TR5: Controls and Verbs

Much has been written about Lara Croft as a character, but when you’re playing her games, you relate to her more as a vehicle. You become intimately familiar with how she handles, what her turning radius is and so forth. She doesn’t exercise judgment of her own, or make much effort at interpreting your commands in reasonable ways according to context, like a more complex and modern videogame hero would. She just responds to the controls in a rather complicated but consistent way, even if that means running into walls or off cliffs. I speculate that this is part of what made her so popular as a sex symbol: the absolute control that the player has over her body.

Let’s take a moment to describe those controls.

First and most obviously, you’ve got the arrow keys or D-pad for moving around, tank-wise: up to run forward, down to hop back, left and right to turn. If Lara is climbing a wall, all four directions move instead of turning. If she’s swimming underwater, all four directions turn instead of moving. Holding down the shift key or R1 button turns the running into walking, and the turning into a shuffling side-step. I remember thinking, back in the day, that the use of a walk button was a minor stroke of genius. At the time, most games that featured both walking and running would make walking the default and give you a run button, but the makers of Tomb Raider understood that the player would want to run most of the time, and only shift down to a walk when care or precision was required. Nowadays, of course, you’d get the same effect by controlling movement with an analog joystick: the player will move the joystick all the way to the edge unless there’s some reason not to. But the target platforms for the first Tomb Raider were the original Playstation and MS-DOS, neither of which had analog joysticks out of the box.

There are two other buttons that I think of as the main controls: the jump button and the action button. The jump button jumps, obviously, but there are a few non-obvious ways to apply it, like leaping sideways or doing backflips by pressing jump in combination with the direction keys. The action button does various contextual actions like opening doors, pulling levers, inserting a gem from Lara’s inventory into a similarly-shaped socket, and pushing enormous stone blocks, but its single most frequent use is as the grab-onto-ledge button. The specific combination move of doing a running jump across a gap and then pressing the action button in midair to grab onto the ledge on the other side is basically the definitive Tomb Raider action and crucial to the feel of the game, even if it did basically steal it from Prince of Persia.

There is no shoot button. Instead, there’s a button that draws or holsters Lara’s guns, and while they’re drawn, the action button fires them — indeed, holding it down fires them repeatedly. Thus, having guns in her hands prevents her from pulling levers or grabbing onto ledges, although she can still run around and jump while firing. (Jumping around a lot while firing is often the best way to avoid being hit.) Gunplay is one of the few occasions where Lara actually displays a little ability to act without the player’s input: when there’s an enemy in sight, she’ll automatically extend her arms to point her weapons at it. Sometimes this is the first indication the player sees that there’s an enemy around. (Usually there’s a music cue as well, though.)

There’s a button that does a quick forward dive and roll that makes Lara face the opposite way. Chronicles doesn’t really seem to want you to use it, but inherited it from previous games. I personally like being able to turn around quickly, so I’ve bound it to a more convenient key than the default. It can also be executed by pressing the up and down keys simultaneously, which must not have been possible on the Playstation controller. There are buttons specifically for side-stepping, but I’ve always done that via walk mode. And there’s a look button, which you hold down to use the sole directional controls to move the camera instead of Lara. This comes in handy fairly frequently, but it’s another thing that would be handled differently on a modern two-stick controller. And that’s basically it for the controls inherited from the original Tomb Raider.

But each sequel has added its own complications. Tomb Raider 2 added a key just for lighting and dropping flares, and that’s still around, although I have yet to use it deliberately. TR2 also added climbable walls/ladders to the world model. Climbing is accomplished by holding down the action button while in front of a climbable wall — just like drawing your guns, it’s something that occupies Lara’s hands. Climbing also adds some new combo moves, like jump+roll+action to jump backwards off the ladder you’re on, flip in midair, and grab onto another ladder that was behind you. I haven’t yet seen opportunities for such trickery in Chronicles, but TR2 did it a lot.

Tomb Raider 3 added the ability to “monkey-swing” on overhead bars, which works basically like climbing but on the underside. It also introduced two completely new movement modes, crawling and sprinting, each with its own modifier button that you had to hold down. Sprinting is faster than running, but only in shortish bursts, and prevents Lara from jumping — pressing the jump button while sprinting makes her do a forward roll instead. Crawling has been a lot more useful than sprinting so far in Chronicles, probably because, as I’ve noted, the emphasis is more on exploration than action.

The fourth game didn’t add any more buttons — good thing, too, as things were starting to get unwieldy. The new actions it added used the established controls in ways you can probably predict. Those actions: climbing poles, swinging on ropes, and tightrope walking. The only one of these things I’ve seen used in Chronicles is the tightrope walking, which is just about the least interesting thing you can do. It basically turns traversing a gap into a slow QTE sequence where you have to periodically press a button to make Lara regain her balance. And remember, there’s no analog controls here, so it’s not a matter of faltering because you pushed the stick a little too far to the left or right.

What does Chronicles add? Surprisingly, it looks like it doesn’t add anything, at least as far as controlling Lara goes. The only new thing you can do is combining items in the inventory menu, and even that’s been severely limited in its use. I suppose it’s another sign that the devs had lost interest, but it’s probably just as well. The game isn’t even taking full advantage of the verbs it’s got. The whole system is due for a reboot at this point.

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