October 28, 2012

Tomb Raider Hunting Demo Hands-On at Comic Con

This is the second of 2 posts about my experience at New York Comic Con. See here for Part 1.

On Saturday, October 13, I had the privilege of attending New York Comic Con and trying the demo for the upcoming Tomb Raider game. We played what was billed as the "Pre-Beta Hunting Demo," basically the same demo shown at PAX in the video below. It takes about 15 minutes to complete, depending on how much side exploration you do. I went through it twice, and I'm sure I still haven't seen everything there is to see.

This demo doesn't reveal anything we haven't already been shown, and I won't give a blow-by-blow of the action, since you can watch it yourself. But it was great to finally see the game on an HD screen and get a feel for the controls. Several of you have asked for my impressions, so if you'll indulge me, I'll ramble a bit. Please note: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD....



We played the Xbox 360 version. The controls are similar to the previous Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games with a few minor changes: The left stick moves Lara; the right stick controls the camera. A is Jump. B is crouch/roll. X is Interact, and Y is Melee. About halfway through the demo, you get your hands on the bow and arrows. Hold LT to draw the bow, use the right stick to aim, then press and release RT to shoot. If you hold RT for a few seconds as you aim, the camera zooms in on your target. You can then release the trigger for a power shot. The bow does not have unlimited arrows (as I found out the hard way) but fortunately there are plenty of ammo pick-ups scattered around for slow learners like me. There were no guns or human enemies yet, so I can't describe how combat works.

Lara moves awkwardly at this early stage. That's not to say the controls are wonky—far from it; they're quite tight—it's just that her wounds, hunger and inexperience cause her to move gingerly. At times she cradles her injured side. She staggers after falling from a high ledge, as anyone would, and after a long jump-and-grab, she pulls herself up and pauses for a moment to catch her breath. It's all very realistic, and really helps the player feel her predicament. I suspect that later on, after she's found some more gear, tended to her wounds, and so forth, we'll see a much stronger and more acrobatic Lara, and the feel of the controls will evolve to reflect that.

The camera follows Lara more fluidly than in previous games, but you still have full camera control if you want to look around. Occasionally Lara will turn her head toward something you’re meant to notice. It's not as obvious as in the classic games, where the whole camera view shifts toward whatever it is, but if you're paying attention, you'll get the idea. Again, I assume this happens less often once you've passed the training area.

If you need more than a subtle hint, you can press LB to enter "Survival Instinct" mode. This shifts everything into a black-and-white view where your goals and any items you can interact with are highlighted. When you release the button, the view fades back to normal after a few seconds.

Survival Instinct mode in the new Tomb Raider
Survival Instinct screenshot courtesy of GameWise.

Lara grabs automatically when you jump toward a ledge or handhold. I'm not sure if you can deactivate auto-grab as in Anniversary. I suspect not, but this doesn't bother me. There's also a wall scramble maneuver, in which you basically double jump to scale vertical walls a little taller than Lara herself. The safety-grab maneuver from the other Crystal games is still there. If Lara attempts a long jump-and-grab but doesn't quite catch hold, you'll see a hint icon telling you to press X, which you'll need to do quickly to prevent her from falling.

The new Lara can also turn in mid-air. I didn't realize this at first, but Joshua, one of the fans in our group, mentioned it, so I tried it the second time I played. If you change direction mid-jump, using the left stick, she'll flail around a bit and finally settle somewhere between where you were initially aiming and the direction you corrected for. This felt kind of awkward and unrealistic to me, but no more so than veering in mid-air in the Core Design games. Maybe it'll become more instinctive with practice.

Hanging on for Life screenshot from the new Tomb Raider

The aspects of the game that seem most different from other Tomb Raiders are the user interface and the skills system. From what I've seen so far, I like these additions very much. It does break the realism the first few times you see a notification about a new goal or when Lara's XP meter flashes on screen as she gains points for discovering a new path or hunting game. But the interface is stylish and well designed. Even in this tutorial area, the hints aren't too intrusive.

For more info, you can press the Select button to see a map of the area with Lara's current position and objectives marked. This screen has a recap of the mission goal(s). There's also a panel listing possible unlockables for the entire area. For example, in the demo area:

Coastal Forest
X% complete


Basecamps found 2/3
Documents found 1/2
Relics found 0/3
Challenges Completed 0/1
Tombs Raided 0/1
Food Caches Found 0/5
Food Plants Found 1/5

Some areas and items aren't accessible at first. For example, just beyond the spot where you find Sam's backpack (3:44 in the PAX demo video), there's a ledge slightly higher than Lara's head. When you jump toward it, Lara tries to grab on but slips and falls onto the muddy slope below. As far as I can tell, you can't actually grab that ledge, but there's some interesting looking debris up there. So I suspect you can return here later after leveling up a bit and make that jump so you can explore the area further.

There's also a chest on a high rocky ledge in the deer hunting area, which provides "+1 skill point: find a basecamp." Next to it is a wooden crate, but when you try to open it, you get the message, "Missing Gear / You don't have the right equipment to open this." So, again, returning to areas you've covered previously clearly has its rewards.

If you go around the building below where you find the bow, you can climb inside and find an item called 1/8 Wartime Intelligence. This appears to be a Japanese soldier's journal. You can zoom in and out with LT/RT to examine it. I'm not sure where the other 7 journal pieces were located or what you gain by finding them all.

With a little help from the eagle-eyed Joshua, I also discovered some skulls dangling from a nearby tree. Shooting these with the bow, gives a small number of XP and the on-screen messages: "Ghost Hunter / Challenge Unlocked - Complete for XP" and "1/10 Totems destroyed." Sadly, I was only able to find one of these.

The Reach screenshot from the new Tomb Raider

Even at this early stage, you get a fair amount of XP just for moving ahead with the story. When you climb across the airplane, find the campfire, slide down into the forest, spot the dangling corpse with the bow, etc., you're awarded points. Later, after killing the deer, you must make your way back uphill to the camp fire. Standing next to the fire and pressing A brings up a menu where you can spend the XP you've earned on the survival skills listed below. I was only able to unlock the first three, but I assume if you explore more thoroughly, keep hunting and gathering for XP, and return later when you have the necessary equipment to open the crate, etc., you can unlock more upgrades.

Survival Skills

0/13 Combat Skills Mastered:
Toughness
Accomplished Killer
Steady Shot
Harder Hits
Harder Hits
Dodge Stun
Dodge Counter
Dodge Counter Mastery
Quick Kill
Brutal Kill
Jump Escape Mastery
Death From Above


0/12 Ingenuity Skills Mastered
Arrow Retrieval
Survivalist
Hunter
Animal Instincts
Bone Collector
Increased Ammo Capacity
Increased Ammo Capacity
Advanced Salvaging
Advanced Looting
Explorer Intuition
Researcher Intuition
Safe Landing

Base Camp screenshot from the new Tomb Raider
Base Camp screenshot courtesy of Games Movies Music Anime.

The only other thing that struck me as being especially different from previous games, is the sheer number of cut scenes. They're all fairly brief, though, and they don't interrupt the flow as much as they might. Rather than fading to black as you lose control of Lara, the cut scenes are integrated seamlessly into the gameplay and they do help advance the story. The developers have said one of their main goals is to achieve a cinematic experience. This is one of the ways they're trying to do that. As a gamer, I'd sometimes rather discover things myself than be shown, but again, this is a very early part of the game. I can only hope there won't be as much hand-holding in the later stages.

My only other complaints at this stage concern the voiceover and the lack of puzzles and tombs to explore. I understand what the developers are trying to do by making Lara more vulnerable and inexperienced at the start of the game, but I have to be honest; I don't like it. Her constant panting, whining, wincing and talking to herself is distracting. I wouldn't mind the occasional comment or hint, but I'm not a fan of emo Lara. I can only hope that as she gains her footing and begins to turn the tables on her adversaries, we'll start to see more of the witty, in-control heroine we've come to know and love.

As for actual tombs, I was excited to see references to "Relics found, Challenges Completed and Tombs Raided" on the mission goals screen. Based on the devs' reassurances, I'll just have to assume that we'll be seeing some of these before too long. And of course we're all eagerly awaiting a downloadable version of this demo to tide us over until March 5. What do you say, Crystal? Give us fans a break, won't you? ;)

Stella's Adventures at New York Comic Con

This is the second of 2 posts about my experience at New York Comic Con. Part 2 covers the Tomb Raider Hunting Demo.

On October 13 my son, Max, and I made a geek's pilgrimage to New York Comic Con. It was a crisp, shiny Saturday. Traffic was light, and we drove down to Manhattan in under 2 hours. The toughest part was finding a parking garage that wouldn't eat up our entire swag budget. Thirty minutes and $45 later, we speed walked along 34th Street toward the Javits Center, blending into the throngs of costumed natives headed the same way.

New Yorkers heading to Comic ConComic Con Passes

Since we'd bought our passes online, and the doors had already opened by the time we got there, we didn't have to wait long to get in. Finding the Tomb Raider Archery Experience, where we'd planned to rendezvous with Meagan from Crystal Dynamics and the rest of our posse, was another story. The convention organizers had hidden it away in a corridor between two buildings. But I felt like Lara uncovering a secret (aha!) when we finally found it.

Morgan and Stella
Morgan stopped by briefly so we could snap a photo together. She and I share multiple fandoms, including TR and Firefly. It would have been nice to spend more time with her. Maybe next year....
Meeting online friends for the first time is always exciting. Even if you've known them for years, there's always a little cognitive dissonance as you put faces to names and avatars. But it was wonderful to finally meet Meagan, Tom from Lara Croft Online, and Hunter. I was also psyched to make some new friends, including TR fans Ryan, Keith and Joshua. Like my son, Joshua's friend Adam came along for moral support. Both were good sports about indulging our obsession. ;)

After the meet and greet, we had a friendly archery competition. An instructor from the New Jersey School of Archery (sorry, I forgot her name) showed us the ropes. Then we took turns on the range, each firing two rounds of three rubber-tipped arrows. It was a lot harder than it looked. Only one of my first three shots even hit the target, but I managed to hit twice on my second round. Tom was brilliant! He landed a bull's eye and took home a limited-edition Tomb Raider lithograph signed by the dev team! We got to keep our TR-themed targets, and we each received a customized Endurance Crew badge as a digital souvenir.

Max takes a shotMy target
Tomb Raider Archery Experience
Max taking a shot (above left). Yours truly (above right). The group (left to right): Tom from LCO, Max, Stella, Ryan, Meagan, Hunter, our archery instructor, Joshua, Keith, Adam. More Tomb Raider Archery Experience photos and videos on the Official TR Blog.

Next we headed off to lunch at Dallas BBQ, a carnivore's paradise near Times Square. The food was great, but even better was sharing it with a group of people who love the same things I do. We talked about the new game and helped Meagan come up with a list of questions for a Tomb Raider trivia contest she'd be hosting later on. Keith, who was probably the most adventurous among us, told some amazing stories about his experiences with Semester at Sea, including intrigue in a Tibetan monastery and a close encounter in Shinjuku Toyo's red light district. When Joshua asked me to sign one of his Tomb Raider games, I felt like a real celebrity. And Meagan graciously picked up the check. (Thanks, Crystal!)

Dallas BBQDallas BBQ
Dallas BBQ sign and the carved horses above our table.

After lunch, we rushed back to the con so Meagan could start the trivia contest. Only later did I realize she'd plugged my site on the live stream. So sweet. :)


Robert Peeler, Square's North America Community Manager, and Meagan Marie, our own Community Manager from Crystal Dynamics, hosted live coverage from NYCC. Watch more on Square Enix's Ustream page.

While Meg did her thing, we checked out the Square Enix Child's Play Charity auction and the awesome collection of statues from Play Arts Kai.

Square Enix Play Arts Kai Lara Croft Statue
I'm no collector, but that Lara Croft figure looks pretty sweet!

Then came the moment we'd been waiting for: hands-on time with the Tomb Raider demo! Megan, another long-time TR fan, joined us for that. Robert, the Community Manager for Square Enix North America, helped us secure prime spots in the demo lines and gave us black-and-white Square Enix lanyards for our badges. While we waited, I chatted him up about his job helping us fans. I'm sure Square and Crystal know it, but their community reps could not be nicer or more dedicated!

I've done a separate write-up about the Tomb Raider demo.

Tomb Raider demo stations at New York Comic Con
Players line up to try the Tomb Raider.

When everyone had gotten a chance to play, we reconvened at the Square Enix Community booth. Meagan and Robert gave each of us a collection of Tomb Raider goodies to take home, including a T-shirt, water bottle, lapel pin, and some lovely TR prints. We posed for a final group photo with Jill, a devoted Lara Croft fan and cosplayer. Then we said our goodbyes, with big hugs all around.

Tomb Raider fans at the Square Enix Booth
TR fans at the Square Enix booth (l. to r.): Tom, Stella, Megan, Adam, Jill, Hunter, Joshua, Keith, Ryan and Meagan.


Cosplayer Jenn Croft photographed by Adam Jay
Jenn Croft photographed
by Adam Jay
After we separated from the group, Max and I spent some time exploring the rest of the convention. It was super crowded, but we saw a lot of cool stuff and many creative cosplayers. I had a chance to meet Adam Jay of Superhero Photography very briefly. He was busy shooting a group of costumed crusaders, but his charming assistant sold me a few prints of cosplayer Jenn Croft, which I'm sure you'll be seeing here in an upcoming contest.

I gave the Tomb Raider demo another go. There were so many people waiting to play that I felt a little guilty tying up one of the stations. So I didn't play for too long. Then I headed for the LEGO booth and backseat gamed while a couple of guys tried out the LEGO Lord of the Rings demo. I'm sure they were thinking, who is this crazy old lady and why is she yelling "Toss me"!? I tried to get into the Firefly panel, but unfortunately I arrived too late and it was it was full. I guess I'd used up my quota of awesome for the day, so I let it slide.

Comic Con crowds by numbphoto
Comic Con crowds by numbphoto.

By the time we set out for home, we were exhausted, elated, and much poorer than when we set out. Trying the new Tomb Raider was a thrill, but the best part by far was hanging out with fellow fans. Thanks to Tom, Hunter, Joshua, Adam, Ryan, Keith, Megan and Morgan for turning out, and thanks again to Meagan and Robert for showing us such a good time. Maybe we'll see you again next year!

Photo Credits: Convention goers (first pic): nyutusc.com. Morgan and Stella taken by Morgan's friend. Dallas BBQ photos courtesy of the restaurant. Jenn Croft as Lara by Adam Jay/Superhero Photography. Comic Con crowds (last photo) by numbphoto. Other photos: Square Enix. All rights reserved.

October 22, 2012

Team Tomb Raider Community Raised $1,000+ for Extra Life!

This past weekend (October 20-21) some friends and I participated in Extra Life, an epic, 24-hour video game marathon to raise money for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Since most of us did have to sleep eventually, it turned into more of a 48-hour staggered marathon, but it was still huge fun!

As you can see, we exceeded our $1,000 fund-raising goal. We're proud to have been a part of this great event, in which gamers from all over the world came together to raise more than $2 million for children's hospitals!

I'd like to thank everyone on our team—Hunter, Laura, Jake, Stephanie and Taylor—as well as the other gamers who played on our livestream, and who tuned in, helped spread the word, and of course donated generously. I love you all!

If you missed the event itself, it's not too late to show your support. Extra Life's organizers are hoping to top the $2 million mark over the next few days. So if you can spare even a few dollars, your help would be much appreciated.

Read more about the event at Extra-Life.org. To donate, click the banner at right.

Thank you for your support! Tomb Raider fans are the best!

October 3, 2012

Dr. Croft, I Presume?

Guest blogger, Ostercy, creator of Ostercy's Tomb Raider Fables and webmaster of Not Culturally Relevant, attempts to solve the mystery of Lara's post-secondary education.

Dr. Croft, I presume?

I have been living with half a memory of somebody calling Lara Croft "Dr. Croft", but I couldn't recall where from. Did Lara ever go to University? Did she study archaeology? I decided to investigate.

According to an interview with Vicky Arnold, original Tomb Raider writer; "Although Miss Croft never attended a university as a full-time student, she did derive much of her knowledge of archaeology and anthropology from some of the most prestigious universities in Britain through correspondence and posting her work straight in from the field." [1] It seems pretty clear from this (and other sources) that Lara wasn't an undergraduate in archaeology or anything else.

I'm still racking my brains…. Dr. Jonathan Reiss…. Dr. Mark Willard…. Dr. Dre Beats. I must be suffering from a senior moment.

Lots of fanfiction (including my own) refers to "Dr. Lara Croft", as do some websites – "Fearless Dr. Croft takes her high definition adventures to exotic locales. Tomb Raider: Underworld arrives in stores next Tuesday, November 18th." [2]

Moving on to (or sideways to) the Crystal Dynamics bios, there's "university peer" Anaya Imanu. Quite a lot of sites quote this text that originated from Legend; "Anaya is a civil engineer working in impoverished areas of South America. She's an old friend of Lara's dating back to their days at university, and she was with Lara during the tragedy near Segou. She has since led a distinguished career of her own, routinely crossing paths with Lara." So…Lara wasn't a university undergraduate according to Core but she had "days at University"? Postgraduate days, perhaps?

Slightly dottier, from the Legend Wikipedia page; "A teenage Lara was on an archaeological excavation with her university colleagues, where she and Amanda (Evert) witnessed an unknown demonic entity kill the rest of the team." [3] Kind of hard to see how a teenage Lara could have "university colleagues" but Wikipedia says it, so it must be true.

On the other hand there's this blurb quoted by many of the previewers at E3 2012; "Lara Croft is 22 years old, straight out of university and on the trail of adventure with her mentor Roth in tow." (See, for example, Infinite Lives. [4]) Oh what a tangled web! I suppose since most English undergraduates are aged 18-21, it's just possible that Lara was a first year archaeology postgrad at 22 (?).

And we have this from Dr. Colin Dray, a Lecturer in Literature at Campion College of the Liberal Arts, Australia; "The Lara Croft of old was an impossibly fantastical creature.  Statuesque, resourceful, quippy, with a handful of PhDs in pseudo-psycho sci-history and fabulous wealth and beauty." [5] Not very helpful to our investigation.

You could ask Alison Carroll, but she probably still hasn't "done her course" yet. [6] At least it indicates that at some point the game developers (like everybody else) thought of Lara as an archaeologist and not, say, an anthropologist or a business studies major.

Finally there's this frankly bonkers entry from Tomb Raider Forums and "British Consulates," not a reliable source for factual information; "all the while continuing her education at Oxford, then at the University of Chicago." [7, 8] I cannot imagine what on earth Lara would be doing in Chicago. Perfecting her American accent perhaps? Buying semi-automatic weapons?

Oh well. I know when I'm beaten. There's solid evidence that Lara studied archaeology at or near University perhaps, but no PhD. Unless you know different?

References

1. "Lara Croft - Biographical Sketch". Tomb Raider's Travelers Guide.

2. "Video - Tomb Raider's Lara Croft Attacks the Underworld!" Newsarama.

3. Tomb_Raider:_Legend - Wikipedia.

4. Scarborough, David. June 10, 2011. "Empire at E3 2011: Day 3 - Tomb Raider". Infinite Lives.

5. Dray, Colin. July 21, 2012. "Scraping Lara Croft Off The 'Boot' Of Her Gaming Reboot". WhatCulture!

6. "Lara Croft: Køn - men ikke særlig dyb". November 4, 2008. Ekstra Bladet.

7. "Detailed Biography" posted January 14, 2006, by AnthonyShock1515. Tomb Raider Forums.

8. "Lara Croft". British-Consulates.com.

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