By now it's clear that Tomb Raider is one of the darlings of E3 2012. Dozens of nomination placards adorn the outer wall of its booth - the exact same booth, as it happens, that housed Hitman Absolution in 2011. For two years in a row critics have slapped their gaudy stickers in the exact same spot; Square Enix probably regards the place as a 12ft square rabbit's foot.
Once again, it's not hard to see why so many people are swooning. Crystal Dynamics' overhaul has given a new lease of life to one of gaming's most beloved heroines, restoring a sense of relevance that went AWOL shortly after the turn of the millennium. Lara Croft is in very real danger of becoming an icon once again, and the game that brings her back to us is curiously hard to classify - a quality that ultimately helps it to stand out in an expo packed with familiar tropes and ideas.
Also, it looks good. That never hurts, does it?
At 31 minutes the behind-closed-doors presentation for Tomb Raider is one of the longest at this year's show. There's far too much content here to discuss what happens in detail, and besides - you'll probably see it for yourself before too long, given the way games are marketed these days. For now, the take-home point is that the E3 demo hints at Tomb Raider's quieter side - or at least a side that's comparatively quieter than the rollercoaster carnage of the clip shown during Microsoft's conference.
So, where to begin? Lara hunts for food, quietly stalking deer in a sequence that recalls Red Dead Redemption and Metal Gear Solid 3. She creeps through the undergrowth, fells her quarry with an arrow to the neck, and then gingerly cuts away at the flesh of the fallen creature. Elsewhere, Lara shivers as she takes shelter from the rain, cowering miserably under a rocky outcrop. She discovers and relights an abandoned bonfire, hugging her knees before the flames as eerie messages crackle over a walkie talkie.
This new Tomb Raider is certainly a more cinematic affair than its predecessors, with cutscenes regularly cropping up as garnish for the action. Thankfully Crystal Dynamics seems to understand that players like to actually, y'know, control the good bits of a story, and the intertwining of video and live play is more akin to Uncharted than to, say, Heavy Rain. The developers clearly want you to care about the narrative, and as such the demo occasionally suffers from a lack of context.
Or to put it another way, there's a lot of stuff going on. Lara has washed up on a mysterious island, that much we know. She's looking for her fellow survivors, and she already knows that one of them fell victim to some kind of weird sacrificial ritual (see last year's demo). But this year's footage leaps through several plot-hoops, and it's hard to keep up: She discovers her friend! But she's been drugged by an oddball stranger who drags her away at knife point. Lara is reunited with her shipmates! But then most of them disappear again, leaving her with a sole, disastrous bodyguard - an academic type with DISASTER writ large across his bespectacled face. And sure enough, everything soon goes to hell in a handbasket.
But here's the thing: We don't need to understand the plot, not yet. What is already quite evident is that this new Tomb Raider has oodles of atmosphere - a hefty smattering of Lost here, a dab of survival horror there. There's still an odd emphasis on Lara getting physically hurt, accompanied by yelps and moans that sound alarmingly sexual, but there's no denying that this helps to make her a credibly vulnerable heroine. The game also gets brownie points for Lara's reaction after killing a human being for the first time - retching, crying, and shaking as she struggles to comprehend what she's just done.
Much of the overall game remains a mystery. Lara can upgrade her Survival Skills, but other than a perk that lets her retrieve arrows from corpses, it's not clear what sort of tricks will be on offer. She can also improve her equipment via a currency called Salvage; this allows you to strengthen your pry tool, for example, which then lets you shift-aside previously immovable scenery. This all suggests that the game's structure might resemble Metroid or Zelda, but this suggestion is largely dismissed by creative director Noah Hughes.
Okay, I say. So we're talking about a broadly linear game in a broadly open environment - like Arkham Asylum? No, Hughes doesn't think that suggestion fits either - though he's reluctant to discuss things further. Lara's campfires can be used for fast travel purposes, so there must be a degree of backtracking, but it hardly sounds like the game will be a typical open-world affair.
Tomb Raider is a bit of a mystery, then. But one thing's for certain: this is going to be Lara's most remarkable adventure in years.
Tomb Raider will be released on March 5 2013 for PS3 and Xbox 360.