Preview

Tomb Raider: Underworld

A first, teasing, glimpse...

Birds cackle overhead, ominous, bruised clouds swim through the sky, noises up ahead, ancient ruins, and a gateway. Here's Lara, looking more believable than ever (what polygonal breasts?), standing at the entrance to what appears to be some kind of ancient Mayan complex. The atmosphere is palpable, and myself and the entire audience are more than a little eager to see Miss Croft take off through the entrance into who knows where.

We're in central London, huddled in a screening room in a plush West End basement bar to get our first glimpses of Tomb Raider: Underworld, Lara's long-awaited return and the first true next-generation outing in the illustrious, if mixed, series. Crystal Dynamics are once again developing, and we're delighted to be presented with an extract of pre-alpha code, set in Mexico, about half-way through the game's fourth level.

With rain beginning to fall with increasing intensity, the game's producer Sarah Van Rompaey sets Lara off through the entrance to the ruins, and as we emerge from the foliage we're presented with a stunningly detailed scene. Ruins, rich in detail, partially obscured by the jungle's encroachment, and something else. Voices? Poachers. We've stumbled across an illegal hunt, and the poachers are battling with what appears to be a pack of panthers, but we've got bigger fish to fry, and into the fighting Lara charges.

Lara dispatches both poachers and panthers with consummate ease, although we're assured the enemy AI is sharper (emergent AI promises fluid battles) - and the panthers are certainly no slouches either, as they leaps around the landscape, using higher levels amid the environment to better combat Lara's bullets. With the enemies now felled (corpses will remain even in areas previously departed), we're once again afforded the chance to take in the epic environments, which should help recapture the sense of wonder and adventure for which the Tomb Raider series first became famous (before Core Design royally cocked it up, that is).

The rain is really pouring down now, and we can see the droplets running down Lara's shapely body, which shimmers as she moves through the highly detailed Mayan architecture, rich in detail. We can take in the stunning weather effects as we go (various conditions will be realistically simulated, storms, wind, rain, et al, all impacting the conditions the player must endure). The ground is now muddy, because of the rain, and Lara - if you'll pardon me for a moment - is now more than little dirty, though its nothing the rain won't wash clean if she stands still for a moment. The attention to detail really is very impressive.

As this is pre-alpha code Lara isn't quite the finished article yet, that said it seems for once perfectly acceptable to gawp at her detailed facial expressions, which change depending on her actions and the situation. Even the swing of her hair looks real, and a new cloth system makes Lara's get-up react realistically to her acrobatics. Speaking of which, Miss Croft now has dozens of new moves up her sleeve, the designers working to ensure Lara is every bit as dextrous as ever, but all within the bounds of the sensible. With this in mind, motion capture animation was created using the movements of a genuine Olympic standard gymnast, and Lara is looking all the better for it.

Lara can also now carry objects, and in the level we're being demonstrated she uses a staff from the ground to help reach a high ledge. The staff is carried in Lara's right hand, while she still holds a pistol at the ready with her left. She can even launch the staff projectile-like as a weapon, should she wish to, and we imagine actions like this will come in most handy at certain points in the game. It also allows Crystal Dynamics to try different things with the game's puzzles, and we imagine Lara will be carrying, moving and throwing items all over the place in the final release. All while carrying a helpful pistol, its worth noting.

Using the advances of the next-generation consoles, the developers are working hard to create a world which functions based on clear, believable rules, with a greater focus than ever on the behaviour objects and their relation to the environment. With this in mind, heavy rain will make surfaces slippery, making it harder for Lara to leap around, or balance on dangerous ledges. This was demonstrated to us during a 'free-climbing' segment in which Lara clambered up a rock face, slipping along the way, and catching herself. Altair would be proud.

With the importance of atmosphere and immersion in mind, the game includes no visible HUD, while grapple points and the like are now a down-beat affair - Eidos having dispensed with the 'bling' that denoted such points previously. We're demonstrated this as part of a physics 'event', in which Lara smashes through a hidden door in the cracking temple floor, by using the grapple hook to tip a precarious stone tumbling to the ground and through the floor. The way the grapple wire bends in this instance is of course new, and offers plenty of new uses, the line in the past would have snapped back if asked to bend; now however, this realism is a key part of gameplay progression.

Moving on, we witness Lara battling some rather nasty killer spiders, before reaching the next part of the level, in which we're faced with the entrance to the Mayan Underworld. A terrifying portal which leads who knows where. We're told Lara needs to open this gate (which in Mayan mythology only opens once a year, on a specific day), and now Lara will need to rig the complex's calendar mechanism in the temple's depths to force the gate open. Puzzles like this will be common feature in the game, we're told, Crystal Dynamics hoping to integrate such segments with the plot as a whole.

With Lara having tricked the calendar device (we're not sure how, its complicated, not to mention secret at this point), the new orchestral soundtrack soars as Lara races back to the temple's entrance to battle more wildlife and retrieve her rather chunky black motorbike (the design of which has not been finalised) before racing towards the gate to the Mayan Underworld, where our demonstration concludes to meaningful applause.

Speaking to external designer Bill Beacham and two of his colleagues working on Underworld after the briefing, we're promised a wide variety of locations beyond the Mayan themed sections set in Mexico and 'beyond'. Ancient mythology will be a focus, and the team have undertaken a great deal of research into ancient civilizations, with a particular focus on mechanisms and technology, which will become a part of Underworld's puzzles and plot.

Beyond Mayan, other cultures of the past will be represented, we're told, and the brand new next-generation game engine promises to bring Lara's many haunts to life in vivd detail. The team can't reveal much beyond the demo, then, but we are told to look forward to epic, multi-levelled puzzles like never before seen in a Tomb Raider game, with a focus on this and exploration beyond just combat. That said, shooting has also been overhauled with a new targeting system, while as I mentioned previously Lara can now carry objects with a weapon still at the ready (other two-handed combinations also being mooted).

While Underworld isn't out until the end of the year, its already looking more than a bit good, and we're fairly confident Crystal Dynamics are taking Lara in the right direction for a full-scale revival. Much is still open to conjecture, however, so we'll bring you more as we get it, naturally.

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