Incase you hadn't heard, the new Tomb Raider reboot will include a multiplayer mode. Yep, it had us stumped too; a series that has been defined by its solitary exploration and adventuring (as seen in our single player preview) is to get team-based competitive multiplayer battles, complete with de rigueur persistent XP awards, equipment loadouts and weapon and character unlocks.
"We've been working secretly for two years, partly because we knew people didn't expect Tomb Raider to have multiplayer," admits multiplayer producer Joe Khoury of Eidos Montreal, who have handled the multiplayer component of the game's development while Crystal Dynamics focussed on the single player campaign.
"It wasn't our goal to compete with 'the Call of Duties' and 'the Halos', which are huge multiplayer-centric franchises. But we wanted to let players who have had fun in the single player or maybe haven't experienced multiplayer before play as some of the characters they'd only seen in the single player world in multiplayer, talk about matches with their friends, have an opportunity to create their own experiences with multiplayer, and share these on forums or offline."
Indeed, it's set to be a modest offering with just five maps and a handful of modes on offer, but at least its not a money grabbing one; there will be no season pass for DLC nor an online pass needed to access multiplayer, so even second-hand buyers will be able to enjoy all that's on offer.For the most part, what's on offer is something akin to what's been seen in the Uncharted series' multiplayer modes before. You'll choose a weapon load-out, be put into a team and then dart around maps from a third person perspective, popping caps in enemy asses, all the while afforded the manoeuvrability and tactical vantage points of a game with platforming and verticality at its core. The pop-gun feel to weapons isn't the shooter genre at its best, but being able to clamber around levels that make use of the single player game's assets is good fun.
In this respect, the levels themselves may prove to be the multiplayer mode's biggest draw, at least based on our experience with the "Chasm" map we played on. A sandy, decrepit level (hinting at locales yet unseen in the single player mode), you can explore deep caverns and scale high mountain passes, climb to the top of watchtowers or speed down zip lines, making for some interesting tactical movements.
Even more interesting is the opportunity to lay traps for enemies, something that had us genuinely chuckling while playing a few rounds. Dotted around the maps are spots where traps will spawn and can be activated by one team or the other. You'll be immune to a trap set by your team mates, but unaware of those set by enemies, triggering an instant death for those caught out by them. From bear traps to explosive ammo boxes to spike walls, you'll have to be constantly on the lookout for surprises if you want to avoid certain death.
Each map will also offer a "Game Changer" event that one team can trigger for a brief advantage over enemies. On the Chasm map, it was a sandstorm that would reduce visibility for the opposing team, hiding team identifiers and gamer tags. It's similar to what we've seen done in titles like Gears of War before, but we look forward to seeing what other tricks further maps have up their sleeves.Tomb Raider's multiplayer will make use of the context of its own universe in at least one mode, the "Survivor" mode. While all matches see teams composed of either the single player mode's bad guys or good guys, it's here that the game's single player narrative subtly lends itself to the multiplayer.
Here the good "Survivors" are trying to drop off five medical packs to a base location in order to win, while opposing "Scavengers" must prevent them from doing so by making 20 kills before Survivors can achieve their goal.
Considering the reduced movement that any med-pack carrying Survivor has to endure, the 20 kill count win tally for Scavengers seems easily achievable. But there's a twist; shooting a Survivor only leaves them in a revivable "bleed out" state, and in order to rack up a kill Scavengers must get up close and personal and perform a melee finisher. It's not simply enough to stake out the drop off point, as Survivors killed from a distance can be revived by team mates. It's also not always easy to finish off Survivors either, as they can still pop away from a prone position with a surprisingly powerful pistol. Our short time with the mode suggested its been balanced perfectly; we played a handful of matches where there was a single point difference between the winners and losers.
We'll be frank - Tomb Raider's multiplayer modes look unlikely to set the world on fire. But what's on offer here is so far solid, accessible and fun. Whether it'll hold gamers' attentions to the "Prestige" levels that Modern Warfare manages over an extended period of time remains to be seen. But at the very least it looks to add a substantial companion element to the main story thrust without any hint that it'll distract from the single player mode, what unarguably remains the main draw. And that's fine by us.
Tomb Raider is released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 5th 2013. Click here for a single player preview and check back soon for a full review ahead of the game's launch.