Archive for June, 2022

TR6: In which I assert that Lara Croft resembles Jessica Fletcher

In the lower depths of the secret research complex under Prague — like Amnesia, this game largely equates progress with downward motion — Lara runs into Kurtis again, and again he constrains and disempowers her, trapping her in an airlock to keep her from causing any more trouble than she already has. And he has something of a point: Lara’s ingress involved shutting off the power to the security systems, which were also the systems keeping the monsters under control. She’s literally meddling in things she doesn’t understand, and for the first time in her life someone is effectively holding her accountable for her actions. It still bodes ill for their budding relationship, though. I can’t imagine Lara Croft accepting someone who keeps trying to control her like this.

While Lara’s stashed, player control shifts to Kurtis. It’s a move that reminds me of the seasons of Murder, She Wrote where they experimented with protagonists other than Jessica Fletcher: it feels a little wrong, but it’s really not all that objectively different. The main effect is that it takes away the opportunity to ogle Lara, and thus makes me aware of the extent to which I was doing so: not a lot, as my attention is generally on the game’s challenges, but every once in a while. The sorcerous powers that Kurtis displayed in his first appearance are disappointingly limited to cinematics, and beyond player control. Early on, there’s a bit where he uses his “Far See” power to get a keycode from a post-it on the other side of a locked door, and afterward I kept thinking “I wish I could Far See right now. That would be nice.” It’s like they designed a special mechanic for the character and then didn’t get around to actually implementing it.

The really peculiar part is that we don’t really know what Kurtis is trying to accomplish. We’re just piloting him forward in the hope that he knows as much about what’s going on as he seems to. He seems to be a good guy, at least to the extent that he’s fighting the bad guys. He’s probably with the Lux Veritatis, the secret guardians of forbidden knowledge who have been battling dark alchemists for centuries. That would make him the enemy of Lara’s enemy, but not her friend. This is a pattern we’ve seen as far back as Tomb Raider II: You have two warring sides, one dedicated to securing and protecting a dangerous power, one that wants to seize that power for themselves and exploit it. Then Lara Croft enters the picture. Now there are three sides.

TR6: Narrative Blurring

After Paris, the action shifts to Prague, home to a mad-science complex where the Cabal is making monsters using Nephilim DNA. It’s the classic Tomb Raider design pattern: start mundane and gradually turn up the weirdness dial.

But before I do any more analysis, let me devote an entire post to complaining about one particular puzzle. Shortly after arriving in Prague, Lara finds herself in a room in a rich person’s house, and refuses to leave until she’s found a secret passage. The walls are lined with paintings and bookshelves, and the floor has a large circular mosaic showing four landscapes, ringed by twelve roman numerals. A little platforming lets you access a mechanism: the camera shifts to show the cover on a grandfather clock opening up, then focuses on the numbers around the mosaic.

“Aha!” think I. “The hands of the clock are now accessible, and it’s hinting that the numbers on the floor are a clue to their required setting!” And so I spend some time fiddling with the clock, and staring at the landscapes, and consulting Von Croy’s journal (which has provided useful information about mechanical puzzles in the past). But there is no solution to be found. Eventually I hit the walkthrough again, and find out the clue I missed was that when the clock opened and the camera shifted over to the mosaic, it was specifically focusing on the number III. The answer was to set the hands to 3 o’clock.

Now, the main irritating thing about this is that it’s making forward progress contingent on information that, if you fail to catch it the first time, you have no way of accessing again, short of reloading an older save. If you walked into the room and someone handed you the controller after the clock was already open, you’d have no way of solving the puzzle other than brute force. But even ignoring that, it bothers me because it’s a blurring of levels. The player has been given information that Lara Croft does not have, but which Lara Croft then acts on. I suppose there’s always been an element of that, whenever Lara pulls a lever and the player is shown a door opening that’s out of Lara’s view, but somehow this feels more egregious. Maybe because it’s more purely an information puzzle. Showing the door that opened is a convenience to the player that doesn’t affect the story of Lara’s adventures in any significant way, but how does Lara explain how she solved the clock puzzle to anyone else?

Tangentially, I wound up going back to that clock often enough to notice something strange about the UI. The clock face is presented as an overlay, right? The game has done similar overlays for the occasional keypad and other devices — I think is a new thing for the series. Well, at one point, I approached the clock from a weird angle, with the result that the cover was poking through the overlay. So these special UI overlays aren’t separate layers, the way you’d do it in most game engines. They’re in-world, and viewed through the same camera as everything else. When Lara fiddles with the clock, a physical giant clock face materializes behind her. I wonder if she knows?

TR6: Leaving the Louvre

The climax of the Louvre is a boss fight where you’re chased around a crypt by a ghost. I had to hit up some hints to find out what I was supposed to be doing here. You can’t kill the ghost, and to my eye, the game doesn’t adequately indicate your goals or the effects of your actions. The whole thing hinges on realizing that if you shoot the ghost a whole lot, eventually it stops moving for a few seconds, and you have to take advantage of this before it wakes up again. Without the walkthrough, I couldn’t tell that these pauses weren’t part of its normal movement cycle.

After you get what you need and run away, leaving the guardian ghost protecting nothing for all eternity, the game does two notable things. First, it takes the unusual step (for a Tomb Raider) of making you backtrack through the way in. Usually the treasure room in these games has one-way entrances and exits, if the need to get out is acknowledged at all. Here, you make your way back through the same levels you went through to get in, albeit mostly in abbreviated form — one section, previously seen as a difficult climb downward, is made easier by flooding the chamber, letting you simply swim to the top. On the way out, the Louvre gallery itself is swarming with heavily-armed bad guys looking for Lara and her loot, recontextualizing the space, adding danger to areas that were safe bafore.

The second notable thing is the introduction of a hunk. A young man with a smoldering gaze, a lean and athletic build, artfully unkempt hair, and just enough stubble to establish his masculinity, as well as apparent telekinetic powers and some kind of magic shuriken. He doesn’t have a name yet — he hasn’t spoken a word — but I noticed some mentions of a Kurtis in those walkthroughs, and image searches confirm that’s who he is. He’s not exactly on Lara’s side, but he’s definitely supposed to be a potential love interest, and also Lara’s equal, both of which are things she’s never had before. His introduction is the longest in-engine cutcene so far, and it starts with him getting the drop on her, putting a gun to her head (which probably counts as flirtation for creatures such as they), and slowly, seductively stripping her of her weapons. It’s a scene that’s inevitably a bit laughable, if you feel like laughing at it, but it’s also a fairly impressive showcase of the engine’s ability to handle acting without dialogue, as we see Lara react with surprise, desire, and annoyance all at once, mainly just through body language, without changing her facial expression. And it strikes me as fairly significant that the first spark of romance in the series starts by putting the strong-willed and self-sufficient Lara into a rare situation of helplessness.

TR6: Strength

In the secret dig underneath the Louvre, things finally start feeling like a proper Tomb Raider. We’ve got mysterious ruins! We’ve got dart traps and spike traps! We’ve got undead guardians, tests and trials, and an unusual amount of free-flowing lava for the middle of Paris!

We also get a much-needed and possibly inadvertent clarification about the strength mechanic. This is a new element for the series, experimental and in my view not particularly successful. See, most levels have some opportunity to increase the strength of Lara’s arms and/or legs via exercise. Stronger arms help you break down doors and maintain your grip on ledges for longer. Stronger legs help you shift massive stone blocks and jump farther. When you try to open a door or move a block that you’re not strong enough for, Lara says “I’m not strong enough” to let you know. How do you increase your strength? By breaking down doors and shifting massive stone blocks, often ones that you have no other reason to mess with. And that feels a bit silly.

I found this whole system worrisome at first. What if I missed an opportunity to raise Lara’s strength, and locked myself out of content and/or upgrades down the line? The game seemed to be willing to let such things happen: you can easily miss out on the opportunity to obtain Von Croy’s notebook, which contains crucial information for puzzles later on. But after a while, I noticed a distinct pattern. I’d find a door blocking the way to some optional pickups, but Lara wouldn’t be strong enough. After exploring the level a bit, I’d find another door, break it open, and Lara’s strength would go up, enabling me to open the first door. In other words, it was acting less like the stat system I had assumed and more like a lock and key. And that made me wonder: Does strength carry over between levels at all, like your inventory and ammo does? Or is it purely a matter of “Open this door to open that door”?

Well, down in the ruins, there’s critical path exercise. A tunnel has a door you have to go through to progress, and you can’t open it until you’ve gone down a different tunnel branch and opened another door. And that seemed to settle it. Even if you think they would have been mad enough to make opening that door and continuing in the game contingent on having found enough optional strengthening actions in previous levels that you can’t get back to, it seems unlikely that I just happened to have found exactly enough strength to put Lara right on the edge of being able to get through, and pushed her over with exactly what was available.

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 how 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.

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