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Tomb Raider multiplayer keeps Lara Croft fans entertained (hands-on preview)

Slated for a March 5 debut, Tomb Raider is one of the biggest games being released this year. It is a grounds-up reboot of the Lara Croft franchise that has sold more than 35 million units to date. We recently got a hands-on preview of the multiplayer version of the game, which is being built by Crystal Dynamics and the Eidos Montreal division of Square Enix.

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It is the 11th title in the series, but it takes players back to the beginning where we meet a 20-year-old Lara Croft who has to learn how to survive. With outstanding graphics and a gripping the story, the single-player version of the game has gamers salivating. Multiplayer, however, has been a mystery. After all, we can’t all play as Lara Croft in a big online brawl.

But the designers figured out a way to make a fun multiplayer mode that fits with the world of Tomb Raider. Joe Khoury, the producer on the multiplayer version of Tomb Raider from Eidos Montreal, told GamesBeat that the game has all the right elements for multiplayer: an island where survival can be very difficult, the survivors of Lara’s shipwreck that include a bunch of her friends, and a natural enemy in the scavengers on the island who challenge Lara’s crew. The team designed a four-versus-four mode where players can fight grim matches that require a lot of team work. That kind of fighting matches the kind of experience that players will find in the single-player game.

When I booted up the preview build, I was on the team of scavengers. I scanned through the different enemy characters and saw a lot of spoilers from the single-player game. They included your standard crew of bad guys, who were very beefy but rather poorly dressed. Then there were a bunch of enemies that looked more like ancient statues than human adversaries. You can collect in-game currency as you level up. You can spend that currency on weapon upgrades, new weapons, and character unlocks.

I settled upon a “bruiser” character who seemed simple enough. I had several choices for weapons and settled on an assault rifle. We started a four-on-four match that took place in a map called Chasm. The map, pictured above, was in a sandy chasm with a bunch of wooden structures and mines. As a scavenger, my job was to shoot Lara’s friends, who had to collect medical supplies and protect each other. If the scavengers rack up enough kills, the round ends. But the scavenger bullets can’t immediately kill the friends. Rather, you can only wound them with your guns. Then, once the friends are wounded, you have to go up to them and kill them via melee.

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Meanwhile, Lara’s friends try to revive each other. When you’re reviving someone, you’re vulnerable. It’s a lot like the Gears of War multiplayer system, where revivals are critical to staying in the game. To win, the friends had to collect and deliver five medical packs, while the Scavengers had to get 20  kills.

I found that shooting my assault gun wasn’t nearly so easy as playing a round of Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Your movements are slower and you have to be more deliberate in everything including aiming and taking shots. It’s easy enough to pick out the enemy from the distance because you can see the hostile red color identifying them.

Up close, you have to move fast, much like you do in Gears of War multiplayer. You can take time to aim at an enemy far away, but if you take too long, someone will come from another direction and take you out. It’s best to play in some organized fashion, but I simply followed some of my cohorts into the action. In my first round, I got five kills and died seven times. I did pretty much the same in the second round, when I played one of Lara’s crew. That told me that the two opposing sides were fairly evenly matched.

In the middle of the round, someone triggered a sandstorm. I couldn’t see anyone during that moment. It was triggered by the opposing team. Whichever side gets to the right part of the map can unleash what Khoury calls a “game changer.” That event is so big that it can change the course of a match. It is a reminder that the island itself and its environment can be as deadly as any opponent. The maps all contain traps that players can set for opponents as well, like rope snares.

The multiplayer action was fun. But does this game need the multiplayer? It will probably be fun without it. But if multiplayer catches on, the game will be able to live on for many more hours. That could help its engagement and word of mouth, ultimately resulting in the sale of more copies of Tomb Raider. The good thing about this multiplayer is that it isn’t just a list of things that are stapled onto what players hope to be  a thrilling single-player experience.

You’ll be able to advance to level 60 in online play. And if you want to play Lara, you’re going to have to level all the way up to get her. That should motivate people to keep playing. Khoury says the team also has some options for downloadable multiplayer content coming down the road too. Tomb Raider debuts on March 5 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Windows. It will be rated mature.

Here’s a video interview with Khoury and Gallagher that we shot after playing a round of multiplayer combat.


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