Flashback to the mid 90s, and many, many male gamers will remember for the first time coming across a female protagonist that managed to exude an impressive sex appeal, while still being able to gun down not only wild animals in all their savagery, but assault weapon toting soldiers and even huge, eyeball headed mutants.
Tomb Raider, and by proxy Lara Croft, was one of the first video game characters to end marriages. Men took days off to play the game where they had never done such a thing for their spouse.
But it wasn't just because Lara had fantastic bodily proportions, or was as lithe as an Olympic gymnast, it was because the game play was great too. It melded action with suspense and puzzle solving, with an impressive visual style that led to great immersion.
Unfortunately today Lara isn't as well remembered. While the first few Tomb Raider titles received critical and consumer acclaim, nothing ever quite captured the audience's attention and love of the original outing. After the fourth and fifth games made minor improvements but continued to slide into mediocrity, the stage was set for a slowly diminishing heroine, in relevance and popularity.
Crystal Dynamics took over after that and has made a few sterling efforts to reinvent the series, keeping critics relatively happy with a few titles throughout the last decade, but never quite reaching the dizzying heights of the character's first outings. With serious competition in the adventure genre from the likes of Uncharted, Lara certainly has a lot to live up to and the newest reboot in the series, simply titled Tomb Raider, looks set to take things in a new direction.
The new game sees Lara at 21, fresh out of University and looking for adventure. She begins the game washed up on a Japanese island after a horrific storm destroyed the ship she was aboard. Taking a less savvy Lara out to play, Tomb Raider will incorporate survival concerns such as food and fresh drinking water, as well as Lara's injuries. Early game play demos have shown the protagonist removing a stake from her side, combined with moans of pain and visceral camera effects to emphasise the pain.
Players will need to manage these injuries and until they are healed, they will limit what Lara is capable of. A skill system is said to be incorporated, bringing to bare some basic RPG elements.
Puzzles will be more difficult than in previous games, players needing to use elements like friction and wind to accomplish their goals. However, akin to modern point and click games from company's like TellTale, Crystal Dynamics has included a “survival instinct” hint system, that will highlight certain aspects of a puzzle if a user gets stuck. Hopefully this can be toggled from the menu for the hardcore players.
Gunplay has been tweaked and modernised, with the traditional lock on system thrown out and replaced with a manual “free aim” mechanic. Lara's arsenal will also be somewhat restricted in comparison to past games, with her main weapon being a bow and arrow. She will gain access to other firearms later in the game, but will only ever wield a single pistol.
Taking the better elements of the original Lara games and mixing it with a more modern and grittier take on the genre, Crystal Dynamics is hoping to reinvent a character that has been as important to gaming as any Mario or Link. In giving her a flawed and innocent past that gamers can build from, perhaps this will be the rebirth that the series needs.
The latest news is that the game has been pushed into a 2013 release. This could be to take advantage of next-generation systems, but likewise could mean trouble in development. For now we'll have to wait and see, but there is more than a few gamers salivating at the thought of following close behind Lara once again, especially since she's now in her early 20s.
By Jon "Whoopty" Martindale, Contributing Editor to MegaGames