This week marks the release of Crystal Dynamics’ highly anticipated Rise of the Tomb Raider for XBox One. Finally, fans of this classic action adventure franchise will discover the fate of Lara Croft after surviving the harrowing events of the 2013 Tomb Raider. One year later, after having survived the events of the Yamatai, only to be discredited as part of a cover-up orchestrated by the mysterious organization, Trinity, Lara is obsessed with bringing her findings that prove life after death to light. Her search for proof leads her to Siberia, trailing the myth about the Lost City of Kitezh, and ultimately her very first tomb raiding adventure.

With Trinity hot on her trail and determined to keep her silent, Lara explores expansive tombs, solves puzzles, eludes deadly traps, and confronts a  new, sinister enemy. The improved combat and reactive environment allows more opportunities for stealth play and is guaranteed to immerse the player in this exciting second chapter of Lara’s evolution into what is arguably gaming’s best-known heroine.

CGM caught up with Phillipe Therien, Lead Combat Designer at Crystal Dynamics. We had a chance to talk about the changes to the franchise, how it has evolved, and how they plan to captivate a new generation of players.

crystalDinterviewinsert5CGMagazine: Can you tell us a bit about some of the new features we’re going to experience in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Phillipe Therien: There’s a lot of new content in Rise of the Tomb Raider. We have bigger tombs that are three times as bigger than the last game! We have archeology! Lara can learn ancient languages! We have new stealth mechanics! Lara can swim! She can hide in the bushes, she can climb trees, she can craft stuff from animals… there are so many new things! The game is packed full of new features.

CGM: That sounds REALLY exciting! So the last game you guys were working on, you were saying that this is a chance where you to try out some of the ideas that you brought from that game. What are some of the newest things that you’re very excited about as one of the combat designers?

PT: There’s a lot of different things. As far as tombs are concerned, I’m really happy that Lara can learn languages and discover ancient treasure based on that skill because it feels like you’re an archeologist and that’s great. On the combat front, what I love is all the choices. Using the bushes, using the trees (that lets you avoid fights in some instances), so you don’t always have to fight everybody which I find is great. You can craft arrows on the fly while you’re running, you can harvest mushrooms and make poison arrows, you can grab a tin can and use it as a distraction; there’s just so much cool stuff.

crystalDinterviewinsert1CGM: For people who are just launching into this franchise for the first time, can they do this without having to play any of the rest of the games? Does this feel like a standalone?

PT: They totally can jump right into it. It’s going to talk about the story of Lara looking for answers about her past, her father, and everything she’s encountered before. If you haven’t played the games, it’s okay, because you’re just going to see Lara going into tombs for the first time. Well not really for the first time, but it’s the first time that she’s actively seeking the tombs instead of sort-of just running into them. But what I hope is that when people play this game they’ll want to play the previous one just because they’ll be so interested.

CGM: During the presentation, you guys were speaking about the progression of physics and how important it is to this game. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

PT: We really want the world to behave in the way you would expect it to. So when you go into a tomb, if there is something should break in real life, we try to make sure it breaks. If something should feel heavy, it falls to that nature. Water can actually rise; it can go lower if you find a way to leak it out of something. So it’s just making sure the world is responsive to what the player’s doing.

crystalDinterviewinsert4CGM: And it looks as if the team has focused on some of those little details, especially with Lara.

PT: We absolutely make sure Lara is as believable as possible. If she’s cold, she’s going to warm her hands by a campfire. If she goes into the water, she’s going to wring the water out of her hair. If she swallows a bit of water because you were down there too long, she’s going to cough. Lara does a lot of real things that make her a rounded character.

CGM: Definitely, and she also has fantastic hair.

PT: She has AMAZING hair! Are you kidding? I mean, with tress effects and all that cool technology, she has the most kick ass ponytail ever.

CGM: What were some of the biggest challenges that you guys have encountered during this experience?

PT: Well obviously, when you’re trying to pack so much more content into your game, it’s a lot more work. You have to make sure a lot more things are working; we changed our AI, we changed our mechanics so just making sure that everything behaves like and are of the same quality that people have come to expect from the previous game.

crystalDinterviewinsert3CGM: And what were some of the biggest changes in the AI that you guys have made?

PT: One of the big things is that if Lara doesn’t necessarily get caught, but the bad guys kind of have a sense that she might be around, they’ll start searching for her. It’s one of our big, cool new gameplay loops. We’ve put a lot more emphasis on being chased and right before you get caught, and that’s really exciting. So the enemies will search through bushes, they’ll clear out houses, they’ll look up at the trees, they’re looking for places where Lara might be hiding. That was one of the big developments for the game.

CGM: It sounds as if the team has focused on making this game as much of an immersive experience as possible.

PT: Absolutely. We tried to make sure the world is alive; that things make sense and that if you go back to places you’ve been before, the world also looks like it’s been evolving, it’s changing. The weather might change, time of day might change, and it’s very much a living environment.

crystalDinterviewinsert2CGM: So what aspect of the game is your absolute favorite?

PT: I love the fact that we’ve added more tombs. I love the fact that there’s more mechanics in the tombs, and I love that we added so much player choice. When you’re going through combat, you can choose to fight or not, and if you do choose to engage in combat, you craft arrows on the fly and all that cool stuff. It’s choices, right? There’s so much of it, and it’s so open that it just feels great.

CGM: My last question. As a poutine fan: plain or topped?

PT: You can go topped, but you can’t do crazy stuff. There’s stuff that doesn’t work. Like, I don’t know why people put sour cream on there, that’s just weird, but there’s other stuff that works. Pulled pork, that’s ok. I’m down with that. Chicken, why not? That’s good. You just got to pick the right toppings.