At this point it should be acknowledged that Menlo Park-based developer Crystal Dynamics brought the Tomb Raider franchise back from the brink. The once-popular series had lost its way after a splashy debut and follow-up that helped usher in the 32-bit console era. Fast-forward to earlier this year, when Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider: Legend hit and reminded everyone that the series was still very viable. To follow up on its success, Crystal Dynamics is going back to the franchise's roots with Tomb Raider: Anniversary Edition, a promising retelling of Lara Croft's very first adventure. Though the game was announced earlier this year, the folks at Crystal D hadn't shown off much on it until this week, when we had the chance to have a look at the game in motion.
Before showing off the game, reps from the developer talked about the approach the team is taking with the game. Rather than simply redo the original game with Legend's visuals, the team is taking a more thorough approach to the new game. Citing the method Peter Jackson took for realizing his vision of King Kong--using the original narrative as a framework and retaining the key memorable moments while expanding on them--reps from Crystal Dynamic noted that Anniversary Edition will be much more than a simple update of the original game.
The game will follow the same basic story as the original, so you'll once again be guiding Lara as she's commissioned to retrieve an ancient relic known as a "scion" (no, not the car). As anyone who's played through the original game can tell you, while the gameplay was aces, the story wasn't big on making sense once you started progressing. As a result, Crystal is fleshing out the narrative to offer some clarity on what the heck is going on.
As far as gameplay goes, the level demoed for us showed off the revamped first level of the game, which, as in the original, revolved around a gear puzzle that required you to collect cogs to make an ancient clockwork gear system work. In the new game you'll be doing this in a vast cave made of up of interconnected passages that crisscross each other. More significantly, the rather plain gears that fit into pegs on a wall in the original have been replaced with proper gears carved into a good chunk of the cave wall. The hunt for the cogs also featured the return of familiar animal foes such as wolves, bats, and some Jurassic surprises (more on that later). The cog search also highlighted some very cool retro touches that brought a smile to our faces: Lara's radial inventory wheel is back, as is the simple tune that plays when you discover hidden areas (of which it looks like there will be many). One thing to note about Anniversary Collection's mechanics is that they've been opened up some to include elements introduced in Legend such as the grapple, context-sensitive actions, and the cinematic button-pressing moments.
The demo followed Lara solving the gear puzzle by collecting the missing cogs and using them to activate the different gears. As each one was activated they made it possible to advance deeper into the cave. Once that was sorted, the sassy Brit found herself in the lost valley area that was home to ancient critters such as velociraptors. The sequence in the valley didn't last long--it cut out just at one of the original game's signature moments, the appearance of the T. rex--but it offered enough of a tease to get us very hopeful for where Crystal Dynamics is going with the game.
The visuals in the game share obvious ties to Legend in terms of quality, but there's been a fair amount of work done to Lara's model to ensure she has her classic look from the first game. You'll see the return of her original outfit, complete with dual pistol holsters and blue unitard. Besides her physical appearance, work is being done to marry the fluidity of movement from Legend with some of Lara's signature moves, such as her swan dive. The environments we saw appear to do a fine job of recalling the feel of the original game's significantly more modest locales while offering up a cool cinematic feel and sense of wide-open space. Though we didn't see any human foes, Lara's animal enemies looked considerably more fetching than their 32-bit counterparts. Despite the fact that the PlayStation 2 game demoed for us was still very early in development, the game ran smoothly and looked quite sharp.
The audio in the game takes some getting used to, as one of the key elements of the original game was its solo vibe. As Lara Croft you faced off against the world and often found yourself playing in an oppressive silence, save for a modest assortment of sound effects and occasional pieces of music that would come in during key moments. While Crystal D is attempting to offer those kinds of moments in the experience, it's balancing that with modern expectations, so you can plan on hearing a musical score pop up throughout the adventure. How frequently it will be used is still being sorted out, but it's safe to assume the game won't be as quiet as the original.
Based on what we saw, Tomb Raider: Anniversary Edition is shaping up to be a very promising retelling of the original game. As it proved with Legend, Crystal Dynamics seems to get what the series is all about and is once again playing to its strengths. Given how strong Tomb Raider: Legend was, we have high hopes for Crystal Dynamics' second outing with Ms. Croft. Tomb Raider: Anniversary Edition is currently slated to ship this spring for the PlayStation Portable, PS2, and PC. While we were shown only the PS2 game, reps mentioned that Anniversary Edition will likely follow the same approach of Legend on the PSP and offer the same content the console game did, as well as some multiplayer features that are still being ironed out. Look for more on the game in the coming weeks.