Crystal Dynamics Talks "Tomb Raider: Underworld"

Since 1996, Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise have been mainstays of the gaming scene. The first game was seen as revolutionary at the time, both for its iconic lead character and its gameplay, which combined third-person shooting, platforming and puzzle-solving in sweeping 3D environments. "Tomb Raider" was a critical and commercial success, which went on to spawn several sequels, comic book and movie adaptations, and an animated web series, among other things.

As with any storied franchise, Tomb Raider has had its ups and downs over the life of the series, and one of the biggest challenges it faces is continuing to stay relevant in today's gaming landscape. This was never more evident than in 2003, when the series hit a lull after the poor reception of "Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness." Publisher Eidos subsequently handed the reins of the series over to developer Crystal Dynamics, whose first release was 2006's "Tomb Raider: Legend," which breathed new life into the series, and 2007's "Tomb Raider: Anniversary" reminded everyone why the series was such a success in the first place.

With the Tomb Raider franchise on stable ground once again, Crystal Dynamics set about creating a new game that built successfully on the best parts of the series, but also took a leap forward in innovation. The result of their efforts is about to be seen, as "Tomb Raider: Underworld" will be hitting store shelves this week. CBR News was able to get some time with Crystal Dynamics' Eric Lindstrom, the Creative Director of "Tomb Raider: Underworld," to talk about how this game presents a bold new chapter in the chronicles of Lara Croft.

CBR: Your stated theme for "Tomb Raider: Underworld" is "What could Lara do?" How did that theme drive the development process?

Eric Lindstrom: The philosophy of "What could Lara do?" was central to development from the concept phase all the way through production. It was an answer to a question posed on Day One: "What should we enable the player to do?" Of all the possible answers, we settled on the one most satisfying to players and the easiest for gamers to act upon, and that was, "Well, what would you expect Lara to be able to do?" By determining Lara's abilities based on this philosophy, we made the character act in a way that was easier to grasp intuitively without consulting the manual and remembering a lot of arbitrary game rules.

As soon as we gave her the ability to carry objects in her hands for puzzle solving, why shouldn't she be able to throw these objects, or hit enemies with them, or stick them into the wall and climb on them? So we support all these things. Wouldn't you expect to be able to balance on beams? And if you can do that, shouldn't you be able to balance-walk on poles? Someone as skilled and fearless as Lara certainly would be able to, so we support it. And I personally might not be able to shoot two different enemies at the same time with two guns, but someone like Lara Croft could, so in the game you can.

This is the first Tomb Raider game that you've used motion capture in. How does that change what you're able to do with Lara?

Motion capture enabled us to pursue the philosophy of "What could Lara do?" without an army of animators. We would rather spend [that money] on environment artists and designers. We wanted to be able to do all these things but at a high level of detail and believability, and motion capture gave us the means to do that. We still required a very talented group of animators to craft all that data and make it work fluidly in the game, and to provide animations that could not be easily captured or were late blooming features, but it was terrific to be able to suit up real gymnasts and stunt actors and run them through Lara's actions.

What are the new ways in which Lara will be able to interact with environments in "Tomb Raider: Underworld?"

Lara Croft will be able to interact with her environment more than ever before in multiple ways. She can balance walk, free climb where there are handholds, shimmy on thin ledges, climb atop poles, and more. She can also use her grapple in more ways, including wrapping the line around objects to impart force, to move or spin objects, and she can use it to rappel up and down cliffs and walls. She also finds many ancient devices that she must investigate and understand in order to progress, and these devices are often huge and make big changes in the world.

How will the new weather effects impact the gameplay?

Weather isn't a gameplay system in "Tomb Raider: Underworld," it's a tool for the art and story to convey mood and atmosphere. Other media have been using weather to affect emotions for a long time -- we are doing the same.

Can you give us an overview of the storyline in "Tomb Raider: Underworld?" What are some of the locations that will be featured in the game?

Early in "Tomb Raider: Underworld," Lara Croft finds proof that the Norse myths of Thor and Odin are based on an ancient reality. Specifically, that Thor's hammer and the gear needed to wield it are myths that stem from real artifacts with unknown abilities. These items are hidden throughout the world in ruins so old that later civilizations -- like the Maya and the Hindu -- came along and covered them up. Lara travels to the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, to Southern Mexico, to Thailand, and to the far north and more, all in search of these very ancient artifacts.

In the north, these ancient sites influenced the Norse, and this is the mythological angle through which Lara approaches this mystery. In her quest for Thor's hammer, Lara discovers that it is no coincidence that the local myths for each location relate to stories of the underworld, because of the peculiar way these artifacts protect themselves. Location and myth and story and adventure are very closely linked, including a great sense of scope and variety in experience from beginning to end.

What is Situational Adrenaline and how will it be used in the game?

The "Quick Time Events" of the past -- when you had a moment of crisis where a button appears on screen requiring you to press it quickly to survive -- have evolved into Situational Adrenaline. In these cases, a sudden threat appears, like a trap springing on you or some decayed architecture crumbling beneath you, and if you don't act quickly, it's usually fatal. But rather than waiting for a button prompt, which takes you out of the experience, we give you a little adrenaline-fueled slow motion, and a camera angle that shows you your surroundings, and it's up to you to use your abilities to survive. You remain in full control the entire time and must survive by your wits and reflexes.

Perhaps the most unique feature we've heard about so far is the ability for players to customize their experience to be either more puzzle or combat-based. How will that work?

For games that offer so much breadth of gameplay as "Tomb Raider: Underworld," the Player Tailoring philosophy is the key to giving the many diverse audiences the means to play the game they most enjoy. For example, you can turn the health of enemies down or up, and for Lara as well. This can be used to manage difficulty, as is traditionally done, but for us, it's more about gameplay style preferences. You might turn down the health of the enemies, not because they are too hard, but because you want them to die quicker, to put more emphasis on exploration and puzzles in your game and less on combat. In that case, you might turn enemy health down, but you might also turn Lara's health down, in order to have a more extreme exploration survival experience, which you couldn't do if it was only about Hard versus Easy.

On the puzzle side, the Field Assistance feature is a big part of Player Tailoring. It isn't a system that occasionally pops up with a new hint, it's an always accessible logic-based system that you can turn to for hints or plain-spoken answers to puzzle challenges. You can consult it at any time and it will tell you about something you haven't yet done but are able to do. Again, this is not about challenge per se, though it can be used as such, but more about choices. If you want the action and combat and less of the mental problem solving, you can get puzzle solutions from Lara whenever you want without penalty.

Another part of Player Tailoring is the sonar map, which gives players a valuable tool for exploring their world, but is entirely optional, so gamers who want to explore solely on the strength of memory and mental mapping can do so. There is also the ability to use tranquilizer guns, which is not about game challenge but about how you want to interact with your world and the often endangered species you encounter in the wild.

Can you give us any details on the downloadable content that will be available through Xbox Live?

Nope, but after you have "Tomb Raider: Underworld" in hand, we will start talking about ways to extend your experience through downloadable content.

"Tomb Raider: Underworld" will be arriving in U.S. stores on November 18 for the PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii and DS.

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