PC GAMER HUNTS DOWN CORE DESIGN
Copyright 2000 PC Gamer

[ September 16th 2000 ]

Derby. 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.

Other 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.

If that 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.

Before 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.

Survival 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.

It's 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.

As it 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 outing?

There's 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'...

"We've 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.

The levels 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.

And then 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 game content.

You know 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.

As Smith 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.

Smith 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.

The most 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.

Creeping 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.

Plus 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 Tomb Raider.

The chest 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.

Of the 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.

Naturally, 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.

Lara 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."

For the 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.

So - 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 then.

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