The story of Lara Croft across the Tomb Raider franchise has always been about her plight – and her plight alone. Outside of needing some assistance in the co-op supported Xbox Live/PlayStation Network downloadable game Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Croft has gone on her own, relying on her quick wits and a pair of pistols to get through even the most troubling of situations, whether it's taking on a Tyrannosaurus Rex or nailing down a group of gunmen.
Her next adventure, Tomb Raider, actually delves a bit into her past, showing how she learned her survival skills in the first place. She fights her way across a deserted island, trying to pick up the pieces following a massive shipwreck while, at the same time, battling the elements of nature and a few thugs using a bow and arrow and other makeshift tools. The single player experience was sure to be groundbreaking in its own right – but Crystal Dynamics, the game's developer, was looking to add something more.
Earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Square Enix invited us to get a glimpse of what big game-changer was being added to the series – and it's none other than multiplayer.
At first we were skeptical, because this series had mostly been known as a single player affair, and adding competitive multiplayer was along the same lines of what 2K Marin did for Bioshock 2 years ago – a bit awkward, and not entirely necessary. The jokes went flying all over Twitter, with people wondering if they would be playing as multiple Laras or nameless crew members on a boat. But after seeing it, I can honestly say that it does make sense, even if it's not everyone's ideal experience.
Instead of involving Lara in a situation where she's teamed up with no-names against thugs (leaving everyone arguing, "Why can't I play as Lara?!"), the multiplayer, put together by the folks at Eidos Montreal – the same team behind Deux Ex: Human Revolution – goes with complete strangers instead. Well, not entirely strangers, but hardly as familiar as Lara. You've got a group of four of Lara's friends, who are shipwrecked on a small but sufficient island, and on the other side, you have a group of survivalists who will do anything to keep their land from being disturbed – including kill.
There's a general deathmatch mode where you can try and rack up as many deaths as you can in one run, but the real interesting feature with multiplayer is goal-oriented, where each team has to meet a specific point over the course of the match in order to win. For the survivors, it comes down to locating and hauling medical kits back to a specific point on the map. For the scavengers, it's a matter of reaching a certain kill count. The first to help their team succeed wins the match, in a best of three.
The multiplayer supports up to eight people, and they each spawn at a certain point on the map – the scavengers up top, where they can survey the area; and the survivors from another point, rappelling in before they begin running for the med kits.
There are certain conditions that change over the course of the map. Booby traps can be laid out, and without any indication as to whether it was put down by a teammate or an enemy, you have to take your chances and run past, hoping it won't blow you to smithereens – a 50/50 bet. There are other traps as well, including floors that can easily cave in; explosive barrels that make it easy to pick off any groups who are unfortunate enough to be standing near it; and our personal favorite, rope snares. With these, the player is incapacitated, but not out of action, as they can shoot while hanging upside down at any enemies that approach (with their pistol), and then aim up and shoot the rope, freeing themselves.
There are certain conditions when you run out of health. You're still armed with a pistol, but can't move, though that won't stop you from being able to shoot at any incoming enemies – unless you run out of ammo. Melee kills are also quite effective in the heat of combat, as you can stab someone from behind or take out someone who's on the ground with ease. Finally, if you are on your last legs, a teammate can revive you if you haven't decided to respawn or run out of life – helpful when it comes to defending a health pack.
The lobby system is rather refined, and though the choices of characters are limited, each are primed for battle, and Square Enix has already promised that downloadable ones will be added to the roster, including a look-alike of Chuck's Zachary Levi – who portrays a character in the film – who will be added in time for the game's launch as a free pre-order bonus.
Though we only saw one map of the five that will be available – the deep, enjoyable Chasm – it leaves a lot of room for impersonation, as you can work through underground, outside or straight up the middle entries to reach points on the map, sneaking up on enemies or just trying to find a better route to the goal. The graphics are a little less in detail than the single player portion of the game (it is a separate developer handling it, after all), but it still looks very good, and has an Uncharted-like motif to it, as if it's reeling you in for adventure. And against the right group of people, that could be the case.
The question is this – is Tomb Raider's multiplayer really necessary? Not really, because the scope of the single player game is jarring enough as it is to bring people in, just to see how things turn out and Lara grows up into the confident, no-nonsense explorer she's become over the years. But still, it could've been a LOT worse, and Eidos Montreal is keeping things interesting, especially with the bow and arrow, which lets you make old-school headshots like a boss – no matter which side you're on.
You may not play it for months at a time like Call of Duty: Black Ops II. That said, the multiplayer is worth checking out, just for the unpredictability of the map conditions and seeing what you can do on both teams.
Tomb Raider hits stores for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 5th.