12 December 2008

Lara pollarva (or pallarva - can't find the exact spelling!)

I've just gotten around to playing Tomb Raider: Underworld and boy.... I'm a bit let down. Not by the graphics - they're fantastic and in comparison with what i thought was next-generation in Legend this game really is a completely next-gen graphical parade - no, i feel that I'm let down by the controls.

I remember not long ago i read an article where one of the developers was saying how much they had changed under the hood of their engine and i agree with all of their graphical changes.... they've also upped the animation and Lara's interaction with the environment - that is to say that the environment isn't interactive but that Lara interacts with it more realistically; she will push away branches that get in her face, trip when she falls a small distance or stumble over rocks etc. They've really tried to get a more realistic feel to Lara's adventures... unfortunately they've almost completely wrecked the one thing that is really important in a game - the controls.

At first, when i played the demo, i thought maybe it was me and i was mis-remembering. I asked in forums if other people noticed the same things as i did and they said, "no" but i held off the purchase anyway. Then i saw the game for 60% off and one impulse buy later i owned it. Now, however i realise that i wasn't wrong and that i may just be more observant than other people. To make things worse, I've just gotten through playing a game with one of the most well-made control systems I've ever encountered (Prince of Persia) though some people argue that it takes a lot of control away from the player.

Let me explain what's happening. Underworld has twitchy controls or more accurately, it has twitchy controls for the analogue sticks. When i first played the game i became dizzy and felt really sick.... it only occurred to me as i was getting to the point that i had to put the game down that i actually was suffering from motion sickness - something I've never been susceptible to in gaming or real life. I put the game down, went to bed and have played some more tonight. It wasn't as bad but i still ended up watching flash-frame close-ups of Lara's behind/back/legs and random walls/floors.... you name it, as i moved around the levels.
Lara now turns on the proverbial dime, her movement is so fast and quick that my mind has trouble comprehending her almost jerky super-movements. Even the simple action of running is exaggerated to some degree and in a really annoying nerdy moment i realised that her hyper-fast legs run in an inward V-shape as if she was a model posing rather than actually running properly.... (okay, it's mainly annoying to me because i did cross country running for 7 years of my school life along with many other sporting pursuits.... i know what people look like when they run).... all of this means that Lara ends up looking like her animations were modelled after a toddler (watch any movie of a toddler or young child running and their body parts seem to be moving faster than they should be for how fast they are actually moving).

Then there's the typical Tomb Raider environment vs. movement affair we've come to know and love. I can't count the number of obstacles that i've tried to climb onto but have instead gone for a jump off. Try again, this time standing next to the face of the object or ledge, without the direction button and the same thing happens. Run Lara in a circle and retry and this time she deigns to grip the top and allow you to indicate that you want her to pull herself up. I've "tripped" when trying to drop down or jump off ledges/objects and met invisible walls that were really obtrusive and countless little niggles that all add up. Most of these things wouldn't even be a problem if her movement and camera controls were okay.

But hey, it's a 3rd person adventure game - why am I so hard on it when there have been so many games that had these same issues? The answer is because they didn't exist in either Legend or Anniversary or at least they were less of an issue then.

In Crystal Dynamics' move to make the newest Lara truly next-gen they seem to have abandoned everything that worked in the much-loved games and improved on some of those areas but made others more finicky and harder to get to grips with. I actually went back to play Legend and see if i was suffering from some sort of short-term nostalgia (i only played it a couple of months ago) and was happy to learn that i was correct... it wasn't all just in my imagination - just amplified by the ease and frustration-free controls of Prince of Persia.

In Legend, the camera is further behind Lara so, while you may not be able to get as good a shot of her arse in the game, when she rolls underneath an overhanging obstacle you don't get a front and centre view of her left ass cheek. Nor do you end up viewing some sort of Blair Witch-esque cinematography when platforming in general. You also had a first person view by clicking one of the analogue sticks.... which is really useful because even in Legend there are plenty of ledges and overhangs that will not allow the camera to be positioned such that you can see what's across from your position - they removed this feature in Underworld and replaced it with an over-the-shoulder-with-a-slightly-more-zoomed-in-position camera..... which can't be utilised when on said ledges... thus making it that much more difficult (and frustrating) to see whether you're about to jump to safety or a plunging crevasse.
I mentioned before that Lara turns really quickly, as does the camera, and there is less of a 'dead' zone and gradient applied to both analogue sticks - though there may be some way to reduce the sensitivity on them that i haven't found. To top it all off.... in Legend and Anniversary Lara's running was almost perfect - straight legs and everything!

Overall, i've been a bit frustrated with the first 'level' of the game (i've played through two levels but they both took place in the Medditeranean Sea and am up to the end of the demo in Bohisvarta) though hopefully i'll grow acclimatised to the controls and camera..... but it really is a shame that they ditched the control mechanisms from the last two games. I made the comparison between The Angel of Darkness Lara and Underworld Lara in my last post.... I just hope that the similarities don't get much more deeper.


I played through more of the game this morning... turns out that first person view has been replaced by a camera thing that Lara lifts to her face. The problem is that in confined spaces it's still useless as it's slightly zoomed in and has a depth of field effect applied to it's view.

Still not liking the camera and movement controls though i think i've pinpointed the problem with what they did for the camera. It appears that the developers have used a universal 'turning rate' for the camera - what this means is that the further away from Lara you are, the better control you have over the camera while the closer you are the more quickly the camera will move making it harder to control. Let me show you schematically:

Say Lara is at the centre point of a circle and we take the above slice as an example of wanting to move the camera through its arc. Having the camera always move at the same speed is annoying because when moving from point 1 to 2 it takes longer while the closer you get to Lara it becomes much quicker, e.g. from A to B. This is an example of a universal movement/turning rate where the distance covered by an object in a given time is not related to its position in the system. It's mostly annoying in Underworld because, as i mentioned further up somewhere, the camera is much closer to Lara this time than in the previous two incarnations. What you really want is for the camera to be on some sort of inversely proportional movement rate from its distance to the character so that you have fine control when zoomed out and when zoomed in.

One other factor that makes the game more frustrating is the fact that when the camera moves so does the direction that you are moving Lara. Say you're holding forward, running down an L-shaped corridor.... you can quite smoothly run Lara around that corner by gently moving the camera - which is good! But if that camera gets stuck on a piece of the environment or if it suddenly decides to jump to a different position you are left smacking Lara's head into a wall or something because your movement reference just did a 130 degree spas-out for very little reason.

While i haven't quite figured out the problem with the analogue controls for movement of Lara herself i spent about 20 minutes doing a 5 minute segment due to the finicky controls this morning. I was trying to jump from a beam to a pillar which you stand on. Because as soon as i went to the position to jump the camera would get up close and personal with Lara, making it difficult to aim my jump. The first two times it was really the camera that made me miss the pillar.... the second three times i aligned myself perfectly but for some reason Lara decided to jump over or right next to the pillar but not on it. Finally i managed to do it but it's very frustrating.

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