In the 2013 reboot of one of gaming's most iconic franchises, Lara Croft got a fresh start. Tomb Raider's Lara was young and experienced when facing her first big misadventure and forced to make life-and-death choices just to stay alive. Fast forward a bit, and Lara has grown up. Her skills are more impressive than ever, especially when wielding her versatile climbing axe. She knows how to work with nature and use scavenged materials to give herself an advantage. She's wearing environmentally appropriate clothing, since shorts aren't the best in the cold or while scaling mountains. This is the Lara Croft I saw during a hands-off demonstration of Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox One, and I was impressed by how she'd matured.
In Tomb Raider, Lara and her crew encountered the mystical island of Yamatai. After making her way off the island and reporting her experience, a shady organization called Trinity engaged in a massive cover-up. Not only does Trinity paint Lara Croft as insane, the company will let nothing - and no one - stand in its way of finding more supernatural locales while denying their existence. Obviously, the raider of tombs isn't going to take that sitting down, and sets out to uncover even more so-called myths - specifically the ancient city of Kitezh in sunny, relaxing Siberia.
According to director Noah Hughes, the developers wanted to expand on the "woman vs. wild" theme seen in the first game. Once again, Lara finds herself in a variety of less-than-ideal environments, from the snowy, bear-filled tundra to the scorching Syrian border. This time around, there are a variety of weapon upgrades and craftable ammo that can be made with scavenged goods, giving Lara more options when on the attack. Sure, a regular arrow won't take down a bear, but a poison arrow might slow it down enough that you can jam an icepick into its head. That sounds brutally harsh, and it was a little hard to watch, but that's the reality of Lara's situation: kill or be killed.
Alternately, Lara can flee up a tree. Climbing is another addition to the Tomb Raider's repertoire, although in the demo I saw it looked more like she was magically sticking to the tree. She also impressively dual-wielded those climbing axes while scaling a particularly tricky wall of ice. No matter where Lara winds up, it seems like she's always wounded, often struggling to move or clutching her side. Nature again comes in handy in that regard; useful plants can be used to heal up before moving on to the next foe, be it man or animal.
This being Tomb Raider, we naturally have to discuss what's really important here: Lara's hair. No, not really (though it does look better than in the last game); a big part of the series is the raiding of tombs, and the 2013 reboot came up short in that regard. Tomb Raider's tombs were simple and shallow; Rise of the Tomb Raider has hidden caverns, dark and cramped tunnels, and even entire abandoned structures to explore off the beaten path. I only got to see one of these areas, but it looked very vast, and even finding her way to the entrance required a lot of work on Lara's part. Hughes said Lara's "brilliant archeological background" comes into play in these segments, highlighting her intelligence and skill outside of combat and sheer survival.
The promise of redesigned tombs might be what most excited me about Microsoft's Rise of the Tomb Raider demo. I was a big fan of the 2013 game, but felt that the tombs were a missed opportunity and felt out of place (well hello, door-shaped open space in a mountain that leads to a long-hidden cavern!). Lara's tomb raiding at E3 had her forcing her way through a narrow, hard-to-reach opening to find gorgeous scenery and the breathtaking ruins of a long-abandoned palace. There was still more work to do before reaching the cramped, dark tomb itself, which was hard to navigate-even harder with all of the skeletons and spiders around. Only then did Lara reach the heart of the tomb. It's a great way to combine the game's core elements of adventure and archeology, giving the player some much-needed variety and a breather from being constantly in survival mode.
I wish I'd actually gotten to play Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I'm not sure why I didn't, since it looked to be in pretty good shape. It's due to release on November 10, the same day as the long-awaited Fallout 4, which will be challenging for Square Enix and Microsoft. This is also the series' first year as a console exclusive, appearing only on Xbox One and Xbox 360. The circumstances leading up to its launch are interesting, but one thing is clear: Lara Croft is becoming the confident, badass icon of this long-running series, and I'm excited to aid in her progression.