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TR6: The Obscura Code

Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness feels like it was written for a different character. Like how the movie version of Days of Future Past swapped out Kitty Pryde for Wolverine because he was an easier sell. You could imagine that happening with Lara Croft, couldn’t you? I don’t think the idea is at all supported by the game’s development history, though — as far as anyone knows, it was pitched as a Lara Croft game, and any differences in feel from the previous Tomb Raider games are just the result of the developers trying to break the franchise out of a rut.

If it’s not taking its design cues from previous Tomb Raider games, what is it imitating? It’s been pointed out that the stealth mechanics and optional nonlethal weapons are basically out of Metal Gear Solid, but honestly I’ve been able to get away with almost entirely ignoring stealth elements, even in a scene in the Louvre gallery at night when you’d think it would be useful. Rather, the most striking apparent influence is The Da Vinci Code.

And if that is a genuine influence, rather than a set of mere coincidences, it must have been a pretty quick turnaround: DVC was released in April 2003, TR6 in June of the same year. That’s barely even enough time to get a game through certification, let alone rewrite its plot. But consider the similarities. In both, we start off investigating a murder — in DVC, the victim is a curator at the Louvre, in TR6, an archeologist who was working with a researcher at the Louvre, who is also murdered in short order. Both involve clues encoded in artwork — in TR6, a set of sketches indicate the locations of the “Obscura paintings”, which have secret alchemical glyphs under the paint. One of the Obscura paintings is apparently located deep underneath the Louvre, where the final secret in DVC was located. DVC has people looking for the Sangraal, TR6 for something called the Sanglyph. Both involve secrets about divine bloodlines: descendants of Christ in DVC, nephilim in TR6. And in both, you’re opposed by a sinister Latin-named religious group that’s willing to murder people to keep its secrets: Opus Dei in DVC, Lux Veritatis in TR6. (The latter of which makes me wonder if they all went to Yale or something.) This is enough to make me think that even if the main plot was already set before the designers read DVC, they probably at least tweaked some details at the last minute to make it more DVC-like. Some of the above is only found in text form, in Von Croy’s notebook, and thus wouldn’t involve time-consuming alterations like recording new voice lines.

Tangentially, there was an official game adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, released in 2006 to coincide with the film adaptation. I played it, mainly because if anyone asked me if I had read the novel or seen the film, I wanted to be able to answer “No, but I’ve played the videogame.” I understand that the game takes considerable liberties with the source material. Where the source has a cryptex, the game has multiple nested cryptexes (cryptices?) to make for better gameplay. Opus Dei is renamed Manus Dei out of consideration for (or in response to complaints from) the real Opus Dei, an organization that, whatever you might think of them, has never been credibly accused of being a front for the Pope’s hitmen. I find myself wondering if the makers of the DVC game played TR6, and if there are any ideas they stole back from it.

Tomb Raider 6 continued

I put a few hours into Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness last night, starting over from the beginning and getting somewhat past where I had been before. I actually got into a gunfight this time! That it took so long for Lara to need to kill anything is, I think, a sign of how much the designers wanted to take the IP in new directions. Similarly, a scene in a cemetery had me thinking “Ah, finally we get to the tombs promised in the title!”

(The franchise, by the way, seems to have wavered a lot on whether to hang their brand on “Tomb Raider” or on the more thoroughly trademarkable “Lara Croft”. The full title of this game puts “Lara Croft” at the beginning, but in much smaller letters than “Tomb Raider”. I guess the idea of retroactively renaming the series after the main character is one more thing that they stole from Indiana Jones, although they seem to have abandoned it in the later reboot.)

The focus so far has been on wandering the seedier parts of Paris, through abandoned buildings decrepit enough to force Lara’s trademark parkour, seeking out contacts who can help her figure out what Von Croy was up to before his murder, and doing a little light burglary when the opportunity presents itself — she needs funds, and I suppose she can’t access her vast treasure hoard back home while the police are hunting for her. It would basically be in character for the Lara I know to just take people’s stuff regardless, though. I’m quite enjoying the scenery. Lara’s been in plenty of urban environments before, but this is the first time it’s been in an engine capable of doing them well. I don’t know if the tiny urban park and cheap café here are authentically Parisian, but they’re familiar sights from my own life, and fill me with the delight of recognition.

I had some difficulty getting the game going. On startup, when it should be displaying the Eidos logo movie, it instead displays the text “Unknown file, please insert the correct disc for Data\FMV\EIDOR.mpg” and hangs. It was not doing this the last time I played it on this machine! But that was a few Windows Updates ago. Searching for fixes, mainly I just saw the same old advice to enable VMR9, which was already enabled. A third-party utility let me work around it by disabling FMV playback, but it’s still not ideal: there are a few FMV cutscenes in the game itself. Not many, though. If necessary, I can just exit the game and watch them in VLC at the appropriate points.

NOLF2: Giving Up For Now

Reluctantly, I’m putting No One Lives Forever 2 back on the shelf for now. The save issues have continued, and in the process of searching for solutions online, I’ve come across some mentions of more serious issues in later levels under Windows 10. So I’m thinking I’ll save this one for when I get an XP machine set up again. Which I’m definitely doing at some point; this isn’t the only game in my “to play under XP” list. I have the hardware; the only thing that stopped me from getting it going last time was the lack of a valid registration key, and I’ve since learned of a key that’s well-known online, albeit one that only works if you don’t install any of the service packs.

I say “reluctantly” because I really was enjoying it, when it worked. As a substitute, I’m thinking of going back to Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, which has a certain amount in common with NOLF2: the player character is an ultracompetent British woman whose adventures take her all over the globe and who murders people a lot; the game adds a skill upgrade system that wasn’t in its predecessors; in some chapters you can go freely back and forth between maps. Angel of Darkness even adds some mechanics to support stealth gameplay (something that some of the previous Tomb Raider games attempted in places, but never did very well). I feel like the two games are in dialogue, anyway. NOLF is definitely influenced by Tomb Raider, and the designers of Angel of Darkness certainly had their eyes on NOLF.

NOLF2: Entering Siberia

After Japan, we get sent to a remote Soviet outpost in Siberia, to plant bombs on things and get shot at by Russian soldiers and snoop-read comical files complaining about Soviet bureaucracy. It’s worth noting that the shooty bits change significantly on the basis of what weapons and ammo you can scavenge from your fallen foes. Ninjas carry katanas and shurikens: quiet precision weapons, ideal for stealth kills. Soviet troopers carry AK-47s.

I also find it notable how sparse the enemies are. In part, that’s to help justify the use of a vehicle, a snowmobile that you can drive around the hills and valleys, making an awful racket. I find the snowmobile unpleasantly difficult to steer, and so have been leaving it behind a lot when is isn’t absolutely necessary, which presumably enhances the sense of sparseness. But even bearing that in mind, a lot of the player’s time is spent exploring, searching for things, and interacting with the environment in various ways (such as picking locks or blowing up bridges to discourage pursuit), rather than fighting.

Unfortunately, I’ve started to hit problems with saves. Sometimes I’ll go to load my quicksave and it’ll just produce an error popup, and I have to exit the game and restart it to snap it out of it. More insidiously, sometimes the act of saving starts failing silently, so that I don’t know anything’s wrong until I die and discover that my last successful quicksave was 20 minutes ago. Restarting the game fixes that as well, but I can only restart so many times before I give up in frustration. I tried fiddling with compatibility settings a bit, but that just made the game refuse to run at all. After sleeping on it, I’ve decided to give it another try tonight, after a system reboot and without so many other programs running in the background. I could easily believe that all the problems are really memory issues. We’ll see if it helps.

No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way

Let’s keep on getting first-person shooters off the Stack. No One Lives Forever is a rather good 1960s-spy-spoof FPS developed in the wake of Austin Powers, and its sequel has been waiting for me to get around to playing past the first chapter for some time now. The main twist that the first game put on the genre was that the super-spy protagonist is a woman, which had two primary effects: spy gadgets disguised as cosmetics, and encounters with blatant sexism, both institutional and individual, on the part of both enemies and her own colleagues — not that there’s always a firm boundary between those groups in the spy business.

Windows 10 is willing to install and run the game, but it hits problems pretty quickly: once you’re past the menu, the sound cuts out completely. What’s weirder is that there’s no lipsync, either — I guess that must be linked to the voice playback? At any rate, patch 1.3 fixed everything. Apparently the game used to do automatic updates, but the servers for that were shut off years ago. The patch doesn’t modernize the resolution, though. Apparently there are fan patches that do this, but I haven’t bothered, so I’m playing at 1024×768, which is a little rough for sniping enemies at a distance, but not unbearably so.

The first section of the game sends secret agent Cate Archer to Japan, to take surreptitious photographs of a high-level crime meeting in a picturesque old-fashioned Japanese village full of rice screens and wind chimes. Security for the meeting is being handled by an all-girl ninja clan. I hesitated to phrase it that way — I’m not in the habit of calling grown women “girls” — but this is clearly how the game wants you to think of them. You can overhear them gossiping like teenagers, humorously juxtaposed with talk of assassinations. Overheard conversations were always the highlight of NOLF.

Having recently played through Daikatana, I’m naturally comparing the two games’ depictions of Japan. NOLF2 has an advantage there, as it’s not trying to depict real Japan, but rather, movie Japan. Japan as received by the West. That’s a lot easier to get convincingly right. It’s still a little strange, though, because the game’s stylistic setting is specifically spy movies from the 1960s, and you wouldn’t see ninjas there. Ninjas only reached mainstream American awareness in the 1980s.

At any rate, I’m very pleased with how the game is handling combat vs stealth. When I play a game with both combat and stealth mechanics, my instinct is usually to either go full pacifist and never kill anyone (as in Thief), or to use stealth purely as a means of killing everyone (as in Iron Storm). I’m barely past the beginning of NOLF2 now, but it’s already presented me with both situations where pure leave-no-traces, raise-no-alarms stealth is clearly the right approach and situations where killing everyone is clearly the right approach, as well as situations where either is doable and it’s up to you to decide which you like best. It’s probably possible to do a no-kills run if you really want to, though. There are spy gadgets specifically to support it.

Iron Storm: The Final Revelation

I had been wondering how the story would end. On the one hand, it seemed to be building up to a confrontation with Ugenberg. Hero Trounces Boss simply is how most action games go. Even Wolfenstein 3D had you personally duke it out with Hitler, and in a history without Hitler, Ugenberg is his equivalent. Equivalent enough to provoke the question: Without him, is there a war? Wouldn’t ending the war be a denial of the premise of the game, of a war unending? Moreover, in the process of looking for hints, I had learned that the game has a sequel, titled Bet on Soldier. It’s set in 1998. The war is still ongoing.

I had it figured wrong. The ending isn’t where the player enacts his ultimate victory. The ending is where the story amps up its sense of wrongness and confronts us with the futility of all our efforts. Ugenberg is killed by someone else, in a cutscene, precisely to keep the war going: the nukes his scientists were developing threatened to bring the whole thing to a decisive end, and the investors aren’t about to let that happen. It’s a development that reminds me of Metal Gearhow Metal Gear Solid 2 makes the player anticipate confrontations and then denies them satisfaction. Now, the revelatory cutscene is kind of clumsy in delivery, and left me unclear about what was happening in the moment — only after finding Ugenberg’s corpse somewhat later did I work out that the player character had been observing it on a TV monitor. But there’s something undeniably effective about the way it forcefully foregrounds the dreadful truths that we’ve been basically aware of all along but haven’t been paying attention to for the last several hours of gameplay. It’s basically a horror story moment, really, and fits with what I’ve already described as horror-game decor.

The decor in Ugenberg’s actual quarters is notably different, mind you. I had been expecting an opulence that contrasts with the rest of the building — officers’ quarters in previous levels did as much. But I wasn’t expecting the enormous Buddha statue, or the sitar music, or the Escher prints displayed alongside the expected equestrian painting of Napoleon. All again accentuating the sense of wrongness, not just by being out of place, but by suggesting intrusive fragments of a better world, making everything else feel wronger by contrast.

The very end has more of that clumsy unclarity, leaving me unsure about things like “Wait, was that last abnormally tough soldier supposed to be the guy from the cutscene? If so, did I recover the magnetic keys from him or not?” and “What was with that cry of pain after I boarded the helicopter on the roof? Was that supposed to be the player character killing the pilot or the player character getting ironically killed?” But these are now small matters, irrelevant to the big picture. Alternate history is always something of a commentary on the real present, and it’s very easy to see the unending war here as just the slightest exaggeration of the permanent war footing we’ve been on since WWII. I’m a little uneasy about the idea that a shadowy cabal of international financiers is the real villains behind it all, because that line of thought leads all too easily to antisemitism. But taking it as just a caricature of the military-industrial complex, it’s significant that even the boots-on-the-ground soldiers were talking about their portfolios earlier, showing their eager complicity in the system they were born into and take for granted.

Iron Storm. What a weird little game.

Iron Storm: Reichstag

Once in Berlin, you make your way through underground tunnels to the Reichstag building, to steal the final macguffin (the magnetic keys for your stolen sample case) from the quarters of Baron Ugenberg himself, and ideally also assassinate him while you happen to be in the area. Presumably the Reichstag fire never happened in this alternate timeline, but the building is in very poor condition anyway, with the kind of dingy decrepitude you mostly see in horror games. Lots of boarded-up windows and doors to constrain your movement. Outside, it’s surrounded by tanks and barbed wire. Even at the highest levels of government, the neverending war consumes everything.

The building is divided into five floors, with a solitary elevator as your main way of traveling between them. On most floors, the elevator area is quite firmly defended by turrets. A roomful of electrical boxes on the second floor 1The floors are numbered in the traditional European way: floor 1 is the one above the ground floor. lets you turn off the power to any floor (except for floor 3, because its switch handle is broken). This deactivates the turrets on that floor, but also deactivates the elevator doors, forcing you to find a different entry point.

My first assumption was that this was going to be a straightforward floor-by-floor ascent, sweeping through each floor to find the stairs to the next. I had, after all, entered through the basement, and had to explore pretty thoroughly to find the stairs up to the ground floor. But instead, it turns out to involve a lot of going up and down. That basement, for example, had a severe problem with electrical leakage into standing water, making portions of it inaccessible until I went up to floor 2 and turned off the electricity. From the newly-accessible part of the basement, I can reach a new part of the ground floor, from which I can get outside and climb a ladder up to a howitzer in a second-story window that lets me take out the tanks preventing me from using a different exterior door. I spend a lot of time running through hallways I’ve already cleared of enemies, now eerily quiet, trying to remember where things are and how to reach them. In fact, I’m spending a lot of time stuck, not really clear on what my next goal is or how the last thing I did helps me reach it.

In short, this chapter plays a lot like an adventure game. Just an adventure game where you sometimes have to shoot people.

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1. The floors are numbered in the traditional European way: floor 1 is the one above the ground floor.

Iron Storm: Sneak Train

Iron Storm level 5 takes place entirely on a train — a huge and fantastical Snowpiercer-style one, which you traverse back to front, making you way through cars devoted to different purposes, like a barracks car and a hospital car and a chapel car. We’re well out of the realm of the real now and barreling towards Berlin.

It’s another stealth level, or semi-stealth, anyway. You have a silenced pistol this time, letting you pick off soldiers unseen, one by one, and take their stuff. There are automated turrets linked to an alarm system, and if you can get through a car without anyone triggering the alarm, that’s great. But there’s also the (frequently unwise) option of just going in guns blazing and turning the alarm off when you can — or even just bolting for the next car, as the alarm systems aren’t linked. I tried to stealth it as much as I could, but wound up in a lot of pitched firefights anyway. I strongly suspect there are tricks I simply missed.

Of course, sometimes you have to climb out of the train and onto the roof, because how can you have a train sequence in a war story where that doesn’t happen, although various things prevent you from just running all the way to the locomotive that way. The exterior nighttime scenery rushing by is pretty nice. Eventually you also have to backtrack a bit, going through cars you’ve already cleared, which, on your return, now have new newly-erected barricades, forcing you to take alternate routes over the roof or through vents or something. This strengthens my impression that there were additional stealth routes I could have taken all along, if I had noticed them.

You ultimate goal here is a special high-security room containing a case with samples from the lab in level 4. So secure is it, I had to hit up a walkthrough. There are these two turrets pointing right at the case, and there’s no cover on the way there, and try as I might, I couldn’t find the off switch. Well, it turns out that, despite the failure of my earlier attempts at destroying turrets (which occurred as early as the trenches), turrets aren’t completely indestructible, just highly damage-resistant. If you can get into its blind spot and pump a few dozen rounds into it, it goes limp. I feel like I might have done some things differently if I had known, but when I think about it, I honestly can’t think of another place where it really would have made a difference.

Iron Storm: Leaving Weapons Behind

In level four, Iron Storm takes you inside a secret underground weapons research complex, a place of white corridors, automated security systems, and men in lab coats speaking German. It’s a little bit Wolfenstein here, but even more Half-Life, albeit kind of in reverse. Remember how in Half-Life at a certain point soldiers arrive to kill everything in the facility, scientists included? That’s kind of what happens here, except you’re the soldier mercilessly slaughtering the scientists. Slaughtering scientists isn’t your mission, exactly — your mission is to blow up the entire facility — but you do it because if you don’t kill them, they can raise the alarm and get actual soldiers involved. And facing soldiers is a bad idea, at least at first, because at the beginning of the level you’re captured and forced to relinquish your weapons.

You also have to get rid of weapons at the end of level 2, when you sneak onto a POW transport and one of your confederates advises you that “the weapons on your back are too obvious” — and sure enough, when I zoomed out to 3rd-person mode to check, I’m visibly carrying a small arsenal back there. I wondered about this at first: If I’m on a prisoner transport, and I’m unarmed, how am I better off than any of the other prisoners? What’s the point of sending me on a secret mission to just throw myself helplessly into the arms of the enemy? But in fact the qualifier “on your back” was important there; I could keep a few less-conspicuous items, like the knife (sabre? machete?) that I had previously mainly used for slashing boxes open to get health pick-ups.

Level 4 doesn’t even let you keep the knife, although you can find a new one before long. However, that is the only weapon you have for most of the level, which means it’s mainly a stealth mission. I suppose it’s theoretically possible to let an alarm go off, kill one of the resulting soldiers, and take his gun, but as they respond to alarms in pairs, it would take an extremely skilled berserker swordsman. Much better to wait until you find an isolated soldier who isn’t aware of your presence.

It’s not at all uncommon for a FPS to take all your weapons away once in a while, as a way of extending gameplay by resetting your collection progress. Daikatana took your weapons away so it could give you a different set. Serious Sam took your weapons away so it can give the same ones back in a different order. But there’s one thing that Iron Storm does that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else: It makes you discard your weapons yourself. Dropping weapons has been a part of the game’s mechanics from the beginning, motivated by opportunities to replace them with better weapons, or at least other weapons — you have one “heavy weapon” slot, which can hold either an assault rifle or a rocket launcher, either of which can be situationally superior. But in the end of level 2 and the beginning of level 4, you’re forced to manually drop weapons without replacement. It comes off as a gesture of submission. Like a child sent out to cut the switch that will be used to spank him, you’re not just being disempowered, you’re being required to actively participate in your own disempowerment — a sadistic touch surely designed to make you hate your captors even more.

Iron Storm: Some Boss Fights

Level 3 of Iron Storm throws us into our first urban environment, the German town of Wolfenburg, very old-world place that was probably picturesque before the shelling started. Even though it’s still grey and dismal, it feels good to get out of the trenches for a while. Setting has always been the most important feature of the single-player FPS genre; the shooting just gives us an excuse to run around in a big 3D sculpture and engage with it in novel ways.

Although the game has only 6 levels, they’re on the long side, each effectively being a series of levels stuck together, separated by boss fights. The first real boss fight, back in level 2, involved using a rocket launcher to down a helicopter, which then conveniently crashes in just the right position to plug a gap in a bridge and allow you forward. Wolfenburg has a couple of tanks, the first tanks you see that aren’t broken and abandoned, one in the town plaza and one roaming the streets. To beat either one, you have to first go searching for anti-tank mines — which can only be found on the other side of the plaza where one of the tanks is, making it an encounter similar to the Asylum Demon in Dark Souls, where you have to run away first and come back better-equipped.

Past Wolfenburg, there’s a sequence that I quite liked, largely due to its atmosphere: a sniper fight, in the rain, which interferes with visibility. Distant guard towers are just barely visible as grey shadows against a grey sky. It’s the sort of slow, methodical gameplay that I’m enjoying the most here, and it’s followed by a boss fight that’s the exact opposite: running around on catwalks above a factory floor, dodging rockets. The source of the rockets is one of the few non-mechanical bosses I’ve encountered, the third of three extra-tough brothers from Siberia, seen earlier in propaganda videos and encountered individually. The first one, I don’t even remember fighting. The second found me in the tunnels under Wolfenburg, and was furious at me for killing his brother. The third willingly let me into that factory once I made it to the door, treating me as an honorable adversary. It was a frustratingly tough fight, restarted many times; I was unable to do it in a single session.

But of course I was able to restart it, right? That is the only reason the third brother is dead. He is a vastly superior warrior. He killed me many times, and I only killed him once. That’s the pattern for most of the game outside of boss fights as well.

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