Tomb Raider Underworld: Eidos Interview
After lifting our jaws from the floor, we quizzed Eidos on what is destined to be one of this-gen's most impressive looking games.
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By Adam Doree
Straight off the bat, the next Tomb Raider is comfortably one of the top five most impressive games coming soon we've seen to date. Lara's animation easily rivals that of Niko's in Grand Theft Auto IV, the atmospheric visuals are up there with the stunning Killzone 2, and the richness and scale of the game world looks like it might nestle closely with the beautiful Fallout 3. No messing about: Tomb Raider Underworld is going to impress in a big way.
We were recently shown "very early" pre-alpha code of Tomb Raider Underworld, showing a level about half way into the game set in Mexico - a stormy region home to many dangerous black panthers. The awesome-sounding thunder underlines a superb atmosphere (remember that storm in Jurassic Park?), and Lara reacts with the world in a far more realistic way with contextual animation and an intuitive addition that Eidos is calling 'free climbing'. She can dual target, melee, dive and shoot, and pick up objects in the world and then use them in combat.
Crystal Dynamics has come up with a realistic graphics engine, vastly impressive right down to the way Lara subtly takes on the colours of the environments' surfaces around her. A wonderfully refined Lara is presented; her skin texture is much more realistic and she has convincing facial expressions that see her eyes, eyebrows and lips move independently. An evolution of the wet and muddy Lara seen in Tomb Raider Legend, she gets muddy on different parts of her body and to different degrees, depending on what she's doing, and as she stands in the rain, it gradually washes off.
After showing us the stunning demonstration, full of enemies to gun down, precise manoeuvring around slippery ledges, dynamic character movement around the environment and some nicely thought out puzzle sections, Eidos took time out for a chat with us about the game. We spoke with Publishing Designer Bill Beacham, Senior Producer Sarah Van Rompaey, and Brand Manager Kathryn Clements. This trio know everything that's coming in the first truly next-gen Lara Croft game, and while they're keeping a few cards close to the chest, they still have some very interesting stuff to discuss about Underworld. Let's hear it...
Kikizo: This game looks stunning. The frame rate looks suspiciously high for something so early in development on Xbox 360. Is this really the 360 version?
SVR: Yes, it's the 360 version. But it's very representative of all next-gen versions of the game.
Kikizo: That's impressive. I just had to make sure!
[Editor's note: Seriously - this looked startlingly good. The graphics are proper, and it all runs at frame rates of up to nearly 60fps, never dropping much below around 30. This is technically a visually striking production, no doubt about it].
Kikizo: From the top, what is the brief for this sequel?
KC: It's building on what makes Tomb Raider good, and special and unique. The way we've approached it is by thinking: how can we build on this for the new consoles - how can we take the gameplay to a new level in terms exploration and the environments we're creating? We can do it on a scale now that was never possible before. Even with the character movement, Lara can just do so much more now that we can push so many more of those movements into the game. And that allows for a lot more gameplay opportunities.
SVR: Crystal has definitely taken a new direction, whilst trying to retain some of the things that were good about Legend.
Kikizo: Since it's called Underworld, are we going to venture away from the type of setting we've seen so far and see all kinds of crazy fiery underground caves?
KC: We're not giving too much away about the story just yet, but it's safe to say that Lara will be going to multiple underworlds throughout the game.
Kikizo: So it's not just real-world settings?
KC: No. On that side of things, the guys at Crystal have let their imagination go; they've thought in terms of locations and where they can take Lara, they're taking her to different places she's never been before, places that people will find surprising.
SVR: They've been very inspired by mythology from ancient civilisations, and they've done a lot of research into it.
Kikizo: So you could say it's more mythology than archaeology based, perhaps?
BB: Yes and no. I mean that main environment you saw in the demo - the court, the pyramids, they are all based on real world environments, I think it's important to have that grounded in reality; that's one of the things that makes Tomb Raider what it is. But, as with previous episodes, you have to go beyond that. There are other elements that make up a successful Tomb Raider game. And in this one, it's very heavily on the underworlds, and obviously tying that into real-world mythology about what that actually means. It's taking it further as you would expect, but hopefully with things you haven't seen before.
Kikizo: What about the balance between action and puzzle solving?
BB: I think the way that we see Tomb Raider is about meeting the challenge, and in this case the challenges are the size of a level - they really are on a scale that we haven't seen before. And that challenge can be made up of a number of elements - the environment, the enemies that you meet, what Lara can do. So it's a question of overcoming those challenges. So we don't see it as "here's a bit of puzzle solving, and here's some combat"; that's not how Tomb Raider works. It's very much "here is a challenge, and it's up to you how you want to approach it"; in other places the emphasis will shift, but we view both as integral parts of Tomb Raider, and we wouldn't want to put an over-emphasis on either one of those.
KC: Crystal has innovated with their approach towards the puzzles now; they're not in these isolated areas now...
BB: Yeah, it's not like, here's a room with a locked door; another room with a locked door, a corridor and another locked door. As you've seen, it's like, here is a landscape - and the puzzles now really are on an unprecedented scale.