British developer Core Design are best known as the creators of a certain Ms Lara Croft, but while the company has pumped out a regular stream of sequels since then, for the last couple of years the team behind the original Tomb Raider has been hard at work on an entirely new project. Project Eden, to be precise...
Dog New Tricks
Like Tomb Raider, Project Eden is a third person action-adventure game, but any similarities end there. In fact, there's even a first person option on offer if you prefer precision to peripheral vision. Core have started out with a clean slate, and although the result is unlikely to be as earth-shattering as Tomb Raider was in its prime, things are certainly looking promising at this stage.
You control a four man squad from the Urban Protection Agency, sent into the depths of a vast Fifth Element style vertical city to investigate a Real Meat factory which has gone haywire. It soon becomes obvious that a malfunctioning factory and some missing engineers are just the tip of the iceberg though. The dark, heavily polluted lower levels of the city are a virtual no-go zone for the UPA at the best of times, but now something is stirring down there, and it ain't friendly.
As you gradually uncover what is going on your goals will be constantly changing, and throughout the game you will receive new instructions and information from Control, who is safely behind his desk at UPA headquarters. In total there are eleven levels for your squad to explore, each featuring a variety of sub-missions which you will need to carry out to complete them. And although the storyline is entirely linear, you will have some freedom when it comes to completing individual sub-missions and which order to tackle them in.
Out Of Control
Each of the four characters in your squad have their own skills and special abilities, but this is no role-playing game - the emphasis is very much on action and player skill rather than sheets of numbers and point-and-click gameplay.
You will only actually have control over one character at a time when playing the game, although you can switch between the four squad members any time you want to. You can give orders to the rest of your squad, but these are limited to very basic commands such as "stay here", "use this weapon" or "follow me". It's a far cry from tactical shooters such as SWAT 3 and Rainbow Six, but as Core point out "the emphasis is on player control rather than issuing orders on map screens and then crossing your fingers that the character will do what you planned".
Instead you must decide who to use in each particular circumstance. Squad leader Carter is able to access high security areas which the others might not be able to get into, and is also the only one in direct communication with Control. Token young lady Minoko is the electronics expert, able to hack into computers, download information and access cameras and security systems. Andre is an enginner, and can be used to repair broken devices and locate weak points in walls and machines to allow you to blast your way through. Finally there is Amber, a metal killing machine that was once a woman but is now mostly robot, and as a result can wield more powerful weapons, survive without air and withstand extreme temperatures.
Death Is Not The End
Because they all have their own unique characteristics, keeping all four of your squad members alive is vital if you are to complete your mission. To prevent any irritating "Game Over" screens, Project Eden uses a system of "ReGen points" where your characters can be brought back to life. If somebody dies and you have enough energy available, you can simply regenerate them at the last ReGen point they visited. Only if your entire party is killed will you be forced to reach for the reload button.
This also extends to the many items which you can use during the game, such as sentry guns and robotic rovers. For example, if your hover cam is blown up you can always spend some energy on regenerating it later in the game if you find that you need it. "Consequently, we can design a puzzle around a hover cam knowing the player will have one available, and the player can use one when they like without worrying they've wasted a valuable item". It sounds like a neat solution, although we'll have to wait and see how it works in practice.
Your characters won't be caught short on the weaponry front either. You are equipped with laser pulse guns as standard, while Amber also carries mini-rocket launchers. Later in the game you will find timeshock weapons which can slow down targets, bouncing disc guns (complete with a targetting device to show you where the discs should go), pipe bombs and the proverbial much much more. To add some extra spice, each of the weapons will come with at least one alternative firing mode, such as rapid fire or stun.
The whole thing is powered by an all-new graphics engine, and while it's not likely to give the likes of id Software or Epic any nightmares, it certainly marks a vast improvement over the increasingly creaky old engine which has powered the last five Tomb Raiders.
All of your favourite buzzwords - such as bump mapping, reflective surfaces, particle system and volumetric fog - are present and correct, and characters look to be nicely textured from what we have seen so far. They also come complete with a range of facial animations to portray their emotions, and overall things are looking quietly impressive at this stage.
Finally there is support for something which has been sorely missing in most recent action games - co-operative multiplayer. Up to four players can join up to work together over the internet or a LAN, allowing you to play through the game with your entire squad controlled by real humans. Naturally there will also be the now traditional deathmatch modes, but it's the possibilities of a decent co-op mode that bring back fond memories of the likes of Doom and the original Quake.
Project Eden is due to be released on both PC and PlayStation 2 some time in June. Obviously there will be some minor differences - for example, the lack of any internet connection options for the PS2 at the moment means that the console version will use split-screen multiplayer instead - but overall the two versions should be much the same. Either way, expect to hear more about this game as it nears release this summer.