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Tomb Raider Preview: An Hour in Lara's Shoes

The latest E3 demo gives us a better sense of how Lara's origin story will unfold and your part in it.

We've been told a number of times now that the new Tomb Raider game will deconstruct the iconic Lara Croft character by letting us live through her earliest experiences as an unlikely, reluctant adventurer. It's a great idea, and a welcome departure from solid but increasingly metronomic and processional fare like Tomb Raider Underworld.

But if this is how Lara Croft began her life as an adventurer, it's really a wonder that she ever ended up doing it for fun. Over two consecutive E3s now, we've seen Lara shipwrecked, shivering, knocked unconscious, imprisoned, impaled on nails, burned, punched, slapped, felt up, abandoned, and thrown to the floor more times than a professional wrestler. Not to mention that she's now had to watch several of her friends die and been forced to hunt and butcher Bambi-like woodland creatures just to make it through the next day.

The latest E3 demo picks up more or less directly after the last one, as Lara stands on a coastal bluff overlooking the cove where her ship Endurance - named after Ernest Shackleton's 1912 expedition, of course, which also didn't go well - is wrecked along with several others. She spies a lifeboat washed up on the shores far below and sets off to locate the other survivors, making a few small jumps, clambering along narrow ledges and tiptoeing over a precarious tree trunk that spans a crevasse as she advances.

Like Uncharted or Enslaved, you keep your view in check with the right stick, but the game uses dynamic camerawork to keep things interesting. So when Lara sidles along a ledge it makes sure the waves crashing against the hulls of rotting ships under a bleak red storm are clearly framed in the background, and when Lara has to make her way up and over a wrecked aeroplane carcass tangled in trees against a waterfall, the camera peers upwards for you to emphasise the risk and - as one of the wings comes loose - the urgency of every hand-hold and jump.

"You poor soul... Wait, I can use that bow."

We're still at the start of the game, so Crystal Dynamics is still teaching us how to play it, but it's a soft-touch approach that doesn't impede your immersion in Lara's situation. By the time Lara's found a few scattered provisions, tumbled down a mud-bank and sought refuge from the raging storm under a rocky outcropping, using her one match to light a fire to stop her shivering, you already know how to navigate the world and what to look for to survive, but you've absorbed all the information peripherally.

So when Lara wakes up the next day and says she needs to get something to eat, and you make your way down the next hill into a small forest valley enclosed by cliffs on each side, you're well-equipped already. Lara spots a corpse hanging upside down from a tree with a bow strapped to its back, so you climb onto a nearby shack, jump over a gap and grope your way up the bough to reach it. As the desiccated body swings back and forth in the morning breeze, you reach out Lara's hand to make a grab for it and pull the bow loose (falling painfully to the ground in the process, obviously).

Using the bow and nearby arrows is exactly as you'd expect (left trigger to aim, right to fire), and while I'm too desensitised to video game violence to care much about shooting a prancing deer, it's not much fun watching it limp around with a bunch of arrows in its haunch, and it's harder still not to purse your lips as Lara settles down to the grim task of butchering the animal with an arrowhead when it eventually dies.

"This is a survival adventure that draws on inspirations as diverse as Lost, Alfred Lansing's Endurance, and maybe even Metal Gear Solid 3."

Although the forest hub area here is small, maybe a few hundred metres square (the developer says the later ones may be 50 times its size), it's easy to navigate thanks to Lara's survival instinct (left bumper) and natural signposting, like a stream that runs down from Lara's campfire location to the floor of the valley, so it's simple to head back and eat. Back at the fireside, she tries her radio - the game is constantly slipping into and out of little in-engine cut-scenes - and reaches one of her group, who encourages her to head inland.

The next time she ventures down the hill, the shack she climbed on to reach the bow is illuminated by fire from within, the metal door to it is wide open and there's distant, dreamy music emanating from inside. Lara enters and finds a ladder leading down into blackness. The metal door slams shut behind her, so she grabs a burning torch nearby and heads down. The ladder opens onto a small chamber where there are pots and bits of debris piled everywhere, and a partly submerged tunnel heading into further gloom.

Before long Lara's wading through the murk, carefully keeping her torch above water as she ducks under bits of rotting support beam that have slipped closer to the water's surface, and by the time she emerges onto dry land again, in another small, fire-lit chamber, the pots have given way to piles of human skulls and another metal door bars the way. Casting around for a way forward, it's possible to set fire to some rags on a wall, which burn away to reveal a tiny abattoir full of hanging meat of dubious origin and a small pickaxe, which Lara collects. Like the bow, it should be with her - and upgradeable - further into the game, and she quickly puts it to use jimmying the metal door open.

Beyond is another ladder back to the surface. The music has died away now, but no sooner does she hit the ground again than she hears faint voices. She creeps up on them, only to realise it's her friend Sam talking to a stranger. Sam explains that the stranger is another survivor who has helped bandage up her foot, but it's pretty obvious from his slimy demeanour that he's something else, and it's even more obvious when the conversation goes south and the 'survivor' puts a knife to Sam's throat and makes off with her.

Lara stumbles after them, but sticks her foot in a bear trap. Wolves descend on her, rustling in nearby bushes as she lies prone and helpless before leaping forward - fortunately in slow motion - leaving her precious little time to raise her bow and fend them off.

Rescue comes in the form of some genuine survivors - others from her expedition - who emerge and free her from the trap. She brings them up to date on events and they decide to split up, so she and a chap called Dr Whitman limp onwards until they find another campfire and she can rest up. After a brief and handily restorative nap, Lara follows Whitman into another woodland hub area where they find a shrine and a doorway covered in ritualistic paintings. Whitman is thrilled by all this; Lara, the still-reluctant adventurer, not so much.

Anyway, they can't go anywhere until she's found something stronger than her pickaxe to lever open the door, so she turns to the environment again - a lot like the deer-hunting section. This time she's looking for telltale crates of "salvage". If she collects enough, she can go back to her basecamp and power up her pick in the glow of the fire.

After running around a bit looking for crates and fighting off a few more wolves, she finds the necessary components. Scavenging off the land will clearly be a big part of Tomb Raider, and the basecamp menu reveals all sorts of potential upgrades that feed off salvage and XP, along with a fast-travel system for revisiting previous basecamps to leverage new abilities in previously inaccessible areas.

In the meantime, however, the door can now be opened, so Lara and Whitman head through. Whitman points out that, judging by the shrines and symbols, the islands - and the scary locals - look to be in thrall to a Japanese queen who was thought to be shamanistic. "A woman wields that much power, sooner or later it's called witchcraft," Lara responds, but before she can share much more of her scepticism about Whitman's - and her father's - fascination with the past, they are set upon by some of the scary locals.

Up to now Lara's had a few tumbles and scrapes - the bear trap was obviously a bit of a low - and she could do with a bath, but this is where things start to go really wrong for her. Whitman is tricked into giving up his gun and they are taken captive. Lara's hands are bound and they are dragged into a clearing where some of her friends are being held. Lara's thrust up against a tree by a particularly nasty bad guy, where she looks small and frightened, but before anything else can happen one of her friends bravely makes a run for it. He's shot, of course, but it allows the others to sprint clear, and as their captors split up to hunt for them, Lara - still bound - makes her break.

The game's recent delay means it will be out in early 2013.

She's at the foot of a wooded hill peaked by the orange taint of fire, helpfully covered in low stone walls that mark a small path leading to the summit. As her captors move around looking for the escapees, Lara darts around behind these walls, through a smouldering archway here, through some trees there, the camera drawing maximum attention to the automatic weapons in the hands of the people hunting her just a few metres away at every turn, fiery embers floating through the air.

She sneaks into a shack at the top to conceal herself, and holds her breath as her foremost captor - the guy who held her to the tree - walks past. "No one escapes," he says, turning and staring straight at her. Then he starts grabbing her roughly. He misjudges her, though, and gives her just enough room to deliver a knee to the groin. When he comes back for her and leans in to her neck, she bites off his ear.

A bitter struggle ensues and a few seconds later she's wrestling for his gun as he squirms on top of her. The player is instructed to hammer a button as Lara visibly fights to orientate the gun barrel in her attacker's direction. As the button-mashing crescendos, the gun goes off, right in his face. He lies on the floor making dying noises. Lara sits there crying. Then she dusts herself off and stands up, on top of the hill with a gun, an axe and a bow. It's the end of the demo.

Crystal Dynamics certainly isn't afraid to batter Lara to make the point that she didn't always want to be the person she becomes, but the game that's emerging through the hour or so of gameplay we've now seen is much more than just torture porn starring the world's most famous video game heroine. And while there will undoubtedly be some puzzles to solve further in - and maybe even some crates to push - it's not just classic Tomb Raider with new graphics, a few swearwords and performance-captured cut-scenes, either.

It's a survival adventure that draws on inspirations as diverse as Lost, Alfred Lansing's Endurance, and maybe even Metal Gear Solid 3, as well as Lara's greatest hits. With its experience system for upgrading skills and the promise that this will unlock side missions and hidden mysteries in previous locations, it's even, maybe, slightly evocative of the approach Core Design tried to take with the ill-fated Angel of Darkness - although I somehow doubt we'll ever again hear Lara say "I feel stronger now".

We'll have to wait until 2013 to find out for sure, following the recent delay, but for now this is shaping up to be one of the best-looking and most cinematic takes on the character-driven action game. It creators will have to work hard to find the balance between the harrowing, tortured tale of survival and emergence they want to tell on the one hand and the compelling, intriguing game of exploration and evolution they want you to play while it unfolds, but then maybe that's going to be the point: that the Lara we know goes through something horrible but, like the player, kind of ends up liking the mix of danger and discovery. We will see. It certainly looks like it will be worth finding out either way.