Making Of: Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (Edge Magazine 2011)

The original article was posted on Edge Magazine’s website on 11:04am January 17 2011.

Format: PS2
Release: 2003
Publisher: Eidos
Developer: Core Design

The stress fractures were clear a long time before Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness was released. In May 2002 at the E3 conference in LA, Eidos showcased ‘playable’ levels of the game which were little more than short animation demos. For a game due out ‘imminently’, it appeared woefully incomplete.

Fast forward to Sony’s PlayStation Experience at Earl’s Court in September the same year and the public was able to see the next-gen Lara for the first time. Able to play the opening level – set in a Parisian backstreet – the disappointment at Lara’s clumsy negotiation of a dumpster followed by some awkward ladder climbing was tangible. “We spent an inordinate amount of time on the animation of Lara and designed the controls around the animation instead of designing the animation around the controls,” explained Jeremy Heath-Smith, Core Design’s co-founder, shortly after the game was released.

“We got wrapped up in that whole beautiful big animation experience. I don’t know if we ever would have understood what we got wrong with the animation until the game was out. We could have easily used another two or three months. We could have used another year.”

Significantly, Heath-Smith had to present the game at a buyers’ conference several months before the game was released. It was an agonising experience both for the man himself and those attending. ”It was the worst opening level to any game,” an anonymous source tells Edge. “I had to sit through Jeremy Heath-Smith cursing through it while attempting to get Lara on top of a bin. It was unusual behaviour at a buyers’ conference to say the least.”

But this is the end of the story; its beginning is equally gruesome. By all accounts, The Angel Of Darkness was in trouble from the very start. A new team was assigned to the next-gen Lara game while the experienced Tomb Raider stalwarts continued to plug away at Tomb Raider: Chronicles, the last of Eidos’ annual Tomb Raider hits on PS1.After completing Chronicles at the back end of 2000, lead programmer Richard Morton moved over to Angel Of Darkness, and he was shocked at what he found. “The tech had to be completely rewritten from PS1 to PS2 and scrapped again when the Chronicles team started on the game,” he explains. “We lost the first year due to Chronicles and only had the basic story, character models and concept art.”

It’s a classic tale of hubris, with Core’s senior management boasting of innovative features to the press while the artists and programmers tried to keep up with the grand design. “The phrase ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ springs to mind,” continues Morton. “This, coupled with the management trying to cram every new game idea into the design – stealth from Metal Gear, character interaction from Shenmue, upgradeable attributes from RPG games, and so on. Instead of letting the team make a really great Tomb Raider game.”

Early reports also hinted at an epic storyline spanning several games, or episodic content depending on how effusive Core’s management were feeling when they spoke to the press. Charged with outlining this vision was a fresh-faced writer, Murti Schofield: “The Tomb Raider games were in a rut and needed fresh thought and direction. Would I be interested in coming over to Derby and doing a pitch? Would I! I was determined to make the most of this opportunity to pack in as much of my own thematic obsessions as I could get away with and still have it work effectively in a gaming situation.

“Obscure references were dropped in everywhere, in names, as locations, as clues. Background histories of characters were chronicled to depths that gave me intense satisfaction as a writer even though I knew only the tip of these biographical icebergs would ever show in the game.”

Core was keen not just to give Lara’s first PS2 outing a dark mood but also set it in contemporary locations. “By December of 2000 the bulk of the story, establishing scenes and supporting concepts were in place and documented,” recalls Schofield. “I would say the main skeleton of 90 to 95 per cent of what we finally used was there. Then there were changes throughout the next two-and-a-bit years right up until the last possible minute but the infrastructure of the story, as it now exists in the finished game, was there.”

While Angel Of Darkness’ plot is still the subject of much fan activity, the decision to set it in contemporary locations backfired dramatically. Even lukewarm reviews pointed out how little classic tomb raiding made it into the final cut. With the first third of the game set in unpopulated Parisian streets, the Louvre, a discotheque and the city’s sewers, it couldn’t have felt less like an adventure. While later levels in a sanatorium and at an archeological dig were better, few players bothered to get there.

“It was only when we’d been in development for a while that we realised the world wasn’t ready for episodic games,” adds Morton. “We decided to concentrate on the first part as one boxed game, but even this proved too big a task for us with the time we had. Originally The Angel Of Darkness had four distinct locations: Paris, Castle Kriegler in Germany, Prague and Cappadocia in Turkey. We decided to cut to two, Paris and Prague, leaving Castle Kriegler in Germany and Cappadocia in Turkey as the two main locations to a proposed sequel, The Lost Dominion.” Practically cutting the game in half midway through its development had a deleterious effect on the team’s morale and the end product felt disjointed. Players complained that plot inconsistencies, characters, clues and levels felt tagged on or made no sense in the overarching plot.

Fortunately, one of the game’s crowning achievements, its orchestral score, was not affected by the cuts. “These changes took place after we recorded the music and fortunately it didn’t have any negative impact on what we did,” explains sound designer Peter Connelly. “Our music still worked within each of the game’s locations. If the storyline had been completely changed – with a positive plot throughout – we would’ve been screwed, but we were confident this was never going to happen.” Although Core was one of the first companies to receive PS2 dev kits, locking down code proved problematic.

“The other main reason for the delay in my opinion was the tech side of things,” explains Morton. “The PS2 hardware was still proving tricky to optimise and get the best results out of it. We were designing and building levels and characters without any real restriction on polygon budgets or memory limits, which obviously came back to bite us in the arse. Levels were shrunk and characters were dropped.”

Many of the press-friendly features brainstormed into the original design were also curtailed. Lara’s ‘RPG’ skill power-ups felt tagged on, and her stealth moves appeared limp next to those of Sam Fisher or Solid Snake. Indeed, Core planned to spawn a new franchise out of Lara’s new sidekick, Kurtis Trent, but many of his abilities ended up in the bin.

“There was a lot of material that got cut and changed; the whole process was one of slash and patch, right up to the latest possible moments before release,” recalls Schofield. “There were things that got left so late that their final omission left the game badly crippled, and I mourn them. One example was the range of hero abilities planned for Kurtis. He ended up as such a thin, emasculated version of the character we planned in the early stages of development that I could have wept. I may actually have done so.”

The story that emerges from Angel Of Darkness’ ashes is a bleak one, with members of Core’s staff leaving due to the constant changes in direction and an upper management unwilling to listen. “We weren’t able to fully control the game as a team and there were far too many chiefs,” concludes Morton. “As a result, the game lost direction. It was also technically a nightmare with some editors only coming online in the last eight months of development. We didn’t have full character control in until a year before the game’s completion – we’d been in development for ages before then.”

The game that eventually emerged was beset by bugs and felt disjointed in the extreme. The situation wasn’t helped by Eidos facing financial troubles. An ex-Eidos employee tells us that by March 2003 the game had already been submitted eight times to Sony and was eventually rushed out to hit the April 1 accounting deadline. Core wanted more time to polish the game, but another delay could have tipped the publisher over the edge.

Schofield’s sentiments on the experience mirror those of many ex-Core employees: “Angel Of Darkness played like a dog and did not get good reviews. I moved on to other things, scarred and wiser, determined to follow my own path.”