She's younger, softer, and a lot less experienced, but there is still a lot of the classic Lara Croft in this new design.
She wakes, bound in ropes and suspended upside down. Looking around, she sees she is in a fire-lit cave, surrounded by candles and with weird tribal images painted on the rough walls. Also, she is not alone. Other bodies, long dead, hang from the ceiling beside her. If she doesn't want to be stuck here until she meets the same fate, she is going to need to think quickly.
This is how the new Tomb Raider opens, with a very young Lara Croft, a career in her particularly hands-on brand of archaeology still ahead of her, injured, dirty, and bloodied, running blindly through a warren of caves and being pursued by a gibbering madman. Clearly this is not your standard Tomb Raider game.
The rebooted Tomb Raider is very dark, and in multiple meanings of the word. This is a violent, unpleasant world far removed from the fluffy Saturday-morning-cartoon world of the series that made Lara famous. She isn't somersaulting effortlessly across the battlefield, firing endless bullets from twin handguns into a pursuing bear. No, this is a young woman, frightened and in pain, who is struggling to survive in an extremely hostile environment.
Take the first person she kills in the game - and, in fact, the first person she kills in her entire life. It's a tense, vicious tussle in the dirt, ending with Lara twisting his gun in his hands and pulling the trigger, shooting him in the face at point blank range. He doesn't die quickly, but takes several seconds to finish choking on his own blood. As evil as he was, it's still a shocking moment.
In keeping with the darker tone, the entire game has a darker look, with much of taking place at night, and often in the rain. The normally untouchable Lara Croft spends this game caked with grime and blood, with a lot of that blood being her own. Her traditionally well-lit locations have been replaced with cramped, dingy caves and rain-soaked jungles.
Getting this new look right was clearly a big challenge, and I had the chance to speak with the game's Senior Art Director Brian Horton about the processes behind it.
"The goal is always to come up with a mood and atmosphere that sets the tone. Time of day was a big part of the sense of progression through the game, too. We also use lighting and colour along the way to parallel the mood and show where Lara is in her emotional arc," he told me. "In the very beginning, she's in a dark, dingy place with little points of light, and she's trying to feel her way through the place. We really want players to feel that sense of claustrophobia and darkness and fear."
"Then when she emerges outside, you get the sunset, that glimpse of light and a little feeling of hope, but then the rain comes in. So we're taking you through these peaks and valleys, to make you feel a sense of fear, then to feel like you have control, only to be plunged into darkness once again."
Operating in such a dimly-lit game environment, there is a juggling act going on between achieving the look you want and making sure the game can still be played, and I asked Horton how that was achieved. "The aim is to give you enough light to find your way around," he said.
Part of that is making sure that important elements in the world stand out without looking unnatural, and Horton explained that this was focused on intensely during development. "We call it visual language. These are the visual cues that players will be able to recognise as patterns that show they can interact with an environmental object," he said, and gave some examples. "We put a thin white line of chipped paint along a climbable ledge to make it pop out from the environment a little bit. There are also some walls you can climb with your axe, and we brightened the axe-climbing surfaces and marked them with pockmarks. Every time you see a climbable wall, it's going to use that same visual language."
"The goal is to make sure it stays immersive, as much as we can, and to give a cohesive look to the environment, but still make sure there are clear signals to the player," he said. "It's function first, then look second. We have to make sure that people know where to go and have that clarity, but also making sure things look natural in the world."
Overall, Horton said that the visual design team's goal was to make a world that was harsh but still beautiful, as well as being grounded in reality. "The series in the past has been a little bit lighter, a little bit more storybook in its treatment," he explained. "We wanted to turn it to more of a filmic aesthetic. Films like Apocalypse Now and Children of Men were big inspirations to us."
Obviously, since Lara Croft herself is much younger than in previous games, she needed a whole new look. "We wanted to make sure Lara was more believable and more emotionally rich, and one of the ways we could do that was to strip away some of the things that make her iconic," Horton told me. "Her old costume felt like something that was very prepared, like it was her kit that she'd go into battle with. What we've done is say, okay, she's a young woman, on this expedition, so what would she wear?"
"The result was very practical: she's got boots, cargo pants, and dual tank tops, and we felt like that was appropriate stuff to wear on one of these expeditions. At the same time, though, you look at her and there's still a hint of the iconic Lara Croft in there. It's sort of a more realistic version of the classic Lara Croft. That was very conscious; we wanted to make sure it was both iconic and practical at the same time."
"She's very young in this game, only 21 years old, so we wanted to make sure she has room to grow as a character. She's still smart, still athletic, and has those inherent abilities going into this, but she's never dealt with any kind of trauma like this. She's lived a fairly sheltered life, so when she's thrust into this, it's not something she's sought out, but she has to react to it."
"It all helps to sculpt and harden her on her journey to becoming a hero."
The new Tomb Raider goes on sale in Australia next Tuesday, 5 March. Look for Screen Play's full review in the coming weeks.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez