August 14, 2010

Crystal Dynamics Community Days A Big Hit, Even With Skeptics

Earlier this week, the developers of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light invited players to visit their studios for a little hands-on with the new game. Guest blogger Brant Longest accepted the offer and attended yesterday's LCGOL Community Day. Here's his report.

Driving up the San Francisco Peninsula yesterday towards Redwood City and the Crystal Dynamics production facility, I tried to think of what I really had to fear about the Tomb Raider franchise taking such a drastic leap away from its tried and true formula of personal isolation, hostile environments, wicked puzzle solving and gorgeously rendered visuals.

The Crystal Dynamics campus (click to enlarge)

As franchises go, Lara Croft and the whole Tomb Raider series has spanned over 14 years of public life, garnered uncounted followers and awards, as well as those who would seek to copy the formula in the form of other games. Indeed, few franchises have had similar force of impact within the industry.

So it was with some trepidation that I learned, along with all Tomb Raider fans, that a new direction in game style was being developed by the team at Crystal Dynamics. An "Isometric, Co-op Shooter". Really?!? What does that even mean in Tomb Raider terms? Isometric projection has roots all the way back to the early 1980's within the industry, and that was the first flag that was raised when I heard of this planned format. Simply put, it's a method of representing 3-D space with 2-D forms. Blocks and forms with angles altered to create the illusion that they exist in real space, à la M.C. Escher.

So, was this to be a step backwards or a step forwards? After spending two hours solid playing through several levels and seeing much of what Guardian of Light has to offer, I can safely confirm it is a step forward. Especially since GoL is being developed concurrently with a more traditional TR title. The "Lara Croft" branch of the tree, as it were, is a new foray into making the universe of Tomb Raider larger; it isn't about taking anything away from the traditional Tomb Raider canon or from its fans and what they love. And perhaps even more importantly, it isn't going to be a situation where we as fans and players have no choice about the direction the franchise will take. Traditional TR fans, me included, can expect a title in the Tomb Raider series proper that will build upon the successes of the Legend/Anniversary/Underworld era. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is sort of a grand experiment in the interim, and while the fan base for TR may be uncertain of what GoL holds, they should be very pleasantly surprised when it comes out, and here's why:

A large component of the Crystal team that worked on those three titles is involved in not only Guardian of Light but on the new "TR9" as well. I got no closer to any specifics about what I will call "TR9" yesterday; it is all still very much under wraps. But I did learn a great deal about GoL both from the developers and firsthand, by playing a significant portion of the game in a near-finalized form. And let me tell you it is quite polished.

There are approximately 16 levels, which are constructed so that skills are developed and honed as you progress, leading to ever more challenging and complex levels, with puzzles themselves becoming more advanced and less intuitive. This simply has to please traditional TR puzzle lovers.

Although I exclusively played the co-op mode during my demo yesterday, I happened to play along with an informal tester who had spent time in prior builds and knew how to go about overcoming the challenges. That made our team succeed more quickly than if I had been playing solo (which you absolutely can do) or if I had been teamed with another novice player. A pleasant side-effect of this pairing was that I could get a better sense of how much of each level I was going to have to learn 'the hard way' in order to be successful on my own. Each level offered new ways to achieve goals, but unless you had played before you wouldn't have any other way to learn the methods of success other than to go about trial and error as you would in any prior TR game. What needs to be intuitive is, but so much of it isn't that I felt happily mystified at what I would need to learn to solve parts of puzzles. In a word, it's rich, and effort leads to reward on a scale similar to what we expect in the TR universe.

There are Xbox 360 achievements, and there will be significant DLC in the months after the initial release in the form of 'map-packs' and other goodies.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light achievements (click to enlarge)

If you pine for the ability to customize your character, you have multiple layers of ways to do this. First and foremost each player discovers 'Artifacts' and 'Relics,' which give extra or boosted abilities, and in different ways. How you choose to employ these is up to the player, and can have a direct impact on the way you deal, or fail to deal, with a level. And it goes without saying that Totec, Lara's companion player in the co-op version of GoL, is an altogether new experience for the TR gamer. He has a shield which can deflect enemy missiles, and a spear which although slower than Lara's guns, does more damage, and can help Lara reach new heights.... she catches amazing air! This creates a decision point for players to strategize how best to handle multiple enemies and the vast number of physical scenarios you will face in simply traversing the environment. You simply cannot play this game on auto-pilot.

And that for me, is one of the most enjoyable things about a good TR game. That the environment requires that you have a plan but allows for breaks where you can sit, unthreatened, and scope the environment for what that plan should be, then execute it—or fail by simply missing a jump. Timing is as critical to success in GoL as it is in any other TR game.

Guardian of Light gameplay (click to enlarge)

But perhaps the biggest and best surprise is that the game is divided into two distinct paths—more like two distinct games in fact! If you elect to play co-op, the levels are designed to stretch to the limit what Totec and Lara can do as a pair. But if you elect to play solo, those levels have been redesigned to accommodate the limitations of only one player. So in effect, 16 levels actually become 32! That's quite a lot of unique levels per game, and I consider this a stamp of approval of the overall value of the title. What's more is that the levels are not uni-directional, nor even completely linear in objective. Possible paths branch off on all three axes—x,y and z beyond the range of vision of the players. So expect lots of loopbacks where previous elements of a level have changed due to Lara's actions in other parts of the level.

This opens up the opportunity for players, if they so desire, to fine tune their performance in the form of 'speed runs'. Guardian of Light will have active Leaderboards that rank players in the order that they can score highly on these speed-based (and other) objectives. That, folks, is instant replay value.

Guardian of Light menu screen (click to enlarge)

Personally, I tend to take my time and explore the worlds that TR games offer, but I can see the fun in working towards playing levels in the most efficient manner and being rewarded for doing so—sometimes solo, sometimes in tandem. It's a way of bringing a community together that we have not seen in TR games before.

So all in all, the day was a great way to experience GoL before it officially launches. I think fans should rest very easy knowing that the franchise as a whole is solid, and staffed by people who are dedicated to doing the franchise justice. This new GoL experiment is not going to detract from the traditional TR series at all, it will serve to strengthen, and grow, the TR community with new offerings. There has been fear amongst the TR base that what we have come to know and expect from TR games would be seriously altered by this new effort, but those fears are unfounded, I can say with absolute certainty.

I strolled around the Crystal campus and could see entire lines of posty-notes lined up in windows, Indicating storyboard work being done on TR9. Others had Lara dolls and other plastic creatures of the trade used for inspiration when the artists conceptualize and render in-game characters.

Lara Croft, herself, holds down the fort (click to enlarge)

And finally, I had a chance to speak with several members of the team, and they were unanimously positive about their efforts to not only keep the franchise alive but make it better than it has ever been before. Keir Edmonds is probably the most solid Community Manager I have seen for any game, MMO or otherwise. He is fully aware of the concerns of the fan base, and he wasn't hired yesterday; he's been involved a long, long time. I heard many of the team mention in our session how they read the forums every day. Your feedback is heard!

I also spent some time with Kam Yu and David Suroviec, who do a large portion of the process of creating and rigging Lara and other characters in the game. We spoke of the ever-present see-saw battle between artists and developers to both keep the poly count of a character high, while also keeping the fps (frames per second) high. They reassured me that as technology continues to improve, both the champions of high poly count and high fps count will benefit, although that battle ultimately will never end. It was a nice bit of insight into the world of the developers, and somehow the idea of a never ending battle with Lara had a nice ring to it.

In the end, I can heartily recommend Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light for anyone who has enjoyed TR in the past, or for anyone who has come up playing the modern games of the last few years. It will satisfy both the purists and those who want more speed and a larger community. All in all, it's a fantastic effort that caters to many tastes while preserving what makes Tomb Raider endure.

Brant Longest
August 13, 2010

Text and photos © 2010 Brant Longest. Please do not reproduce without the author's permission.

1 comment:

  1. Wow . . . The more I hear about GoL and the more positive reviews I read, the more excited I get about this game! I can't wait to get it!