Copyright 2002

[ March 28th 2002 ]

The British games publishing industry's saviour has unfeasibly large breasts, wears a ponytail and hotpants and has been missing, presumed dead, for two years. She is, of course, Lara Croft, and is due to make her comeback exclusively on the PlayStation 2 on November 15, as the star of the game Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness.

For Lara's British publisher Eidos, The Angel Of Darkness will be the most important release in the company's history. The past two years have been a struggle for Eidos: its shares have performed badly (in the past fortnight, it downgraded a quarterly forecast due to the delay in the release of games) and it has been dogged by rumours of takeover bids. But the five previous Tomb Raider games sold 28m copies worldwide, and Tomb Raider is arguably the hottest franchise in the games industry. Can The Angel Of Darkness revive Eidos' flagging fortunes? Early indications at a sneak preview last week were good.

The Angel is the first Tomb Raider specifically designed for a next-generation console - it is exclusive to the PlayStation 2 - and looks set to be vastly more interesting than its predecessors. Jeremy Heath-Smith, who juggles being managing director of Tomb Raider developer Core Design with his role as Eidos' head of global development, was keen to differentiate The Angel Of Darkness from Tomb Raiders of yore: "Lara is still the same character, but we're putting her into an environment that is darker and deeper. She's far more mobile: she crouches down and sneaks a lot more and has hand-to-hand combat for the first time. She'll be able to talk to characters. The game starts as an adventure, goes into classic Lara gameplay and then into arcade-style action."

The Angel Of Darkness should, then, provide a much richer gameplay experience than its predecessors. But does Eidos' future depend on it? And, indeed, that of the whole British games publishing industry? The likes of Codemasters, Rage and SCi may disagree, but Eidos is the only British games publisher with a major international presence.

Heath-Smith, predictably, is at pains not to overstate the game's importance: "Of course the game is important to Eidos. But we've survived the past two years without Tomb Raider, so we could survive the next 10 years without it, but we're happy we've got it." Any delay beyond the scheduled release date, though, would clearly hurt the company. Core Design churned out a game each year during Tomb Raider's PlayStation days, and many felt the games would have benefited from longer development periods.

Heath-Smith tacitly agrees: "The commercial reality was that we wanted a game per year and we were using an engine that was never designed to do that. But today, we are smarter and we know what to do." It must be so tempting to milk such a franchise though, and Heath-Smith will not be drawn on the frequency of Tomb Raider releases for the PlayStation 2: "We are going to see what happens. The game-playing public seems to want to play sequels after a short amount of time."

And then there are the Tomb Raider films, the first of which was a commercial success despite being savaged by critics. Eidos has sold the rights for three movies (keeping script veto rights) and Heath-Smith confirms work has started on the next Tomb Raider film: "The second film is in the script-writing process, and we're fact-finding for locations and storyboarding. I think a lot was learned from doing the Tomb Raider movie."

If The Angel Of Darkness fulfils its potential, it should provide Eidos with a much-needed smash hit and regain credibility with hardcore gamers. To retain the latter, Eidos must resist the temptation to rush out sequels, but the way Heath-Smith tells it, Lara's two-year sabbatical has brought about an overdue reappraisal of the company's attitude to its prize asset. If any character has the power to steam back in like a modern-day conquering heroine, both guns blazing, and restore the British games publishing industry's fortunes, that character is surely Lara Croft.

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