E3 Preview: Tomb Raider: Underworld

Lately, the Tomb Raider series has been getting what I like to refer to as the Batman Begins treatment. Eidos finally became aware that the franchise had begun to get a bit stale and decided to take a whole new approach with Tomb Raider: Legend. Well, like the recent blockbuster film The Dark Knight, developer Crystal Dynamics is continuing on this newly refurbished path for historical gaming vixen Lara Croft with Tomb Raider: Underworld, and are even retooling aspects from Legend that they felt could be improved.

During this year’s E3, we were given the opportunity to witness a gameplay demo session taking place early in the game where Lara is located in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, following coordinates laid down, but never reached, by her father. Diving into the water wearing a wetsuit that probably wouldn’t keep a real person all that warm, Lara began her undersea descent onto a large set a ruins spread out across the ocean floor, which looked beautifully filtered through the water when viewed at a distance. As Lara coasted over the ruins, the developers explained the more open-ended approach that the environments of Underworld will contain, and in such underwater levels like the one in our demo, Lara will be equipped with SCUBA gear so that players can freely explore, rather than having to constantly scramble in search of another oxygen source.

There were a few hungry sharks lurking around, but luckily, our lovely archaeologist was carrying her trusty spear gun and a set of grenades that adhered to the predators for a delicious underwater explosion. After finishing up with the sharks, Lara made her way into a cave containing a door with three large circles, and you know what that means: puzzle time! It was apparent that a set of axles were going to be needed to open the door, so in order to get a little assistance in finding them, Lara opened up her PDA to reveal a new feature: a sonar kit which projects a 3D map of the entire level. This will surely be useful for those of us that have gotten horribly lost in past Tomb Raider games, and it shows the true scale of the game’s environments. Manipulating the map, the axles were found not too far from the cave, hidden in patches of kelp. Once Lara made her way to the axles’ location, we noticed that she was able to pick up the items with one hand, a new skill that will come into play when solving other puzzles, and also factor into melee combat.

After fastening all of the axles into place, the door opened and Lara made her way inside, but was abruptly dragged away by a large tentacle bursting from the darkness. Following the screen’s fade to black, Lara found herself in a portion of the cavern that was not flooded with water, containing a doorway, and the source of that tentacle blocking it. Looking up above the enormous sea monster, or Kraken for you land dwellers, a large platform could be seen hanging in the air, with a cluster of large spikes conveniently protruding from underneath it to form a chandelier of death that was just begging to be dropped. In order to do this, we were told that, like other puzzles in Underworld, there will be no specific linear system to solving the problem, and that players will be free to experiment with a variety of possible solutions.

First, Lara equipped the grappling hook that all you Legend fans should be familiar with, and proceeded to tear down a pillar to crush one of the Kraken’s tentacles, while at the same time disassembling a bridge. This will be a common occurrence in Underworld because going about puzzle solving will sometimes alter your environment, adding a few twists to the series’ platforming action. As she began her ascent up a series of ledges, and parallel bars that can now be perched upon, Lara began to acquire dust and dirt on her legs, one of the new graphical enhancements to Underworld. But not to worry, Lara can be easily cleaned off by jumping back in the water.

Whilst navigating the cavern, it was noticeably silent, with no musical score to accompany Lara’s vaulting. This is because the developers want to give the player that feeling of isolation when navigating the serene, remote environments of Underworld. Everything was pretty peaceful, until a giant tentacle began to tear apart the platform we were standing on, sending the game into “adrenaline mode” where time reverts into slow motion, giving the player a few extra seconds to avoid whatever dangers are abruptly flung at them. In our case, we had to find some new solid ground, and fast. These events will, as you might suspect, replace the button pressing sequences in Legend to give the player more direct interaction with such cinematic moments in the game. The demo ended with the platform successfully plunging into the Kraken, creating a true Kodak moment that can be captured with Lara’s camera and then shared with friends online to either help them out with a puzzle, or show them what a pervert you are by snapping a pic of Lara when she’s at her filthiest.

We came away pretty impressed with Underworld’s offering of more complex and open environments that will span many locations across the globe, including Thailand, Mexico, and Antarctica. For Lara’s on-land adventures, the developers revealed that her motorcycle from Legend will return, but will now let players to hop on or off as they please, acting as another exploration tool to quickly get around the game’s large levels, instead of just providing linear on-rails driving segments. While we didn’t get a chance to see Lara take out her twin pistols for any combat sequences, Underworld’s more open-ended approach to platforming and puzzle solving has us confident that Crystal Dynamics is continuing the quest for a better Tomb Raider series that Legend began.

Tomb Raider: Underworld is set to release November 18th for Xbox 360, PS3, PC, PS2, and Wii.

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