With the regular work I now do on the gaming side of The Leisure Lab, I'm lucky enough to get occasional invites to see upcoming console releases.
Yesterday was a bumber day in that regard, as I got to spend some time with Eidos' Tomb Raider: Underworld in the rather lavish surroundings of Luton Hoo, followed by a trip to central London's Century Club for a little hands-on time with Ubisoft's Autumn line-up, which includes Far Cry 2, Tom Clancy's EndWar and Prince of Persia.
Now I must admit, I've not played a Tomb Raider game in a few years now, and I wasn't particularly excited about the imminent release of the new instalment. However, that's all changed now I've seen the game in action.
The gameplay looks like it will be fairly familiar to anyone who's played one of Lara Croft's previous adventures, but she now has more moves and more ways to tackle each puzzle.
How well this works in play remains to be seen, but one thing I did take away from the demonstration is the quality of the presentation. This is a hugely cinematic game, and the graphics are superb, from Lara's own character model, to the lush scenery and impressive fire effects.
What's more, it sounded brilliant; with impressively clear dialogue, hugely detailed ambient effects like falling rain and crackling fire, and a score that seems genuinely rousing and dynamic - this game is going to look and sound great in a decent home cinema system, and I am once again under Lara Croft's spell, although that might have a little to do with the fact that the 'real' Lara Croft was also there to promote the game...
Onto Ubisoft's event, and there were a few surprises here, too. The first was Tom Clancy's EndWar, a real-time strategy game in the vein of Command and Conquer, but one that sees you commanding your troops using voice instructions rather than a mouse or controller.
The quality of the voice recognition software is quite exceptional - even stuttering and mumbling fails to prevent your orders getting to your troops. The menu system makes it easy to work out what you need to say, and I reckon most players will pick up this unique control method extremely quickly.
Prince of Persia is most notable for its use of cel-shading, an artistic technique that was very popular for a brief time on the original Xbox and PS2, but which hasn't been seen on the current generation of consoles until now.
It's slightly odd, because there's actually a lot of realistic detail in the character models that almost contradicts the simple, cartoon-like appearance of the hard-black outlines. In practice I think it works, and the addition of one-on-one beat-'em-up style combat looks like a lot of fun.
Last, but definitely not least, is Far Cry 2. My word, had I under appreciated the potential of this one, or what? It bears little resemblance to the original Far Cry or the console follow-up, Instincts, and is instead a more realistic and open first-person shooter in a vast and persistent African setting.
The story involves playing two factions against each other in order to get at the top man, The Jackal. What sets this apart is the open-world, go-anywhere, do-anything gameplay, and some of the most stunning visuals I've ever seen.
The scenery in particular is breathtaking, and the realtime day/night cycle and weather effects add as much depth to combat as it does visual variation and realism. This is a huge technological achievement and I'm very much looking forward to having a playthrough.
All of the games mentioned here were shown to me on the Xbox 360, but details of other format availability, as well as release dates, can be found below:
Far Cry 2 - Xbox 360, PS3, PC - 24th October
Tom Clancy's EndWar - Xbox 360, PS3 - 7th November
Tomb Raider: Underworld - Xbox 360, PS3, PC, PS2, Wii, DS - 21st November
Prince of Persia - Xbox 360, PS3, PC - 5th December