PC GAMER HUNTS
DOWN CORE DESIGN
Copyright 2000 PC Gamer
[ September 16th 2000 ]
Early August. It's been difficult locating Core
Design's HQ because, as the cabbie puts it "There's
no sign on the door." He's not wrong. Presumably
attempting to throw Lara obsessive (and believe
me, these people do exist), off their scent, Core's
building is discreetly tucked away in an anonymous
industrial estate. Until you get past their reception,
that is. And then it's six-foot statues of their
money-spinning heroine, trophy cabinets, and the
subtle but perceptible buzz of a young, dynamic
company that's made millionaires of its founders.
Naturally, the majority of this success is thanks
to the vehicles for Lara Croft's third-person
acrobatics - the Tomb Raider series of games.
titles such as the Double Dragon homage, Fighting
Force - have emerged from Core's doors arguably
the most famous development house in the UK. That
said, it's not a completely Lara-centric building.
Other projects are going on behind the scenes:
Project Eden and Herdy Gerdy, to be precise. Thanks
to their creators pedigree, interest is bound
to be piqued by these original titles; however,
it's Core's established franchise that we're most
interested in sliding under the PC GAMER microscope.
And guess what? they've only gone and killed Lara.
previous comment was slightly disingenuous, please
forgive me - but the developers are keen to play
it that way too. in Tomb Raider: Chronicles, Lara's
dead, and we're all in mourning. Get over it.
(Or if you're really on the verge of tears, skip
to the final paragraph). The game opens with a
typically flash FMV intro. As the design brief
puts it: "A grey, rainy, day at the Croft estate.
Lightning flashes and the camera pans to the all-familiar
silhouette of Lara Croft... at the second the
flash it's revealed to be a memorial statue..."
It's the oldest trick in the book: start with
a dramatic death, then build to an equally resurrection
care of some 'Lara through the ages' action sequences.
judging, though, consider Core's position. there's
little they can do to change the appeal of Tomb
Raider now, save to reinvent Lara and the whole
third-person style of adventuring completely (see
Raiders of the Lost Art). The fact that they've
had to constantly develop onto the relatively
low-spec PlayStation format has undoubtedly poked
a stick firmly into the wheel of progress. "I
still maintain that The Last Revelation, with
the lighting and the environments, was as much
as we could do on a Play station," says Adrian
Smith, the game's Producer. Yet it's scant consolation
for PC-owning Lara fans who just might expect
more content for their, £1,000 machines. The list
of improvements and additions throughout the series
ultimately amounts to little more than outfits,
moves and locations.
of the fittest, but hardly what you'd call evolution.
So with Lara dead, how can Chronicles maintain
the interest of not only hardcore gamers, but
also the casual masses? The initial answer is
a worrying one. Seemingly bereft of ideas, yet
obviously eager to sell us another slice of the
increasingly indigestible Tomb Raider pie, Core
Design have come up with the ultimate in Croft
Unoriginal - a self-confessed "consolidation"
of previous Tomb Raider titles. In terms of content,
then Lara's fifth outing will be a prequel, made
up of four locations, that according to her meticulously
detailed life story, she's explored in the past.
These are each introduced in a retrospective way,
with FMV characters wilfully discussing their
exploits with Lara before the action sequences
fade in and once more, we assume control of the
world's most voluptuous collection of polygons.
ostensibly an amazingly cynical approach to game
design, but, as Smith claims, the team's decision
has to do with tying up loose ends and carving
a new direction for the series rather than simply
ensuring another happy Christmas in Derby. "I
think it's impossible to reproduce what we achieved
with the original Tomb Raider," he begins in a
refreshingly frank way. "That's not realistic.
If you ask people what they really, fundamentally
want out of the next Tomb Raider game, they don't
have an answer." That point is a valid one. The
formula has been wildly successful with relatively
few changes, and while it keeps on achieving handsome
end-of-year returns, only a madman would risk
straying from the established format.
has always been, combat, puzzling, acrobatics
and Ms Croft's treasured chest are the main ingredients
of Chronicles. That's not to say Smith doesn't
seem a little uncomfortable - embarrassed, even
- by having to talk us through the game. At times,
he betrays the impression that he knows it's based
on wafer-thin premise - and, just occasionally,
you feel he'd rather someone else had the task
of announcing and then defending Chronicles. "This
one is going to be fairly interesting with the
press," he concedes cautiously, the pronunciation
indicating that they're well aware that daggers
might be unsheathed for Lara number five. "That
said, the PC version of Chronicles looks infinitely
better than previous PC versions of Tomb Raider,"
he claims. Okay, so why bother with another same-old-engine
no pressure to do one game every year. We originally
thought that it was going to tie in with the movie.
However, there won't be a movie tie-in game now.
The script changes weekly, so we came up with
something else... I'm being a bit flippant about
it, and I apologise for that," he says. "Jeremy
[Smith, Executive Producer of Tomb Raider] believes
you could put Lara in a racing game and it would
work. Although I don't necessarily agree." In
a paraphrased nutshell, 'know your limitations'...
taken the PC version aside and started afresh,"
Smith exclaims, having led us from the board room
to what seems to be the bored room: a large open-plan
space where a handful of programmers and artists
tap at their keyboards in silence. They must be
rapidly approaching the frantic crunch time that's
allowed publishers Eidos to box up a new Tomb
Raider adventure year since 1996. Although the
only working code Core initially wanted to reveal
to us was on a PlayStation (of which we've been
a mite suspicious), it transpires there was actually
a good reason.
are being built on PCs using a proprietary level
editor, before being converted for play testing
on Sony's console. In the end, PC code was on
show. Hypothetically speaking, though, pretend
for a minute that it wasn't, because the Chronicles
development room had plenty to say for itself.
Original set props from the recent cinema hit
Gladiator, a pile of reference books on Ancient
Egypt, countless atlases and Russian submarine
schematics point toward content. A depleted crate
of the high-energy drink Solstis hints at late
night, while three Post-It notes stuck to a monitor
intimate a slight lack of enthusiasm: The first
bears the legend "I LOVE 5!" The second shows
a stabbed heart within which sits a large "5".
The third simply says: "PLEASE KILL ME". Low morale,
or a depressed boy-band fan? We don't dare ask.
we see the game. If spin's to be put on it, the
best way to describe Chronicles is a version of
Tomb Raider that's shaping to be the most polished,
eclectic, and well-rounded of the series. "It
will be far more representative of a PC game than
before," says Smith, and it's impossible to disagree.
In the visual stakes, at least, Chronicles has
a discernible upper hand over episodes one to
four. Higher polygon-count models (around 400
per character this time), improved lighting effects,
extra frames of animation for the lady herself
and more detailed environmental texturing contrive
to offer a more agreeable aesthetic. It's unquestionably
the best-looking Tomb Raider game ever (that quote
coming soon to an advert near you). So to the
the drill: third person walking, running, jumping,
climbing, swimming, shooting and block-pulling.
Except there a couple of new moves to comment
on. Firstly, Lara's learned the fine art of balancing.
Cue areas that are only negotiable by tightrope
walking, or by traversing ultra-thin abyss-spanning
planks. All of which doesn't seem too revolutionary,
but the team have perfected a neat physics system
whereby you massage the keys to compensate for
Lara's centre of gravity, ideally keeping her
top-heavy form on the straight and very narrow.
You'll find gymnastic obstacles too.
says: "We've even got parallel bars in there too.
It's very Errol Flynn-like. I don't know where
that idea came from, but is wasn't me." But congratulations
to whomever wants the credit, for Lara can utilise
the apparatus to... well, we never exactly got
to the bottom of exactly what use it is. Perhaps
you'll find gym equipment scattered beneath just-a-bit-too-high-reach-to-by-conventional-means
ledges in a similar fashion to the way that most
computer foes drop incongruous, over-sized apples
or rotating keys upon dying. This time around,
the favoured locations include Rome, an Irish
island, a Russian submarine base, and a hi-tech
Tower block. Each chapter features three or four
levels each, and although the sprawling structure
of Tomb Raider III has been ditched of the more
measured, logical approach of The Last Revelation,
Core appear to have crammed plenty of longevity
and variety into Chronicles.
again: "There's a lot more game play based on
where you are on Chronicles. She gets much more
help from other characters throughout the game,
and it's quite linear." Hang on. Willingly describing
your game as "linear" is surely akin to swearing
one's allegiance to Satan? When compared with
Tomb Raider III's occurrences of instant death
and regular confusion, though, maybe a more obvious
route isn't a bad thing Especially when most of
the game's team members reference Half-Life and
Metal Gear Solid as inspiration for the level
of interaction and immersion they're hoping to
achieve. Gordon Freeman versus Lara Croft - now
that would be interesting.
obvious reference to Half-Life is in the game's
strongly narrative approach. The third level,
Spooky Island, for instance, plays host to a young
Lara, enjoying a holiday with her parents. Pedants
rejoice, for it's actually the first time you
get to play a proper mission as a 16-year-old
Lara (The Last Revelation only offered a training
level). Younger versions of Father Dunstan and
the butler Winston will also make appearances.
In Smith's own words, the island levels will see
Lara become embroiled in a typical "Enid Blyton-style
Famous Five mystery". As he points out: "Because
she's only 16 she'll be using traps instead of
guns." Scripted sequences have made their way
into the combat and exploration, Lara can now
search things (bodies, desks, shelves, etc.) while
the flavour of the month, stealth has been added
to the fighting.
up behind an enemy (staying out of their line
of sight and walk rather than run) allows her
to use special moves that include chloroforming
foes into submission or simply punching them out.
When executed correctly, either move elicits a
smooth transition to an in-game cut-scene, allowing
you to marvel at the full glory of your sneaky
tactics. Some even take the surroundings into
account, and one we saw showed Lara punching then
kicking her quarry through a plate-gate window.
Naturally, the non-player characters' AI has had
to be improved to make all this possible. Improvements
include detecting sounds as well as acting on
line-of-sight, the ability to turn around in an
instant rather than rotating, and the capacity
to follow you throughout a level.
as Smith reminds us: "In The Last Revelation,
we overlooked the fact that players couldn't go
to and from the hub if they wanted to. It went
straight over our heads." For Chronicles expect
the ability to travel back and forth though levels
at a whim. The most intriguing level of all looks
like being the Office Block. Described as "like
Metal Gear Solid and Perfect Dark", all enemy
guards need to neutralised by stealthy means,
camera security systems need to be bypassed, and
invisible lasers have to be avoided using special
infra-red goggles. All very Matrix. FIVE ALIVE?
At the same time, though, it's still quite obviously
is still there - and the good (or bad) news, depending
on your point of view, is that it's bigger. As
Smith explains, "Everyone says Lara got smaller
in TR III, so she'll be a bit larger in Chronicles."
A software version will likely be present, weapons
additions are few ("It's prequel-y, so we couldn't
have many new weapons..."), so expect to be using
crossbows, 12-bore shotguns, Heckler & Kochs -
all the usual firearms plus a Grappling Hook.
Most weapons been imbued with alternative firing
modes - Burst, Rapid, and Sniper modes - which
can be accessed via an inventory system based
on The Last Revelation's.
game's levels, Rome and the Russian Submarine
base will be the ones which those most au fait
with the series will feel most let down. The former
is very similar to TR II's Venice level, and TR
III boasted (at the time) a pretty impressive
Antarctica-based ship. Are Core running out of
ideas? Cunningly, we get the impression they've
actually got loads, including the decision to
ship a free level editor with Chronicles (see
'Art and Croft'). That said, they seem to be saving
the best ones for a rainy day. And, reasonably
predictably, those new ideas include yet another
Tomb Raider game, the working title of which is
The Next Generation.
Core Design are working closely with the producers
of the Tomb Raider movie and although some information
is still under wraps, Smith was hugely enthusiastic
about what he's seen while on set visits. "It's
got quite a sci-fi edge," he says. "The sets look
awesome, and they've been pursuing the love interest
like a dog with a bone." What kind of love interest?
"Well, maybe a bit like the X-Files with Mulder
and Scully..." And what do you think of the generously
lipped lead, Angelina Jolie? "I think Angelina
Jolie's great. I think she's f***ing barking,
but she's a hot property. I can't really think
of anyone better for the role. She's a very strong
character-actress, and the poor bloke who interviews
her gets a right hard time." I wish.
in black Matrix overcoat and shades, Lara in sweater
and slacks, Lara in blue jeans - we've seen all
the concept sketches. Core Design are busy reinventing
Ms Croft for their Next Generation game. Smith
is revealing little, although he does let slip
that a stats-based system will mean real character
progression, with skills improving the more you
use them. "Lara isn't going to be so squeaky-clean
in the Next Generation. We got her naked, GOT
RID OF THAT SAFARI OUTFIT and started again...
We're going grittier... Her life won't entirely
have gone to H*E*L*L*. However the darker look
is an obvious angle to portray. We can take Lara
to a more mature audience."
first time ever, a level editor for a Tomb Raider
game will make it into the box. A user-friendly
version of the one the game designers use to build
levels, it will hopefully pave the way for a huge
number of amateur levels to make their way onto
the Internet. Smith explains: "We've had to change
a load of it from the way it started off. There'll
be a manual, tutorials for how to texture, light
and build levels. Plus several graphical packages
will be in there, making it easy to build, for
example, a jungle themed level." The team are
currently considering adding extra levels from
the previous games for gamers to fiddle with -
and it's probable that levels will be importable
into any of the previous Tomb Raider games. A
support Web site is also planned to offer extra
tutorials and resources such as new textures.
quell surprise - IS she's going to rise again?
Smith proves to be little help: "In The Next Generation
game she'll be Lara, but not Lara." Lara but not
Lara? Time to skip to the final few lines of that
design brief, then. And if you don't want to spoil
the end, I strongly suggest you stop reading now...
"The camera pans down into a narrow, open-topped
tunnel. Von Croy and the guide descend into pitch
blackness. We are now in silence, deep inside
a small chamber lit with burning torches. One
of the diggers is scrabbling frantically in the
sand...He hands something to Von Croy but we can't
see it because his body is blocking the shot,
Von Croy speaks: 'We've found her...'" See you
this November for TOMB RAIDER 5 CHRONICLES and
NEXT CHRISTMAS (2001) for TOMB RAIDER NEXT GENERATION