Archive for February, 2019

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 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.

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.

TR5: Crane Guy

My last session was pretty insubstantial; all I did was wander around the Russian naval base level, which I had already completed, looking for secrets. I’ve been sort of half-cheating on this, using an online guide — specifically, the venerable Sinjin Solves guide — to find the approximate place to start looking for a secret, but not reading the details. Sinjin’s high-quality walkthroughs are practically an essential part of the Tomb Raider experience as far as I’m concerned, and I’m pleased as punch to discover that they’re still online.

In the process, I found a lovely little bug. In the center of the level is a warehouse-like room with piles of crates. While you’re in this room, a ceiling-mounted crane slowly chases after you with murderous intent, controlled by a guy who you can see through a large bulletproof window, in a control room that you can only reach via a jumping puzzle. (Because you don’t have the keys. The guy in the room presumably didn’t need to do a jumping puzzle to get there.) When you burst in, you get rid of him in a non-interactive cutscene. I honestly don’t remember if Lara shoots him or if he runs away, because that’s how little life means in this game, but either way, the crane pursues you no more.

Anyway, when I started a new session and loaded my save and went back there to look for secrets, I found that crane guy was standing there in the control room again. The crane wasn’t active. Just the guy. Because, of course, the graphical mesh of a man in the control room was never actually controlling the crane. The guy and the crane are just two player-visible manifestations of the same bit of game logic. Except apparently not, because the guy can appear independently of the crane, which reveals a little something about the implementation.

It’s the sort of thing that I wouldn’t normally expect to pass QA in a game of this relatively small scale, and it leaves me wondering: Is this because standards have risen in the last nineteen years? Or did it just slip through because this was the studio’s Contractual Obligation Game and their hearts weren’t in it?

TR5: Lara Kills

The second chapter of Tomb Raider: Chronicles sends you after the Spear of Destiny, an artifact I know mainly from videogames — most notably Wolfenstein, which I hold responsible for popularizing the “Spear of Destiny” name, but I’m sure I’ve seen it referenced in a couple of other games as well, even though I can’t think of their names just now. At any rate, the writers here certainly seem to have Wolfenstein in mind, because they put Nazis into its backstory. As the result of a failed retrieval attempt during the war, the spear is apparently now lying at the bottom of the ocean in the wreck of a U-boat. The Russian navy is launching an expedition to find it, and Lara managed to sneak aboard.

Or perhaps “sneak” is the wrong word, given the body count. Lara Croft is a one-woman diplomatic disaster here. Back in the Rome chapter, she did murder a couple of people (not counting the anachronistic gladiators, which I think were more like ghosts or zombies or something), but they were rival treasure-hunters who were trying to jack her claim, so it came off as kind of fair. Here, she’s just charging into a foreign military base and slaughtering everyone she comes across. Given that the chapter can’t be occurring very many years before the game’s present (if only because of Lara’s apparent age), this presumably isn’t even cold-war era. Maybe this is why they spend so much of the level’s cutscenes establishing that the expedition is backed by the Mafia. Just to make them unambiguously bad.

Tangentially: I refer to Lara as a “treasure-hunter”, because that’s what she is. The game’s introductory cutscene has someone call her an “archeologist”, but that’s always seemed inaccurate to me. We’ve seen how Lara behaves. She never lays out a site grid. She picks things up without recording the location they were found. She’s a little too cavalier about discharging firearms in the vicinity of ancient pottery. A lot of these accusations can be leveled at Indiana Jones too, but he’s got tenure and can do what he wants.

At any rate, regardless of whether you call her an archeologist or a treasure-hunter, she’s also a mass murderer. I recall this only really becoming the case in the second Tomb Raider game; in the first, the enemies were mainly animals or monsters, and the few humans you fought were clear cases of self-defense, people who tricked you and trapped you with intent to kill, and gave you no choice but to fight back. Here in Chronicles, Lara is clearly electing to go all Rambo III.

It’s still mostly exploration and jumping puzzles, though.

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