Come for the tombs, stay for the competitive multiplayer: Hands-on with Tomb Raider’s multiplayer

Being able to keep a secret in the entertainment industry is a necessary, but often pointless endeavor. Developers are reluctant to give up what they are working on, both to ensure the gamers’ experience is unspoiled and to prevent competitors from seeing what they are up against. But still, there is generally a leak somewhere along the way. That makes the reveal of Tomb Raider’s multiplayer last month all the more surprising since no one expected it.

We probably should have though. Multiplayer is a huge aspect of gaming these days, and a good multiplayer component can keep a title going for months after its release. It also opens up the possibility of releasing DLC, like additional map packs, that are relatively inexpensive to make, but are eagerly purchased by fans hungry for more. It just makes good business sense to have a multiplayer feature. Even if you are primarily a single player fan, if it can be integrated to a game with a substantial solo campaign without taking anything from it, then everybody is a winner. And with Tomb Raider, the emphasis has definitely been on the single player aspect.

While CES is not typically thought of as a gaming event, and especially not for software, there are some exceptions. With the new Tomb Raider just weeks away, developer Crystal Dynamic and publisher Square Enix decided to use the event to show off the new multiplayer, designed by Eidos Montreal, to assorted press in Las Vegas.

The multiplayer builds upon the third person perspective, but you aren’t playing as Lara Croft. Instead you are on one of two teams: the first consisting of survivors of the shipwreck that will feature prominently in the story; the second group is comprised of character types belonging to the enemies Lara will face on the island. The two sides look very different, but it is an aesthetic difference – although in the team deathmatch on display in the demo, the two sides each have their own pre-selected loadouts.

It offers a fairly standard experience-based leveling system, with weapons, perks, and weapon add-ons being unlocked through play. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. But of all the weapons, the bow was perhaps the most distinctive. It’s best used when you can unlock perks for it like faster reload (or notching an arrow as the case may be), but it’s fun to use regardless.

The demo featured two game modes: team deathmatch that is just as you would expect, and another mode called private rescue that is objective based. Online play will feature up to eight players total, and due to that, the relatively small map on display – called “Chasm,” which is one of five maps the game will offer – worked well. The deathmatch was very standard stuff, but it also highlighted a slight problem with melee. If you sneak up on an enemy and hold the attack button, you can enter into a mini-animation to kill them. But if you miss, you and the opponent can begin an awkward dance of futility that becomes like a game of chicken, daring one person to step back to shoot, which leaves the other with a clear line to the guided melee attack.

The unique private rescue was the multiplayer’s new standout mode. Each side has a mission, either to defend and kill 20 enemies, or to try and grab and retrieve five supply packs. It is a bit like capture the flag, but with only one team attacking.

This mode also features a twist when it comes to the combat. After a player is hit, they go into a last stand-like mode. They can then fire their handgun and hope for a revival from a teammate before their timer runs out and they die, or an opponent finishes them off with an execution move.

The maps are also filled with some cleverly designed traps and environmental adapters. All traps are inert at first, until a member of one team activates them (with a button press). The trap then only affects the opposite team. One may be a rope trap, which grabs a player and suspends them upside down until they shoot the rope holding them. These are relatively minor, but can leave the victim vulnerable for a few crucial seconds. Other traps can be instant kills, and if more than one enemy is in a certain area – perhaps a confined hallway – spikes may impale several foes at once.

As for the environmental augmenters  the example shown was activated by a trigger near a giant bell that takes a few seconds to activate. Once it has been used, a sandstorm covers the map, obscuring all vision except for the person that activated it and can see a red outline of nearby enemies.

The maps also feature several areas that allow you to quickly get from one point to another. You can climb a rock wall with a pickaxe, for example, or you can take a zip line. Multiple pathways exist, and can be opened by shooting wooden planks that may be a doorway, or a ceiling, increasing the range of attack angles.

The demo being shown was just a small portion of the component that has been in development by a separate team within Eidos, but they have been working hand-in-hand with the single player campaign. The movement is taken from Lara Croft’s gameplay movements, which should give all modes a consistency, and it means you can move quickly and with a good range of motion. Fans of the Uncharted multiplayer should feel right at home here, but there isn’t a specific cover mechanic as with some other third person multiplayer games. You can, however, easily traverse obstacles like walls using a pickaxe, and ziplines were scattered throughout the map we played to gkeep the action moving.

A lot of it will come down to the maps themselves. The environmental modifiers are intriguing, and the traps open up a lot of game play possibilities. On its surface, the Tomb Raider multiplayer feels familiar, but with a few unique twists that could give the game a second life beyond the campaign.

Tomb Raider was designed to tell the story of Lara Croft. It is a reboot, and the first adventure of one of the most iconic characters in gaming. It is her story and her trials that will be what gamers remember. But if the multiplayer can deliver, if the community can rally and keep it lively and the games populated, then it will be an incredible bonus for what already looks like one of the best looking games of 2013.

Square Enix also took the opportunity to introduce a new Tomb Raider controller to coincide with the game’s March 5 release, which you can check out on the right. 

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