x360a Tomb Raider Underworld Preview
Written Friday, February 01, 2008 By Dan WebbView author's profile
The Tomb Raider series was a franchise falling from grace way back in 2003 when Angel of Darkness was cast upon us. Shortly after, in stepped Crystal Dynamics in what many saw as a bold move in an attempt to bring the franchise back to its glory days. Luckily for us, they did and thankfully Lara Croft, one of the biggest video game brand names, was back on form in Tomb Raider Legend. Crystal Dynamics seem to have continued that trend in the upcoming Tomb Raider title, aptly named Underworld.
Underworld will be the 8th Tomb Raider game in the series [Come on, Anniversary doesn’t count when in fact it’s just a rehash of Tomb Raider 1.] and will be hitting Xbox 360, PS3 and PC just in time for Christmas as it’s tipped for a Q4 launch after recent delays. But fear not folks, very early signs of the game are impressive to say the least.
A few weeks ago, Minty and I, along with the crème de la crème of UK press got ushered in to a small cinema screen in the back streets of Soho, London. Surrounded by pure darkness, all we could see on the 20 foot screen in front of us was the rear end of a certain Miss Croft.
The version in front of us was a pre-alpha build of Underworld, Level 4 in actual fact, set in Mexico. The rain was lashing down around Miss Croft and the faint rumble of thunder surrounded us. First impressions are everlasting and this was certainly a powerful start. The atmosphere it created was incredible, you actually felt you were getting wet just looking at it... Errr, no people, not in that way!
Lara started off in an arched stance over looking a huge courtyard in front of an Aztec temple. Below her, a couple of poachers fought away the local wildlife namely a pack of black panthers, as Lara watched, undetected. It’s possible for Lara to watch them obliterate each other so long as she isn’t noticed and this battle between two sets of AI will play out differently every time. Lara got a little too close however and became the focus of their aggression.
As Lara battled the poachers and the panthers, it was the first time we saw the new dual targeting feature in action which certainly seems to be a welcome addition. The combat seems to have been refined and streamlined in Underworld, Lara jumped around shooting numerous targets at the same time with her dual pistols. We also got to see Lara’s new ability and that is to pick up objects dotted around the level and use them to her advantage. Lara picked up a pole nearby off the floor and used it to fight off her foes as they advanced upon her. We were assured that the melee system with the weapons were not introduced to make Lara more like a “street fighter character” but was merely introduced to give Lara the ability to stun opponents and gain an advantage. Her strengths are still her athleticism and her agility rather than her sheer brute strength and Stallone like physique.
Underworld sees the introduction of yet another Lara model with some fancy new skin textures. Her facial expressions change according to her actions and mood, and her eyes, eye brows and lips move independently. There is more emphasis on Lara reacting to the environment this time around as even her pony tail and hair will react to the wind and the weather around her. We are also introduced to a new series of contextual animations, whether Lara be automatically using her hands to push back the local vegetation as she walks through it or swatting down the cobwebs as she advances in to a cave system, they all add to the sense of realism that the title is trying to grasp.
The lighting effects have been enhanced in Underworld using a new hybrid lighting model which uses a mixture of dynamic lights and light maps. Lara herself is being lit using spherical harmonics which makes Lara fit in more realistically with the world around her. She now subtly takes on the colour of the surrounding environments, whether it be the reflection of light off the stone wall surrounding her or the darkness of the shadows that seek to consume her.
In front of Lara stood a temple of huge proportions, but it seems the door is closed, fancy that. Looks like Lara will have to use her experienced climbing skills to overcome this problem. At this very point of the game, Lara picks up the pole she previously used as a weapon and inserts it in to a hole in a nearby stone pillar. The ability for the player to forge their own path with surrounding objects such as this is totally new to the Tomb Raider series and something that will be welcomed with open arms I’m sure.
As Lara traversed and climbed the local ruins, we are introduced to a few new animations. Lara’s movements for Underworld were created using motion capture data from an Olympic gymnast so all the cart wheeling and such look more realistic this time around. As Lara jumps from ledge to beam and climbs, we then catch a glimpse of the new free climbing technique. The free climbing is not restricted to flat walls and Lara can use it to go around concave surfaces. How free this really is remains to be seen at current time but the free climbing animation as Lara traversed a wall was fluid and sublime.
As Lara reaches the top of the stone pillars, she has to cross a beam but be careful, it’s a bit slippery with all that rain. Not only does the environment react to the weather, but Lara does as well. If Lara was to roll around the mud and get muddy you would see that on her character model, but stand there in the rain long enough and the rain will wash Lara clean. It should be worth nothing at this point that the new weather system from what we saw was absolutely fantastic. I previously mentioned the rain lashing down around her and the realism of the thunder and lightning, but as the clouds move across the sun, it casts realistic shadows on the world around you. It’s probably going to be one of those moments where you just stop and admire the huge world and the scenery around you.
As Lara makes her way down after climbing to the top of the temple, we see the return of her trusty flashlight. Crystal pulled off the particles in the beam greatly, just another little thing that adds to the realism of the title. As she makes her way through the darkened area, Lara comes across some pesky little spider foes which she despatches with ease, but it appears that some of Lara’s enemies will no longer be restricted to horizontal movement and can now climb walls. No more climbing your way out of danger Miss Croft.
The grapple points in Tomb Raider Underworld are not as obvious and bling as they were in previous Tomb Raiders due to player feedback from Anniversary. In front of Lara at present time is a huge platform supporting a rock and a grapple point some few metres away. If you get stuck, there are subtle visual clues in the environment that point the way. On this occasion, a small trickle of water and a puddle indicated that the only way was down as that was the way the water went but our path was blocked. Out comes Lara’s trusty grapple as she hooks on to the grapple point. In previous editions, if the grapple wire was to come in contact with anything, Lara’s grapple would spring back. Ah ha! Not this time around. Crystal introduced a new exert force on it so that any obstacle would be victim to the force Lara wants to put on it. So Lara can use the grapple to dislodge the nearby rock and break through to where she ought to be headed.
One of the fundamental features in Tomb Raiders over the years has been the puzzles and Underworld is no different, but it appears Crystal Dynamics have changed their approach this time around. No longer are the puzzles isolated to one small area, instead, the whole environment could be one huge puzzle. These “epic stage multi puzzles” could be puzzles within puzzles but the beauty is, that they are totally non linear and most the time can be done in any order but obviously, in order to advance, it would require that all puzzles be solved.
Lara’s short term objective is to get to down to the Mayan Underworld. After solving a few little puzzles, Lara has a race against time to make it back and get in to the door she just opened which was on a timer. As she makes her way back, the bodies are exactly where she left them as the world in which she operates is a fully persistent one.
As Lara reaches the road, she finds a conveniently placed motorbike which is very similar to the one in Legend in terms of handling and look but really one of the parts of the game that you tend to groan at. After travelling a long and winding road, Lara appears at the open gate just in time as she crashes through it and on that note the demonstration ended.
A lot of the plot and such was kept under wraps. All we know is that we are going places that Lara has never been before and she’s doing it without the aid of her trusty med kits. Crystal Dynamics’ focus on Underworld seems to be the credibility and the realism of the experience. How Lara reacts with the environment has been taken to a new level and the sheer size of the environments and puzzles adds a wow factor to the Tomb Raider series that may not have been present in previous versions. Underworld is shaping up to be a true next generation version of the series and one that could possibly springboard Lara back to the big leagues.
What’s really new?
Huge epic stage multi puzzles.
New moves for Lara.
New animations as well as contextual animations.
Use objects either as weapons or to aid your advancement.
Slippery poles and environments reaction to the weather.
Lara’s reaction to the environment.
Exert force on grappling hook.
Game specifically designed for Next Gen consoles. Next generation version worked on separately.
No more medi packs.