Project Eden Preview

Don't fault Core Designs for sticking to what it knows. Despite the fact that Project Eden's Tomb Raider roots are as obvious as those of a California blonde, there's enough graphical glitz and innovation to make this third-person action-adventure title more than just a makeover of the Tomb Raider formula.

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Third-person adventure games have become just as popular as fighters, shooters, and the yearly sports releases. This might be due largely to Core Design, the development team behind the Tomb Raider franchise. But critics and fans alike agree that the Tomb Raider series reached its creative peak several years ago, and new sequels are greeted by decreasing sales and lukewarm reviews. One might expect Core to take the hint and move on to bigger and better things, and it has - to an extent.

Superficially, the upcoming Project Eden for the PlayStation 2 represents exactly such a departure. The darkly futuristic story seems to owe nothing to the Indiana Jones-inspired Tomb Raider, though appearances can be deceiving. Closer examination of Project Eden's gameplay reveals that the upcoming title is more of a renovation than an overhaul of Core's Tomb Raider formula. While the game's scope doesn't stray too far beyond the confines of the third-person action-adventure genre, its slick graphics and design suggest that the development team may be back on the right track.

Project Eden takes place in a distant and stereotypical science-fiction future, where overpopulation has caused Earth's cities to rise to grossly disproportionate heights. These prosperous citizens of these megalopolises don't demolish old buildings, though, instead electing to simply build over them with bigger and better constructions. While this creates glittering superstructures that rise thousands of feet in the air, it also hides miles of decaying urban slums teeming with impoverished people who cannot afford the price of high altitude privilege. Below the slums themselves lies greater danger - an underworld inhabited by hideous mutants, seedy villains, and the criminally insane. To combat these brutal and frightening foes, the cities have formed a special police force trained to deal with disturbances in the underground. As part of the Urban Protection Agency, you're assigned to investigate a set of disturbances at a factory known as Real Meat. You'll soon discover that the mystery introduced at Real Meat goes beyond the single mundane factory and involves genetic engineering, disembodied souls, and more.

Like Tomb Raider, Project Eden's 11 missions fit comfortably between both the action and adventure styles, with typical blast-'em-up firefights integrated thoughtfully into unusually large interactive environments. Project Eden features key differences, however. Unlike Tomb Raider, you control one of up to four characters - each with different attributes - who work as a squad. Using remotely operated equipment, the game allows you to switch back and forth between characters. This becomes an increasingly important feature, as Project Eden's maps are sprawling. The ability to switch from character to character is not only a convenience, but it's also a necessity. This feature also creates the interesting gameplay dynamic of coordinating your exploration - like one character enabling a door in a control tower for another down below. Core states, however, that your team will just as often work together for safety and support in the event of random firefights as they will in puzzle mechanics.

Jumping from member to member is handled easily through Project Eden's simple interface. Here, you can also access the characters' inventories, as well as toggle back and forth between the default third-person perspective and a first-person view at your convenience. Also unique to Eden is the in-game camera, which often becomes part of the action. Remote robotic cameras, totally under the control of your team, can fly around the maps, scouting for potentially hazardous situations and sometimes assisting your team by entering areas too small for a human to access. Core claims that the robots' importance increases later in the game, as you'll gain the ability to use the cameras as remote gun emplacements against your enemies.

Core has constructed an impressive graphics engine for Project Eden from the ground up, featuring neat graphical touches not seen in other games. The aforementioned first-person perspective, for example, renders your entire body, allowing you to look down upon your armor, legs, and boots, as well as see your fully rendered shadow. There's much more - the engine allows for facial character animation, real-time morphing, and superior lighting and particle effects, all with plenty of polygonal detail. Images released so far confirm the scope of Eden's levels. These massive levels aren't barren, but they are instead teeming with intricate graphical details that convey the levels of depravity below the serene surface of these futuristic urban centers. While the decaying underground is hardly an imaginative locale in the world of video games, piles of junk, rusted iron girders, and scattered garbage rarely look this good.

Certainly a top-notch graphics engine and intriguing art design are key to grabbing gamers' notoriously fickle attentions, but the success or failure of Project Eden ultimately rides on Core Design's ability to come through with a solid gameplay experience. In this regard, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic - interactive cameras and squad-based teamwork are both very cool concepts. Coupled with the promised intuitive control and ambitious levels, we should definitely have a title to watch out for when it arrives in fall 2001.

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