Archive for February, 2019

TR5: Out of Rome

Well, I’m out of the first chapter. Lara has retrieved the Philosopher’s Stone from its hidey-hole near the Colosseum. Which turned out to be the regular above-ground Colosseum (minus the tourists), not a second underground one as I had speculated. It just had to be approached from underground for some reason, and seemed to be on the same level as a large cave I had seen earlier, or even somewhat below. I’m going to assume that the mystical power of the Stone warps space or something, Silent Hill-style. I think of that vein of surrealist horror as specializing in phantasmagorical dreamworlds that don’t make rational sense, but that’s the sort of world Lara Croft lives in too.

It turns out there wasn’t a whole lot of fighting even in the Colosseum level. There’s a few anachronistic lions and gladiators and some kind of animated statue, but on the whole I think the monsters in the previous level were tougher. Probably this is mainly because of Lara’s improved firepower: on this level, you can find an uzi just lying discarded on the ground at one point, and, since it turns out that your inventory is in fact wiped at the end of the chapter, you have no reason to refrain from using it up. Regardless, the toughest thing on this level, the one thing that caused me to take a break in frustration, was a jumping puzzle with a time limit. In one cave, you pull a rope that makes a key item rise out of the ground on a plinth on a platform, and after while, it sinks down again, usually just before you can reach it. The winning approach is fairly clear, but you don’t have time to line up your jumps the normal walk-up-to-the-edge-then-hop-back way, and getting a feel for how to execute it without that crutch takes a lot of attempts.

My one big complaint about this level is that the stone texures are just way too homogenously brown. It’s that beigey Doom brown that so dominated game palettes in the 90s, but this game was released in 2000. And this uniformity makes the irregular shape of the cavern walls hard to make out at times; at one point, I experienced something similar to the Dragon illusion, convex and concave inverting in my mind. Of course, I’m playing at a much higher resolution than the designers intended, so that may have something to do with it. It’s also probably making the seams between textures easier to notice, too — floor tiles in this game frequently just don’t match up at their edges at all. But really, 3D rending hardware was pretty common in gaming PCs by this point, so it’s not like people were playing at 640×480. Unless they were playing the Playstation version, which may have been the primary target platform.

TR5: Fighting

I’m partway into the third level of Tomb Raider: Chronicles now. The setting is still Rome, but this section of Rome is underground, and oddly volcanically active — finally, the sort of environment where Lara is most comfortable. The level is titled “Colosseum”. A secret underground colosseum? Makes more sense than the one in the middle of Dracula’s castle, I suppose.

I expect that being in a colosseum means there will be some fighting. I’ve already been through a few boss fights back in level 2, shooting up the weird guardians built into the city’s ancient statuary. They haven’t been that big a part of the experience, though, which is okay, because they’re not really very interesting. Mostly they’re just frustrating, with no real tactics beyond persistence: keep shooting at it long enough, and eventually it will fall down. I’ve seen one significant exception so far in this game, a floating statue head that shot lightning bolts out of its crystal eyes. Destroying it required shooting out the eyes specifically, using a weapon with a laser sight that let you aim precisely.

But for the bulk of the game, your only enemy is the architecture. I spent a long time trapped in a small courtyard looking for a way out until I noticed that one of the pillars had rungs on one side. That led to an area where I could trigger a mechanism that rolled aside a large gear that served as a door, but the door wasn’t an exit; it just led to another small, enclosed chamber, so I again spent a long time looking for a way out before I thought to check the space to the side that the gear had vacated.

I remember commercials for the early Tomb Raiders that completely misrepresented them, made it look like they were all about nonstop action and excitement, showing a montage of Lara machine-gunning monsters and outrunning fireballs and the like, set to crunchy electric guitar. I guess it’s an easier sell than the actual experience, of being lost and confused most of the time, with a score led by oboe. Some of us like that experience better, though, and I can only think that the continuing popularity of the franchise despite this almost fraudulent misrepresentation meant that our numbers were underestimated.

TR5: The Frame

I remember, long before there were any Tomb Raider movies, idly musing about how I would approach such an adaptation. (I have no training in film, but why would that stop my musing?) I really liked the idea of framing the story as a tall tale that Lara Croft tells about her own exploits, thus excusing the more fantastic elements, like evil meteors and Atlantean demon-aliens and hidden dinosaur habitats. (It’s sadly been forgotten by this point, but early Tomb Raider seemed to have a rule that every game had to have at least one tyrannosaur fight, if only in a secret area or bonus level. I saw no reason why this rule would not apply to movies as well.) I imagined Princess Bride-like interruptions where skeptical party guests object, and an ending that revealed that not only was everything Lara said true, but there were even crazier things that she left out. What can I say, I was really into unreliable narration at the time.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles reminds me of that a little because it, too, puts a narrative frame around the action. The writers had decided to kill off Lara Croft at the end of the previous game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, and Chronicles is a collection of stories shared by the people attending her memorial service. I’m still in early stages, so the game still might surprise me, but I don’t think it’s taking advantage of the frame in the same way as my hypothetical movie treatment. Mainly it just serves as a way to present several completely unrelated stories, and even that just draws attention to how loosely linked the scenarios in the previous games were. If the writers had wanted to, they could have cooked up a macguffin to link up this game that’s no less arbitrary than the motivations for gallivanting about the globe in the previous ones, but I suppose the way they did it is more honest.

I remember thinking that Lara’s death in The Last Revelation was unconvincing, clearly just a cliffhanger setting up her inevitable return, like the death of Superman. But apparently it was more like the death of Sherlock Holmes: the team at Core Design was tired of Lara and wanted to kill her off for real, but there was too much public demand for the decision to stick. Chronicles is thus Lara Croft’s Hound of the Baskervilles, published out of chronological order after the character’s death, reminding everyone that this is how stories work and that we might as well unkill the character because it’s not like their death accomplishes anything.

One thing I’m not clear on yet: How does the framing affect the gameplay? Will I carry my inventory from story to story, because that’s how the game works, or will it get wiped, because that’s what makes sense narratively? I’m actually kind of hoping for the former, just because that specific kind of ludonarrative dissonace interests me. I guess it’s my new unreliable narration.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles

Some recent discussion made me reflect that it had been a very long time since I last played a Tomb Raider game — not since before this blog started, in fact. The last one I started was the fifth in the series, Tomb Raider: Chronicles, released in 2000. I never got past the first level, due to my stubborn insistence on finding all the Secrets.

(How essential I consider Secrets to be to the experience of a game varies from title to title. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t bother with this sort of completeness in the previous title, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, where Secrets seemed just sort of haphazardly assigned to arbitrary hidey-holes. But in some of the others, if you didn’t hunt for Secrets, you missed out on some of the game’s best puzzles and most impressive sights. And this episode has a very completist-welcoming approach to Secrets, putting exactly three in each level.)

I’m now once more struggling my way through that very large first level, a maze of Roman alleyways that double back on themselves confusingly, full of levers that open remote gates and walls that have to be mantled up and passageways with no clear purpose. In short, the main challenge is getting lost. Despite the texturing, it manages to make what’s ostensibly a living city feel like one of Lara’s tombs. Well, the series had never been very realistic in its environments — heck, sometimes it barely even qualifies as representational.

Rather than even attempt to get the original CD-ROM version working, I’m playing from Steam. Even that required some special effort to get it working properly under Windows 10: acting on advice online, I downloaded some old Voodoo 3D drivers and installed them to the game directory. I recall that the original Tomb Raider was among the first games to support 3D accelerator cards on PC, although you had to set it up specially, so this feels somehow appropriate.

Another thing I remember from the Tomb Raiders of old: the controls. I remember people complaining about how awkward they were, which surprised me, because back in 1996 I didn’t think they were all that bad. Perhaps (I thought) they were complaining specifically about the Playstation version? I played on PC, with a keyboard, which had an ingenious system that let you execute nearly all of the game’s multifarious movements from the numeric keypad, plus modifier keys on the other hand. But this idea got broken as they added more special actions in the sequels, such as sprinting and lighting flares, and by Chronicles, the numeric keypad is all but abandoned. I’ll have to see if I can set up better controls than the defaults, because with the default setup it’s way too easy to waste a flare when you’re trying to press the crouch button.

Regardless of the controls, though, you wind up doing a lot of awkward shuffling around. That’s just built into the world model. It’s a grid-based world where the size of the tiles is directly linked to Lara Croft’s gait and how far she can jump. If you see a ledge on the opposite side of a three-tile gap, you know that you can make it across if and only if you carefully line it up by walking right up to the edge (using the walk button, which prevents you from falling off), then taking a single jump back for your run-up. This is fundamentally a game about being painstakingly careful, with occasional enemies attacking you to make this more difficult to do. (Wherever possible, these enemies should be picked off from high ground rather than engaged on their own turf.)

Despite the built-in awkwardness, it’s a comfort how familiar the feel of the controls is, even after all these years. I may be using different fingers than in the numeric-keypad days, but the necessary timing is the same. I can still execute all of Lara’s moves, even the secret handstand. I just need to get my bearings and I’ll be out of Rome in no time.

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