9 June 2011

At the start of the conference Microsoft had promised us great things; the announcement of new games for the Kinect, new exciting titles due to be released and new features for XBOXLIVE. Directly after the introduction they handed it over to Crystal Dynamics to talk about their upcoming game and give the audience a quick preview at the start.

The presentation started with Daniel Neuburger (game director) Darrell Gallagher (studio head) introducing the project and explaining the storyline and how it transforms Lara in the game into the Tomb Raider. However they quickly started with the gameplay preview which was played live by Daniel as both of them commented on the features of the game.

The Tomb Raider session during the Microsoft Press Conference
There was also an extended version of the game which was played by Senior Art Director, Brian Horton, at the Gamespot live interview. Since I wrote the original article before the extended playthrough was announced, I decided to update it to cover both versions of the game. The short version lasts about 5 minutes, with the longer version lasting 15 minutes in total. All the sections in black is the original article that I wrote directly after the event, with the additional material being in red text colour. 

Despite being an early version of the final game, it looks gorgeous. It starts off slow with Lara suspended upside down in a cacoon but as the action and danger increases later in the level, it becomes more fast paced and exciting. In the preview we saw a variety of what the player can expect from the game including some of the enemies, the scenary, the puzzles etc. From just that preview alone, I think that Nathan Drake should be very concerned at the moment.

Lara hanging upside down.

Lara awakes, whimpering, cold and very much alone. The screen is close up on the protagonist's face, watching Lara's expressions intently which helps build up the atmosphere for the game. The close up also reminds the player that this isn't the Lara that they had recently seen walking away from Nepal back in 2008. Slowly the camera rotates and moves backwards to allow the player to see that Lara is hanging upside down. In doing so the gamer can see that Lara is held in a cacoon of some kind with impressive hair gel keeping some of her hair in place. There are many questions posed at this moment; What is she doing here? Who tied her up? Are they coming back? At this moment Lara takes advantage of being alone in the room and plans to escape.
Lara wakes up to find she is alone, captured and needs to escape

The sound in this preview is amazing. It reminds me of Amnesia: The Dark Descent slightly with the dark surrounding which forces the player to also listen to what's around them in the level. The emphasis is on Lara's senses and I really must applaud Crystal for the sound in this game; everything from the trickling water to breaking branches adds more realism to the game and doesn't drag the player's experience away.

"I've got to get out of this,"  Lara whimpers to herself as the player assumes control of the character. Moving her side to side will create enough momentum to make Lara's cocoon hit the one next to her, and repeating this movement will cause the other cocoon to catch alight from nearby candles. "I can't die like this" the character repeats as the camera focuses the burning cocoon nearby as it breaks and reveals a skeleton which falls to the ground. The moment creates the reaction of "Oh...well...yes getting out of here would be good" in the player. The camera pans out to show that the wooden structure near Lara's cocoon has also caught fire and the player can do nothing but watch as the material around Lara catches fire. "This is going to hurt" she warns herself.

In the extended version since the camera any is different we can see things a little more clearly. In the Microsoft Conference demo it appeared as though the beam of wood with cloth around it that caught fire was close to Lara. The new camera angle revealed things more clearly. The other cocoon catches fire which then releases the skeleton, the fire then spreads to a nearby piece of cloth and that leads to the wooden beam becoming entirely engulfed in flames. We can see that Lara is held up by a rope tied to the ceiling instead of the beam, and therefore the player has to move the analogue stick to move the protagonist left and right, causing momentum and getting enough movement so the fire moves to the material surrounding Lara. All of this gives the reaction of "This is not going to end well," a similar emotion to what Lara stated she was feeling. 

The fire that will allow Lara to escape

Also why is there so many red candles? I think they look gorgeous and I approve of them but the island doesn't exactly look like the place that would have an IKEA. My mind went to distress flares but they are too calm to be that. They could be candles that came one of the boats, but it must have been a big boat with some strange cargo. 

As the material burns away around her, Lara screams and falls free. The camera falls cinematically to the ground just as the protagonist begins to drop. Directly in front of the screen is a spike (there's some discussion about whether it is made out of metal, wood or if it's a bone), and following the trend of good luck she had that day, she falls directly on it. There's a gruesome scene in which Lara writhes in agony. She kneels on the ground, sits up straight, and prepares herself for the pain which is going to hit when she extracts it. The first interactive cutscene occures which involves the player pressing the X button repeatedly for Lara to remove the spike. The camera pans up, but focuses on Lara as the player preforms the button control. She flexes backwards slightly giving the gamer a clear view of where the spike is and what is happening. What made me cringe was the sound effect that was placed in the game when Lara finally manages to extract it; it sounds like a muffled pop sound almost like bubble wrap...Which is a little more then disconcerting (apologies for the comparison). Lara screams and the a loud heartbeat can be clearly heard as well as a greyscale blurry filter placed on the screen which may occure every time the protagonist is injured. The filter reminded me of the black and white flash that was seen in the Pre-E3 Trailer.

In the extended version the button wasn't constantly hit. If the player fails keeping the pace the action returns to the start and begins again (although thankfully not in the Heavy Rain way). I admit that as gruesome as it was, I really liked the camera angle which followed Lara's head and showed us her expression. As the action returns to the start, Lara looks down at it again and the screen slides downwards, however when X is hit again, Lara flexs backwards and the camera pans up. Another little detail I liked, is that (again unlike Heavy Rain) Lara's failure to pull out the spike the first time is seen as Lara's fault instead of that of the player's. If the section is reset it triggers dialogue from Lara in which she reassures herself and whispers "Come on". 

Lara is in agony after removing the spike, but her survival instint kick in and therefore her primary concern is to make it out of the cavern alive. Lara walks forward but has differculty keeping her balence, her footwork is sloppy and she can hardly stand straight which makes her falls to the ground and crawls when the pain gets too intense. "What? What is this place?" Lara whispers to herself. The new voice actress is strange considering that we've become familar with Keeley Hawes' voice making comments about the surrounding, however this Lara seems more suited to the new voice actress.

Lara lands on a spike, and suddenly the player's day wasn't too bad in comparison

Moving out of the prison room, she stumbles (quite literally) into another sacrific area. Presumably one of the crew members from the Endurance is tied up in a cross and left there dead with red candles around her.  What I thought was a nice detail was how Lara entered the room. The player couldn't enter it straight away, instead Lara's legs give way and she rests on wooden pedistol nearby knocking off a skull. Small details like this gives the preview and game more realism. She enters the room gingerly, whispering to herself once more; "Oh God no! What did he do to you?" From this quote it's a little unsure if Lara knows who kidnapped all the survivors on the Endurance. It also raises the question of "Why isn't Lara dead?", at this point in the game it is unknown whether anyone has survived and yet Lara is walking among dead crewmembers.  It might all link back to the Magatama which is such a mystery. Going back to what I said in the trailer article if it's a magatama it represents good fortune, and if it's my other theory of Ouroboros then it symbolises survival, it might have been placed on Lara's necklace to remind her and give her hope.

The Endurance crewmember sacrificed

Also does that scene also remind you of the India levels in Tomb Raider 3? When I was younger I remember being absolutely terrified by the levitating human corpse with the hole through his chest. It's a nice concidence...Also more then a little creepy and gruesome. 

As Lara leaves the room with the dead crewmember, a little logo indicating fire flashes on screen. If Lara goes near an object she can use, in this case it was the burning torch, a symbol on the screen will inform you. It's a little like the Batvision in Batman Arkham Asylum where a symbol would appear to tell the protagonist where he can use his grapple to get to higher ledges.

If you walk past the first torch there's another one before you leave the room, and the same logo and button symbol appears. The symbol that appears in the game appears to be a flat image which Lara could walk past and becomes flat when Lara walks past it.

The symbol which appears when Lara can pick up a torch

It's interesting the state that Lara is in at the moment. She finds comfort in talking to herself, something that we all think is insane until you're put into this situation and you need to hear a voice reassuring you that everything is going to be fine. 

As she walks down another corridor there's a really nice detail that I liked. When I was writing the trailer article, I assumed that the people on the island are scavengers who raids recently destroyed ships. As Lara walks down the corridor, she passes several ceramic pots which are tied together and hanging from the ceiling. If the player hits one of these it triggers Lara to say; "That was loud" in a concerned voice. She knows she's not alone and she must escape before she is caught. At this point she's less worried about her recent injuries and her pressing cocern is about the person or thing that had imprisoned her. As she walked down the corridor there was a strange sound, either her heart beats again or loud footsteps, but both are highly possible which is not exactly comforting to the player or the character. 

Appearently Lara assumes the latter and whispers to herself  "He must have heard me". What's intersting again is that she said "he", which adds more evidence that she knows a lot more then what she is letting on to know.

In the extended version, I'm not sure if it was just me or if it was a more detailed video but the corridor seemed darker. More sounds could be heard, someone is heard moving and also shushing Lara. At the end of the corridor is a collection of wooden items including barrels, beams and sections of boats. A flame symbol appears again which informs the player that the items are flammable. As the items are engulfed in flames the player can see rows of human skulls beside Lara, it's a nice detail but at the same time more then a little unsettling which adds perfectly to the atmosphere. 

Also in the longer version the heartbeat and the sound of footsteps wasn't triggered by Lara hitting the pots, but by her burning the wood away. 

As she nears the end of the corridor there's another werid sound, it's like creepy music played on what sounded like an old broken player. As Lara slips in between the gap in the wall she edges closer to the music, however it stops as she enters the next room. Also unfortunately for Lara there's water at the enterence of the room which extisgishes her flame.

Lara relighting her torch
The room is filled with broken ship parts, including panels of wood which covers the walls around Lara. Luckily there's fire nearby where she can relight her torch which the player has press the right trigger button and wait until the symbol of the flame turns entirely orange. The fact that there is fire in the room is a little disconcerting and also adds more evidence to Lara's and the player's suspicion that she is not alone. On the way over to the exit, the sound of heartbeats/footsteps can be heard again as well as a sound of a metal can and glass being kicked or falling over. The can, I presume, is from one of the ship's rations.  Eager to escape, Lara jumps to where the sound seems to have come from, after noticing that a small gap is the only way to leave the room. The roof slides slightly as Lara approaches it , making the exit a little less desirable.

This room is also more complicated in the longer version. Instead of it just being a room, it becomes a puzzle area where Lara must use her resources to escape. The first thing which the player can see is different as they enter, is a red barrel at the other side with another boat mast suspended above it. Lara can leap onto a ledge nearby and set the cloth alight. The fire travels down the mast until the end where it catches fire to the barrel, which explodes (writing this reminds me of the Mousetrap game). When the barrel explodes it takes away the rumble and wood surrounding the exit, and Lara can push on as normal. 

Lara preparing to go through the corridor 

Although leaving isn't going to be that easy, as she begins to leave, an enemy appears and grabs, laughing to himself. Lara and the player can't see the person but can hear him, and the player watches helplessly as Lara is dragged by her feet out of the crawelspace. "Let me go! Get off me!" Lara screams. Combined with the screaming and dragging her stomatch on the rough ground, it's good to see that Lara's wound is feeling better. Walking off the injure really did help in this case! When Lara is out of the crawl space, the player once again has control. The character can only really kick the antagonist, so the player needs to move the right analog stick left and right to make her fight against the enemy's grip.  The antagonist is defeated when Lara kicks him back with enough force that he stumbles, and Lara turns to run through the corridor and preforms a nice Indiana Jones style roll just as the rock falls nicely into place behind her, preventing the enemy from getting to her. 

Lara probably has the same reaction as the player and while obtaining her lit torch again states; "That was close! That was close!" She is also an optimist and refuses to let the rotting corpses and skeletons that are covering the room she is in, put her off. She is detirmined to find a way to escape and follows a corridor which is filled almost to the top with water. Just as she prepares to follow the corridor, Lara turns around, startled at the sudden laughter by the enemy that she had locked in the previous room. It's hard to hear exactly what he's saying but it sounds like "Come on! Just please come back. I'm trying to help you." Appearently "help" is something completely different on this island, perhaps they are using babel fish and the translation to English is a little strange.  In the tunnel, Lara slips on the rocks below, and the player needs to fight the thought about what exactly must the water contain (see previous statement about the corpses) and rush the character through water. The camera is above the water and that combined with Lara turning around,  the taunts from the enemy behind her and having to press her head right up to the ceiling it shows the claustrophobic area she is trapped in.

Lara entering the flooded claustrophobic tunnel

At the end is a tunnel is the first real puzzle of the game. Here Crystal Dynamics shows the new survival-instinct that Lara has in the game. This is also very similar to the Batvision from Batman Arkham Asylum. When survival-instint mode is on, the player can see objects which are vital for the game's puzzles and items that Lara can use. I presume that you can choose whether to use this mode or not, and there should be an achievement or trophy if you get through the entire game without using it. The objects that Lara can use glow brightly and is easily spotted as the rest of the screen goes black and white. Seeing the contraption appears to trigger another voice track in which Lara says "I need to find a way out"...We're getting there Lara.

The survival instinct. I also really like the little water drops on the screen. 

The puzzle can be solved by Lara relighting her torch which was extigished by a flow of water covering the entrance to the room. Then by setting some of the flammable debris floating in the water on fire. Using using the flaming torch, the player needs to burn the rope which is a holding a weight hidden at the top of the room. Burning the rope causes the weight to fall. Since the weight is also connected to the wooden cage-like contraption nearby and a hidden platform underneath, they lift. There are some barrels that Lara could use to her advantage. The debris that Lara had set on fire is now at a top of a slide above the barrels. To get over to the top of the slide, Lara needs to jump between the cage and the ledges at the top of the room to get a group of boxes placed conviently at the top of a slide right above the barrels, pushing the structure nearby sends the debris down the slide. Lara drops into the water below and takes cover behind some wood as the barrels explode. It's good to see that Crystal has kept her obsession with destroying tombs and now we know where it all began! Lara probably was too involved into blowing up the barrels to realize that there was a door clearly marked "Exit" right next to the barrels!

In the Gamespot version, the puzzle is similar to what we've seen before in the Microsoft Conference. The cage which is suspended in the middle of the room is held down by three posts which Lara can set alight. Doing this releases the cage and raises it. Lara could get to the ledge at the top far side of the room by climbing on the cage however the player wouldn't be able to do anything once there. After releasing the cage, Lara needs to set fire to nearby rubble in the water, which collects nicely in a tray. When Lara walks up the platform and jumps on the metal cage she lifted, it causes the tray to lift and tip the flaming objects at a top of a slide. The next bit is the same as the original gameplay; you jump over and make the objects slide down towards the barrels.  

Edging through the water and avoiding the still lit barrels, Lara wades into a clearing where she can see light. This triggers a new piece of music, which has to be my favorite piece in the entire preview. It really gives the impression that anything that Lara does from this point on is going to fail. The music actually reminds me of the  one of the pieces from the early Core games where Lara is being chased by well placed boulders while sliding down a hill. In the preview she manages to avoid an aircraft which decides to lauch itself at her head, which is always a good thing. Nearing salvation, karma hits again and a cleverly placed rock blocks her exit, curse its sudden yet inevitable betrayal! At this point I'm surprised that Lara hasn't come to the conclusion that all rocks at this cavern holds magic abilities to allow them block passageways. As she goes down another path to salvation, the same thing happens again, and yet I can let that rock off the hook because the action scene that the rock causes is defiently one of the best bits of the preview. 

The rock causes the ground to shake and finally collasp and Lara drops into one of the world's strangest slides containing rough rocks, branches and dirt and a surprise at the end. During this the player is in complete control of the protagonist. After tumbling dramtically halfway through, Lara has the ability to stand up at the end, whereas any normal person in this situation with a serious stab wound to their stomach would call for five more minutes while laying down on the floor and demand some kind of strong coffee/tea when she decides to get up...Although I suppose that if Lara decided to lie down for a few seconds a cleverly placed boulder will quickly find her face. 

The player then has to control Lara to run up a series of rocks covered in slime and water and manages to get to the top, only to discover that she faces several large drops which she attempts in the preview without stopping. Although to give her credit, she has just managed to run the entire way, I'm just tired watching her. The player then needs to jump over to the first ledge, which Lara does...just. It's nice to see Lara has the ability to jump long distances, however not as far she she used to...or will do in later in earliar games...Wow, that's confusing! Running forwards towards the exit, Lara must also jump a few more times, each time, she stumbles but recovers quickly. 

After reaching the final ledge, the only way that Lara can go is forwards. Just as the game lulls you into a false sense of sercurity that you're in danger but you are alone; moments after turning a corner, Lara is grabbed again by the enemy who tries to persuade her that he's trying to help. If you believe them, according to the Game Informer article, he stabs you. If you refuse to believe him then the player must move the left analog stick left and right which causes the enemy to lose grip. And just in time too, as another well posistion boulder first pins down his legs/stomatch as it's friend aims for his head. The death of the enemy is gruesome and combined with Lara's extraction of the spike, sets the scene for Lara's grimmest adventure yet. 

Lara catches the edge of the rock before falling

As Lara runs away from the corpse (which is highly understandable) the caves continue to fall down around her, it reminds me of Tomb Raider Anniversary and escpaing from the Qualopec's tomb. What was once easy leaps for Lara, has become lethal deathtraps. After a series of turns, she jumps for a nearby ledge. The player loses control of the character and watches as Lara loses grip on the rock.She slides on her stomatch (ow again) and catches the edge of the cliff.  Lara also drops her torch and can only watch helplessly as it tumbles into the abyss below.  I half expected her to preform a handstand on the rock, but maybe later. 

After climbing on the ledge, the player must drive Lara up a steep rock incline with rushing water to the exit to the cavern. I noticed two features I liked especailly, one is about the realistic water, and the other is the filter they used at the end which showed the camera covered in dirt. I don't particularly like interactive cutscenes because in most games they feel as though it detracts away from the experience, however in this game the use of the buttons are clever. To crawl up the incline, the player uses the left and right back buttons on the controller which is perhaps more immersion then just having the player press up or X.

The Gamespot version came with two extra interactive moment, where the player must make Lara avoid the boulders (*cough* heat seeking rocks *cough*) that are falling down the incline towards Lara. A quick tap of the left shoulder button and direction will make the protagonist avoid death....Technically it would be a paradox if the character dies in this game since it's the original origin story now. 

Lara finally escapes her prison, more beaten and bloody since we saw her last.

After reaching outside, the control is taken away from the player as a cinematic is triggered. The cinematic  looks exactly like the graphics in the gameplay and both are seamlessly put together in a way that it doesn't disrupt the experience or immersion. Now I noticed something that had changed about Lara from the trailer to now, and it's such a small detail, but her hair tie in the trailer was white and here it's green, she has a magatama (OK, I'll stop pointing out the pendent now), also her hand is bandaged as well as her arm neither of them she had done in the gameplay. So something may had occurred earlier. I know that the theory of Lara having time lapses and forgetting things due to her experiences and her injures she had to her head, was something which wasn't looked on as a possibility over at the Tomb Raider Forums (and to be honest when I wrote it, it wasn't exactly intended to be completely serious), although it's still a theory that I'm not completely ruling out. Other survival horror games has used that including Silent Hill, and more recently one of my favorite games; Alan Wake, both of which involved the characters injuring their head (causing concussion) and become disorientated afterwards with issues remembering their actions or what they did. It is possible that events happened before Lara waking up in the cacoon, either Lara can't remember them or she knows more then what she's letting on to know.

Lara manages to stumble to her feet and walk to the cliff edge to see the state at which the Endurance is in as the screen pans around her. The Tomb Raider logo dissolves into view in the skyline signalling the end of the preview.

The end of the preview and the Tomb Raider section

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