The first thing you do in the new Tomb Raider — the first action you deliberately take while controlling Lara Croft, after the introductory movies are dealt with — is set yourself on fire.
After her ship, the Endurance, crashes and she washes up on the shores of an isolated island that's occupied by hostile natives and a sort of "ship graveyard," Lara passes out. She awakens tied up and dangling upside down, somewhere inside an unstable cave system, and the only way to free herself is to use a nearby torch to burn off the ropes. That leads to a long fall onto rubble, and then you get to yank a chunk of rebar out of Lara's midsection.
The past Tomb Raider games have mostly been about Lara Croft the — let's face it — superhero. She's basically a female answer to James Bond; she always survives, the people around her almost always don't, and she can and does kill dozens of people with a witty quip and no real repercussions.
With that in mind, the new Tomb Raider game is Lara's "Casino Royale," with Lara as a teenage girl on her first big adventure, before she turned into the pistol-waving force of nature she is in the other games. She's scared, she makes mistakes, she doesn't have the years of training from the other games, and she bleeds. She bleeds a lot.
The early part of the 2012 Tomb Raider (and man, I wish it had a subtitle of some kind) helps indicate what you're in for. Lara doesn't have guns, years of training, or gadgets on her side; instead, she has her "survival instinct." In gameplay terms, this highlights interactive objects in the area, taking the guesswork out of jumping and climbing. To escape the cave system, you need to solve a couple of simple physics-based puzzles involving water and fire, including one tricky bit where you need to ignite a barricade somehow, even though you can't get near it without your torch going out.
Once you make it out onto the larger island, the game turns into something like a "Metroidvania." Lara's goal is to find other survivors and figure out a way off the island, but there are a lot of places you can't reach initially. To get there, you need to get more equipment; for example, when you find Lara's mentor Conrad Roth, he gives you a climbing ax.
Whenever you're able to establish a base camp, you can pull up a new menu. From here, you can spend experience points to purchase upgrades for Lara's abilities, build new gear, or fast-travel to other base camps elsewhere on the island. According to Crystal Dynamics, backtracking to other parts of the island is a big part of the final game.
Lara's able to use a makeshift bow early on, but the version of the game shown at E3 didn't have a lot of combat. Instead, it's mostly exploration and platforming, with Lara scaling a mountain to retrieve some supplies from a wolves' den. What combat there was got resolved in a Quick Time Event, and the demo spent the rest of the time leaping across unstable ledges and crawling over wreckage. The island is surprisingly picturesque, with what looks like centuries' worth of past shipwrecks and survivors' buildings.
Still, the biggest change in the game, more so than anything else, is Lara herself. She's changed a bit in the recent games, but the Lara Croft of this Tomb Raider is more vulnerable. She spends a lot of time frightened and alone, which makes her a weirdly more likeable character than the kill-happy sociopath of, say, Underworld. It's a more interesting take on the character than she's pretty much ever had, and that might be the single largest takeaway point. Lara's been an icon for a long time, but she's never really seemed human until now.
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