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.

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.