Interview

Tomb Raider: Underworld with Eric Lindstrom

Crystal Dynamics' creative director takes Lara in-hand

Tomb Raider: Underworld is out next month, and despite a packed release schedule this adventure is one of the most important games Eidos Interactive have ever released, as well as being Crystal Dynamics' first full-blown offering for current-generation systems.

We grabbed creative director Eric Lindstrom and dragged him into the cold store for a few questions at Croft Manor - which is near Luton, would you believe...

Thanks for speaking with us Eric. How long have you been working on Tomb Raider: Underworld for?

Almost three years...

...and is it fair to say that this is Crystal Dynamics' biggest game ever?

Yes it is! I think that is fair. This is the first time we've gone full-on with current generation platforms from the beginning, and we also wanted to make Underworld a particularly big, epic experience. Those added up into our biggest game ever.

How do you think Tomb Raider compares with the other huge games coming out this Christmas? Do you look at those; and do they worry you?

I do look at them - I'm looking forward to playing them! I don't worry about them, because as much as I want to play those games too, Tomb Raider is different, it's a unique experience you can't get anywhere else. There's much to the overall experience; discovering ancient places; exploring them; figuring out how to make these epic, ancient machines work, sometimes getting them up and running again, sometimes hijacking them for other purposes. In the middle of all this, you're fighting ancient, forgotten creatures. On top of all this its an experience you can't get anywhere else.

What do you think is the heart of the Tomb Raider IP; what's your first consideration when planning a Tomb Raider game?

It's like I just said... the core of Tomb Raider is emotional. Its the way people feel in these spaces. Its what they're doing, and it's what we did with Tomb Raider: Legend, the thing that's really special about Tomb Raider, the thing people fell in love with in 1996 when she first came out. It was not the details of the way she moves in the world, or the combat mechanics, it was that emotional feeling of... moving freely through a space no one has been to before, that you can really find out there if you explore hard enough. Finding things in there no one has ever seen before - things that maybe could exist out there, somewhere. It's about taking these and making things crazier and crazier as you progress. And, then the details fall off the map... about how to make a modern gameplay experience.

Does the plot follow on from past Tomb Raider games... or is this a fresh start?

You don't need to have played past games to get into Tomb Raider: Underworld, but long-term fans will see some familiar faces, and there will be questions that were posed in past games that are answered.

Is this the beginning of a new story arc in a grander sense?

It has its own story arc, but it does tie-up certain elements from the past too.

How do you bring Lara's character to life in the game... as a personality?

In this particular outing she does not have a headset. So, in Legend she was in contact with her tech team back home. Now she is so far remote that she is very often completely radio-silent. So, she has a field recorder, that she makes audio and video notes in. So, when she makes a discovery she talks about... we hear her voice, what she thinks, her ideas...

I notice some of the puzzle elements are much much bigger now. What can you tell us about this?

The epic puzzles play a huge role. They're central. You've got Lara and you've got these epic exploration puzzles. I mean, at the heart of every area she goes to are these mechanisms, which ancient people with a lot of time on their hands constructed, and understanding what these are for, how to get them working, how to use them for a different purpose... take the giant Shiva statue and its mechanism... if you were to write down the puzzles you'd need to solve to get that temple to actually open, it's like a dozen. But because of the way they're spaced-out, and structured, it's like a pyramid. It isn't just one challenge. Room after room. It's a whole bunch of things that culminate with this grand reveal at the end.

Are there vehicles in Underworld?

She has an all-terrain motorcycle that she uses in appropriate places.

Is there an open-world element to the game?

It's much more free, and player-driven, than say Tomb Raider: Legend, but the word 'open-world'... people no what open-world means and we're not that. There's logical boundaries to Lara's world. We don't arbitrarily confine the player, but when Lara's trying to break into these temples... and the way to get in is to get this statue to move, and there's some variation in how you do that - but at the same time there's the logic of... you have to get the statue running, you have to get it in the right configuration and then you have to get it open... there's a linearity you might get in a movie. Although, there is a lot more freedom in the core operations than in the past.

Combat seems to have altered quite significantly... what's changed?

There's a lot more to it... but we actually tried to - not make it more complicated - but give you more freedom, where you can do the kind of things you do in the normal game, in ways that nod to the past. In old Tomb Raider games you could climb on ledges and shoot down on things. Where now, enemies can claw at your legs, they'll jump on top of things, crawl up walls and ceilings after you. The biggest change we made is making enemies a lot smarter and a lot stronger. There's no Lara outlasting the enemies just by shooting, so when she goes into an area where she is besieged - even though she can now split her guns and shoot at two different enemies - there's often a third enemy coming. They don't wait their turn, she can get mobbed. You're going to have to shoot these guys, kick them, and melee them in various ways. You'll need to use your terrain to jump away and maneuver around to buy some time. Its much more engaging than in the past because the enemies are much tougher.

How important are the visuals, and the world in general, to Tomb Raider? Is this a 'pillar'? The game is certainly looking lovely...

Well, the world is very important, in fact the game is Tomb Raider... the game isn't Lara Croft... she's where the focus goes, but the world is really the star, and we have a lot of tech to make that world as vivid and lush as possible. And with the current-gen platforms we have the ability to not only make the environments bigger and more detailed, but also more interesting, more reactive. And... that's a big part of our effort. The world.

Where do you see Tomb Raider environments going in the future; what might you have done with an extra two years?

With an extra two years... I guess the game would get longer. We're very happy with what we've put in the spaces we've made. A lot of our shader technology, this makes the next-gen environments look the way they do; glistening water; bouncing light; maths functions... we spent a lot of time and we're very happy with what we came up with there... so I guess we'd just like to build more spaces.

You don't see the fundamentals of the game changing much in the future?

That's hard to say... I know that we're still in the middle of this generation of platforms, and in the coming years there will still be - I mean, look at what we did with Legend on the PS2, it looked amazing (people didn't always know if it was a PS2 title!) - and we're still in the middle stage. In the next couple of years a lot more will come out of the Xbox 360 and the PS3.

Multiplayer plans...?

We thought about it in Legend, we thought about it even harder for Underworld. Ultimately, we decided not to do it, not only because Lara is a solo operator - especially in this game - but we really wanted to focus in on a certain type of experience. And that experience was all about adventure. It isn't out of the question, however, we consider this every time, and next time could be the one!

Any DLC plans?

We do have some unique missions coming down... for the Xbox 360... we didn't set out to make these adventures and put them out only on the 360, but Microsoft approached and said they were interested some content created exclusively for the 360, so then we went back and said "well, there's a lot of untold story here". So, we didn't hold anything back from the game, this is all added in.

Are the new missions extensions of the story... or do they run parallel?

That would be telling, but they do relate to the Underworld story and timeline; the adventure she has. They're stand-alone missions, but they are connected to the overall story.

Did money change hands with Microsoft to make this exclusive DLC happen?

I'm creative director! I don't know about money...

I recall that Tomb Raider was partially a PlayStation exclusive under Core Design... might Lara focus on one platform once again?

I certainly hope not. But I don't know of any plans to do so... there are too many opportunities to do different things. I mean, she's coming out on the Wii, and that's going to boast Wii-specific puzzles that couldn't be done anywhere else. It's a shame to limit her when there are so many different possibilities.

Thanks for your time Eric, best of luck with the release of Underworld.