28 May 2015

While Lara Croft: Relic Run has been out for a short while, today (28th May) marks the official global launch date of the title! Last week I had the opportunity to travel into Central London to attend a hands-on demo session for the game, and ask some questions from Square Enix. The demo was also attended by members of the press as well as fellow fansite owners such as Jackali from the Tomb Raider Chronicles/Tomb Raider Forums.

The event was held in a private booth in a cornered off section of The Dean Street Townhouse, and lasted from 12pm to 5pm. The location of the event was pretty stylish and probably not the natural environment for a twenty year old who walked in wearing jeans and had just hurried to catch the train. There were huge armchairs and leather sofas and waiters in tailored uniforms rushing backwards and forwards carrying plates of delicately arranged cakes and scones with cream and jam. It was also the type of place where I had to pause before deciding which bathroom to go into because my brain, which tried to function on four hours of sleep, for a second got confused about the "G" and "L". (The perception of the British stereotype is everything is traditional and that all bathrooms are labelled "Gentleman" and "Ladies", this is rarely the case). So, y'know, this place was pretty damn fancy!
 In the booth, photo frames were dotted around the location which showed the promotional artwork for Lara Croft: Relic Run. There was a sofa along the back wall, a long wooden table in the middle with charged iPads and several large armchairs on the other. We took our seats and Iain Riches, Senior Producer at Square Enix, who worked on the title began to talk us through the game.

For those who don't know, Lara Croft: Relic Run is a free-to-play title, developed by Simutronics in collaboration with Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, which comes out today worldwide for the iPhone, Android and Windows phone. The title has been in development for about a year and was recently soft-launched in the Netherlands and just last week reached Singapore.

Soft-launching a mobile title enables the developers to make additions or changes based on end user feedback, before releasing it to a worldwide audience. The reason why the Netherlands was chosen was because it has an established TR fanbase in the country, but it was also an area big enough to give useful feedback to the team, while at the same time not overwhelming the reviews with bad comments about possible bugs or crashes. So, for example, if the team soft-launched it in an area like the UK, the game might have received low scores from a larger audience, say if there was an issue loading it on some devices. The team would have fixed those issues quickly, but those low scores would still remain, and affect the title's release. So even if the game worked perfectly on launch day, because of an issue early on which had then been fixed, it would still have repercussions. We were told that, as a result, of Relic Run's softlaunch, several bugs have been resolved and it's given the team early insight into how to go forward with the project.

Boss battles, vechicles and wall running.

During the event, Iain talked about how the team view the game to be an "Adventure Runner" rather than an "Endless Runner" title, and while it carries the Lara Croft name, it doesn't rely on it to get attention. From the hands on playthrough this felt certainly true; what Relic Run brings to the genre is interesting combat, vehicle control (such as quad bikes and motorcycles), boss battles on each level, wall running and the sense of progression. The team had the opportunity to set the game in the reboot's timeline but wanted to have those classic fantastical elements in their game where Lara could ride on the back of a T-Rex or find a conveniently placed quad bike in the middle of the jungle.

Despite not being set in the reboot's timeline, it has a place in the Lara Croft series. In the opening cutscene you're introduced to the storyline, which continues where Temple of Osiris left off; we get a glimpse at Lara's journal (tap to turn the page) which explains that we are on a journey to find Carter Bell who has disappeared. However he has left a series of artifacts and clues in his wake. Your goal is to locate the artifacts and discover what happened to the archaeologist.

Upon release two levels will be available, with more adventures due to be added at a later date. The first mission takes place in Cambodia and will take Lara through a beautiful jungle, as well as feature a fight with a T-Rex, a ride on a quad bike, a battle with some Gorn-like creatures and impressive slow motion diving off numerous cliffs. The wilderness is green and lush and feels so much more populated with ruins and shrubbery. It feels much more immersive than most runner gaming experiences. There's also plenty of traps, tight turns and an endless supply of chaos which will test even skilled players.

The second location takes place in the Sahara and is absolutely gorgeous. The map bounces between two areas: moving between the close buildings and markets outside to jumping over dangerous traps inside a hidden tomb underground. The outside is filled with bronze, beige and browns, and with the sand tearing at the building as you run, it feels as though you're weathering a storm. The inside is covered in blacks and bright golds, a strange but beautiful juxtaposition. What you learnt in the previous level is broken down and rearranged as things which you thought were easy before are developed further. In Cambodia, the traps are more like hurdles which you can see and prepare for in a short amount of time, in the Sahara map you must always look and plan ahead. Describing the switch between mindsets seems simple as an idea, but in practice you will die a lot before obtaining your first artifact in the level.

As there's a storyline element to the game, there's also the feeling of progression. To unlock the second map and progress in the story, you'll need to spent gems which can be obtained in the game or by finding relics. You can also purchase gems with "hard cash" or real money at the store.

The variety of locations.

 You won't find the relics immediately on your first run. Instead, Lara must find clues (represented by a magnifying glass or a sheet of paper) which are highlighted by a blue glow. With each new clue, the blue bar on the top left hand side of the screen will fill up. Once it reaches 100%, the relic will appear somewhere close to you on the map. Filling up the bar does not guarantee that you will get the relic; for instance, if you die before you locate it, on your next run, you will need to search for the clues again.

If you die, you can return to the run by spending a Resurrection Ankh, worth 5 gems. As soon as you come back to life, the game's difficulty increases a little and if you die again, you would need to pay an additional Ankh. Each time an artifact is found, you're awarded coins for your effort and it puts you one step closer to unlocking the next location. However, with every artifact you find, the challenge and the number of clues needed increases too.

There's a number of things the player can do to customise the game experience and manage the difficulty level, especially for those last few relics, and you can do this using ingame currency. Lara will pick up coins on her runs, these coins can be exchanged for weapon upgrades (which will be needed to take down the bosses). They can also be used to purchase boosters to help you collect more coins or increase the impact of the clues. Both are incredibly useful if you're looking to unlock that second map. The game also sees the return of the ability to customise Lara's look. However this time the outfits you choose influence your gameplay, with some increasing your score multiplier, reducing enemy accuracy or increasing the Clue Booster time. (Clue Boosters increases the amount a single clue fills up the relic bar.) These upgrades can also be bought with real cash, in addition to the ingame coins and gems. As well as the coins Lara finds in the game, there is a Supply Drop which is refreshed every six hours, where the player can collect ankhs, gems or coins.

Some of the challenges that Lara will face in the game.

While the game is a single player adventure, there's a community and competition element to it. It has online leaderboards updated every month and week, to feature the top players who have achieved the highest score and defeated the most bosses, but the element that I'm excited about trying out are the curses. If you connect to Facebook, you have the option of paying ingame coins to send a curse to a friend. These are around 525 - 875 coins each and will affect your victim's game for thirty seconds. Each one brings an interesting twist to the game. If you survive your curse, you get rewarded for your effort, but if you die, your winnings are sent to the player who cursed you. So far, the curses available are Tunnel Vision, Fun House, Vertigo Poison, VCR Repair, 8-Bit Blues, and Neon Nights. The players who survive the most curses are placed on a leaderboard where they're forced to endure an everlasting cycle of being both recognised as a champion of the curses and sent more as punishment by envious players. If you want to ward off curses, you can purchase the Onyx Turtle Charm from the store for 350 gold, and laugh in the face of your enemies for spending twice the amount. In addition to sending curses to your worst enemies, you can also send ingame currency as bribes.

As with most runner games, the trick to learning to go further is to just keep going. You will die. You will die a lot. However over the runs, you'll become more aware of how the game works and the camera moves. You'll notice subtle indications in the boss' movements and know you'll have to duck or move to a specific lane. Relic Run has a unique experience each time, with new traps and new paths; for instance in one run a door may remain open or a staircase intact, in the next it's the complete opposite. This variety always keeps you always on your toes and you'll adapt to each situation and learn to read your surroundings. You'll learn how to master the wall run and duck when sudden obstacles block your path, and it is really rewarding when you finally get it.

During the presentation the group talked about the future of the game, and where Square Enix would like to take it next. Several ideas are being discussed, but there's no confirmation of any plans so far as many of them depend on community support and feedback. One of the suggestions was to perhaps have Lara narrate more during her adventure; Lara doesn't have a voice actor at present, but this may be something the team adds further down the line. Co-op has also been brought up as a possibility depending on interest. Another topic touched on was new run locations. The third map that will be available soon will be a mountain area, and there was a discussion of Venice potentially being the fourth one. I'm really hoping that is the case! Plus if fans are interested in seeing the quad bike or motorcycle make a more prominent return, that's something the team wants to hear too!

Lara Croft Relic Run is developed by Simutronics, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, and is out now on Apple devices, Android and Windows Phone!



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