It’s no secret that Square Enix‘s reboot of Tomb Raider appears to be quite inspired by the Uncharted series, and there were several instances during my E3 demo when I noticed striking similarities – Lara Croft scaling a crashed plane is reminiscent of Drake’s climb up a train in the beginning of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  Even still, there is more at work here than a mere clone, and Tomb Raider looks to be delivering an enthralling and unique ride.

Picking up right from where last year’s E3 demo left off, Lara continues her search for her lost crewmembers through waterfalls, jungles, and caverns.  One of the main goals of the new Tomb Raider seems to be connecting the player to Lara’s plight, and this is accomplished on a number of occasions.  Lara is having a bad day that only gets worse, and I couldn’t help but be concerned about Lara at every progressive level of despair.  This connection is due in part to the gorgeous visuals on hand, from the natural lighting to Lara’s fluid animation.

But the true meat of the demo comes when Lara reaches the jungle.  In a mix of survival tactics and combat, Lara works to establish a base camp and scavenge for food in the unknown wilderness.  Equipped with a bow she finds on a dead body hanging in a tree, Lara will go to any lengths to survive, including killing an innocent deer.  Hunting the animal takes precision and patience, as startling the creature will send it scampering away.  Lara does not take this task lightly.  As she downs the deer and begins to cut off usable meat, blood splatters the screen and she cries out in remorse.  It’s rare to see a protagonist feel sadness for killing, but thrust into a situation without choice, Lara does what is necessary to survive while maintaining her humanity.

Instances like this were what sold me on the game.  The moment-to-moment trials Lara endured and the way her character handled them had me fearful for her, hoping she would escape this nightmare of an island.  The struggle with a corpse and deer hunting were only a few of the many horrific yet engrossing moments, as was Lara’s battle with a pack of wolves.  With her foot caught in a bear trap, Lara must shoot down wolves from her stationary location in the midst of a dark and stormy night.  The gameplay rarely took away from this sensation of peril, and the many facets introduced look to offer some intriguing possibilities

Essentially all-purpose stops, multiple base camps are scattered throughout the game, where Lara can upgrade items (which she had to do during the demo in order to solve a puzzle), purchase new abilities, and explore the many ways if improving her skills.  The integration of this system into the world is a smart implementation, even if the menus that do pop up are certainly out of place in the game world.  Along Lara’s travels in the demo, she collected a number of items, including a pick and the aforementioned bow.  These items appear on Lara’s person both in-game and during cutscenes, adding to a sense of realism that I particularly enjoyed in titles like Max Payne 3.  The character feels like more of an extension of the player’s accomplishments when the accumulation of gear is not apparent solely in inventory management.

This attempt to make the game a more organic, realistic experience is apparent in the snippets of story in the demo.  Lara encounters one of her crewmates and another supposedly stranded man, only to lose her to this deranged stranger.  Lara stumbles upon the body of an associate who has been apparently sacrificed. And even when she reteams with some of her separated crew after a period of isolation, she is captured by a group of savage killers.

Under their control, the final moments of the demo are the most tense, dramatic and perhaps gruesome.  With their camp in unexpected turmoil as hostages attempt to flee and fires break out, the captors lift their watchful eyes from Lara, giving her the chance to escape, albeit with her hands bound behind her back.  Avoiding the light of their flashlights, Lara scurries from one cover point to the next, narrowly dodging an unpleasant fate.  Her efforts are to little avail, however, as the apparent leader of the group discovers her hiding place, and essentially threatens to rape her.  It’s a tough moment to watch, but through one hell of a struggle, Lara shakes off the disgusting man and shoots him with his own gun only in an effort to prevent him from shooting her.

As the man dies, Lara again proves how human this new take on the character is.  She yells out “Oh God” and sobs over having just killed a man, an action she clearly had little interest in ever doing.  The murder, even in self-defense, changes her.  She stands resolute, gun in hand over the body of the man as a building burns behind her in the background, and the demo ends.  It’s a haunting image to close on, but this final shot signals a transformation of the character that is hopefully indicative of some incredible character progression.

With the demo, Tomb Raider looks to be one of the most promising titles at the show.  The blend of gameplay and narrative worked well in this short demo, and I can only hope Crystal Dynamics can maintain that balance throughout the game.  While Uncharted is clearly in this title’s DNA, the experience felt like a fresh take on that cinematic style, one that smartly characterizes the main character so that players are not completing the game just to beat it.  They will be playing it because they care about what happens to Lara next, and I am excited to learn where her journey goes when the game releases on March 5, 2013 on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.