Archive for 2019

Checking in

So it’s been well over a week since my last post, and I just wanted to pop in and say that I haven’t given up on Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness yet. I stopped at a natural stopping point, just as it goes all open-world, so that when I get back to it I’ll be able to play that section from its beginning. But I’ve spent the last week or so completely absorbed in a different game, which, for various reasons, I will not be posting about here. I finished that last night, just in time for the release of two other games I’ve been greatly anticipating, one of which I even kickstarted. But I’ll post about those. I just wanted to get this exposition out of the way so I wouldn’t have to include it in a post about a game.

TR6: Changelog

More ways in which the sixth Tomb Raider game differs from the first five:

The business of perfectly lining up a running jump across a gap by walking all the way to the edge and then taking a hop back seems to be impossible now, because there’s no way to take a hop back. Moving backward always takes a small step back, like in Walk mode.

No Secrets. That is, there are no officially-designated secrets. There are certainly places where you can solve optional puzzles to pick up a few more healing items, and the result may be that I spend more time backtracking and exploring alternate routes doing the equivalent of secret-hunting than I would if the game tracked secrets and thereby told me that I was done.

Adventure-game-style interactive dialogue sequences, where you pick what to say next out of a simple menu of, usually, two or three choices. A sign of an intended genre shift, perhaps. Lara is playing detective here. It seems like most of the choices I’ve seen so far are basically fake: you get a choice of two topics, and immediately after Lara’s finished asking about the one you choose, she immediately asks about the other one. But I’ve already seen one case of an NPC varying her behavior, choosing whether to give you the notebook Von Croy left for you or not depending on how nice you were to her.

In addition to a Walk mode, there’s a Stealth mode, where Lara creeps along and flattens herself against walls like Solid Snake. I’d say this is another sign of the genre shift, but it also seems like an attempt at doing a better job of the stealth sections of Chronicles. I haven’t gotten much use out of this yet, so I don’t really know how well it holds up. The police are sometimes amazingly oblivious to Lara’s presence even without it.

There’s no infinite-ammo pistols, but there is brawler-style hand-to-hand combat. If the Von Croy Tower section of Chronicles had this, it would have been very different.

Limited grip strength, like in Shadow of the Colossus. If you spend too long dangling from a ledge or climbing a drainpipe, you fall down. And with this comes an upgrade system: certain actions — for example, crowbarring a door open — are considered to be exercise that increases your strength, like in Quest for Glory. Apparently there are also exercises that upgrade your jump distance, but I haven’t found any of those yet. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s certainly not mimetic, and seems mainly suited to nonsensical gating. Also, I’m a little worried that missing some upgrade opportunities early in the game will lock me out of goodies later. But on the other hand, it’s nice to have some kind of progression other than accumulating ammo.

The levels seem very short in comparison to the older games. Probably the target hardware put limits on how much nicely 3D-modeled stuff they could hold in memory at once. Admittedly, most levels in the previous games were effectively several levels strung together, with chutes or self-locking doors keeping you from going backwards. Past a certain point, Angel of Darkness does the opposite, creating a large explorable space out of multiple nonlinearly-connected levels that you can travel among freely. This, too, seems like a genre shift. Tomb Raider games have a very specific structure, and it’s breaking that.

Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness: First Impressions

Going straight from the fifth Tomb Raider game to the sixth, it’s immediately striking what a change it is. After five games in basically the same engine with incremental improvements, suddenly there’s been a complete overhaul in the look of the thing. Environments look 3D modeled, instead of cobbled together out of tiles (however artfully). Lara herself is a bit less of a cartoon. The dialogue never cuts off slightly too early. Even the menus look slicker and higher-resolution. It’s all very next-generation — it’s been three years since the last game, and instead of the Playstation, they’re now targeting the Playstation 2. I wasn’t really paying attention when it came out — I don’t even own the game on physical media. (It periodically goes on sale for less than a dollar on Steam.) So all of this came as a surprise to me. The whole thing is just modern enough that it can run under Windows 10 without installing any additional DLLs, albeit only if you fiddle with the graphics settings a bit first. (The main thing you have to do is enable VMR9, whatever that means.)

The controls are basically the same as before — you’ve still got the core movement/jump/action controls, in the usual places. Crouch/crawl is in a different place. Hitting the Walk button now toggles walk mode on or off, instead of walk mode being active only while you keep the button pressed. More generally, the new-model Lara just handles a little differently, like driving a different car than the one you’re used to.

And she’s less of a pure puppet now. That is, the controls are less tightly coupled to her actions, more contextual, more semantic. I’m thinking there’s a sort of spectrum ranging from “the player’s controls map directly onto specific motions on the part of the avatar” to “the player’s controls are treated kind of like verbal commands, subject to interpretation”. Old-school Lara was near the former extreme, but not quite at it: the Action button was always quite contextual, and actions like pulling levers would automatically cause her to adjust her position. The opposite extreme is where, say, Arkham Asylum lies. When you press the Punch button in Arkham Asylum, Batman does not simply thrust his fist forward in front of him. He chooses a target and then does whatever is necessary to punch that target, turning his body or taking a step forward or even doing a somersault if that’s what it takes. Angel of Darkness is still nowhere near the Batman model, but it’s a step or two closer. You no longer have to manually turn around and back off a ledge to dangle from it: just standing at the ledge and pressing the Action button suffices. Even the movement keys are a little more contextual: you can vault onto a crate just by trying to move into it. This is fairly standard among modern 3D platformers, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a Tomb Raider.

The story is apparently considered to be still within the continuity of the first five games (unlike the later reboots), but it doesn’t seem very interested in filling in the gap between Lara’s apparent death and her turning up at Von Croy’s apartment in Paris. Yes, they’re still trying to make Von Croy a thing. That is, they do kill him off pretty quickly, but that’s happened before, right? His death kicks off the immediate plot, which is the hunt for a serial killer. Lara’s looking for the killer while the police look for her, believing that she’s the killer — which is a reasonable guess on their part, because, as I’ve pointed out, Lara is a serial killer. She’s just not the one who killed Von Croy, although she probably would have in the last two games if she had the opportunity. You might argue that she’s more of a spree killer — she doesn’t choose victims, she just charges into a building and slaughters everyone she comes across — but she’s done that repeatedly, which to my mind makes her a serial spree killer, which is something that I don’t think exists in real life. At any rate, she’s upset about the murder of Von Croy, possibly because she didn’t get to do it herself, so off she goes running across the rooftops.

More tomorrow, probably.

TR5: Repeat Until Done

The theme for the final level of Tomb Raider: Chronicles seems to be “doing things over”. It starts by in effect telling that you’re about to redo the last level. Titled “Escape with the Iris”, that level indeed concluded with Lara reaching the exterior of the VCI tower with the Iris in her inventory. But the final level starts with a helicopter attack driving her back inside. You spend the rest of the level trying to escape again, in a different way.

The ultimate boss monster is a bald-headed cyborg, a puzzle boss who can’t be killed by normal means, which is far more satisfying than the powered-armor guys I mentioned previously. Not long after you’ve killed him, you run into another one, with a different puzzle. There’s a couple of major sections where you need to execute a difficult bit twice: a set of moving laser gates that you have to go through and then return through, a button at the top of a tricky set of jumps that you need to press twice. This is exactly contrary to the usual Tomb Raider design, in which difficult feats generally result in opening up doors that let you skip them in the future. Yet more evidence that the chapters were designed by completely different people, I suppose.

Going for 100% Secrets adds its own do-over-ness. For the first time, the game here becomes Cruel in the Zarfian sense. It’s generally been Tough, or at worst, Nasty. Sometimes you slide down a chute and can’t get back up and any Secrets you left behind are lost to you, but at least it’s obvious when you’ve passed a point of no return. Here, Lara finds a shooting gallery, and shooting at some targets unlocks a door nearby for some reason. But if you shoot them fast enough, it unlocks an additional door, leading to a Secret. This happens fairly early in the level, so reading about it in Sinjin’s guide later on caused me to play most of the level a second time.

I really don’t know if I’d have had the patience to finish this game without that walkthrough. The puzzle to defeat the second cyborg seems particularly obscure to me, and I don’t know how anyone figured it out. Even worse, there are rooms where loading a save will trigger bugs, similar to the Crane Guy thing but less benign — more confirmation that they were making this primarily for the Playstation, where you can only save at checkpoints, and the PC version was an afterthought. I’m in the habit of saving a lot, so I’d inevitably trigger these bugs, then get stuck, then hit the guide and see that it says “DO NOT SAVE IN THIS ROOM OR YOU WILL TRIGGER A BUG AND GET STUCK”. And then I’d have to do the room over, which is at least thematic.

At any rate, I’m done. And for all my complaints, I did find the general experience of putting Lara through her paces pleasant, despite all the attempts at ruining it. I may just continue with Angel of Darkness next. Because apparently even the entire experience of playing through a Tomb Raider game is something I now feel compelled to do twice

TR5: Von Croy Tower

Here at the fifth episode, Tomb Raider has just acquired some continuity of story, and I have to admit that I’m a little confused about it. Back in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, we saw the 16-year-old Lara Croft delve into a hidden compound under Angkor Watt with her mentor Von Croy, looking for an artifact called the Iris. Things went badly. Lara escaped; Von Croy did not. Years later, Von Croy shows up again, alive but possessed by an evil god, filling the role of main antagonist for the rest of the game.

And now, in the final chapter of Chronicles, Von Croy shows up once more, as head of Von Croy Industries, experimenting with the powers of the Iris in a technological setting. But it’s still a flashback. I had thought that Von Croy turning was supposed to have been presumed dead until his reappearance in TLR, but this new encounter must have taken place beforehand. Was I simply reading too much into it? What was I supposed to have concluded from the scene of Von Croy caught in a deathtrap as Lara flees?

Maybe I’m expecting too much consistency. There’s certainly a lack of consistency in the world between chapters. For example, the sinks. I mentioned before that the Russian submarine had bathroom sinks made of entire map tiles. The Von Croy tower has bathrooms with custom-modeled sinks that could have been used in the submarine too. Or take the fire extinguishers: in the current chapter, shooting a fire extinguisher causes it to explode with enough force to break through walls, something I might conceivably have guessed if I hadn’t shot at fire extinguishers to no effect in a previous chapter. It all smacks of poor communication between the people responsible for making the different parts. It’s less a single cohesive game than four short games in the same engine packaged together.

One thing chapter 4 does that we’ve seen already: it makes you go weaponless for an extended period. At the beginning of the chapter’s second level, you have to leave your gun behind to pass a security checkpoint, and only get it back very close to the level’s end. This marks the franchise’s foray into stealth mechanics, which it frankly isn’t very good at. There’s a lack of clarity about what makes a guard notice you — did he turn around because I got too close, or because I was making too much noise, or was he just scripted to turn around at that moment as part of his patrol cycle? Chloroform can be found in certain supply closets, but in all but two cases, I found it basically impossible to administer. Fortunately, it’s usually pretty easy to just outrun the guards, or shoot them once you get your gun back.

I sometimes feel like the game overestimates the difficulty of its combat. I guess it’s probably harder on the Playstation, where you can’t save the game at will and thus might have to face several enemies in a row between checkpoints. But there’s one particular sort of enemy, a guard in bulletproof battle armor, that the cutscenes try to set up as an Extremely Difficult Foe, but who can be downed with a single headshot. Headshots aren’t trivial — they require you to aim manually in first-person mode, which is fiddly without any sort of analog input — but it’s still anticlimactic to defeat them so quickly after they’ve been built up as such a threat.

One last thing I’d like to note before signing off for the night. At one point, Lara’s guy-in-a-chair (a new character, appearing only in this chapter, occasionally bantering with Lara over her headset) warns her not to kill a certain technician, because they need to insert keycards simultaneously to open a door. Just approaching him without shooting causes Lara to force him to cooperate at gunpoint, and clock him unconscious afterward. But if you want all the level’s secrets, you have to shoot him instead, forcing your remote helper to open an alternate route with more guards. Without Sinjin, I don’t think I would have ever tried this. If all it did was force you to take a more difficult path, I think I’d regard it as a punishment for the player, indicating that not shooting the technician was the correct approach. But since the difficult path is needed for 100% secrets, it feels more like this is the approach that the game wants me to take, and that seems like it’s saying something about Lara’s character. That she isn’t just callously indifferent about the lives she takes. That she prefers to kill, even when she doesn’t need to, even when it makes things more difficult for her. I think I like her a little less now.

TR5: The Mill

By now, I’m well into the fourth and final chapter of Tomb Raider: Chronicles, where Lara puts on a shiny black castsuit and an electronic headset and visor, as depicted in the box art, and creeps around a high-tech office building filled with lasers. But before describing that in detail, I’d like to complain about the puzzles in chapter 3 a little more.

Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever needed hints so much in a Tomb Raider before. One of the puzzles was to get through an underwater passage in a mill pond, guarded by an aquatic monster, sort of like an ugly mermaid based on a sea horse. It swims around in a sort of patrol pattern, which led me to believe that I could sneak past it while its back was turned, but repeated attempts at this failed. Finally turning to Sinjin, I found that the key to the whole thing was something I hadn’t noticed at all: a coin lying on the pond bed, where it blended in far too well. I might have noticed it even so, were it not right in the creature’s patrol route, where there’s limited opportunity to poke around experimentally.

Shortly afterward, inside the mill, there’s a crank that opens a door that immediately starts closing, making you rush over to it within a time limit. The problem is that you can’t see the door opening from where you turn the crank, and if you don’t book it over immediately, it will most likely be fully closed by the time it comes into view. I suppose the player is just supposed to intuit what’s going on from the room’s design. I personally got as far as turning the crank and then checking the door, but not fast enough to see it closing. “I guess the crank doesn’t open that door”, I thought to myself. “I wonder what it does? I suppose it’ll be obvious when I find out.” Earlier games in the series had a solution for this: whenever you opened a door remotely, the camera would cut to show the door opening.

I have no real basis for this but my own thoughts, but I kind of suspect that the intention behind these sorts of puzzles was that, at this point the series, the target audience is die-hard Tomb Raider experts, who want a challenging experience. But (A) there’s a big difference between “challenging” and “obtuse”, and (B) difficulty was never really part of the appeal of Tomb Raider in the first place. A modicum of challenge is just a spice on the exploration.

TR5: Matters of Scale

When the art in the original Tomb Raider games works, it works really well. If you want a vast and irregular cavern, aglow in the sunlight from the cave mouth, it’s got you covered. At a sufficiently large scale, the fact that it’s chopped up into tiles isn’t a problem, it adds to the artistic feel. The tiles give it a look like a mosaic, like a faceted gem.

But when we’re dealing with things at a human scale, the tile grid can get a little ridiculous. The tiles are quite a bit larger than in something like Minecraft — it can be hard to judge by eyeball, but it looks to me like they’re a bit wider than Lara is tall, so let’s call them two meters. And so that’s the smallest any terrain feature can be. Every table, desk, and counter is two meters wide. The submarine level has a bathroom with a row of two-meter sinks.

But then, I don’t know how much we can really blame the grid. Even when the grid is broken, the artists don’t seem all that interested in keeping a consistent scale. The church scene, for example, has a bunch of pews placed at irregular angles, and they’re unreasonably enormous, as tall as Lara, as if a race of giants attended services there. Which seems to be the case, in fact: the skeleton of some forgotten king is laid out in a nearby crypt, occupying nearly two whole tiles from head to toe. The same model is used for those sword ghosts I mentioned before. They tower over Lara. You take it in stride, because they’re monsters.

I think back to the original Tomb Raider. There was a sequence there involving guardian mummies that come to life, and the gradual realization that, despite how they were posed, they weren’t mummies of humans. They were oddly-proportioned and their knees bent backwards and once they started moving, they moved in non-human ways, often running on all fours. But the first clue was simply how tall they were.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that scaling things weird can work, if we’re dealing with monsters, or monstrous things. It can create an uncomfortable sense of wrongness, and sometimes that’s what you’re going for. Heck, I can imagine something surrealist like Silent Hill using two-meter bathroom sinks and pulling it off. But sometimes it just comes off as ridiculous.

TR5: Adventures with Teen Lara on the Haunted Island

The Teen Lara section of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was a bit like the Teen Indy section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — the one where we see the origin of all of the character’s defining quirks and accoutrements in a surprisingly short span of time. But only a little, because Lara doesn’t have as much to pick up as Indy. We see her scavenge her customary leather backpack from another treasure-seeker’s skeletal remains, and that’s pretty much it. It always seemed a bit forced to me. That backpack isn’t nearly as important a part of Lara Croft’s image as Indy’s panama hat and bullwhip are to his. It’s like the writers wanted to pay homage to Indy, but had to settle for the backpack because they couldn’t think of a really iconic accessory for Lara to acquire. Or at least, nothing other than the twin pistols, with their sexy holster-straps on her bare thighs. Those are pretty iconic, but also unusable in this context. Because the chief distinguishing feature of the Teen Lara section is that she doesn’t have any guns.

The Teen Lara section of Chronicles must happen after that, because Lara has her backpack. But she still doesn’t have a gun. I guess this is why I’ve been thinking about puzzles so much: with gunplay gone, puzzles dominate the experience even more than usual. Curiously, this is also the part where they decided to greatly increase the number of monsters. Rock-throwing imps. Ghosts with swords, invisible until you get close. One section has you navigating a labyrinth, guided by a luminous wisp, while some monster stalks you — possibly a minotaur, but I didn’t really get a good look at it, because hesitating at all lets it get you. Mostly you’re aware of it from the sound of its approaching footsteps. It reminded me a bit of Amnesia, another game that doesn’t give you a weapon and makes you run away from things a lot.

The game’s first rope-swinging bit occurred here, causing me to fail repeatedly until I hit the manual and looked up the controls. (If you simply let go of the rope instead of pressing the jump button, you fall straight down, regardless of what it looks like your momentum should be.) Also, I have some complaints about how the camera behaves here, particularly in the part with the sword ghosts, where you sometimes just don’t have the option to get a good look at where you’re going. Possibly it’s always been this bad, but the sword ghosts make it more noticeable by punishing you for running into them in ways that walls don’t.

But this is also the section with the game’s best inventory puzzle. Understand that most inventory puzzles in any Tomb Raider are trivial — the sort of thing where a wall has a triangular hole, say, and then you find a triangular key. When you find an item, you either have seen where it goes and immediately know it, or you keep exploring until you find where it goes. But here, after an extremely difficult jumping sequence, pursued only because there was no place else to go, I found that the reward for my heroic efforts was a lump of chalk. Chalk? What use was that? Then I remembered some dialogue from the level’s intro cutscene, where Lara mentioned that a book she had found in the previous level showed how to draw protective circles. But again, what use was that? There were some imps nearby, but I couldn’t use the chalk against them. Then I remembered how the very beginning of the level had a pathway blocked by a ghostly rider, and a suspiciously off-color tile on the path he rode. I suppose not everyone would experience this like me, but I was quite pleased to be able, for once, to solve a puzzle in this game by thinking. I haven’t generally been fond of the talking bits in the Tomb Raider series — I think the designers are much better at telling stories visually and non-verbally — but it paid off here.

TR5: Puzzles

What exactly the word “puzzle” means varies with context. Abstract grid-based games like Tetris and Candy Crush are often categorized as “puzzle games”, despite not having solutions. In the context of adventure games specifically, I once defined “puzzle” as “anything where it’s possible to get stuck”. That doesn’t quite work for a game with action elements, because it’s possible to be stuck on execution. Trying and failing to shoot the boss enough times to kill it before it kills you isn’t a puzzle, unless there’s a trick that makes it easy that you haven’t figured out yet.

For a game like Tomb Raider, I’d define a puzzle as anything where it’s possible to not know what to do.

Sometimes this means not knowing where to go. I’ve mentioned before the bit in the Rome section where you get locked in a courtyard and can’t get out until you notice a variant texture on one of the walls indicating that it’s climbable. It’s not the only part like that. Wait, is every climbable wall texture variant a puzzle? I wouldn’t say so; there are plenty of places in the Russian submarine where a corridor ends in a ladder and it’s completely obvious there’s a ladder there. The borders of puzzledom are fuzzy, reliant on the imagined play of a hypothetical Reasonable Person, but most things can be pretty firmly identified as belonging on one side or the other.

Sometimes it means knowing where do go, but not knowing how to get there. This is generally what I’ve referred to as “jumping puzzles”. There’s a plot token visible atop a rough hill, its sides too steep to run up. How to you get to it? Can you backflip over the steep bit? Can you climb onto something else nearby and jump onto it from there? The last level I completed had the first use in quite some time of the monkey-swing action, dangling from the ivy that it took me a few minutes to notice on the underside of a bridge. That’s one way to make puzzles difficult: let the player forget the full extent of their abilities.

Sometimes it means failing to notice an object you can pick up. Some key items are basically on display, daring you to pilfer them, but others are just lying on the floor in obscure places. Escaping the brig on the submarine required noticing a loose rail on a wall that you could pull off and use as a crowbar.

There’s one obvious sort of puzzle that the mechanics don’t allow, though, and it’s one of the dominant types seen in graphic adventures: Not knowing what to do with your inventory. If you have the key to a door, and you press the action button in front of the door, the game will automatically choose the correct key. An enviable superpower! In this one regard, Lara knows what she’s doing even if you don’t.

I wouldn’t exactly call the Tomb Raider series “adventure games”, but Chronicles, at least, has a lot more adventure-game-style puzzlery than I remember.

TR5: The Objectification of the Heroine

I remember when it was at least a little bit ambiguous. I remember seeing an article (probably in a print magazine — this was the 90s) with a title like “Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” And really, there has always been a good argument for the former, if you look at just the story. Lara is highly capable, self-sufficient, and confident enough to simply go for whatever she personally wants, no matter how well-guarded. The only man in her life is a doddering butler, seen in the Croft Manor tutorial levels in the second and third games. And by all reports, the developers weren’t even really going for sexy at first. They simply had the idea “Hey, what if we made the hero a woman? That would really help the game stand out, wouldn’t it?” and then made a character model that would make her gender obvious even under a severely restricted polygon count.

But the public reaction was what it was, particularly among gamerdom’s sexist lout contingent. Looking at old Usenet discussions can give the impression that Lara’s sex appeal was the game’s only notable feature, despite its innovations as a game, and the limitations of the graphics. The first “nude patch” that I was aware of was for Tomb Raider — for all I know, it may well have been the first ever. As I mentioned in my last post, the control that the game gives the player over Lara’s body seems to encourage objectification (although I can’t quite pinpoint why this effect doesn’t seem as strong in other games that offer a similar degree of control).

If sex appeal was what got people’s attention, the designers were quite willing to pander to it: the second game teased the player with a shower scene, and its ad campaign pitched it as “where the boys are”. No one asked “Feminist Icon or Sex Kitten?” any more. The answer was clear. It wasn’t as dire as certain other games I could mention, but it was setting the precedent for them. We’re too early for “jiggle physics”, but Lara’s breasts were the main beneficiaries of increases in polygon count over the series. By Chronicles, they’re more detailed than most characters’ faces.

The fourth game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, featured a playable flashback sequence to Lara’s youth as a pigtailed teenager. I remember hearing about this and naively thinking “Huh, they’re showing her as a kid? Maybe they’re trying to make her less of a sex object and more of a human being.” But in fact teen Lara is buxom beyond her years, and still objectified — she’s merely young enough for the objectification to be a measure or two creepier than usual. The game actually takes some advantage of this: when Lara’s older male mentor Von Croy takes her to the ruins alone, the implied skeeziness does a lot to prepare the player for his transformation into a bad guy. In effect, Von Croy is used as a vessel for the player’s impure thoughts.

Teen Lara shows up again in the third chapter of Chronicles, where, driven by curiosity, she sneaks onto a boat to a demon-haunted isle. Von Croy isn’t around, and her relation to the priest investigating the site seems a lot more savory, because he didn’t bring her there on purpose and, unlike Von Croy, is at least somewhat concerned for her safety. And yet the game first takes care to almost show young Lara taking her shirt off, and I’m honestly a little disappointed in it for that. We had been doing so well at not being overtly creepy up to that point. I’m really going to have to take a look at Rhianna Pratchett’s take on the character after we’re done here, to get the taste out of my mouth.

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