With a history as legendary and as checkered as Tomb Raider's, one must wonder how Eidos keeps the idea of another Tomb Raider fresh in anyone's head. The answer, at least for early January 2006, is to drop a little demo disc into the open hands of the online press corps. Tomb Raider Legend, due on Xbox, PS2, Xbox 360, PSP, and PC this spring, is the seventh Tomb Raider game in less than 10 years, and it's undergone the biggest transformation the series has seen to date. It's an old game Crystal Dynamics is hoping to renew and the biggest changes are both subtle yet instantly noticeable. They should greatly please old Tomb Raider fans such as me. But will new adventure-loving gamers who've played the likes of Prince of Persia instantly fall in love with Lara? Or will they still feel like Lara is a relic of the past?
The split-level demo we have is a consumer demo: It's coming to OPM in April on PS2 and then to retail stores in May. The demo doesn't even comprise an entire level, so the idea is more about whetting our appetites than giving us in-depth preview code. We took about 15-20 minutes to beat it and found the disc offered us a little of everything: rock climbing, rope swinging, shooting and combat, swimming, puzzle solving, and a few new tricks. What we learned from this demo is Tomb Raider still heavily focuses on adventuring. You're primary objective is to figure out how to get from point A to point B. A little gun action, some puzzle solving including occasional physics puzzles, and a little story progression fill in the gaps. Crystal Dynamics said the final game is split between about 75% adventure and 25% action.
After a long period of research, Crystal Dynamics felt that restoring Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series to its roots was important. The focus, Crystal has told us, is to get Lara into a lot of adventuring scenarios, to solve puzzles that don't require you to pull hard-to-see levers on each side of London (Tomb Raider 3), and to include action and shooting sequences, but not to dwell on them. She's a spelunker, not Rambo; although if you saw the Tomb Raider movies starring Angelina Jolie, you might think differently.
In the demo you find yourself climbing mountainsides in Bolivia in search of an ornate stone dais. Crystal Dynamics has ditched the mathematical checkerboard controls that have haunted all the previous games in the series. Lara is now free to go where she wants. Her list of actions is larger than before too. You'll immediately notice how flexible and generally easy she is to control on any surface, whether it's simply walking or running around, climbing rocky ledges, swimming, or making precision jumps. The only problem I experienced happened when I tried to jump from a vine to a ledge. The animation I learned a little after my leg-breaking death actually shows you when to jump. While on a rope, vine, or chain, moving the controller to the left or the right starts Lara's animation. Let's say you want her to jump right. While using an Xbox or PS2 controller you point the analog stick right, after which she starts prepping. When she is fully extended in the right direction, press the jump button for a successful jump.
For anyone who's played the old games, this new control scheme is clearly smoother, more intuitive, and less rigid. Lara is capable of moving quickly and smoothly in numerous situations. If you press a button rapidly while shimmying across a cliff side, she will rhythmically and rapidly shift across the rocky surface. She no longer feels like her boots are magnetically stuck to the ground. Is she the next Prince of Persia? No, sir. But is she highly improved over her old bad self? Yes, sir.
This demo doesn't appear to show off the best animations in the world. Eidos told IGN the demo's slightly choppy animations aren't indicative of the final product, and recent builds of the game already show smoother animation and movement. Aside from the animations, visually this PS2 demo (they didn't give us a PC or Xbox demo) looked better than average. The environments were rather dark and some detail appeared less than crisp. I felt that this demo didn't look as colorful, bright, or as impressive as the E3 demo from last May. Then again, that level actually showed off more green vegetation and sunny well-lit environments. Here, Lara climbs though a waterfall-heavy mountainous path that eventually leads to an ancient tomb, after which things get really dark.
What do look appealing are the various tools at her disposal. The binoculars provide a great, detailed view and the zoom functions are deep; they provide a nice-looking RAD (Read, Analysis and Display) view. She also still has a chest-high light than runs out of juice when switched on too long. The light creates a decent look inside caverns, but the dark areas weren't lit up brilliantly like I had hoped. Surprisingly, the underwater segments weren't that dark or murky; the light green-blue color was easy to swim through once I got accustomed to the new swimming controls. Still, there was enough to do and see to keep me happy. Lara is far better looking than before. She's darker-haired, a little auburn in fact, and the amount of detail to her face, hair, cleavage, arms, legs, and her overall visage is excellent.
The action sequences were probably the least impressive aspects of the demo. By default, Lara carries twin pistols and she wields them almost exactly like she used to: Straight-armed and stiffly. Lara can dodge/roll and strafe while shooting, and she's also capable of picking up any weapon left on the ground by enemies, giving her a quick upgrade to rifle, machine gun, or shotgun, which she straps to her back. The combat is very, very basic; shoot, strafe, and shoot some more. The only new, noticeable aspects are the interactive environments. Several times in the demo Lara can trigger sections to kill off enemies. At the top of once ledge, she can kick a pile of rocks that roll down and crush her doe-eyed enemies. Another section showed a symbol on a cliff side, indicating a shot in that direction would loosen the rocky siding, which would then come down onto the unsuspecting thugs. These types of action are actually quite fun, and perhaps most importantly, they save a whole lot of shells!
Tomb Raider Legend, as indicated by this demo disc, is easily the best looking game of the series, and it may potentially be the best game in the series. That's not saying much, given the franchise's sordid history. The demo disc also indicates that the adventure game is based on the model of the first and second games in the series. They were filled with physical adventures, enormous and exotic landscapes to scale, and they were peppered with action and puzzles, which remained role players behind the adventuring aspects.
Crystal's demo provides a clear sign of where the control scheme is going, and it's all good. She's more athletic, more nimble and more pleasurable to control. Lara looks good, too. And while the animations in this demo aren't brilliant, we're told they are already much improved. In the end, Tomb Raider Legend still has that elusive charm to it; the promise of hunting out and finding secret chambers filled with ancient relics and untold riches. It's still the female videogame version of Indiana Jones. Only now, Crystal Dynamics has made the game both beautiful to look at and a potential beauty to play.
We put Lara through her paces in a playable demo of her upcoming adventure.
Currently scheduled for release in April--almost 10 years after Lara Croft's first tomb-raiding adventure--Tomb Raider: Legend is the first game in the series to be developed by Crystal Dynamics. Furthermore, Tomb Raider: Legend is only the second game in what was previously Core Design's trademark franchise with which Lara's creator, Toby Gard, has had any involvement. We recently received a playable PlayStation 2 demo of Lara's upcoming adventure, and having enjoyed playing through it numerous times, we're pleased to report that the game could well mark a return to form for a series that has appeared to be dying a slow and painful death in recent years.
The level in the demo that we were able to partially play through was set in and around the ruins of the prehistoric Bolivian city of Tiwanaku, where Lara is searching for an ancient stone dais. The route to the ruins was treacherous to say the least, and negotiating it gave us a chance not only to reacquaint ourselves with some of Lara's basic moves, but also to familiarize ourselves with her many new abilities and gadgets. If you're a fan of the Tomb Raider series, or at least familiar with Lara's earliest outings, then it will come as no surprise that we spent an awful lot of our time jumping between, pulling ourselves up onto, and shimmying along various platforms and ledges--all of which are accomplished in much the same way that they have been since 1996. Because self-preservation is an instinct that Lara possesses, she'll automatically grab onto anything that she can as she falls past it, so your only real concern when performing acrobatics with her is to make sure you get within reach of whatever you're aiming for.
What is somewhat surprising, given Lara's acrobatic history, is that she is far more maneuverable in Tomb Raider: Legend than she has ever been before. While hanging from a crack in a wall, for example, you'll not only have the option to shimmy along it, but also to jump sideways from it, jump backward from it, or propel yourself up to another crack or a ledge directly above. A similar number of options will be available to you when climbing vines and ropes, many of which you'll also be able to swing on. One particularly cool new feature of Tomb Raider: Legend is that when you're climbing or shimmying you can speed up Lara's actions by pressing a specific button in time with her movements. This action not only gives you the option to keep things moving at a brisk pace, but it is also the only way that you'll be able to beat certain areas in the game.
Lara will also be far more adept when it comes to interacting with movable objects in Tomb Raider: Legend than she has been in previous adventures. In the playable demo, there were a number of occasions where we were required to move large rocks and crates, which we accomplished simply by tapping a grab button and then moving Lara as we normally would. The irregularly shaped, movable objects and the freedom with which you'll be able to move them are certainly a huge improvement over the stone cubes and checkerboard maps of old. It's also noteworthy that all of the movable objects in the game have something resembling realistic physics now, so if you don't move them to a flat location, there's a good chance that they'll start to roll or slide without any further assistance from you. The first opportunity we had to see this in the demo was when we were instructed to try out Lara's new kick move on a small circular boulder that subsequently rolled into a pool of water. Toward the end of the demo, though, the physics engine was the key to completing a puzzle that, although it never would have been possible in the original Tomb Raider, was definitely reminiscent of some of that game's finest moments.
In addition to Lara's newfound acrobatic skills, you'll have access to a few new gadgets in Tomb Raider: Legend. The most interesting of these is undoubtedly the magnetic grappling hook, which can attach itself to any metallic object that has a distinct shine when you look at it in-game. The grappling hook came in handy on more than one occasion during the demo, because while its most obvious use is swinging over gaps that are too large for Lara to jump across, it can also be used to pull certain objects to the ground--a large metal disc blocking a doorway, for example. Lara's other new gadgets include a personal light source (PLS), which is essentially a shoulder-mounted torch; a PDA that holds information on current objectives, gear, rewards, and such; and a high-tech pair of binoculars that double as a remote analysis device (RAD). When in RAD mode, your view through the binoculars is tinted green and any object of interest is highlighted. You'll analyze objects of interest simply by steadying your binoculars over them, at which point you'll have to wait a few seconds before being told if the object is, for example, movable, part of a machine, or flammable. Lara's PLS and binoculars are accessed using the directional pad on your controller, which can also be used to access any medikits you're carrying and to switch weapons.
You'll start Lara's latest adventure armed with her trademark dual pistols, but you'll also be able to retrieve weapons, ammunition, and grenades from any enemies you're forced to kill. The only enemies that we faced during our time with the playable demo were uniformed mercenaries of some kind, armed with automatic weapons that we made a point of putting to good use once we got our hands on them. Locking onto enemies and shooting at them is achieved on the PS2 controller using the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons, respectively, which is a system similar to that employed in many third-person-action games. While shooting at enemies--which can also be done using a manual aim--you'll be able to perform many of Lara's trademark acrobatics to avoid enemy fire or to get closer to your targets, which you'll definitely need to do if you want to check out some of Tomb Raider: Legend's new attack animations.
When you get close enough to an enemy, the number of different attack options available to you will increase quite significantly. For starters, you'll be able to perform a sliding tackle or jump kick while running toward an enemy, and if he gets up after that, you might want to follow up with an especially painful-looking kick to the groin. Lara's most exciting new close-combat abilities are undoubtedly her rebound and head-stomp attacks, which are both performed using the jump button. Neither of these spectacular-looking attacks actually does very much damage, but they do stun the target for a few seconds so that Lara can shoot at them as she backflips through the air in aerial assault mode--which is bullet time, essentially.
The Tomb Raider: Legend demo that we played was unfortunately a little too brief to tell us an awful lot more about the game. However, after checking out some of the information available on the in-game PDA, we can tell you that there appears to be multiple difficulty levels ranging from Adventurer (easy) through Tomb Raider (hard). We can also tell you that you'll receive bronze, silver, and gold awards for your performance on each level, most likely based on the speed at which you complete them. Locating secret areas or items might also be a consideration, because although there is no real evidence of this in the demo, we did locate a couple of small rooms that we only spotted because we quite deliberately strayed from the obvious path. Finally, the documentation that we received with our demo included a list of the controls that will be used to drive vehicles and to shoot your pistols while doing so, although no vehicles were actually present in the demo. We'll bring you more information on Tomb Raider: Legend--which we're now officially excited about--just as soon as we get our hands on a more complete version of the game.
It's been ten years since Lara Croft debuted in the original Tomb Raider, which means that by my count it's been ten years since she was last in a good game. Many still swear by Tomb Raider II, but all the floating islands and terrible combat versus other humans (as they wandered aimlessly while Lara pumped bullet after bullet into them) led Ms. Croft from her real strengths: Taking the concepts of Prince of Persia into 3D with style.
While Core Designs was floundering with mediocre TR sequels, Ubisoft went and raised the bar for the genre; the recent Prince of Persia games have ranged from good to exceptional and have completely left all the series' imitators in the dust. That poses a steep challenge for Lara's new stewards at Crystal Dynamics: Not only does Tomb Raider Legend have to revitalize a crumbling franchise, it also needs to exceed what the competition has managed to achieve in the past decade. Which is why the demo that landed in our office last week was met with no small amount of curiosity and anticipation. Everyone gathered around to see if, after all the hype and all the skepticism, Crystal could pull it off.
If the demo is any indication of the final game, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes.
Not only is Legend the first time Tomb Raider has felt fresh in the better part of a decade, it also gives Ubi's Prince a run for his money. As before, Lara runs, jumps, shoots and solves puzzles. But now she's much more agile, moves far more fluidly, climbs poles and makes dazzling leaps, edges along the sides of cliffs and more. But make no mistake; this is still Tomb Raider through and through. While God of War took the Prince of Persia dynamic in an extremely action-oriented direction, Legend goes the other way; the pace is slower and far more methodical, and the acrobatics are far more realistic in nature; Lara isn't a time-bending superhero or the embodiment of vengeance, just an ass-kicking archaeologist. Significantly, Angel of Darkness' stealth kills appear to have been dropped, along with melee combat, in favor of good old-fashioned gunplay.
Fortunately, there's much, much more to shootouts than in previous Raider titles. It's not simply a matter of drawing your weapons and letting Lara auto-target while making her angry face anymore. Targeting closely resembles San Andreas' (though combat is far, far more natural and comfortable than GTA has ever dared dream), with a strong lock-on possible at middle ranges and a weaker, less accurate lock-on possible from a greater distance.
You can also skip targeting altogether in favor of manual fire -- simply press R3 and the camera viewpoint switches to a Resident Evil 4 over-the-shoulder perspective with a targeting reticule. This mode is helpful (especially from a distance) since it allows precise aiming -- and it allows you to fire at targets which aren't enemies. Since your enemies are fairly intelligent, working together to flank Lara's position and making use of available cover, it's important to use the environment against them. Not only can you shoot away cover (a technique enemies can also employ against Lara, so be careful), you can also cause weakened structures to come toppling down on their heads.
Despite the vastly refined control scheme, much of what makes Legend feel so fresh and new is its seeming return to the principles of the original game. The demo begins in the outskirts of an abandoned temple high in the mountains and gradually moves into its interior; the process of moving from beginning to end involves lots and lots of puzzle-solving and shimmying along sheer cliff faces. It all feels very fluid, a first for the series: Not only is Lara animated well, she also moves naturally. When dragging a block or box, you're not limited to moving in cardinal directions but instead can pull or push it freely in all directions. The game world is no longer divided into a grid, and lining up jumps is no longer a matter of backing up, taking five running steps and pressing jump half a block before the edge.
Lara's animations aren't simply window-dressing, either; they provide helpful contextual clues about what needs to be done next. When dangling from a ledge, Lara will turn her head to look at the next place to jump; when hanging near a gap, she'll lean her body toward the nearest ledge and slowly sway in that direction. Jumping while she's at the farthest extreme of her sway adds a little extra momentum to the leap. She looks, moves and sounds a bit different these days, but it's all for the best.
There are some significant changes to the gameplay as well. As if to further prove that no game is safe from Halo's influence, Lara can carry only two guns at a time: Her trusty infinite-ammo dual pistols, and whatever she can score from the bodies of fallen foes. Likewise, ammo is what Solid Snake would refer to as "OSP" (on-site procurement). Also, Lara's headset is constantly buzzing with chatter from her command center -- a pair of men pretending to be Cortana. Their banter helps ease the learning curve, but does detract significantly from the sense of isolation and mystery that made the original game so compelling. With luck, their nattering presence is merely temporary.
Lara's in-game information is managed via a menu dressed up as a PDA, but you don't have to go to a menu screen to perform common tasks as many actions have been mapped to the D-Pad. Tap up to use a health kit, or down to change weapons. The interface has been very thoughtfully designed -- every button is used for a distinct function, and Lara has extensive abilities for both combat, including targeting and crouching, and exploration - she can climb, crawl and even use a grappling hook to reach new areas, swing past traps and even open inaccessible doors. In fact, the magnetic grapple has been given its own dedicated button on the controller, which suggests it will play a significant role throughout the adventure.
Based on this one-hour demo, Tomb Raider Legend looks great (even on the humble PS2), and it plays extraordinarily well. Unless something goes horribly wrong with the final version of the game, this will absolutely be the follow-up that fans have been waiting for since the original. For now, be sure to check out our fresh new footage and join us in looking forward to the game's April release date....