After somehow winning the “journalistic karma of the year award” fellow ready-upper Shaz and I found ourselves with the fantastic opportunity to attend the Tomb Raider: Underworld preview event at Luton Hoo (aka Croft Manor, for the day at least!). Excitement was running through the ranks as we piled onto a coach at London filled with journalists from papers, magazines and pretty much anyone who could come up with a good enough excuse to get in on what was anticipated as an amazing day that many of us would have paid to go on and certainly wouldn’t be forgetting in a hurry! Amidst the mindless chatter and polite conversation everyone was panicked at getting their interview slots as both Eric Lyndstrom (Creative Director) and Allison Carroll (our real-life Lara) were joining in most of the activities leaving them with little free time. As people settled down and rested up on the journey there was a definite reaction on everyones face when the coach drove past a Croft Manor sign and delivered us up to the building. It really was Croft Manor inside and out with the ambiance of the place leaving many people speechless – so when we saw Allison in the full Lara Croft outfit, guns and all, outside the front doors greeting us to her home both Shaz and I were highly impressed. As the bigger of the Tomb Raider fans between us I instantly knew that this day was going to be a dream come true, whilst even Shaz was excitable to be greeted by such an iconic character. Although she seemed a little more shy than me at first she soon settled in to the routine of the day. With all the amazing things set out for us it really would have been hard to not settle in.
The day started with a short presentation by the game’s Creative Director, Eric, who despite fighting a cold was able to really kick-start the enthusiasm for the game. We were shown the first “training” level in this presentation and as we all know these can be soooooo tedious and boring, especially if it’s a game series and you’ve already played some of them. Well, that problem is definitely avoided in this game with a completely unexpected environment that instantly grabs you. The idea behind this is “an area that is very safe but does not look safe” in order to up the excitement. After this level the game returns to a week earlier so for once you actual get the feeling of the time scale of the story.
At the beginning of the design process, in order to provide us loyal Tomb Raider fans with something new, they used a brainstorming session of “what can Lara do?”. This idea encouraged the team to think of new things that Lara should be capable of doing with her skills (firing at two targets simultaneously, and sprinting being the personal favourite of Eric’s) as well new ways of using her old skills (the grapple hook can now be used round obstacles, Lara can now throw objects). The camera design has also been built from scratch, giving the game a much more cinematic look and feel. Although you can still move the camera in the usual way I think you’ll find leaving the game to it is now a lot more player-friendly.
Tomb Raider: Underworld includes a lot of what the hardcore fans want but also opens up the game to new players by incorporating various differences. If you’re against killing everything you see Lara now comes with a tranquiliser gun, if you get lost there’s a sonar map and if you’re stuck on a puzzle there is now a new hint system. The new system allows you to be told by Lara what the problem is or a clue as to how to solve it. This can be done at any time and has no cost or benefit so people who prefer other aspects of the game can race through the puzzles to get to more of what they want. Hardcore puzzle fans will also be grateful for this as it has made it possible to introduce far more intricate and difficult puzzles.
After the presentation we got the chance to try out the game for ourselves, which turned out to be everything we had just been promised by Eric but also so much more. After a couple of hours of rabid journalists clawing for the few consoles that were up and running we were cordially invited by Lara to attend lunch. Lunch was served as a fabulous buffet with waiters and waitresses, serviettes in abundance and an optional glass(es) of wine. Shaz along with many of the other journalists seemed to panic a bit at the concept of having such a fancy lunch but most of the journalists settled down when it was discovered they also had bottled beer! Still a sensible lunch was had by us, we weren’t in a losing mood for the afternoon’s itinerary! Not that we’re a competitive bunch…ok I might be a little bit competitive, but just a bit!
After lunch came the outdoor activities – yep, we might have come to see Tomb Raider but they weren’t going to let us off lightly! The afternoon was packed with Lara Croft-esque activities for us to try our own hand at. First up for our team was mini tank driving, which proved to be a popular activity as the day went on, although as someone who has never driven anything I don’t think I quite did what I intended to do! Still, those cones on the track were giving me dodgy looks, they deserved to be run over. As Eric said the control system really could be set up better which I fully agree with but then Eric himself is a big gamer – once a gamer always a gamer I guess, that’s my excuse. On the plus side how many people can say a mini tank is the first thing they’ve ever driven? That’s got to earn me some serious kudos. Never mind, it was definitely an experience, and Shaz showed the guys how the girls at Ready Up do things by being one of the best out of our group! Other activities included a similar idea to laser quest but whilst hiding in trees with smoke grenades with teams taking it in turns to defend the tree. Unfortunately our group, made up of Eric, myself, Shaz and a random scattering of other journalists did too well at defending the tree and the guys in charge decided to charge in and even the score! Still, when it came to swap round we still showed them who was boss. In addition to these we also had our chance to try our hand at knife throwing (which even Allison found very tricky so she is human) which included a variety of knife types including Batman’s throwing bats?! Next up, laser clay pigeon shooting which Shaz informs me was very tricky. Not too good for us gamers as you don’t have to think about where it will be, just where it is due to the laser system. This concept seemed to confuse a lot of people but some had real success. When archery was started lucky shot Allison got a bullseye just as she was being filmed…it was certainly a packed day but when the rain started to pour I left Shaz to participate in the activities with Eric and took refuge on the coach with Allison. Shivering just isn’t my style!
Surprisingly our real-life Lara was incredibly easy to talk to and a wonderful role model in herself. Having previously been working as a receptionist the leap to Lara still seems quite surreal to her but as a trained actress and gymnast who rock climbs for fun I really couldn’t think of anyone better for the job. As someone who has always wanted to be an action hero, when I mentioned her training regime (she has SAS training and firearms training coming soon and has already had to learn to scuba dive in 20 minutes, go canoeing and drive a Maserati round a track!) she simply replied “If Lara Croft can do it so can I!”. She definitely believes that in order to make Lara come alive she needs all the skills and with brothers who are huge Tomb Raider fans she certainly got a lot of support from her friends and family. A gaming icon she may be but a hardcore gamer she is not and openly admitted she is better at being Lara than playing as Lara although she has given it a go. I felt the need to ask what aspect of Lara she most admired and I wasn’t surprised by the answer – “her independence…she goes for what she wants and she gets it!”.
Those who have played Tomb Raider: Legend will probably be shouting at the screen “But how long is this one?!” – the criticism of TR: Legend being the ridiculous speed in which you would be trading it in. However, when talking with Eric he has admitted that it is very much down to the style of the player but everyone should find it 2-3 times longer than Lara’s first outing on the next gen consoles. Plus those of us with a Xbox 360 can now rejoice as it is confirmed that downloadable content will be released, firstly around Christmas and then in Quarter 1 of 2009. These standalone packs will provide more depth to the story, filling you in with how the story was originally written before adjusting the game to a sensible length. As stated by Eric the DLC is the “untold stories” that are necessary for the game developers to have invented.
So what can we expect from the new Tomb Raider? Everything we’ve always had and more. There are still collectibles, there are still multiple outfits, there are still enemies that will maim you in a second (only catch is they can now follow you…erm help!) but there is so much more to see and do with a less linear path to take and so many new toys to play with! So to all you people out there who aren’t necessarily fans, take a chance. As Eric said to me “Tomb Raider is what Tomb Raider is”. It’s a multi-genre game and with its breathtaking new look I suggest everyone get preordering now – the only downside to the day was that I now have no patience to wait for the game to come out! A big thank you to the organisers of the day who really provided a Tomb Raider experience for us all, a job well done.
Zoey & Shaz