Uncover The Latest On Tomb Raider

by Matt Miller on Dec 04, 2012 at 02:30 AM

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]

Tell me a little bit about the newly revealed tombs. What are they in the game and what do they contribute to the play experience? 

DG: We have a number of secondary tombs in the world, and we also have primary path tombs as part of the experience. The central hubs have a number of different challenge tombs and for us we really wanted that feeling of discovery. The ability to discover a tomb and come across it. We give hints in a number of different ways. So the player knows that they are there and at the same time you still have to come across it and you have to find it and you have to seek it out. There is this sort of joy of actually going into it for the first time and discovering something that is off the beaten path. So that’s the first piece of it. I think the second piece is also to provide some cool interesting challenges for going off the beaten path. So the tombs are all puzzle oriented and you can spend any number of minutes to tens of minutes in each challenge tomb and they are at different complexity. All of them are putting to use specific systems and the gear you’ve collected along the way. There are extra rewards for completing the challenge tombs, getting XP and skills points as a result for completing the challenge tombs. I guess for us we really wanted to make it feel like that there was a wealth of content in the game –there was more to do. It is a living breathing place. Everything from the AI we thought about through to the challenge tombs. 

KS: Yeah I think we spent a lot of time building these hubs and our goal is to have players come back in and enjoy them. With the base camp and fast travel, we tried to make sure when you play that experience, the player will have the option to go back into hubs over the course of the game through the base camp. As an example, yesterday I was playing through it, and you finish an area and you move on and then you come back into that area later on and there happens to be scavengers. It’s scavengers actually there dismantling an airplane doing things – you feel like, “Holy crap the game came back in and spawned them?” I’ve actually stumbled across them and they’re talking to each other and discussing stuff. So it feels like when you start using the base camp and start fast travel you feel like the island is alive. The hubs, rather than just being large exploration spaces, we want them to feel like they are a major part of the game as well. 

What are the relics you find in the game, and what happens when you find them?

DG: Yeah she’s an archeologist right? So first and foremost we needed to support that and also make it an interesting world to go run around. So it’s part of the lore and it’s one of those cool parts we brought into this game. I think it’s nice you can actually go exploring. You can learn a bit more about the story from the artifacts you find and the relics. Just giving that feeling of her being an expert in her field and supporting her as an archeologist is a big part of it, but also giving the player a reason to go and actually explore every nook and cranny. Ultimately, unlocking challenges and XP for achieving these goals I think is a big important part of Tomb Raider. So on the exploration side, I guess it is one thing that we know that Tomb Raider has always been known for and we need to make sure we delivered on that. I hope we did. 

KS: We also try and make sure the player feels like the world is abundant with content. There’s a real desire to want to become a completionist.  And if you can do the gear gating, you feel like you do want to go back and find everything. So there is a sense of rather than just stumbling upon it and saying you collected one of five there really is a sense of the world that has a ton of content.  There is a lot to explore there and you want to try to find it all.

Can you talk to me a little bit about the importance of the camcorder and what it brings to the narrative? 

DG: Obviously, it’s very important in the early stages of the demo you played and mainly because you crash on the island and essentially you’re not given a lot of information about who you’re with. Who was on the boat? So the camcorder really allows us to do that. She finds it she picks it up. There is some file footage on it and it allows us to flash back to better times and provide juxtaposition to the difficulty she’s in of facing the threats on the island, but also to gives us some backstory to her relationships with other crew members. So that file footage is very important because it really helps you discover who the other key protagonists are, who the key crew members are, and what her relationship with them was before they crash landed on the island, and then it’s really interesting to see how that actually changes and twists as you go through the narrative. 

What is the philosophy towards the two upgrade systems, the XP leading to skill points, and the salvage leading into gear upgrades? What did you want to communicate to the players with that and what does it add to the game?

DG: I think it’s huge, first and foremost. I think it’s a huge addition to the game. One of the things I really like about it is I think it works so well in the context of having a character that starts with nothing, and ends up in a completely different set of tools by the end of the game. That was always going to happen from a narrative standpoint, I think that’s obviously fairly unique from a narrative standpoint. It’s very rare that you see a character in a third-person action-adventure game start without a weapon and very minimal skills, and end where Lara’s going to end up at the end of this game. So from a narrative side I think that’s unique, but where it becomes much more interesting is when you’re building that character alongside the narrative, so it intertwines. I think that’s why it works really, really well in this game – not only is she building as a character from a story arc standpoint, but you’re also contributing to that in terms of how you’re choosing to upgrade the character. I think those two things marry really well, and I think it’s one of the most unique parts of this game personally. From a high level of thinking that was the goal, to have the players feel like they’re contributing to the growth of the character alongside the narrative so it wasn’t just a story, it was you actually helping to build that character alongside the story and seeing them really mesh well together. 

From a fictional standpoint, I would say that the survival theme, which is a theme that grounds this game, makes a lot of sense as well. We really want to reinforce the survival flavor in this game, so going out and actually earning XP, being able to upgrade, foraging and finding pieces and parts to upgrade your weapons—it all really fits within that theme and helps to support it. Her having to become more capable as a hunter, or in combat, or through her athleticism, are all things that make sense when she’s growing through this survival experience that she’s encountered. So again, from a thematic standpoint, when we say survival was a key driver and a theme for this game, it also felt like it fit really well too. 

From all three standpoints at a high level, this system of skill points and XP upgrades felt like it touched on many of the things that we wanted to do with the game and I think really helped to provide the glue between all those high level goals. The other thing is to make exploration more rewarding and more meaningful as well; that’s another big part that’s supporting the exploration pillar. Whereas in Tomb Raider’s past you could go around and explore, but it was really for completionists, it wasn’t necessary. Because this is a survival situation where you really want to make exploration more fundamental, you want to take part in her actually progressing and getting off this island; it’s one of the reasons to have it in there, to really support that loop. 

Many thanks to Darrell Gallagher and Karl Stewart for taking time to chat with me. For more on Tomb Raider, check out our dedicated cover story hub on the game, or our recent coverage of the enemies in the new Tomb Raider.