2013's Tomb Raider reboot was Crystal Dynamics' chance to redefine Lara Croft, a character who risen up the ranks to become one of the more iconic fictional figures in our industry. It was an origin story, showing how bright, curious college student Lara Croft became the Tomb Raider, a cold, near-sociopathic mercenary with crack aim and great athletic abilities. The plot largely worked, treading on Indiana Jones-style "is magic real?" tropes while also clearly showing that Lara is above all, a survivor. She's the kind of person that will find a way forward and then go take action. (I would've given up at "climb that super-tall, rusty radio tower with no jacket.")
It's that drive which brings Lara into her latest adventure.
"In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara becomes more than a survivor." Crystal Dynamics brand director Rich Briggs told me during my demo. "She's embarking on her first great tomb raiding expedition. Lara is pushing herself in order to unlock history's secrets. For the past year, she's been looking for anything that will prove the existence of an immortal soul, trying to prove that what she saw on Yamatai is real."
My demo for Rise began after the Microsoft press conference video, in the harsh, frozen wilderness of Siberia. Lara is looking for a lost city with the help of her father's journal. After an avalanche of sorts, Lara is left with little gear and no support.
Nature still wants Lara dead for thinking she can plunder its riches. (Why does everything hate Lara?) Bears, wolves, and deer make appearances in the demo, with the bears being a big part of the new roving Predator system. My demo stalled a bit as a bear ripped Lara to shreds when the player slowed down in a snow drift. A second try saw Lara getting to safety after a short pursuit. To ultimately beat nature, Lara needs to take from nature.
Crafting is a big part of Lara's new adventure. Instead of the all-purpose scrap from Tomb Raider 2013, there are now 16 different resources that you can collect in the wilderness, including wood, sinew, herbs, cloth, and mushrooms. Lara can scavenge all of these resources from her surroundings, with certain resources being common while others are exotic. She can them use them to craft new equipment or upgrades on the fly. In the demo, Lara uses mushrooms to craft poison arrows, while creating ramshackle molotovs to distract enemies.
"You're not going to find those mushrooms anywhere," said Briggs. "We want to make sure that we're striking a balance. As you explore, you'll find more resources, but there's also only so much you can carry. You can use more resources to craft larger satchels, but it really is about trying to make the cycle a lot tighter. Now hunting really matters."
Combined with the returning XP system and day/night cycle, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like it may push the game closer to an RPG. There's more options in your equipment, as opposed to Tomb Raider's linear upgrade path. Are you looking for the power of the compound bow, or is the recurve more your speed? Once you've made that decision, what ammo do you want to use and do you have enough available resources to craft a stockpile? Like Mad Max, Rise wants you hunting for your meal, not eating for free.
"You can choose which bow you want to use and upgrade depending on your playstyle, " explained Briggs. "The recurve is a little bit more of a stealth bow, but if you want to go aggro, you have the compound bow."
Lara's repertoire of moves has grown as well. From the Assassin's Creed III School of Murder, Lara has learned how to climb trees and utilize shrubbery for stealth takedowns. She can also swim again, a curious omission from the previous title.
Lara's antagonist this time around is Trinity, a multi-national organization that's trying to find her prize before she does. Trinity's soldiers are a bit smarter, but hey, they're up against Lara Croft here. You can distract them in a variety of ways, by destroying property, taking out other guards, making noise with a well-placed arrow, throwing their own radios around, or simply blowing things up. I even saw Lara leave tracks in the snow and asked Briggs if the guards could see them, but he remained coy about that possibility. Rise of the Tomb Raider prizes stealth a bit higher than its predecessor, which was a far-more linear experience. You hid when Lara needed to hide for the story, not as a personal choice.
The second part of the demo took Lara to Syria to show off tombs, which make a big return to the series. In addition to the trap and puzzle-filled tombs, each ruin also includes sections requiring Lara's new language skills. You'll find frescoes, reliefs, and other items in the tombs that will require your ability in specific languages to decode. Do more searching and you'll buff up your Greek or Sumerian, which will allow you to find even more new items and tombs.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is open-world-ish. The game takes place in two different regions, with Siberia being the largest area in the game. Some areas are more linear, like the challenge tombs, but there's also wider hub areas that connect everything together and allow for a bit more exploration. It's not a world you can run from one end of to the other freely. You'll still need to unlock new paths by gaining more abilities, like a Metroidvania-style game.
"We have two main settings in the game: Syria and Siberia," said Briggs. "Most of the game will take place in Siberia. We do want people to understand that you're not in the snow the whole time. We have different environments in Siberia."
What I like about this demo, and why Rise of the Tomb Raider beat out Uncharted 4 for me at E3 2015, is a feeling of logical expansion. Uncharted 4 feels like more Uncharted so far, whereas Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like adding more mechanics and systems to Tomb Raider that make sense for the game's overall goals. Rise sports a new focus on stealth, a better crafting system, more tombs, while still holding onto the more human Lara Croft from TR2013. Rise of the Tomb Raider looks like it'll be a great Tomb Raider 2013 sequel, while also bringing back a few elements from the older Tomb Raider titles. Fans of the original series may find more to love here, but fans of 2013 are definitely in for a treat.