Tomb Raider 3: Adventures Of Lara Croft
God only knows what happened to the old Tomb Raider team, but one thing's for sure: they're not working on Tomb Raider III. Instead, a room full of unfamiliar codesmiths greets PC as we arrive at Core Design's Derby HQ.
Bewildered, we turn to a kindly faced man nearest the door, nouveau level designer Richard Morton. What's going on here, Richard? Is everybody on the team a Cnew boy?
Yes. Well, a couple of us designed some of the levels for Tomb Raider II to get us into it and up to speed, but everybody else is brand new. Isn't that a bit... scary? After all, the Tomb Raider series is a globally recognised brand.
Definitely. I think it's challenging to try and do something new with Lara. It's like proving yourself. If we can do a better Tomb Raider game than the last two, and we're a new team, and we've done it in a year... Quite a venture, then?
Yeah. Ninety percent of the code's been rewritten and the editor's been overhauled. We've gone in there and tried to speed everything up, put it in hi-res. The PC version will have a 16-bit colour screen instead of a 256, so it'll have all the transparency effects - even without a 3D card. Fascinating, but we weren't really listening; we'd just realised that Richard's voice sounds exactly like someone we went to college with. But since that's irrelevant we won't dwell on it. Much.
A Feast Of Entertainment
The Tomb Raider games have always represented great value for money. They're so big, and take so long to play through, it's a fair bet that many punters never get anywhere near the end. So is Tomb Raider Ill going to be as sprawling and massive as the other games? Richard chuckles. It'll be bigger. Actually, the sheer size is getting to be a worry, because we're & running out of time and space and memory to do things. At this point, it dawned on us that Richard's mannerisms are very similar to this college friend of ours. Perhaps the two are related.
Anyway, the game. Let's nip back to May this year for a moment - back to the E3 trade show in Atlanta. When Core showed an early version of Tomb Raider III to the assembled hordes, the reaction surprised them. Because there wasn't a reaction. The overall consensus seemed to be: there's another Tomb Raider game - so what? Instead, most eyes were on Nell McAndrew (gracing this issue's cover), the new Creal-life' Lara who was marching around the Eidos stand posing for publicity shots in a tight top and tiny shorts. Sexually starved losers stood around gawping at her every curve. That's the pathetic reality of male-dominated trade shows: days of noise, lights, and women paraded like cattle; nights of laddism, weak beer, and masturbation back in the hotel room (Speak for yourself - Ed). Roll on World War III.
Still, with every developer in the world participating in the willywaving contest, Core can be forgiven for wanting to show off their latest baby. Privately, they now concede that the game was shown too early, that it would have been more prudent to play their cards closer to their ample chest and reveal nothing -except Nell - at that moment in time. So why the muted public response? Well, as PC sees it, there are three major factors, which we will now discuss in a curt and efficient manner. Behind a desk. With a suit on.
Factor Number One
Tomb Raider I was ahead of its time
After all the clones and lookalikes, it's hard to recall just how revolutionary the original Tomb Raider was. And it appeared a few months after the much vaunted Mario 64; a few months earlier and it would have seemed even more incredible. Forget the style mag hoo-hah about Lara, Tomb Raider was a success first and foremost because it was a good, solid play. If it appeared out of the blue today it would still be remarkable. But it hasn't. It's been around for a couple of years. We're blase. We're familiar with the style. Nobody looks at it and goes Wow! any more. Shame.
Factor Number Two
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Core may disagree, but the major differences between Tomb II and HI are technicalities - tweaks to the gameplay, upgrades to the engine. There's no major stylistic change, no shocking new departure from the Tomb Raider norm. Why? Because it works, and they'd be idiots to scrap the formula they've got. Sure, a few improvements are welcome, such as the wealth of new vehicles and movements, but any major changes to the gameplay would be as jarring as a light-hearted musical number in the middle of a Bond movie.
Factor Number Three
It's got to run on a PlayStation
Fact of life: Core wouldn't turn a profit on a PC version alone. The game is being developed for the PC and PSX simultaneously. The PC version looks much better, but the PlayStation release will make all the money. Therefore every level, every animation, every ounce of gameplay must be developed with the PlayStation's comparatively meagre resources in mind. Upset? Don't be. As Run DMC might say: It's like that -that's just the way it is.
So What Is New?
At first glance, then, you could be forgiven for mistaking Tomb Raider III for one of its prequels. So what is new, Richard?
Well, the editing system for one. It's the same, but we've added lots of bells and whistles to the previous version. We've added triangles; before, you could only have squares. We've added the ability to manipulate individual points so you can create far more rounded backgrounds. You can have domes and things like that in there.
It may sound like a minor change, but it alters the architecture dramatically. Compared to the third instalment, the first two games look like they were built out of Lego. And there are other visual tweaks too.
We can have coloured lights now, which adds a bit more realism. Just something simple, like an orange tinge, can add a lot of atmosphere. And we've got proper explosions, proper smoke. The water's actually transparent now, too.
Again, on paper these changes sound about as arresting as a 12,000-word thesis on the socio-economic structure of Holland. In practice, however, they're welcome additions.
By now Richard is demonstrating a level onscreen. This is the South Pacific, he says, guiding Lara through a gathering of small, straw-roofed huts, stopping before an almighty, ornate wooden gate. It's like King Kong, except there's something else behind the door -it's a dinosaur-infested island. The dinosaurs in Tomb I and II were popular, so we wanted to base a whole level around them. And these dinos are cleverer than before: The enemy Al has been totally overhauled. They'll sneak around you. The T-Rex, for instance, is going to behave more like the one in Jurassic Park - if you stand still, he can't see you; light a flare and throw it and he'll chase after that.
As ever, Lara Croft is supple. Very supple. She could tie her thighs into a pretzel shape while balancing on her chin if she wanted. So what can she do this time round?
There's quite a few new moves. She can jump up and grab hold of things in a way she couldn't before. In Tomb II the obvious progression was to make her climb walls. In this one she can jump straight up and grab onto some ceilings, and monkeyswing along.
Anything else? Yeah. We've also given her a dash, so if you're running down a long corridor away from something, you've got a I stamina bar, and a limited amount of extra spurt, so to speak. And we're thinking about turning the dive into a special move. Great.
But we've drifted off again. We were wondering what became of that college chum of ours. The last we heard he was getting married to some girl from Washington DC. Anyway. When Tomb Raider II came out, Lara had a more rounded chest and a swinging ponytail. Has she had a refit for Tomb Raider 1117 Richard pauses. Well... she's got... ears now. That's a bit of extra detail. Eh? Hasn't she always had ears?
No, they were just texture maps before. These are proper ones. Although you can't really... see them. But you know they're there. Yeah. We know they're there.
Indiana Jones And The Polygonal Temptress
This Christmas, Lara won't just be under assault from endangered species and grinning henchmen; she's up against a movie legend too. LucasArts are set to release Indiana Jones And The Infernal Machine... which looks more than a tad Csimilar' to the Tomb Raider games. So what do the Core boys make of it?
We've seen some screenshots, and thought the character looked nice, but the backgrounds looked like Tomb Raider I. LucasArts usually take two or three times to get it right, so if this is their first game we might be alright. Two or three times to get it right? We beg to differ. Still, at least Core actually seem rather flattered rather than annoyed by the similarities. And besides, it's only/air, really.
Yeah, it's ironic in a way, because we took inspiration from the Indiana Jones films to make the game in the first place, and now they're taking inspiration from our game to make a game of the same film that kicked it all off.
It's all one big digital circle-jerk, in other words. But if they squared face to face for a fight, who would win? Lara or Indy?
Richard doesn't miss a beat. Lara. Indy would try to whip her, and she'd just shoot him, like he did to that swordsman in Raiders Of The Lost Ark." Good point. Lara always was the more trigger-happy of the two. Just ask all those animals she shot. In cold blood. Indy would never do that. Well, not unless they were German animals.
Blam! Blam! Blam!
Speaking of animals, what can we look forward to slaughtering this time around? Any more endangered species to butcher? We've got Alsatians, but they're not endangered, offers Richard. And Huskies...
They might be endangered. Maybe. We have got whales -killer whales.
Whales! They don't come much more endangered than that. Yeah. Although I suppose you could argue that the T-Rex is endangered too, since they're actually extinct. We've got a lot more dinosaur species, but overall we've gone for the more Cmutanty'-type characters rather than just animals.
She might even get to shoot Jeeves, her infamous butler too? We've had a lot of mail from people saying they want more of him. He's become a bit of a star to some.
So, to become a cult icon these days, all you have to do is walk around a bit?
Walk around and fart, yes. Actually, for the training level on this one we're thinking of using him for target practice - give him a bulletproofvest, a hood, and a target on his chest. He runs around and you have to get as many shots in as you can.
Planes Trains And Automobiles
One major innovation in Tomb II was the use of vehicles, which were fun but few and far between. Tomb III will have a new vehicle on every level: parachutes, underwater propulsion units, jeeps, and... what else?
We've got quad-bikes in the India stages, but they're not working too well at the moment. And we've got an entire level that's based around white water rides. There's kayaks and stuff. Just like the film Deliverance? Yeah. Actually we watched that as part of our research. Really? So will there be a bit where Lara gets sodomised by hillbillies?
Richard laughs. Susie, Core's PR supremo, who stands nearby throughout our visit, laughs too - but a little more hesitantly. Some may even call it a nervous twitter. Bless.
One major criticism of the first game of the series was the limited number ofCsave points'. This changed for the sequel, which enabled you to save at any time. And for the third game, Richard?
We're going to change it again. What we're thinking about doing is having like a mix between Tomb I and II. When you find a savegame crystal it'll give you a choice between saving the game then and there or storing the crystal for later. It puts the tension back into it, which we thought was lacking from Tomb II."
And here's another tweak: it's going to be far less linear. Not only can the levels be tackled in any order, but many stages will also have alternative routes through to the end. To illustrate the point, Richard calls up the South Pacific level and points out the two separate paths the player can choose to take. One's easy, one's hard. And you don't get clues as to which is which.
There are also changes to the combat system: not all the guns will automatically lock on to the targets. We've got a rocket launcher that now acts and looks like a proper one. The explosions have proper radius too. And it's not an auto-targeting weapon; you have to aim it manually.
Always End On A High Note
Yeah, yeah. So you probably nodded off back there when we were going on about savegames and targeted weapons. More fool you. The changes to Tomb Raider III may seem minute, but they add up. The game looks better, and it should play better too. What more do you want? Blood? And face facts: you'll be buying it anyway come Christmas. Now shut up and look at the pictures.
Download Tomb Raider 3: Adventures Of Lara Croft
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Christ, we'd forgotten how annoying the Tomb Raider games are. They're enough to drive you mad. Really. We haven't hurled abuse at the screen with such frequency and ferocity since the last series of Celebrity Ready Steady Cook. Can anyone name a more frustrating series of games? It's a wonder Lara Croft commands the kind of stellar celebrity she does when you consider how much hard cheese you're force-fed at every stage of every level. It doesn't let you down gently, it punches you as hard as it can, smack on the nose. Miss a jump and you don't just have to run back and try it again, you have to sit back and watch as Ms Croft breaks every bone in her body or gets skewered on a huge row of spikes. And then you reload and try again. And again and again. And again. And before long you're swearing out loud each time you mess things up. And grinding your teeth and clenching your fists. The game slowly reduces you to a shivering coil of concentrated rage. And this is popular?
The reward's the thing, of course. When you finally make it - that moment when Lara clears the gorge or dodges the booby trap; makes it to her destination without falling victim to some sudden, hideous misfortune - you feel good. You have achieved. You are the man. Of course, the sad reality away from the screen - that you're fat, spotty, elbow-deep in mouldering pizza boxes, pitied by friends and shunned by neightbours - tends to puncture the bubble of inflated self-esteem within seconds. So you go back for more. You keep playing and playing, like some sick junkie. In real terms, of course, you are achieving absolutely nothing; you're slumped In front of a monitor, pushing buttons like a lab monkey. But somehow you just can't give it up. The damn thing's stolen your concentration. And therein lies the power of the Tomb Raider trilogy.
Yes, trilogy. Lara's notched up her third adventure. Tomb Raider III is here and it's... well, it's like Tomb Raider plus Tomb Raider II, really. Which should please the mathematicians no end. It's several years since the first episode introduced Ms Croft to a slavering, slack-jawed gaming populace, and if truth be told not that much has changed since then. Tomb Raider ms clearly ahead of its time; Tomb Raider III is just as clearly behind its time. Not miles behind, but a fair distance from the likes of Half-Life or the upcoming Galleon. After all, Tomb Raider III has been developed for the PC and PlayStation simultaneously. A couple of years ago the PSX was where it was at: it had smooth and sophisticated 30 that put PCs of the day to shame. Now it's switcheroo.
With outstandingly fast systems on sale at absurdly low prices, the PC games of today rock bells; and they look better than N64 titles. PlayStation games seem increasingly samey, all melding into one technically antiquarian whole, just as Megadrive games did before them.
But if you want to make any money, writing games for the Sony platform is a must. Therefore, the programmers on Tomb Raider III had to ensure that every level, every enemy animation, every AI routine could squeeze inside the PlayStation's limited mind as well as the PC's superior one. Which is why this game isn't state-of-the-art. So it's not going to blow your socks off. Well boo bleedin' hoo. It's still a good game. The other advantage, of course, is that you don't need a PC fresh off the shelf to run it - a P133 with a 3D card should handle things nicely. Which is music to the ears of thousands of low-spec gamers.
Attention To Detail
At its core Tomb Raider III may be an old game, but by piss have they given the surface a polish. Decent lighting effects, weather, a rounder backside for Lara... The whole shebang looks about 30 per cent better than the 3Dfx version of Tomb Raider II. Which is no mean feat.
There are cracks in the fagade (for example, the opening Indian jungle section feels disappointingly boxy and contrived), but on the whole there's far more scope and variety of levels than before. The Nevada desert looks like the Nevada desert (actually it looks more like Utah or Arizona, but let's not fall out over State lines); Antarctica is a pile-up of blizzards and icebergs; and the London Underground section is surprisingly authentic (right down to the ever-present threat of violence). The stages are larger than before too, and are packed with more hidden areas, architectural red herrings and ugly surprises than ever before.
We'll admit this all comes as a bit of a surprise. When we heard Tomb Raider III ms being fashioned by a different team to the people responsible for the first two games, we were... well, doubtful about what the merits of the final release might be. An early visit to Core Design's offices in Derby didn't shed much light on things either - Lara's world was still being 'built', and much of what we saw consisted of our heroine scampering around a world of textureless cubes and triangles. The most significant thing about Tomb Raider III, it seemed, were the new costumes and the way Lara's ponytail swayed in the wind.
But we wuz wrong. The new team have clearly worked their arses off despite a tightening deadline, and have bettered the first two games as a result - an almost superhuman achievement when you consider how cleveriy designed they were. Lara's new team should clip this paragraph out, blow it up to 300 per cent on the office photocopier, pin it on the wall and use it as ammunition when negotiating a pay rise. Or some time off. Or some cake.
Save And Sound
Level design aside, there are other pleasant surprises: the savegame system, for instance. Yes, it's deathly dull on paper, but it makes a big difference to the way the game plays, so it's worth discussion. For a bit.
In Tomb Raider you had to save your position at special 'save points'. This was a pain in the arse because there weren't enough of them; you often found yourself having to go back and cover acres of infuriatingly tricky terrain each time you messed up. In Tomb Raider II, Core relented and let you save the game at absolutely any time. This was also a pain in the arse, because the temptation to save your position after every single jump was too great, and detracted from both the game's difficulty level and your sense of involvement. For Tomb Raider III they've got it just right you collect savegame 'crystals' which can be used at any time during the game, but since they're limited in number you need to ration them carefully. Result: the right balance between tension and playability.
Oh, And There's This Woman In It
Finally, of course, there's Lara herself. She's got new costumes (a different one for each stage this time). She's got new moves (including a vaguely pornographic down-on-all-fours crawling motion). She makes more attractive groaning noises. She drives more vehicles (kayaks and quad bikes). She dies in more hideous ways. And her ponytail sways in the wind.
That makes her a more valid superstar than, say, Sandra Bullock. Lara deserves the box office. We still love her. We're sure we shouldn't, but we do.
Love And Silver Service
The latest in an occasional series of short novellas based on in-game screenshots
"Your tea, ma'am," murmured Jeeves as he shuffled into the bedroom, his eyes fixed upon the silver tray he held before him. His bones were old and his hands were shaky, but as ever Jeeves focused his concentration and the tray remained steady - steady enough to prevent the china teacup from rattling in its saucer and the lid of the metallic teapot from clattering against the rim. Jeeves had been in the service of the Croft family for more than 50 years. Always steady, always silent. Jeeves never smiled nor frowned. He simply performed his duties with solemn grace, reliably invisible and inaudible. The ideal butler, reasoned Jeeves, must glide from task to task like a ghost without ever drawing attention to himself. And this he did.
Today was Jeeves' seventy-fifth birthday. He hadn't mentioned it himself, of course, but Lara knew the date - December the fifteenth. At the turn of the year she had circled it in her travelogue-cum-diary and contemplated a suitable gift. After weeks of fruitless speculation, it came to her Jeeves was a lonely old goat. His wife had died in 1948 and he had never remarried. Perhaps Lara could do something to cheer him up.
"Here, by the fireplace," commanded Lara. Jeeves dutifully floated closer, his eyes fixed on the tray. He didn't notice as Lara slid to her knees. The fire crackled. The room was warm. The lid of the silver teapot began to rattle like rain on a tin roof. "I've found it!" announced Lara happily, as she produced Jeeves' long-lost wedding ring. "Gee, thanks," said Jeeves.