TR6: End of an Era

What’s your least favorite part of Tomb Raider?

Is it the water levels, making you search desperately for the next air pocket while using a less familiar control scheme? Or maybe it’s the boss fights, making you figure out puzzles while constantly distracting you by chasing you around? Perhaps it’s the parts where you pull a lever to open a door, but it only opens for a little while, forcing you to do a difficult sequence of jumps within a tight time limit and start over whenever you fail?

Well, whatever your preference, the last few levels of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness have got you covered.

The final boss fight against Eckhardt actually isn’t all that bad — my only complaint about it is that you spend a lot of time waiting through phases where Eckhardt isn’t attacking or vulnerable — but it’s preceded by a far more aggravating one, where Kurtis, now allied with Lara for the moment, battles a huge insectoid abomination that spits acid. Being hit by an acid missile makes Kurtis flinch, which makes it harder to dodge the next missile — a classic “stun lock” effect. And at the end of it, Kurtis appears to die a cutscene death, making me wonder why I just put in so much effort to keep him alive. But really, it only took me so many tries because, even after playing for so many hours, I still didn’t fully understand the controls. The monster has multiple targetable spots, which you have to switch between, and the game is generally light enough on combat that this was the first time I ever needed to use the “switch targets” button.

On a positive note, there are some really good sets throughout this section. The twisty catwalks above the marine biology area are like a satisfyingly explorable jungle gym, and Eckhardt’s old alchemical laboratory is full of first-rate atmospheric knick-knacks.

The ending is a bit of a confusing mess, though, and I’m guessing it’s a big part of why the game got a reputation as rushed and unfinished. Specifically, a character who I don’t recall ever seeing before, but who Lara recognizes, reveals himself to be a nephil shape-shifter, and the real identity behind every single person who helped Lara throughout the game, including Kurtis. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. Kurtis has a bio on various wikis. He has a backstory. Apparently there were plans to spin him off into his own games if he was popular enough — and no surprise there, that was pretty obvious from the moment he appeared onscreen. And yet here the game is, implying that he was never a real person. Maybe some of his appearances were the real Kurtis and some were the shape-shifter? I’m mulling over the possible combinations, and I don’t see one that works.

At any rate, I’m not the only one with criticisms like these. This game was enough of a critical failure to kill the original Tomb Raider continuity. Lara’s next game is a reboot, made by a different studio. This seems like a good opportunity to close the book on her adventures for a little while.

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.

TR6: Changelog

More ways in which the sixth Tomb Raider game differs from the first five:

The business of perfectly lining up a running jump across a gap by walking all the way to the edge and then taking a hop back seems to be impossible now, because there’s no way to take a hop back. Moving backward always takes a small step back, like in Walk mode.

No Secrets. That is, there are no officially-designated secrets. There are certainly places where you can solve optional puzzles to pick up a few more healing items, and the result may be that I spend more time backtracking and exploring alternate routes doing the equivalent of secret-hunting than I would if the game tracked secrets and thereby told me that I was done.

Adventure-game-style interactive dialogue sequences, where you pick what to say next out of a simple menu of, usually, two or three choices. A sign of an intended genre shift, perhaps. Lara is playing detective here. It seems like most of the choices I’ve seen so far are basically fake: you get a choice of two topics, and immediately after Lara’s finished asking about the one you choose, she immediately asks about the other one. But I’ve already seen one case of an NPC varying her behavior, choosing whether to give you the notebook Von Croy left for you or not depending on how nice you were to her.

In addition to a Walk mode, there’s a Stealth mode, where Lara creeps along and flattens herself against walls like Solid Snake. I’d say this is another sign of the genre shift, but it also seems like an attempt at doing a better job of the stealth sections of Chronicles. I haven’t gotten much use out of this yet, so I don’t really know how well it holds up. The police are sometimes amazingly oblivious to Lara’s presence even without it.

There’s no infinite-ammo pistols, but there is brawler-style hand-to-hand combat. If the Von Croy Tower section of Chronicles had this, it would have been very different.

Limited grip strength, like in Shadow of the Colossus. If you spend too long dangling from a ledge or climbing a drainpipe, you fall down. And with this comes an upgrade system: certain actions — for example, crowbarring a door open — are considered to be exercise that increases your strength, like in Quest for Glory. Apparently there are also exercises that upgrade your jump distance, but I haven’t found any of those yet. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s certainly not mimetic, and seems mainly suited to nonsensical gating. Also, I’m a little worried that missing some upgrade opportunities early in the game will lock me out of goodies later. But on the other hand, it’s nice to have some kind of progression other than accumulating ammo.

The levels seem very short in comparison to the older games. Probably the target hardware put limits on how much nicely 3D-modeled stuff they could hold in memory at once. Admittedly, most levels in the previous games were effectively several levels strung together, with chutes or self-locking doors keeping you from going backwards. Past a certain point, Angel of Darkness does the opposite, creating a large explorable space out of multiple nonlinearly-connected levels that you can travel among freely. This, too, seems like a genre shift. Tomb Raider games have a very specific structure, and it’s breaking that.

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness: First Impressions

Going straight from the fifth Tomb Raider game to the sixth, it’s immediately striking what a change it is. After five games in basically the same engine with incremental improvements, suddenly there’s been a complete overhaul in the look of the thing. Environments look 3D modeled, instead of cobbled together out of tiles (however artfully). Lara herself is a bit less of a cartoon. The dialogue never cuts off slightly too early. Even the menus look slicker and higher-resolution. It’s all very next-generation — it’s been three years since the last game, and instead of the Playstation, they’re now targeting the Playstation 2. I wasn’t really paying attention when it came out — I don’t even own the game on physical media. (It periodically goes on sale for less than a dollar on Steam.) So all of this came as a surprise to me. The whole thing is just modern enough that it can run under Windows 10 without installing any additional DLLs, albeit only if you fiddle with the graphics settings a bit first. (The main thing you have to do is enable VMR9, whatever that means.)

The controls are basically the same as before — you’ve still got the core movement/jump/action controls, in the usual places. Crouch/crawl is in a different place. Hitting the Walk button now toggles walk mode on or off, instead of walk mode being active only while you keep the button pressed. More generally, the new-model Lara just handles a little differently, like driving a different car than the one you’re used to.

And she’s less of a pure puppet now. That is, the controls are less tightly coupled to her actions, more contextual, more semantic. I’m thinking there’s a sort of spectrum ranging from “the player’s controls map directly onto specific motions on the part of the avatar” to “the player’s controls are treated kind of like verbal commands, subject to interpretation”. Old-school Lara was near the former extreme, but not quite at it: the Action button was always quite contextual, and actions like pulling levers would automatically cause her to adjust her position. The opposite extreme is where, say, Arkham Asylum lies. When you press the Punch button in Arkham Asylum, Batman does not simply thrust his fist forward in front of him. He chooses a target and then does whatever is necessary to punch that target, turning his body or taking a step forward or even doing a somersault if that’s what it takes. Angel of Darkness is still nowhere near the Batman model, but it’s a step or two closer. You no longer have to manually turn around and back off a ledge to dangle from it: just standing at the ledge and pressing the Action button suffices. Even the movement keys are a little more contextual: you can vault onto a crate just by trying to move into it. This is fairly standard among modern 3D platformers, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a Tomb Raider.

The story is apparently considered to be still within the continuity of the first five games (unlike the later reboots), but it doesn’t seem very interested in filling in the gap between Lara’s apparent death and her turning up at Von Croy’s apartment in Paris. Yes, they’re still trying to make Von Croy a thing. That is, they do kill him off pretty quickly, but that’s happened before, right? His death kicks off the immediate plot, which is the hunt for a serial killer. Lara’s looking for the killer while the police look for her, believing that she’s the killer — which is a reasonable guess on their part, because, as I’ve pointed out, Lara is a serial killer. She’s just not the one who killed Von Croy, although she probably would have in the last two games if she had the opportunity. You might argue that she’s more of a spree killer — she doesn’t choose victims, she just charges into a building and slaughters everyone she comes across — but she’s done that repeatedly, which to my mind makes her a serial spree killer, which is something that I don’t think exists in real life. At any rate, she’s upset about the murder of Von Croy, possibly because she didn’t get to do it herself, so off she goes running across the rooftops.

More tomorrow, probably.

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.

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