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Article paru dans le magazine américain PC Gamer de mars 2002. Merci à Alexandre pour l'info.

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Tomb Raider Next Generation : Return of the queen

Spelunker.
One who explores caves. For fun.
Minor confession: Before Tomb Raider, I'd never come across the word "spelunker". I obviously missed that class at school. But Tombraider expanded my vocabulary. Suddenly it was spelunking here, spelunking there, spelunking wherever it was dark and wet. In 1995, in an industry finding its feet and its terminology, the third person action/adventure was a new, ahem, paradigm in video gaming. Then there was the heroine, the monumentally endowed Lara Croft. Nicknamed "Indiana Jane" to give a handy reference point for this original gameplay style and character, Lara Croft was instantly defined as a cultural icon for the digital age, and an inspiration for code hackers determined to remove her famous short shorts and tight tank-top. But through four increasingly insipid sequels, the new outfits were bigger talking points than the gameplay improvements, and though the cash rolled in, the reputation of the game franchise was sullied. Back in the public eye thanks to the high profile, commercially successful (albeit critically panned) Tomb Raider movie, developer Core Design now has a new generation of game systems ready to host its prime asset(s). Not surprisingly, the darling of the Playstation is coming to PS2, and an Xbox version will likely appear sometime later. But PC gamers should benefit even more significantly from the step up in both technology and gameplay. The new Tomb Raider game will have a darker, grittier Lara, ensconced in a complex story of powerful otherwordly creatures, friendship, and betrayal. And in possibly the biggest news of this franchise's rebirth, Lara shares the spotlight with Kurtis Trent, a never-before-seen playable character.

STARTING OVER

"For us, we wanted to finish after Tomb Raider II," says Adrian Smith, the ebullient operations director at Core Design, "[TR2] was always going to be successful, in TR3 we listened to the consumers too much-it was too hard and too confusing." Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation and Tomb Raider Chronicles made it five games in five years ("we won't do that again," says Smith, though Core may have to given its current plans for the expansion of the TR universe). So Core was really struggling for ideas since Lara had apparently died at the end of part four. Well, prepare for a shock: Lara's not Dead! No, you'll get to see what actually happened in a cut-scene intro that, in an original twist, you'll revisit two more times of the course of the game, opening up more details as the intriguing plot unfolds. For Core, reinventing the Tomb Raider franchise for the next generation required taking a big-picture approach. So, a scriptwriter was hired, one who has literally written the book on Tomb Raider. This ongoing, expansive, epic tale will likely take five or possibly more games to tell over the next few years. But it means that the plot twists retain a real cohesion with no arbitrary decisions, and pave a finite path for Lara to tread.

Deciding what kind of game to make was the first critical decision. "We can't put Lara in a car or a plane because that's just not Tomb Raider," explained Smith, "and we didn't want to create just a better looking Tomb Raider game." So Core is caught in a real conundrum. There's a palpable desire to give Lara a striking rebirth.

The plot then leads you to the Louvre. Built on top of a castle, the world-famous art gallery's passageways and rooms sprawl underneath the main complex, allowing for plenty of traditional ledge-clinging, running, jumping, lever-pulling, and puzzlesolving. It's also the place to start searching for five 14th century paintings that are critical to the over-arching story. Created by the "Obscure Painter," they hide clues to the ancient group-the Nephilim-who you'll learn more (and less) about as the story progresses. You'll also uncover the involvement of the apparent villain of the piece, Eckhardt.

ON THE RUN

Unequipped for the situation she's found herself in, and unable to go to the authorities for help since she's wanted for murder, Lara must stealthily scour the Parisian underground, acquiring items (including weapons) and information. This time around, you'll be able to take multiple routes to traverse the various areas, but only if you talk to the right people and ask the right questions (likely using traditional dialogue trees). Go the default route, and Smith estimates you'll see only 60% of the game.

It's not just about posing the right questions, though: not all Crofts are created equal! An RPG-lite system lets you customize your Lara's stats as you work through the game. Certain areas will be accessible only by using enhanced skills - be it the length of time Lara can hang from ledges, the distance she can jump, or her running speed. Herein lies the philosophy of wanting to give players who invest more time in their character a bigger payoff. Given the complex and monumental underlying plot, Core is scattering much of the information throughout the game, and creating a variety of real-world websites to reveal more of the backstory. Smith says the core, world shattering story will be revealed piece by piece, in X-files fashion with key story elements intertwined with pure action and adventure. "This setup gives us the opportunity to introduce new characters like the suitcase man in Half-Life," says Smith, "and then see them and push them into other games."

SHE'S NOT ALONE

Possibly the biggest change to Lara's world in this series revival is the introduction of Kurtis, a hip, action-focused, super-disc wielding adventurer. After working through Paris, Lara heads to the game's second location, prague, and it's atmospheric Strahov Complex, where the action quotient kicks up. Though Core is being a little coy about how you'll control both characters, it's very likely that they'll be used together to solve puzzles in a manner similar to Core's recent team based actioner, Project Eden. You'll also control Kurtis alone in action segments against hordes of different devilish creatures.

Kurtis' disc weapon sprouts teeth and is flung like a boomerang. On top of that, both Lara and Kurtis will have access to the usual arsenal, and though Smith stated that "we've tended to draw back from having AK47s," there's still the promise of some big hardware. Another factor in choosing a weapon is the introduction of a money system whereby, particularly in the early game, Lara can earn cash to purchase optional kit. For example, Lara can find an old comic, save it in her inventory, and then sell the comic to a pawnbroker and use the cash at the gunshop. Don't find the comic, and you'll have to survive with the basic hardware provided along the way.

In combat, one boss monster uses it's multiple limbs for multiple attacks, and it's likely that you'll switch between both characters to defeat it. As with many of the puzzles, you'll get hints during in-engine cutscenes on how to defeat the most powerful creatures. The human enemy AI that was ridiculed in the earlier games is still relatively simple: each character has a point A-to point B route, and an area of influence in which it will either recognize a threat and respond, or return to it's predetermined path.

TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES

Built from the ground up, the new technology at the heart of the next generation of Tomb Raider games has plenty of flexibility, and a variety of extras for the PC version. Some elements-such as the impressive fogging and particle effects from torches, flashlights, explosions and other sources-are all available for free using the latest 3d hardware. In the PS2 version, some of the high end functions simply won't be available, or they'll come at the expense of much greater effort on the developers' part.

For PC gamers only, it's possible that Core will release the editing tools around launch time for creating your own levels. Though there are numerous potential problems, such as the fact most gamers won't have access to the game engine's expensive Maya base, Smith appreciates its value to the PC market, and a decision will be made closer to the game's ship date. (Fortunately, it's rumored that Alias-the makers of Maya-may be considering a game mod community friendly version akin to Discreet's "3D studio Max Lite" software, gmax.)

And then there's multiplay. It's always been asserted - correctly - that Tomb Raider just wouldn't work as a multiplayer deathmatch game. But with the new character, two-person co-op play is a very real possibility that Core is investigating as the game takes shape.

Smith also confessed that the team would be trying to get Hollywood's Lara Croft, Angelina Jolie, to be the voice of Lara, and Anthony Hopkins is its number one choice for the voice of Eckhardt - a casting possibility that Smith would not deny. Whoever fills the roles, the voices will match the facial animations with some high-end lip syncing . The technology we saw was very impressive: The whole face could be used to deliver emotions, with eyebrows being raised to change mood, and all the words synced perfectly on the fly to the animation.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Bringing Lara back from the dead for the PC gaming audience involves much more than just explaining her apparent demise. It's about convincing gamers that there really is a new game here. Though the elements we saw in action were still early in development, there's little doubt that the intentions are good. The new game's complex storyline offers a slew of fresh possibilities. Smith suggested that the TR: Next Gen ending could involve Lara facing re-creations of her three biggest life challenges: the plane crash in the jungle at the opening of the original tombraider.