We were first introduced to Crystal Dynamics’ reincarnated version of Lara Croft in 2013, when she was a mourning, recalcitrant daughter, straying as far as she possibly could from her father’s legacy with a steadfast belief that the myths and legends he believed in were all phony. In that game, called simply, “Tomb Raider,” Croft suffers a mental breakdown when she’s first forced to take the life of one of the mercenaries attacking her, in a good-faith effort to show that we, the player, were truly starting from the beginning. Crystal Dynamics wanted to slowly ramped up the tension – to layer the scars onto the mercurial Tomb Raider – until the woman morphs into the icy, endlessly confident explorer we first met on the original Playstation. And you know what? I think we’re finally here. The presentation the company showed me at the E3 booth for the upcoming “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” in development by Eidos Montreal with assistance from Crystal Dynamics, ended with Lara popping her head out of a lake, silhouetted by the gassy, apricot flames of an oil refinery she just destroyed. Croft pauses for a moment before drawing her knife – eager to carve up some fresh revenge.
“She’s getting so capable, so powerful, and when you don’t know how to use that power, even a hero can become dangerous. Having the noble goal to of wanting to stop Trinity [the antagonistic paramilitary organization in the timeline] she kinda goes too far,” says Jason Dozois, narrative director at Eidos. “She’ll need to realize that protecting history and protecting artifacts, not just gaining reputation.”
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Adds Arne Ingo Gregor of Square Enix: “The first game is about being hunted and surviving, the second game is about setting out on your own accord, and the third game is about mastery.”
Mastery, in the “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” sense, is apparently what happens when Lara Croft becomes The Predator. The game takes place in the dense foliage of the Amazon, and Crystal Dynamics leans into that sense of the primal with glee. You can, for instance, cover yourself with mud, guerilla-style, which will make you harder to spot. You can pick off a wandering idiot from a mossy tree branch, and leave him dead and hanging by a tuft of rope as a strong deterrent for any other enemies on patrol. You have these “fear arrows,” doused with psychoactive toxins, which cause enemies to hallucinate and turn on their allies. You have all the brutal stealth kills you remember from previous entries, as well as that robust, improvisational crafting mechanic that always made the combat visceral. Stealth games generally emphasize stress and vulnerability as dominant themes, and that has been true for “Tomb Raider” games in the past, but in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” that is no longer the case. Lara Croft is not trapped in the jungle with these thugs. Those thugs are trapped in the jungle with Lara Croft.
More interestingly though, Crystal Dynamics are saying that this will be the first “Tomb Raider” game where the narrative will tackle the political tension at the heart of the series. At the end of the day, Lara Croft is a white woman who tracks down riches and artifacts in other people’s homeland, and in 2018, the social consciousness surrounding those kind of adventure stories has shifted greatly. The developers, of course, are mum on the specifics of the emotional arc in “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” but they did say that by the end of the game, Lara Croft will be “humbled” in some capacity. I don’t envy the development team; it has to be difficult to re-contextualize a beloved franchise in a way that authentically evaluates its colonial overtones, while still emerging on the other side with a canon they believe in, and a hero worth rooting for. However, it’s not like they had much of a choice. The new game is set in Latin America, ground zero for Western imperialism, and the company is at least self-aware enough to know that they won’t be able to get away without addressing that paradox.
Outside of that, I was most impressed by some of the non-combat, exploration stuff Crystal Dynamics showed. “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” takes place in a mythical, fictionalized lost civilization that blends Incan, Aztec, and Mayan influences. Lara gently walked through one of its cities, admiring its temples, apartments, and agrarian districts; dyers dyeing, farmers farming, etc. It almost felt a bit like “The Witcher,” which is a welcome change for the franchise. Before, our tomb raider was constantly skipping through ramshackle base camps and hovels without a single friendly face in sight, so it’ll be nice to have some more leisure time. You know, the chance to pick up side quests and watch the sunset, all those classic RPG-lite touchstones.
“In ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider,’ you could find maps that will point you in the right direction, and we wanted to make that more of a social experience. Instead of a fetch quest – go kill some drones and come back – our missions will be multi-step stories, where you can learn more about the community, and the history behind this world,” says Dozois. “It’s about creating a massive space that feels as connected as possible.”