TORONTO – After 17 years, 10 games and more than 35 million units sold, “Tomb Raider” has undergone a major-league makeover.
The reboot for the venerable video game franchise starts Tuesday with the release of a Mature-rated “Tomb Raider,” which tells the story of Lara Croft’s first real adventure.
If you’re thinking Batman and James Bond, so was Crystal Dynamics, the California-based studio that holds the keys to “Tomb Raider.”
“We really did feel like we were in a similar position, where we had this well-loved, great heritage, long history franchise with a character that really was enduring to a lot of people,” said studio head Darrell Gallagher.
“But it needed to move on. It was necessary … We realized really what we have to do was wipe the slate clean and start over.”
As the game starts, Lara is on a research ship looking for a lost fleet. Her research shows it could be in the Dragon’s Triangle, a dangerous stretch of the South Pacific.
Sure enough, the ship is wrecked and Lara finds herself alone on an island, separated from her colleagues and fighting for her life against mysterious inhabitants.
For Gallagher, “Tomb Raider” is about young Lara’s journey rather than her destination.
Developers mulled over tales of Everest and Aron Ralston’s remarkable survival story (depicted in “127 Hours”).
“What we realized is it really wasn’t about putting the flag on top or getting the cup of gold,” said Gallagher, a native of Bristol, England. “That was the end, the actual interesting part was the journey.
“And we’ve never really shown that in a Tomb Raider game in such a credible way. And we felt that we wanted to tackle the journey versus just getting to the end goal. So when we talk about Everest or Aron Ralston where he cuts off his arm, these are stories you hear and you tell other people and you kind of imagine ‘What would I do?’”
Lara starts out as a “smart, capable lady” but soon runs into challenges she never thought she would face. She has to kill for food and then to survive.
While not exactly “Lord of the Flies,” the game does show Lara recoiling at some of the acts she has to carry out. And to survive, she has to adapt, learn new skills and toughen up.
Her growth is matched by that of the player, in the sense that he or she too has to learn how to survive on the island after starting with nothing.
Four years in the making, the game made headlines last year when one of its producers, in an interview with the Kotaku.com website, said that Lara faced the threat of rape on the island.
That turned into a “Lara Croft’s ‘Rape’ Ordeal in Video Game Hell” headline in English tabloid The Sun.
The studio later said sexual assault was “categorically not a theme” in the game but added it needed to do a better job of explaining itself in future.
Today, Gallagher says the story was a “mountain out of a molehill … spun a little bit out of control.”
In the game, Lara is pawed over by at least one male with clear malevolence. And he gets his due.
“Certainly there’s tough scenes in the game,” Gallagher said.
“It’s part of the character growth and part of this more mature story we’re telling,” he added.
Gallagher says Crystal Dynamics started pushing the envelope of the franchise with the 2010 release of “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.” The game was downloadable and offered a co-operative play option.
“Tomb Raider” extends that with multiplayer action (developed by Eidos Montreal) in addition to the single-player campaign.
But starting with essentially a blank canvas made things more difficult, according to Gallagher.
Initially, it was “sort of all over the place for a while,” he said. Until they found their direction.
Still there was trepidation.
“There was fear. It’s scary when you say here’s a blank canvas, let’s go,” he acknowledged. “Or it’s scary when you say we’re going to do it differently, we’re going to challenge ourselves, we’re not going to compromise.”
The result is a good-looking entertaining game that should put the franchise on good standing. When Lara climbs a rickety transmitter or creeps through a claustrophobic tunnel, developers do a fine job using camera angles and other devices to torque the tension.
Positive feedback along the way fuelled the studio during development. Peeks at the game earned multiple awards at gaming shows and Gallagher says the title has been featured on the cover of some 50 magazines worldwide prior to its release.
GK Films (The Departed, Hugo, Gangs of New York, Traffic, The Town, Argo), liked what it saw of the game enough to enter into a venture to turn it into a movie — offering a future celluloid reboot from the earlier two Angelina Jolie versions on the big screen.
Gallagher, who clearly is protective of the real Lara, sees similarities between the studio and the heroine so important to it.
“Making the game, it’s been our version of (her) epic journey as well. It’s been a long process.”
“Tomb Raider” is available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.