Story is nice, but if one thing has been proved over and over in this industry then it’s that the gameplay is the most important aspect of a game. To adapt Cab Calloway
; if you’ve got a good game design behind you then you don’t need anything else. If you’ve got bad game design then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve got.
It’s pretty reassuring then that Eidos and Crystal Dynamics have clearly put a lot of thought into how the gameplay can be intelligently expanded in a way which fits in well with the game world.
Lara’s moves are the obvious way to improve gameplay and Ms. Croft has indeed got some new tricks in her repertoire. Lara can now perch on top of poles and leap from one to another and she can also sprint over short distances to elude baddies when needed. Rudimentary additions perhaps, but important ones nonetheless...
That’s only the tip of the iceberg too. Crystal Dynamics has thought long and hard about how to make Lara feel more real and fun to control – this is clearly manifested in the new ways Lara can interact with the game world. Lara can now pick up various items in the game, such as poles, pieces of debris, and other such things.
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Many of these bits and bobs are important to solving puzzles that pop up throughout the game and we got to see Lara use a particular pole as a lever for turning a massive clockwork mechanism in an Incan temple. Outside of puzzles though, Lara can use items she finds as weapons to bludgeon or batter her foes.
Melee is just one area in which the combat system has been redesigned though – as well as being able to beat her opponents senseless, Lara is now able to put her athletic nature to the task by dual targeting enemies as she prances, rolls, dives and plummets. We only got to see evidence of this working with Lara’s most basic weapons, the dual pistols, but being able to lock onto two enemies at once certainly does make the fighting feel more lifelike and emergent.
Most useful in Lara’s expanded skillset though is the ability to free climb over virtually any surface and in any direction. Lara, just like Altair
, is an accomplished climber and can mount most surfaces with ease. Underworld
therefore sees Lara able to climb diagonally, round overhangs and through recesses. She is still admittedly limited for the sake of the level design, but her level of freedom far surpasses anything we’ve seen in any other Tomb Raider
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We were treated to a little demo of Lara’s new moves when we popped along to see Eidos last week and the way the level design has changed to incorporate Lara’s abilities was honestly breathtaking. One part of the demonstration saw Lara stuck at the bottom of a very deep hole. She had to get out.
Conventional game design would have had the hole designed in a very specific way. There would be a certain route out and players would be able to spot that route thanks to contextual clues – such as textures they know Lara can climb on or poles they know she can perch atop. In Underworld
however, that design is dispensed with.
Suddenly, on the demonstration screen, Lara lurched into action. She leapt into the air with typical aplomb and agility, grabbed hold of a section of normal-looking wall, and started upwards. There was a massive outcropping of rock which, we imagined, would bar progress. Lara overcame it with ease and continued upwards until she reached a point where the tiles had fallen from the wall. With no handholds left, she launched upwards, kicked off the wall and gripped a stone column with the kind of thighs made to keep men like me awake at night.
The route upwards was far from obvious at first, but once Lara started climbing the path gracefully revealed itself. Crystal Dynamics had obviously perfected the art of making the way ahead blend in perfectly with the environment and it got even better when the developers confirmed that there was more than one way to solve the problem; multiple routes out of the tunnel.