E3 2008: Tomb Raider Underworld
This morning, here at the final day of E3, our first appointment was scheduled with Eidos to see Tomb Raider. After the well-received Tomb Raider: Legend and last year’s Tomb Raider: Anniversary, the team at Crystal Dynamics has a lot to live up to – amazing, really, for a franchise that was held in such low regard just a few years ago. Eidos’ booth at the show was posh – a table full of food sat in one corner, plush white couches surrounded big screen TVs scattered around the room, and the walls were covered with massive panels of artwork from the various games the company is putting out this year. Behind closed doors and a massive wall showing off her trademark figure was Tomb Raider: Underworld’s Creative Director, Eric Lindstrom ready to explain the new game to an intimate crowd of journalists.
“In Tomb Raider: Legend, we wanted to update the gameplay in Tomb Raider – to bring what everyone loved about Tomb Raider back in full force,” Lindstrom began. “In Anniversary, we harkened back to the solo-operator, discovering and feeling. In Underworld, we wanted to do both. To give you the freedom to explore a new environment … and continue to have an action-paced adventure.”
From what we saw of the mid-alpha build of the game, it seems that diversity was on the team’s mind as they built this new experience. After a cutscene, the game opens on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Deep below, a tomb Lara’s father never explored rests, just waiting to be pried open by our wetsuit clad heroine. The developers dove into the water and began swimming. Gone are the frantic swimming as you watch Lara’s oxygen meter dwindle – now, armed with a scuba tank, Lara can explore her underwater environment at a more relaxed pace. But this won’t be a leisurely swim. We watched as Lara dispatched more than one shark as she tried to solve a simple puzzle to open the tomb’s doors.
Taking out the shark seemed easy thanks to the lock-on camera and the battle gave the developers time to show us some of the new tools in Lara’s arsenal. Complementing her trade-mark pistols and the new spear and tranquilizer guns are sticky grenades, which were stuck onto a shark with glee. Apparently, an extremely popular game in the team’s offices involves sticking a grenade onto a shark and using the new in-game digital camera to take a picture of the carnage. Players will be able to take pictures of anything in the game and the developers envision that the tool will be used to help players point out secret areas to each other.
Finding secret areas should also be easier thanks to the new SONAR system incorporated into the game’s map feature. As Lara explored her environment, her SONAR system surveyed the surrounding area and built a 3D map of the area. It proved extremely helpful as a door that was blocked with algae was suddenly revealed and the team was able to find the last piece of the puzzle.
After that, we were back on (slightly) dry land as Lara began exploring the inside of the tomb. As it’s never an easy day in the life of Lara Croft, a giant kraken has taken up residence inside the tomb. Like a bad houseguest, the creature had spread it’s tentacles throughout the area, gunking up gears and blocking Lara’s path forward. The team told us that the game would allow users to take on puzzles in whatever way they want and stressed that the game was less linear than past iterations. The game wasn’t designed in the “solve puzzle, open door, solve puzzle” mindset, according to Lindstrom. Instead, the developers built “large interconnected spaces with many parts to figure out.” From what we saw, that seems true. In the first room alone, in order to kill the kraken, I counted five puzzles. Granted, they were typical Tomb Raider puzzles (find the switch, turn the gear), but the way the challenges all worked together in the end felt wholly new. The whole world felt very organic.
To enhance Lara’s tomb raiding skills, the team also added a new grappling hook that can be used to repel through the environment. It seemed to fit very well into the game, but by the time we saw it, the demo was nearly over. After some Q&A, we were able to squeeze some more out of the team: we didn’t see human enemies, but we were promised that we would be shooting at some humans in addition to “natural and unnatural guardians of the spaces.” We couldn’t see a health meter on screen, but were told that the health system was still being tweaked and that they weren’t sure what would ship in the end. We also weren’t able to squeeze out multiplayer details – so for now, the photo sharing represents the sum of the game’s multiplayer.
Another year, another Tomb Raider. We joked on the way in that there was a time when Eidos was the booth that you needed to hit when you came to E3, but now, it seemed like the company is out of the limelight. But probably not for long – Tomb Raider Underworld looks poised to be the be the most complete entry in the franchise since its inception. Neither of us had very high expectations for the game going into the interview, but we were left pleasantly surprised and remarkably hopeful that this new edition to the Tomb Raider legacy will live up to its promise.