Project Eden Preview
The creators of Tomb Raider are working on another action game for the PC, and we've got all the details.
Though Core Design helped usher in the era of the full three-dimensional action game with Tomb Raider, the company has been the recipient of widespread criticism because successive iterations of Tomb Raider have done little to advance the genre in any particular direction. However, Core hopes to change all of that with Project Eden, a third- and first-person shooter that relies heavily on puzzle-solving and strategy rather than an all-out display of firepower, as in many first-person shooters. "It isn't a shooter in the traditional sense," says Adrian Smith, co-founder of Core Design. "More of its heart is in the mechanics of multiplayer and puzzle-solving--shooting is the second most important thing." Smith's words are almost immediately reinforced when the game starts--when four armor-clad characters step onto the screen and wait patiently to receive your orders.
Project Eden's story follows the same basic near-dystopian outline of other shooters. Earth becomes so overpopulated that there's literally no more room on the surface for constructing new buildings, so preexisting structures continue to grow toward the sky, and massive roads that wind in and out of buildings are constructed to accommodate the population on the higher levels. Unfortunately, the quality of life dramatically begins to decline--the people who live in the lower levels of these enormous cities are deprived of sunlight and clean air. Soon, the lower levels of the cities become a haven for criminals and other outcasts from society, and those who dare visit the lower levels are structural engineers that inspect the foundations of the massive buildings. Four members of the Urban Protection Agency (UPA) are sent to the lower levels to investigate the Real Meat factory, where there have been reports of mysteriously malfunctioning equipment. It's your job to guide the four UPA team members through the factory, but as you progress, a bigger plot begins to unfold. "As you get deeper and deeper, you start to learn new things," Smith explains. "You find out that there are genetic experiments taking place and that the Urban Protection Agency isn't as nice as it seems." Plot points like these unravel through the use of dialogue between characters, as well as cutscenes that use the in-game engine. The current build of the game includes cutscenes, but the dialogue portions are noticeably absent
Each of the four team members from the UPA has his or her own unique abilities, which you must be familiar with to solve any of the puzzles in a timely manner. First, there's the oddly named Amber--a huge Robocop-like character that essentially acts as the tank for the group. She has the ability to carry heavy weaponry and absorb plenty of damage. Another UPA member is Carter. "If there's a leader character in the game, it's Carter," says Smith. "He's responsible for receiving and gathering all of the information." Minoko, the third member, is the only female character in the unit, and she's probably the most valuable since she can hack into computer systems and operate cameras located in areas that can help solve puzzles. Last, there's Andre, the hardware wizard of the group--he can fix just about any broken object within Project Eden's environments. Each of the member's abilities has been specifically designed to encourage teamwork.
Ask First, Shoot Later
As noted earlier, Project Eden's gameplay focuses more on puzzle-solving and teamwork rather than just the pure action of a typical first-person shooter, so a significant strategic element is readily apparent. One of the early levels that Smith demonstrates places the four UPA team members in a room next to an area filled with a few of the enemies. While you can always just run into the room with your gun blazing, it's not always the best strategy to take, so the game offers a number of alternatives based on how much reconnaissance you want to undertake. For example, if you want to do more than just get a quick glimpse of the enemy filled room while controlling one of the four team members, you can actually order one of them to use a remote camera--a small orblike object with a propulsion system that lets it fly about the room in all directions. The camera helps you determine how many enemies are in the room and if there are any hiding behind any corners or objects. However, there are a few downsides to using special items like this: When you use the camera, a portion of a team member's energy decreases, and though you can get a portion of it back, keeping a close eye on energy bars becomes even more important than it normally is. "Each time you use one of these items, it takes around 30 percent of your own energy," mentions Smith. "You can either decide to leave the energy where the [item's destroyed] or you can revert it and return about 20 percent of the energy." Additionally, if you aren't careful with your camera piloting, you can inadvertently warn the enemies that your group is nearby, which puts them in an alert mode of sorts.
Though they offer an obvious strategic advantage, special items also come into play when you're trying to solve puzzles. One such particular puzzle occurs when a sealed door blocks the rest of the level off from the team, so you have to search around the room for any possible clues as to what to do. You eventually find a small vent near the ground, which serves as a convenient entrance for your rover device. The rover is a very small tanklike device that can travel through small openings and even attack some enemies with its limited firepower. As you travel through the vent as the rover, you come across a power source covered in leeches, which appear to be feasting on the electricity. But by simply shooting all of them with the rover's lasers, you can restore power to the door, and your UPA team can progress through the initial stages of the level.
Other puzzles aren't quite as straightforward, and they require that you split up the team to take advantage of their special abilities. For example, you may want to separate Andre from the rest of the group so that he can repair a door panel while you send Minoko to another part of the level to operate a camera, which gives a bird's-eye view of the puzzle Amber and Carter are trying to solve. Smith emphasizes that you want to try to keep the team together as much as possible, but there are missions in which they stay separate for an extended period of time. "When a member of your team is left behind, it's up to you to decide if you want them to run back to the team alone and risk being attacked," Smith says. "Or you can send another team member back to help protect them."
Strategy in Project Eden isn't solely restricted to puzzle-solving; in fact, it applies to even the smallest creatures. Project Eden makes extensive use of a morphing technique--small creatures like rats smoothly change into dinosaurlike creatures within a few seconds. However, these creatures morph only if they're provoked by fire. "When you see one of these rats, you can decide if you want to shoot it, or you can just completely avoid it," Smith notes while watching a movie of the rat changing into an entirely different creature. Those who like to shoot at just about everything onscreen may be tempted to take on the rat, but it's really not the best option.
The morphing rat and other enemies in Project Eden all have advanced artificial intelligence that relies heavily on a self-preservation element--but there are exceptions. Since the current build is still early, walking into a room filled with enemies doesn't showcase much in terms of AI, as enemies stand in place even when being fired upon. But there are some rather impressive moments, like when the enemies start preparing their weapons when they see the hover camera or the rover enter the room, and Core plans to add other routines in which enemies actually run for cover and perform other various actions. The intelligence of the non-player-controlled UPA team members is actually impressive even at this early stage. If you're running through a level with another team member, and the trailing team member comes under attack, he or she stays behind and tries to hold his or her ground instead of trying to follow you and continually receive damage from enemy fire. Obviously, if you don't want the other team member to stay behind, you can just switch between characters and force him or her to run away.
Without question, Project Eden is oriented more toward puzzle-solving rather than traditional shooter action, but if you were to just take a look at the weapon list, you might think otherwise. In addition to the default laser pistol, all team members have access to a small arsenal of weapons that have unique abilities. There's a disc-launcher weapon, which in its default mode simply fires a disc of energy, but in its secondary mode, you can actually make it bounce off walls. Smith notes that one of the more useful weapons is the time shock: "It causes enemies to slow down--we're actually going to cut the number of frames of animation to make it look like something from The Matrix." Some weapons even let you refract the laser-targeting beam, so it can bend around corners or objects and thus let you fire projectiles around obstacles. Of course, there's also an assortment of basic weapons, like regular mines and proximity mines.
Even though Project Eden isn't due out until the summer of 2001, it looks promising. The emphasis on puzzle-solving and team play has created some excellent level design that really harnesses the idea that you're traveling through a massive city. The graphics look great--incredibly clean textures are strewn about the environment, and special effects, such as electricity, small water leaks, and reflective surfaces, really add to the overall feel. Last but not least, the Internet multiplayer mode, which includes both deathmatch and cooperative, sounds especially promising, as four players can control the four UPA team members. Smith and the rest of Core certainly hope that Project Eden will become as popular as some of the recent first-person shooter releases.
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