Virtual Makeover
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 12 (Dec 2002)

Virtual Makeover

Lara Croft, gaming's popular heroine, gets a new look and some brand-new moves

The statistics alone speak volumes: 30 million game copies sold, six releases to date, and one summer blockbuster film, with another to be released next year. There's only one computer-game franchise with the power to captivate so many players: Tomb Raider. And there's only one character with the appeal, agility, and intelligence to pull off such a feat. It's Lara Croft, a young, gun-toting amateur archaeologist who constantly comes face to face with the dangers lurking within the world of antiquity—and you'd better think twice before messing with her.

Yet mess with her is exactly what the game's developer, Core Design, did while creating Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, the newest game in the series that will be released in February for the PC and PlayStation 2. The UK game house and its publisher, Eidos Interactive, understood that cashing in on the enormous success of their five previous Tomb Raider games would not be enough to propel the franchise into the realm of next-generation gaming. Lara would require greater depth as a character, and Tomb Raider would need a revolutionary new look and feel to satisfy the growing expectations of players.

Ever since Core released its first Tomb Raider game in 1996, people began to connect with Lara Croft, seeing her not as a generic collection of polygons in a third-person interactive action/adventure, but as a beautiful, brash action hero. "Until now, our emphasis was on gameplay," says Core co-founder Adrian Smith. "Yet people associated with Lara, and we wanted to build on that."

It was this drive to explore and develop Lara's character that led to the creation of a Tomb Raider feature film, released last year. Despite poor reviews, the live-action Lara Croft: Tomb Raider earned $47.7 million in the US during its opening weekend—a resounding testament to the popularity of both the game and its heroine. "We had a lot of say in how the movie was developed," explains Smith. "Still, there were things that could have been done better in terms of developing Lara as a person." The group is hoping to change that in the film Tomb Raider 2, set for release in the US this summer.

"We're much more involved with the second movie [which again stars Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft], and have been more aggressive about going through the script and making comments," adds Smith. "We've shared our vision for Lara with the team at Paramount. Our focus is on having them stay true to the [personality] that we have spent more than five years creating. We've already established parameters regarding what Lara does and does not do. She cannot, for instance, be turned into a mass murderer; that's totally out of character. Instead, you can reveal more about her by placing her in new situations where she has to use different skills and accomplish new feats."

Unlike the previous Tomb Raider games, Angel of Darkness is more character-driven, though it is still loaded with plenty of action. Core has added depth to Lara's character by introducing her to unique situations that require new skills and abilities.

The new Tomb Raider game also picks up on this theme of evolving and adding complexity to Lara by placing her in new situations. Smith and his team decided the best way to achieve this would be to divide the game into three sections. One has the same feel as the earlier Tomb Raider games, while another features a new hero/playable character named Kurtis. Previously an antagonist, Kurtis evolves over the course of the game to become the protagonist who takes players on their final action quest.

The first of these three sections of the game plays more like a traditional role-playing game than an action/adventure, with a plot that is much darker than in previous games. In the story line, Lara has been accused of killing her mentor, Werner Von Croy. She begins her adventures alone and weaponless in Paris, where she has to apply all her skills and cunning to avoid being captured while she attempts to clear her name. By placing her in this new, grim scenario and by slowing down the usual rapid pace of the gameplay through numerous real-time rendered interactions with other characters (a first for the game), players have more time to get to know this heroine. As a reward for spending time exploring Lara as a person, they are able to expand the default Lara, earning her new strengths and abilities that will prove useful in the middle portion of the game.

"Despite all these changes, Angel of Darkness is still Tomb Raider," Smith says. "We've just taken the core mechanics and added new elements—interactive environments, conversations between characters, and the introduction of another playable character."

The new level of sophistication in the gameplay meant that the characters—Lara, in particular—would have to reach new levels of visual sophistication. Complicating this goal was the fact that the game would be released simultaneously on the PC and PS2—two very different platforms in terms of graphics capabilities.

According to Smith, Core established a separate art team for each platform. The PS2 team, the larger of the two, generated all the CG game models using Alias|Wavefront's Maya 4.0 running on SGI 320 and 520 PCs. The models were textured in Adobe Systems' Photoshop, and then passed along to the PC team, which added more detail, taking advantage of the capabilities of the high-end PC graphics cards. "We increased the number of polygons in the Lara model, and enhanced the environment by using more detailed textures, as well as bump and environment mapping—all the things that the cards do well," says Smith.

Lara's digital makeover becomes evident when examining her past. In the original Tomb Raider game, the 500-polygon heroine had only 25 moves. In Angel of Darkness, she boasts 5000 polygons and more than 300 moves. To help the new Lara take advantage of the next-generation hardware at her disposal, Core brought Mark Donald onboard as the lead character artist. Donald's mandate was to reinvent Lara while remaining true to her original stylized look. "We didn't want her to look photoreal," explains Smith. "We made the conscious decision not to give her realistic hair or add more polygons; 5000 is as far as we wanted to go." Nevertheless, Lara moves a little closer to reality through a new, more extensive wardrobe with dynamic cloth deformations, and with more sophisticated, real-time lighting that casts shadows on objects.

Not only is the newly made-over Lara Croft sporting more polygons than before, but she's also capable of performing a far more extensive range of movements.

Thus, a fine balance has been struck between the stylized Lara that Tomb Raider fans know and love, and a Lara with superior, more natural-looking animation capabilities that people can more easily connect with. "Now, Lara has a comprehensive range of abilities and moves," notes Donald. "Still, we decided that she and the rest of the game characters would continue to be hand-animated, which enabled us to retain the comic book style of the original concept. Despite this, Lara is far more detailed than she was previously, with more fluid animation and a more lifelike range of motion." This includes such actions as grimacing after walking into an object, dragging a leg that has been injured, and new stealth-attack moves.

Despite the fact that no art assets were carried over from previous games and that a new pipeline had to be created from scratch around Maya, Donald and his team of animators were able to meet their 18-month production deadline. Using a forward and inverse kinematic setup in Maya, the team keyframed the interactive animations. At times, the group employed Trax, Maya's non-linear character animation editor, in conjunction with in-house tools. A set of facial blendshapes allowed the animators to extend Lara's facial animation capabilities as well as those of all the characters with whom she interacts. The deformation of Lara's clothing was achieved through dynamic simulations programmed into the game by Core's team of engineers.

Most of the game's cut-scenes are rendered in real-time, although UK production house Attitude Studios created 16 non-interactive, pre-rendered interludes as well as four full-motion video sequences. Using the polygonal models created by Core, Attitude provided the cut-scenes with an additional dimension of realism through the use of motion capture, in addition to the keyframed animation. The group acquired the motion data using a Vicon system, edited it in Kaydara's Filmbox 3.5 (now MotionBuilder), then exported the files to Maya 4.

Lara's interaction with her highly detailed 3D environment in Angel of Darkness is equally impressive. In one level, water was created as a polygon grid with a subtle texture on the surface and an environment map that reacts to randomly generated ripples on the polygons. Ripples on the surface of the water are also generated by Lara's wading and swimming motions. For added richness, the rippling water shows a distorted image of the environment below the surface. Lead game designer Richard Morton and the rest of the team used Maya, Photoshop, and special programming to create this and other novel effects, such as steam and torch flames.

The flames are just one of many eye-catching lighting effects found in the game. Another impressive effect, the real-time shadows, began as baked shadow maps in Maya. From there, the files were brought into Core's proprietary world edit tool, where realistic lighting was applied. A similar method was employed for creating the dynamic lights of the torch flames.

The artists used actual locations in Paris as references while modeling many of the game environments.

The team also used Maya and Photoshop for creating the props and environment maps, many with an automatic level of detail, that make up Lara's world. Other realistic effects, such as heat haze and reflectivity, were achieved through scripts created by programmer Dan Scott.

"With today's games and the hardware that is available, everything has to look and feel more real," laments Smith. "It's now all about 'the look' of the effects, the environments, and the quality of the animation. As a result, that puts pressure on the tools, whether it's Maya or those we develop to work alongside it." Now that Core has its new art pipeline in place, not to mention a storyline already drafted for the next three games, Smith expects that the team will cut back on the overall programming for the next Tomb Raider games, and place greater emphasis on the art to create more of a cinematic feel. This will be accomplished by experimenting further with the available art tools, adding more detail to the game maps, and by continuing to take advantage of such new hardware technologies as per-pixel and per-vertex shading.

For now, though, Lara may be sporting a new makeover in Angel of Darkness, but she is also relying on her newly developed ingenuity and athleticism to solve the ancient art world's latest mystery—all in the classic Lara Croft style...

Lisa Taylor is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at

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