On the list of most-anticipated games in 2013, few titles are higher on the list than Tomb Raider. The return of Lara Croft looks like one of the most dramatic reinventions of a game series ever, even while it maintains many of the features that originally popularized the series. 

We chatted with studio head Darrell Gallagher and global brand director Karl Stewart to learn more about how the game is progressing, and they had the following extensive details to share.

From a development perspective, what has changed the most in recent months? Are there things that have changed in response to E3 feedback, or things that you as a team wanted to flesh out?

Darrell Gallagher: I wouldn’t say it’s changed in response to the feedback at all. I mean, generally the feedback we’ve had has been very positive, so we’ve been happy with all the responses we’ve had. We’ve had the game structure and gameplay locked in for quite some time. It’s been very technically sound in preview play, and the reason for that is that everything you played has been in there a while. A big part of what we’ve been doing is honing and polishing the initial structure that we’ve put in place for this game. I would say that it’s just been constant iteration on what’s there. Some of the things I think have been improved. 

This wasn’t really at E3, but some of the most recent improvements have been in stealth. We’ve always had stealth in the game but I think the systems have been polished and honed over the course of the last six months or so, and I really think it’s a cool addition to the game, personally. I really like the combat system, so I think going from stealth to in-your-face combat is quite unique. I think the fluid cover system we have is quite unique as well, and sort of fits the character style – fits the game. And all of the other things have been in place, but I would say that was one of the major things we’ve done. I think the upgrades and the balancing have always been there. But as you sort of solidify the game, you end up seeing how all of those systems work across the whole game. You end up playtesting a lot and you end up tweaking it a lot. So there has been good learning from people just playing the game. But the actual structure of the game, obviously we have a story to tell and there’s been a narrative structure to it; essentially that was locked quite a long time ago.

Karl Stewart: It’s a balancing act, right? We know the game from start to finish and we know all those awesome, epic moments that are going to come out, like we do now with a hands-on preview. But you don’t want to open up in the first six months and go “Hey, here’s everything.” What we’ve tried to do from the early days is set a foundation and build upon that, and take the player or viewer on a journey to the point where it feels right. You’ve been there since the very first day when Game Informer wrote the cover and you saw the story we set up. Now, you’ve come along for that ride to the point where you see the foundation that we set brings credibility to the character and the journey. So I think it’s a fine balancing act between listening to feedback, and coming out of E3 with a lot of people saying: “where are the tombs” and “where are the challenges.” You want to make sure you deliver it in the right way. I think that’s been a challenge. Because obviously we’re excited, we know it’s coming, and we wanted to make sure we do it properly. Now we’re at that point where we’re happy to be able to open that door a little bit more.

DG: I would say the toughest thing, looping back to something I said at the beginning, is that this game is best experienced over long periods. We had that snapshot at E3 of five minutes of gameplay on a Microsoft stage, which I’ve done twice now. It’s extremely difficult to sum up the game in five minutes for anyone, but especially this kind of game because the beginning, middle, and end are so different. And therefore every hour is very different as well. That’s what I think is the most challenging thing, when referencing things like E3, it’s been hard to give a wholesale impression of the game without actually giving it to people in their hands. 

Darrell, you mentioned the increased focus on fleshing out stealth elements in  the game. Tell me a little bit about some of those options, and how a player could approach a scenario with a bunch of enemies in front of Lara.

DG: Well, I think one of the cool things about the game is that there are multiple approaches to combat. As I said, there are some combat scenarios that are in-your-face, sort of up front and personal combat where you’re shooting face-to-face with an enemy, and it’s a very clear line of sight. But there are others where you’re vulnerable and have to be stealthy because of that, or you’re a predator and stalking, depending on where it is in the game. I think this diversity of combat scenarios is really cool, something I really like in the game. 

You can use your bow, you can use different weapon types that make it more stealthy. In pre-combat, as we call it, you can either wait for an opportunity to take advantage of a scenario where there are a couple of enemies around. You can bypass a scenario completely if you sneak around, or you can choose to engage with them in a couple of different ways. One, you can just pull out your pistol and start shooting, and it will turn into a big fight as a result. Backup will be called in by the enemies, more guys will come in, and it will become a full-on combat scenario. Or you can do things like distract some of the guys. For example, you may have two guys that are facing each other, having a conversation. You’re observing that from a distance. You can aim an arrow off to the side to distract one of the guys and split them up, take them out one-by-one. So that’s pretty cool, you can actually steer the AI and bait the AI, using your weapons. I think that’s a cool way of playing it too. 

And then some of the other choices are some tactical choices both in traversal and objects in the world. So we have things like fire lanterns or barrels, and other objects where you can use them to your advantage in combat scenarios. Also, your traversal abilities, that’s another thing you can do. We see lots of players actually using traversal in combat. You know, the ability to scramble form cover to cover fluidly and climb fluidly to get vantage points, and using distance if you want to, or get up close and use the melee system as well. I think we’ve catered to a lot of flexibility within the combat. I think that’s what makes it cool.

KS: To add to that, one of the elements that has jumped out at me, one of things I love about playing it, is when you make that decision to go in under stealth, go around the guys rather than take them on face-to-face, it’s a living, breathing island. You come into a World War II base, for instance, and you can stealth the three or four guys on the ground. When you make your way inside, there are scavengers in there welding, working away doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It immerses you more to feel like you’re coming across something. You play games where they just spawn, spawn, and spawn. We’ve tried to make it feel like if you choose that tactic, you’ll come across people that make it feel more immersive.

DG: I think a lot of that emphasis has been put on the AI as well. I really think we’ve gotten to the point where the AI is looking really strong. I think we’ve tried to give personality to the AI as well, so it’s more than just guys you shoot. They’re actually giving you feedback on what you’re doing. They choose their tactics on what you’re doing as well. So there are nice scenarios in there where they’re actually giving some storytelling to you, which is part of the narrative experience. It’s kind of one of our earlier points, trying to support the narrative where they’re actually reflecting your actions, not only in their actions but in their commentary as well. I think that’s one of the things we’ve really tried to push hard on, and I hope it came across in the demo. 

[Next up: Upgrades, storytelling, and the tomb raiding in Tomb Raider]