Lara Croft and Crystal Dynamics have made some daring moves in recent years. They rewrote history with Anniversary, and shifted perspective with the top-down XBLA title, Guardian of Light. The new game isn't just a reboot prequel (pre-boot?), it's taking an unexpected leap of faith: online competitive multiplayer.
The first response from fans might be "no, dear God, why?" But after an extensive play through, it seems that Crystal Dynamics might have created a parallel game that gets it right. While it's not attached to the storyline, it uses the characters: Lara's crew of Survivors are pitted against the island's dangerous Scavengers. We play a few rounds of Team Deathmatch - hardly the most unexpected mode, but we're pleased to find plenty of Tomb Raider-specific flourishes. For instance: navigable surfaces that you can scale with your pickaxe; sliding down rocky water tunnels like the kids from The Goonies; spike-shooting traps that you can trigger with a lever; and plenty of environmental traps that you can collapse and explode.
The second match-type 'Rescue' is a 4v4 Capture the Flag-alike that falls more in line with Tomb Raider's single-player story. The Survivors must fetch and return five medkits to their camp, while the Scavengers simply have to score 20 kills. Scavengers can't see where the medkit is until the Survivors have it, so it's possible to split up and throw them off the scent until it's time for the homebound run.
The Scavengers' job is made tougher by the fact that Survivors get a generous bleed-out time, during which they can retaliate with their pistols and be revived by their allies. If you want to be sure of the kill, you have to get up close and deliver a cheeky pickaxe finishing move. Not an easy task when your stubborn victim is firing a pistol at your face, so creep up on them or zigzag, dodge roll and hope for the best. The Scavengers don't get the luxury of lying down and bleeding out, but their deaths aren't as important - it's just a moment's relief for the Survivors to let them focus on ferrying those medkits.
So as Survivors, the tactic is to play as more of a team - reviving, covering, diverting and assisting the medkit carrier. As Scavengers, you can be lone wolves, amassing takedowns and only entering the heart of the conflict to score that killing blow. Whatever you do, the XP rolls in.
All of the battles we played took place on 'Wind Chasm', a map that mixes the mystical, mythical and tropical parts of Tomb Raider's island setting. With caverns hiding traps, vantage points provided by squatting on those grassy buttes, climbable cliffs and a giant makeshift base, there's plenty of variety to be found here, and none of the elements feel out of place. Even after six lengthy multiplayer matches in Wind Chasm, we still felt there was more to explore.
At the centre of the map is a bell, which can be rung by either team. Eidos Montreal is calling this a "game changer" - an aspect of the map that's out of the way, but worth getting to. In this map, the bell summons a sandstorm, obscuring the view of the opposing team, and removing the assist markers. Meanwhile, the team ringing the bell get to see outlines of the enemy, wherever they are. It's classic shooter stuff, bent to fit the magic and mystery of Tomb Raider.
Beyond these combat-heavy multiplayer modes, Tomb Raider global brand director Karl Stewart also dropped hints about more adventure-based match types, including one called 'Cry for Help', which will apparently place a strong emphasis on discovery and collection.