Reliant for so long on Lara Croft who, quite frankly, has started to get on our nerves recently, developer Core Design has decided to branch out a bit with Project Eden, an action adventure that actually has a promising story, and gameplay to match.
Set in a future where the Earth's enormous population reside in massive cities that stretch into the sky, Project Eden puts you at the head of an elite four-man squad, charged with cleaning up the upwardly sprawling metropolis. The rich live atop huge tower blocks and the poor in the crumbling ghettos below, where the sun never shines and criminal activity is rife. Throughout the many derelict areas, engineering teams are operating, constantly repairing the foundations of the huge buildings above. One such team, sent into repair automated processing equipment down at the Real Meat Factory, has gone missing. And guess who's being sent in to investigate?
Playable both in the first and third-person, Project Eden will allow you to control each character directly, much like Hidden & Dangerous, along with any remote equipment that the group gets to use. It features hideous deformed mutants and gang members and players will also be able to look down and see their feet. Out in the autumn, our only reservation will be how the AI works, but, after seeing the game at E3, it already looks impressive and we could be seeing a whole new series develop aside from Core's Tomb Raider franchise. Let's hope so anyway.
In the rock music world, it is common to speak of the "difficult second album", in reference to the pressure put on a band to match the achievements of their first hit record. The assumption is that before achieving fame, they have nothing to lose, nothing to live up to and no one telling them what to do, thus erecting no barriers to their creativity and ambition. Plus they don't have enough money to while away every night on champagne and daiquiri binges, snorting cocaine from the navels of nubile nymphets and shooting pharmaceutical grade smack into their eyeballs, so they're usually relatively coherent. Now, we're not trying to suggest that the talented people at Core Design are a bunch of whacked-out coke-heads with more money than they know what to do with and a penchant for corrupting the innocent - heaven forbid - we're simply grasping for a tenuous parallel between the game that made their fortunes and a great rock album. The difference is, of course, in the hard-bitten world of rock, not even the most insipid soft-rock studio band has the luxury of putting out four remix albums, each shamelessly reworking the ideas in the original, licensing out the film rights, signing a cross-promotional deal with a major sports drink and bundling copies of the original record with inkjet refill cartridges before attempting something new. Even in the games industry it's something of an indulgence. Despite all this, and even four years after their first big hit, team Tomb Raider are under considerable pressure to match their former achievement, and their historically troubled second album is an ambitious affair called Project Eden.
Luckily, Tomb Raider evangelists and Lara knockers alike can rest easy, as Project Eden is not only looking rather stunning, but very different from the game that bankrolled it. We visited Core in their flash Derby HQ to have a chat with the Eden team and examine the latest build, and we were suitably impressed with what we saw. We also took home the first fully playable beta, cut that very day, the code practically still wet on the page. It was the first build in which all twelve levels of the game were playable, the cutscenes in place, the puzzles working smoothly and the enemies lurking in all the right shadows. All that remains now for the Eden team is to refine the AI, add a few trimmings like speech and text and get to work nailing down the bugs. Everything is coming together after four long years of development, and the mood in the Eden nerve centre on our visit was accordingly relaxed and confident. As level designer and mapper Neil Boyd explains: "We've been given tweaking time - an extra two or three months that we didn't think we'd have, so we're really going to be able to put a lot of polish on the finished product."
However, the game has not been without its fair share of troubles, just as the old rock 'n' roll wisdom predicted. Originally due out around this time last year, Eden has suffered from some serious delays and undergone many changes along the way. Core weren't being completely transparent about the reasons for the slippage, but we suspect some of it has to do with recurring back-to-the-drawing-board moments when other games beat them to the punch on their unique selling points. When initially conceived, Eden was a narrative-led first-person actioner featuring dynamic environments and an unprecedented level of interaction with NPCs... Brilliant idea - until Half-Life crashed through the EPS roof and started spraying innovation from every angle. Switching to a first/third-person affair with an emphasis on gadgetry and puzzling, their attempts to innovate were again scuttled by a raft of like-minded games on PC and console - MDK 2 and Perfect Dark springing instantly to mind. The latter even had a flycam, one of the nicest bits of gadgetry available in Core's title. Sigh...
A New Nightmare
However, while Project Eden is unlikely to blow the lid off the 3D action genre, it's still a remarkably distinctive game, imbued with enough atmosphere and well-executed ideas to overcome any amount of hypercritical nit-picking by killjoys. The setting for the game, while drawing on familiar sci-fi themes, is intriguing enough in itself, taking place as it does in a world of ever-expanding diameter, the sprawling cities growing insanely upwards in response to the unrelenting demand for space. In the upper reaches, where sunlight still penetrates the criss-crossing skyways and towering edifices, reside the very rich. Predictably, as you descend, things start to get nasty, the strata of society made literal in the increasingly dim and dangerous layers of squalid slumland, where gangs of genetic mutants and cannibals rule the perpetual night and unthinkable creatures thrive in their numbers. Of course, when you step into the game, you're not one of the very rich - you're a cop, or actually four cops, sent from the Urban Protection Agency to investigate some trouble at a mid-level artificial meat factory (dubbed Real Meat, with inevitable Orwellian irony).
The plot kicks off from there, soon exposing a vicious genetically mutated gang known as the Death Heads, and the first hints of the terrible corruption and suffering behind the mystery of Project Eden. Each of the game's 11 levels is more nightmarish than the last, as your squad descends deeper into the city's nether regions, encountering ever more frightful denizens along the way. The morphing ability of the enemies has been spoken of in these pages before, but now that we've experienced it first hand we can confirm that it's extremely unnerving. You can be strolling along an area of town still populated by civilians, intent on solving some puzzle or other, when a seemingly unassuming resident will grab his head, stretch it into a vile scaly protuberance and transform into a nasty scuttling tiling with no business in a consumer district. Increasingly dark, wretched environments and eerie sound effects contribute to the chilling ambience, which deviates well into survival horror territory.
The skill with which the squad dynamic has been incorporated is also likely to set the game apart from its peers, with each level and puzzle built very deliberately around the various abilities of your team. These skills will probably be familiar by now: Minoko is the computer hacker, required whenever a computer interface presents; Carter is the leader of the pack, with access to special information and security levels; Andre is the D1Y man, an engineer handy for fixing the many broken devices found in the city's lower realms; and Amber, the robot, can withstand heat and harsh environments. Most of the larger puzzles are built around combining the skills of your squad in ever more inventive ways, and you'll find yourself switching characters with great regularity. Use of the various gadgets at your disposal is also essential - mobile rover devices, flycams, auto gun sentries. These are a lot of fun to play with in their own right, though their use is occasionally in danger of becoming repetitive (your path is blocked, there's a hole at ground level - hmm, maybe you need to spawn a rover...). But it does result in a far greater variety of potential solutions to puzzles than simply relying on your bipedal associates. The need to locate specific items such as batteries and data disks also contributes to this variety, a fact the team is keen to stress. "We're trying to appeal to the action crowd as well as people who play point-and-click adventures. With all the puzzles and items you have to use, it's a lot like a graphic adventure in some ways, just in a full 3D world."
Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle
Another key element is the concept of a shared energy resource. Every gadget that is spawned and weapon fired draws from a character's energy supply, which may only be replenished at intermittent recharge points. The ability to draw energy from enemies and team-mates by use of a special Extractor weapon is also promised, although, this device wasn't working properly in the build we saw. Since each team member is essential to your mission, they obviously cannot be allowed to die, the compromise being they respawn at the most recent checkpoint with a fraction less energy. This emphasis on conserving energy becomes more marked as the game progresses.
A conscious decision was also made early in the development cycle to keep the control interface to a minimum. When not under your control, the other team members can be set to either 'follow' or not follow, and this stripped-down approach is applied across the board. "Did you notice there's no jump button?" offers designer Stuart Atkinson, "it's a decision we made, about 18 months ago?
But we don't think many people will notice - we haven't seen anyone searching around for a jump key." To be honest though, this is debatable - we actually think you will notice, but that doesn't mean the lack of athleticism will necessarily detract from the gameplay. Having said that, there is one moment where a chasm must be negotiated by the team, a simple dilemma that requires you to locate and operate a mechanically driven platform. No problem there, except that the gap in question is no more than a couple of metres across, and could easily have been leapt by a more balletic game character. Hopefully, rude moments like this, which rub your disability in your face, will be eliminated in the final cut, in which case your dexterity will be more than adequate for the task at hand. In particular, the much-talked-about ability to shoot over your shoulder remains a nice addition to the roster of movements, and proves a much more realistic and credible solution than either a dumbed down lock-on system or far-fetched speed-strafing powers.
"No ladders either," continues Atkinson, "there's not a single ladder in the whole game. They never work very well - you always see people creeping up to the edge to climb down, then just falling off and dying. We didn't want that." The result of all this deliberate simplicity is a game that puts a lot more emphasis on operating machinery, solving puzzles and managing your squad over traditional FPS skills. In short, they want to make you think.
"We'd hate people to think we were trying to compete with Quake," says Boyd, "it's not a shooting game. There is some shooting, but the pace is much more plodding, you really have to use your brain." Even when you are engaging in gunplay, the game is unlike most other shooters, due to a combination of exceptional enemy AI and uncomplicated control options - plus, of course, you generally have up to three team-mates by your side helping you dispatch the mutant scum. The AI is far from complete in the version we played, but even at this early stage there's evidence of something special. The bad guys duck, roll and dodge your laser spray, fire from cover and coordinate their attacks. The Eden team have put particular emphasis on the way they use their environments, and the coders have gone to great lengths to make editing tools that allow the designers to determine the way the enemies behave in each map, giving power back to the people who actually envisaged the levels in the first place.
'There's lots of stuff we can do as the artists to influence what the bad guys do on the map," Neil Boyd explains. "We can put down waypoints and stuff to tell them: this is a good place to hide, this is a good place to attack from, so hopefully they look like they make really intelligent decisions -like when they're under fire they're going to run off and hide, not just run around aimlessly. That's the aim anyway and we're pretty happy with the way things are going."
Having played the almost-finished product quite extensively, we can happily report that we too are pretty happy with the way things are going. Project Eden is going to be good, and if some niggling problems can be fixed between now and September, it might just be something truly great. If all goes to plan, we'll have a full review next issue.
Download Project Eden
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Project Eden Screenshots and Media
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