and rather pleasingly can now leap from dangling to turn one-eighty and land running.

As in every other game in development this year, Lara has "survival instinct", which means at the press of a button she can see what is of use to her in any scene. Hopefully this will replace the silly symbols once tutoring is over. And in cluttered locations when you're bemused, it seems like a useful skill to have.

Combat is especially violent. A fight with a dog was, yet again, QTE-based, but it was remarkably unpleasant. "It was me or him," she says apologetically after she kicks the creature to death. "Lara doesn't kill for sport," explains the demonstrator, "But she does it to survive."

Perhaps the biggest change in this reboot of the series is Lara's stats. Along with hubs in the world from which missions are launched (which will change as you progress, along with the time of day and the weather, and so on, and also introduce fast travel between them), Lara has aspects which you can choose to improve. Survival Skills let you upgrade her personal attributes (not that, cheeky), improving her instinct, health, and so on. And when in a hub you can also employ her Salvage skill, which lets her craft new gear and upgrade her current tools. Those are some pretty major changes for the series, and we've not seen any of them at work yet.

So here we've got this amazing-sounding Tomb Raider game: open, hub-based island, focus on survival, brutal, cruel world, and more fluid, able acrobatics from the heroine. And then we've got the demo we saw, that showed about thirteen seconds of all that, and a worrying volume of watching someone hammer the B button on their controller so the unconnected action on screen could take place. We want the first game, we don't want the second game. Which it will eventually be, at this stage, is unclear.

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