On Saturday, October 13, I had the privilege of attending New York Comic Con and trying the demo for the upcoming Tomb Raider game. We played what was billed as the "Pre-Beta Hunting Demo," basically the same demo shown at PAX in the video below. It takes about 15 minutes to complete, depending on how much side exploration you do. I went through it twice, and I'm sure I still haven't seen everything there is to see.
This demo doesn't reveal anything we haven't already been shown, and I won't give a blow-by-blow of the action, since you can watch it yourself. But it was great to finally see the game on an HD screen and get a feel for the controls. Several of you have asked for my impressions, so if you'll indulge me, I'll ramble a bit. Please note: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD....
We played the Xbox 360 version. The controls are similar to the previous Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games with a few minor changes: The left stick moves Lara; the right stick controls the camera. A is Jump. B is crouch/roll. X is Interact, and Y is Melee. About halfway through the demo, you get your hands on the bow and arrows. Hold LT to draw the bow, use the right stick to aim, then press and release RT to shoot. If you hold RT for a few seconds as you aim, the camera zooms in on your target. You can then release the trigger for a power shot. The bow does not have unlimited arrows (as I found out the hard way) but fortunately there are plenty of ammo pick-ups scattered around for slow learners like me. There were no guns or human enemies yet, so I can't describe how combat works.
Lara moves awkwardly at this early stage. That's not to say the controls are wonky—far from it; they're quite tight—it's just that her wounds, hunger and inexperience cause her to move gingerly. At times she cradles her injured side. She staggers after falling from a high ledge, as anyone would, and after a long jump-and-grab, she pulls herself up and pauses for a moment to catch her breath. It's all very realistic, and really helps the player feel her predicament. I suspect that later on, after she's found some more gear, tended to her wounds, and so forth, we'll see a much stronger and more acrobatic Lara, and the feel of the controls will evolve to reflect that.
The camera follows Lara more fluidly than in previous games, but you still have full camera control if you want to look around. Occasionally Lara will turn her head toward something you’re meant to notice. It's not as obvious as in the classic games, where the whole camera view shifts toward whatever it is, but if you're paying attention, you'll get the idea. Again, I assume this happens less often once you've passed the training area.
If you need more than a subtle hint, you can press LB to enter "Survival Instinct" mode. This shifts everything into a black-and-white view where your goals and any items you can interact with are highlighted. When you release the button, the view fades back to normal after a few seconds.
The new Lara can also turn in mid-air. I didn't realize this at first, but Joshua, one of the fans in our group, mentioned it, so I tried it the second time I played. If you change direction mid-jump, using the left stick, she'll flail around a bit and finally settle somewhere between where you were initially aiming and the direction you corrected for. This felt kind of awkward and unrealistic to me, but no more so than veering in mid-air in the Core Design games. Maybe it'll become more instinctive with practice.
The aspects of the game that seem most different from other Tomb Raiders are the user interface and the skills system. From what I've seen so far, I like these additions very much. It does break the realism the first few times you see a notification about a new goal or when Lara's XP meter flashes on screen as she gains points for discovering a new path or hunting game. But the interface is stylish and well designed. Even in this tutorial area, the hints aren't too intrusive.
For more info, you can press the Select button to see a map of the area with Lara's current position and objectives marked. This screen has a recap of the mission goal(s). There's also a panel listing possible unlockables for the entire area. For example, in the demo area:
Basecamps found 2/3
Documents found 1/2
Relics found 0/3
Challenges Completed 0/1
Tombs Raided 0/1
Food Caches Found 0/5
Food Plants Found 1/5
Some areas and items aren't accessible at first. For example, just beyond the spot where you find Sam's backpack (3:44 in the PAX demo video), there's a ledge slightly higher than Lara's head. When you jump toward it, Lara tries to grab on but slips and falls onto the muddy slope below. As far as I can tell, you can't actually grab that ledge, but there's some interesting looking debris up there. So I suspect you can return here later after leveling up a bit and make that jump so you can explore the area further.
There's also a chest on a high rocky ledge in the deer hunting area, which provides "+1 skill point: find a basecamp." Next to it is a wooden crate, but when you try to open it, you get the message, "Missing Gear / You don't have the right equipment to open this." So, again, returning to areas you've covered previously clearly has its rewards.
If you go around the building below where you find the bow, you can climb inside and find an item called 1/8 Wartime Intelligence. This appears to be a Japanese soldier's journal. You can zoom in and out with LT/RT to examine it. I'm not sure where the other 7 journal pieces were located or what you gain by finding them all.
With a little help from the eagle-eyed Joshua, I also discovered some skulls dangling from a nearby tree. Shooting these with the bow, gives a small number of XP and the on-screen messages: "Ghost Hunter / Challenge Unlocked - Complete for XP" and "1/10 Totems destroyed." Sadly, I was only able to find one of these.
Even at this early stage, you get a fair amount of XP just for moving ahead with the story. When you climb across the airplane, find the campfire, slide down into the forest, spot the dangling corpse with the bow, etc., you're awarded points. Later, after killing the deer, you must make your way back uphill to the camp fire. Standing next to the fire and pressing A brings up a menu where you can spend the XP you've earned on the survival skills listed below. I was only able to unlock the first three, but I assume if you explore more thoroughly, keep hunting and gathering for XP, and return later when you have the necessary equipment to open the crate, etc., you can unlock more upgrades.
0/13 Combat Skills Mastered:
Dodge Counter Mastery
Jump Escape Mastery
Death From Above
0/12 Ingenuity Skills Mastered
Increased Ammo Capacity
Increased Ammo Capacity
My only other complaints at this stage concern the voiceover and the lack of puzzles and tombs to explore. I understand what the developers are trying to do by making Lara more vulnerable and inexperienced at the start of the game, but I have to be honest; I don't like it. Her constant panting, whining, wincing and talking to herself is distracting. I wouldn't mind the occasional comment or hint, but I'm not a fan of emo Lara. I can only hope that as she gains her footing and begins to turn the tables on her adversaries, we'll start to see more of the witty, in-control heroine we've come to know and love.
As for actual tombs, I was excited to see references to "Relics found, Challenges Completed and Tombs Raided" on the mission goals screen. Based on the devs' reassurances, I'll just have to assume that we'll be seeing some of these before too long. And of course we're all eagerly awaiting a downloadable version of this demo to tide us over until March 5. What do you say, Crystal? Give us fans a break, won't you? ;)