Tomb Raider Underworld Hands-On

We play through an extended version of the Tomb Raider demo that will be shown at next week's Games Convention in Leipzig.

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Earlier this week, during a meeting with representatives from Eidos and Crystal Dynamics, we had an opportunity to play Tomb Raider Underworld for the first time. The Xbox 360 demo version that we played was set exclusively in the "Coastal Thailand" level that will be shown at the Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany, next week. Some of the puzzles had clearly been reworked to make them more demo-friendly (i.e., shorter and easier), but we were still able to get a really good feel for how the finished game is going to play.

Lara's back, and ready to do some more climbing...
Lara's back, and ready to do some more climbing...

Before taking the controls, we discussed Crystal Dynamics' plans for Tomb Raider Underworld with Eric Lindstrom, the creative director for the game. He explained that Tomb Raider Legend focused primarily on action, while Tomb Raider Anniversary was heavy on puzzles and exploration. Underworld, however, will incorporate the best features of both games while also introducing some new features of its own.

The demo began on the deck of a yacht, where Lara is standing and looking across an expanse of beautiful blue water at a rocky coastline topped with lush vegetation. Sharks could be seen swimming in the water below. At the risk of making the swim to shore a little more dangerous than it needed to be, we confirmed that you can indeed target and shot at the sharks. Diving into the water, it became more apparent than before that the waves in the water are quite realistic. When we found a small rocky outcrop to climb onto, we were only able to reach up and grab it when the waves afforded us something of a boost.

Attempting to reach the mainland, it wasn't long before we were treated to a display of some of the new moves at Lara's disposal. We had opted to play through the demo without the benefit of any tutorial assistance, but the moves all fit so seamlessly into Lara's preexisting arsenal that we found performing them to be almost second nature. Free-climbing on rocky walls, pulling ourselves up onto narrow ledges then hugging the walls, and hanging from ropes one-handed while shooting with the other are all good examples of new moves at Lara's disposal, but there are plenty more. One especially neat touch, which we might not have noticed if it weren't for the fact that we were told to look out for it, had to do with making a jump from a hanging position. When attempting to jump, Lara's arms will let you know if it's safe or not. If Lara thinks she can make a jump, she'll get ready to grab whatever you're aiming for by dropping one of her arms. If she thinks you're having a laugh, she'll hold on tight. The new camera system being implemented in the game will purportedly make blind leaps of faith a thing of the past, but because it wasn't in the version of the demo that we played, Lara's visual clues proved invaluable.

As we progressed through the junglelike environment, which was dense enough with vegetation in places that Lara had to brush leaves aside, we encountered our first enemies: bats. Locking on to targets in Underworld is every bit as easy as it has been in previous games, and you're still able to perform all manner of acrobatics to avoid enemies without it ever affecting Lara's impeccable aim. Lara can even target two enemies simultaneously if she has her pair of pistols equipped, though you'll still just be using a single button to fire them both.

It wasn't long before we happened upon the ruins of a very large temple in the middle of the jungle, and after instinctively reaching for a lever near the entrance, it became clear that our goal (or at least one of our goals) was to repair an ancient elevator-like contraption. Needless to say, doing so required us to navigate our way all over the temple, solving puzzles that related to machine parts and such. Spotting ledges and handholds in the crumbling environment was rarely difficult, though none of them were obvious in a way that looked out of place.

Worthy of a mention are the tigers and lizards that livened up the puzzle-solving proceedings quite considerably. This is not because tigers and lizards are anything that Lara hasn't faced in games before, but because these tigers and lizards are quite unlike anything that she's faced before. The tigers, for example, move quite intelligently. They are fast and agile enough to do a good job of keeping up with Lara's acrobatics--following even when she uses a new move to speedily vault over a small wall. The lizards, which were referred to in our meeting as naga, also moved convincingly and were able to scale walls, as well as spit poison.

When enemies like these get too close, Lara can perform a swift melee attack that knocks them back. If you're so inclined, there are plenty of objects in the world that can be used as melee weapons as well, though doing so obviously requires Lara to holster one of her guns. During the demo, we were able to wield what appeared to be a very large pin at one point and later found that by inserting it into a hole in a wall, it could be used as a bar to climb on, grab, or swing.

..and shooting. Can't forget shooting.
..and shooting. Can't forget shooting.

Without wishing to give too much more away about the contents of the Coastal Thailand level, other highlights of our demo included using Lara's grapple to rappel down a wall, as well as noticing for the first time that Lara gets increasingly and convincingly dirty as you play. Another highlight had us solving a puzzle involving two giant statues that was epic in a way that not nearly enough puzzles have been since the first Tomb Raider game. Managing to survive our first ever "adrenaline moment" was pretty exciting because, at first, we were convinced that it was an elaborate death scene that we had no control over. Rather, adrenaline moments will be replacing the superactions from recent games. The main difference is simply that in the new set pieces, you retain full control of Lara, whereas in previous games, you've been prompted to press a sequence of buttons in something resembling a rhythm-game mechanic.

Tomb Raider Underworld is currently scheduled for release in October. We look forward to bringing you more information on what could well be Lara's greatest adventure yet as soon as it becomes available.

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