Tomb Raider: Underworld Preview (PC)

We've come to expect only so much from yearly increments to established franchises; a few tweaks here, a new lighting effect there, and on the surface the new Tomb Raider title seems to play wholeheartedly into that particular creative trap. Thankfully, as Underworld represents only the second next-generation update for the Tomb Raider franchise with original content, the incremental updates are somewhat easier to forgive at this stage. Having played through the last two games on more than one occasion however, the subtle alterations in this version look to be more than enough to keep fans happy, without diluting the undoubted success that Crystal Dynamics has achieved in updating the series to more contemporary production values.

In terms of plot, Underworld sees Lara getting back to what she does best. It's no coincidence that the most critically acclaimed game in the series stretches back to the original (and last years stellar remake of course), and lets face it, as far as Lara is concerned, searching for mystical treasure in a far-off land is infinitely more appealing than scaling a skyscraper in a modern metropolis. After all, we have umpteen Tom Clancy games on the market that already fit that particularly saturated remit. Raiding tombs it is then, with the focus of Underworld revolving around Mayan myths and temples rather than cocktail dresses and society parties. As a theme, the brief demonstration we witnessed centered around the need to open a 'gateway to hell', dark indeed.

Storyline aside (no other details have yet to surface, other than the fact it takes place straight after the events in Legend), it seems that the general improvements will fall upon three key areas this year: the environment, Lara herself, and new gameplay additions (particularly combat).

The first thing to notice is the abundance of new lighting, weather and foliage effects as Ms Croft makes her way through a jungle-like entrance to an ancient temple. Lightning dashes across the sky, and a nice mixture of procedural weather, dynamic lighting and light maps make for a far more convincing environment to play in. Leaves and trees react as you dash past them, with Lara brushing them aside as she moves; footsteps leave imprints in the mud, which are then washed away with the rain over time, and added to this are the impressive rain effects, with water streaming off surfaces and onto the floor. Everything works well together, and forms a nice cohesive atmosphere throughout.

Certain effects are more than cosmetic however, with the developers keen to show off one particular beam that was soaked in water. The loss of traction when navigating across this obstacle resulted in several slips, and the need for quick reactions to swiftly recover. Hardly revolutionary in implementation, and maybe Drakes Fortune could be considered to have the edge with motion-controlled navigation in those circumstances, but a nice addition nonetheless.

Several new puzzle mechanics were also on show, pointing to a more varied experience than previous titles. Poles and objects can now be picked up and carried around (whilst leaving one hand free for shooting), providing opportunity for the developers to craft some interesting environmental riddles. Shoving a pole into a crack in the wall will provide a new swing point for example, allowing navigation to a higher ledge or room, whilst the physics engine for the grapple hook has been extended, allowing for more convincing interaction with other objects.

In addition to this, Lara now has the ability to free-climb on certain surfaces; no doubt a nod to Ubisofts' Assassins Creed series. Several situations were shown in which Lara could scale walls, reaching for hand and footholds in a very convincing manner. Gone are the days of a stilted animation played over a generic wall-climbing texture, and for that we can be forever grateful.

Speaking of new animations, Lara herself has also undertaken somewhat of an improvement. Whilst the physical model seems to be fairly identical to previous versions, full motion-captured movement has been employed for the first time in the series history, lending a nice balletic grace to the action that was previously missing. Several new close quarter combat moves have also been introduced, with Ms Croft able to punch, kick and batter people with all sorts of environmental objects. Sticky grenades have also found their way into the mix, and whilst catching an opponent doesn't require the same level of skill as a well placed throw in Halo, locking on and letting fly seems like it be a good addition to the arsenal of combat moves.

The only downer of the presentation came about with the advent of two previously contentious areas, namely the vehicle sections, and enemy AI. On one hand the inclusion of vehicles seems to have been expanded upon slightly, with Lara's bike apparently playing a much greater role in this game, but by the same token, the physics and handling model appears to remain the same frustrating mess as in Legend. We need to get our hands on the controls to be certain however. Enemy behaviour also seems to be identical, with some of the animal foes (several jaguars in this setting) getting hitched up on walls and environmental obstacles, and human AI seemingly still fairly simplistic. This is one area that will definitely need to be overhauled at some stage, but it seems it'll have to wait for a later version at this point.

All in all though, the positive impressions of the demo far outweighed the negative, and it all adds up to a very impressive looking title that's a definite cut above the previous version. We're also happy to see that the 360 version demonstrated showed no signs of the framerate problems that plagued the release of Anniversary last year, and hopefully it'll retain the rock solid production values through to the end of development. Tomb Raider fans can breath a sigh of relief then; after a somewhat rocky beginning with Legend, it looks as if Lara will finally get an original storyline and setting that may even live up to the original premise. We can only hope.


By angelsreeper (SI Newbie) on Nov 05, 2008
i played the demo
it was awesome !
Lara Croft is back !!