19 May 2013

Post thoughts: Tomb Raider

Be warned: I enjoyed playing this game but am very critical of the choices they made in this "reboot" of the Tomb Raider series. I am a fan of Tomb Raider, almost as much as I am of Prince of Persia, so I may come off as a little put-out in the following progression of thoughts... however, these principles should and could be applied to any game in a critical frame of mind and are, to the best of my knowledge, not tainted by how I feel about the series as a whole.


The Island itself is a pretty big character in the game and it is beautifully rendered and constructed. The levels are, for the most part, well thought out and they interconnect in a believable manner. However, and it's a big however, there is very little believable infrastructure in this game. 
Enemies are able to appear in regions that require the player to traverse using climbing and rope arrow mechanics - there's no bridges or walkways or roads and this completely undermines the realism that the designers aimed for when constructing the island environment. 

There's so many cultists (hundreds!) that there just would be no way that there would not be ways that they constructed to get around more easily. Humans are, by and large, lazy creatures and we tend to take the path of least resistance unless we think there will be some sort of pay-off at the end of a more challenging path... so to think that these cultists were building up their numbers for over 60 years and never once even tried to build walk ways or rope bridges over areas that they tend to travel and patrol is just unbelievable.

I understand that the designers wanted clambering and environmental traversal to be a big thing for Lara Croft and the player to experience but this could still have been accomplished even with putting these missing elements into the game.

Character growth doesn't mean hurting the protagonist and then shrugging it off...

Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are not so well fleshed-out. There are no character arcs in this game - not even for the protagonist, Lara Croft. Now, I realise that there will be people who disagree with me... so bear with me whilst I explain:

Lara starts off as a professional, competent and resourceful person. She is young and so is a bit shy and doesn't believe in her academic qualities - even though she is always right - as evidenced in the first 2 minutes of cutscene in the game. However, apart from that one instance, she never questions her ability as a researcher and archaeologist. You see this throughout the game whereby she already knows everything about every artefact that can be found from across a whole range of time periods and countries, which is quite an accomplishment for a graduate fresh out of university. Lara starts off being correct about everything and ends up being correct about everything. The only thing she does is unshackle herself from people who are older than her and who would doubt her abilities.

Her physical skills are never even in question though... you begin the game as able to scramble, climb and survive as well as you do at the end. Even your fighting ability is exactly the same throughout only that you gain equipment upgrades which allow you to do more damage - which is not the same as the character getting better or more proficient. There is no mechanistic difference between holding a piece of detritus in Half Life 2 by using the interact button and holding it via the gravity gun. The code is the same but the forces and animations are modified. Similarly, there is no difference between killing a guy in close combat with a (magically appearing) rock or with your climbing axe. Yes, the axe does more damage and looks different but the mechanics are the same.

Lara does get two more combat skills but then all the other ones are just improved versions of those two... and to unlock those skills no combat is required because you do not accrue experience from combat but from collecting "salvage" and that is what you unlock the abilities through.

Getting back to Lara as a character: she feels guilt over deaths that she has no ability (due to deus ex artifex*) to avoid and even the crew blaming her for bringing them to the island - the island that they were all seeking - is just ridiculous and stupid. These are seasoned adults and their immediately childish reaction to a difficult situation is disappointing.

None of the other characters grow either. Whether it's "I'm puerile and self-serving" or "benign" or "gutsy" or "love-struck underdog".... they start and end the same and their harrowing experience has taught them nothing as far as I can see.


Roth: "You think they'll believe this crap?"
Lara: "Heh. Look at them! They're idiots... as long as I have large boobs they can stare at they won't notice the ridiculously contrived story and game play stolen from Uncharted."

There was a lot of commentary about the progression of Lara as a character. I never saw this. Lara didn't show any sort of difficulty in her first human kill and the post-kill reaction looked more like nerves and adrenaline (including the retching). Nowhere in there was there any sort of long-term reflection that you would normally get from this sort of situation... never was it mentioned in the "Lara's Diaries" that generate when she reaches a new campsite and describe her frame of mind. In fact when you get to the first camp site you see her shaking, not just from the cold but also from the trauma of the events that had only just unfolded... not to mention the shock her body must be going into from having a huge spike puncture her midriff!

The wounding of Lara is largely inconsequential as well - she shrugs off injuries that would have crippled any normal person several times in the game except for one arbitrary instance where all of a sudden she needed to superficially hurt herself even more to get better. "No, no! Never mind possible internal bleeding, as long as I sear the entry point with a hot piece of metal I'll be all better and right as rain in no time at all!" Though, to be fair, the game tends to treat all physical injuries in this unrealistic and highly arbitrary manner.

This first huge encounter doesn't make much sense either... why is the village where that "first kill" happens on fire? The cult has no reason to set it all alight and even less reason to do so right this instant. I mean, they've been there for at least 60 years... and it's been raining heavily... all that wood wouldn't just go up in flames like that. There's zero motivation or explanation for that fire. Also, it's very weird how women aren't a commodity in this island situation. It's stated multiple times that the head cultist picks the girls he wants and then let's his men do as he wishes with the rest. There's no onerous requirements on these guys to kill everyone they meet as soon as they meet them. In fact, in that situation it's very easy to imagine that sex would win out over murder-lust afforded by sporadic deaths of the people stranded on the island.

Speaking of which this whole story is nonsense rubbish packed tightly in a wrapping of disbelief. The player is asked to believe that, literally, hundreds of people have been stranded on this island through shipwrecks, plane crashes and from the occupation during World War 2... and I mean hundreds!

The selection process for people to be able to get into the cult is so harrowing that most people die. Let's go over it: People are stranded on the island, most killed if they are deemed to be a threat or weak or women, then they're put in the catacombs for weeks or months in a survival-of-the-fittest cannibalistic ritual... the survivors of which then go along and repeat the process and somehow manage to accrue hundreds of members to their cult (the unending waves of which Lara will clash against throughout the game).

So there are two HUGE reasons why this is unbelievable. The first is that there just isn't the fauna or supplies from washed-up wrecks to be able to support such a population without horticulture or some sort of animal husbandry - none of which is in evidence in the shanty town or anywhere else we visit on the island. The second reason is that this is supposed to be a "lost" island which no one knows anything about. You don't think governments or even companies would inform the routing of shipping lanes or even send research/exploration/rescue sorties to find out where all these ships and people were going?

"How many ships?!!"

Then there is the whole logistics of the cultist operation: they are able to maintain and run equipment from the war (the gondolas), they have the resources to break up ships into their component parts and salvage them to use in the building of...? Something! Part of the shanty town can be explained this way but it's all the way up near the top of the mountains. I'm not sure how much oxy-acetylene is kept on the average ship... but it's not going to be enough to break up a whole vessel.

Player agency is one of the things that this game lacks entirely: Lara is catapulted from one scene to another without player input and every time something big happens it is always down to a moment of deus ex machina - quite literally in this instance as it is usually a mechanical device, a bridge for example - that results in plot progression, not Lara's actions. This is one of the reasons why I can see no character arc for Lara in the game.

A further thing that killed the immersion for me was the continual splashing of things on the screen: water, blood, dirt - everything that gets on a persons eyes does not do that! Worse still: I'm just a ghostly camera that floats behind Lara - I'm not Lara in the first person, so it makes no sense for me to be getting water coursing over the screen when she's out from under the cascade of a waterfall or even when she is and I'm not! I really wish games would stop this unless there's an in-game reason for it (e.g. Master Chief or Samus Aran's armour).

Another thing that also broke the realism for me was encountering all these mostly complete plane wrecks that conveniently spanned gaps that I wouldn't be able to cross without them being there. I don't know if the designers have ever seen the site of a plane crash but generally they do not end up in one piece with the wings all attached and etc. Each time I got to one of these parts I mentally cringed because they just made no logical sense. If they'd have replaced each of these with a tree or logs and debris that had been washed downstream in the storm then that would have made more thematic sense to me and I would have been completely fine with it. I understand why they put the planes in though because they showed off the island's history... if, albeit, in a very ham-fisted manner.

The inclusion of the Nazi/Japanese army WW2 occult weapon idea was actually pretty lazy writing overall. We've seen it before in Indiana Jones and Uncharted (and they're just the pieces in this genre!)... it doesn't add anything to the story or Lara's character arc. It doesn't need to be in this game and the trope has been done to death by now.


In the time it took her to grab the parachute and put it on she could have grabbed ahold of the metal frame of the window and moved off of the glass... I guess that would have been less exciting though.

Quick-time events... the dreaded "interactive movie" aspect of modern gaming. Early in the game there are too many very close together which really ruined the flow of the game for me though later on it gets much better with respect to QTE placement. 
This game just continues to push forward lazy, uninmaginative QTEs: you miss a button and you immediately fail the event and die, resulting in having to retry again from the beginning. We have moved on from these simplistic QTEs and there are a number of shining examples of what developers who put QTEs should do to improve the player experience - especially since you don't get a chance to "practice" a QTE before it happens.

Much in the same way that a combat encounter with an enemy can have multiple outcomes with regards to health, ammo and gameplay experience so, too, should QTEs. This is most easily demonstrated by Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain - a game that is essentially almost entirely comprised of QTEs. QD allow for the player to not only recover from a missed prompt with minimal fuss but also allow for multiple end states without resorting to a simple "game over" screen.

Another way you could improve the experience is to not start the player from the beginning every time but instead play a "recorded" segment of the perfect outcome for especially long or difficult sequences and then throw you back into the sequence where your input is counted once more.

A particularly bad example of the QTEs in Tomb Raider was one point at which I was hurtling down a flow of water; there were spikes and other obstacles in the way ahead but, because of the angle of the camera and the foggy/misty effect on the screen I was unable to clearly see where I was supposed to go... which resulted in retry after retry until I had memorised the exact turn of events that gave a perfect outcome. That isn't fun.

The traversal and combat mechanics are really good and they pretty much carry the game considering that there are virtually no puzzles on the entire island. That lack of puzzles is also inversely represented in the dissonance I had with the presentation of the game and its internal logic. The old Tomb Raider titles were blatantly gamey, they were openly fantastical and not really holding to the logic of the real world so there were many aspects that, placed in a more realistic game just wouldn't make any sense or would be immediately out of place and reduce player immersion. However, since this Tomb Raider is more realistic and bases itself in a real world setting and not just "some massive temple in Nepal that everyone happened to overlook" it can't and, in my opinion shouldn't, use those same tropes, mechanics or macguffins.

There was one particularly egregious point in the game that immediately set off my bullshit meter where Roth was injured by a wolf pack. The wolves not only left his leg opened up to the bone but they also stole the completely inedible and positively tasteless med kit supplies he had on him. First "WTF" moment. Then, traversing the village after saying she'll get the kit (despite his leg being untreatable using basic equipment, along with all the bacteria and other nasties in dog's mouths), Lara looks up at the sheer cliff face that is not traversable by any human without climbing equipment and states that it must be where the wolves went. Second "WTF" moment. These sorts of things can't be let into a game designed to be like this - they don't fit any more than a "gritty" character does in Peggle.

This whole sequence finally resulted in an onerous scene (in the wolf lair) whereby the game restricts you to the use of your gun - not that you can shoot anything because it then takes it off you in a cutscene moments later. So, why bother? It really caught me off guard when I couldn't switch out to the bow... in fact, I think that whole wolf-med kit sequence was pretty flawed.

Yeah, you have to be careful: Wolves love them some tasty hardware. Like how bears love to dress in hats and ties...

I also wasn't a fan of the "action cam" in the game. It shifts and bobs around all the time when you're moving. It made me feel a little motion sick. Fair enough, do it when Lara is in danger and may be about to die... that would add something to the ordeal but don't do it when the player is just walking around exploring an area as it doesn't make any sense... 
This sort of thing is fine in films like the Blair Witch because you're just watching the action taking place on a screen. In a game, though, you're actively trying to control a character and to have the game punish you for not clearly seeing an insta-death moment (either from jumping too soon to reach a ledge or helicopter or avoiding some spikes in a QTE) due to the camera is just poor game design.

What I did like was the map implementation. First off, places and items/collectibles you found would be marked on the map (+1 point). Secondly, they made it so that you could get a local area map that showed all their locations (+2 points) and finally, they made it so that you could see immediately whether the place or item was reachable with your current skill set... (+10 points). This effectively negated the player from banging their head against a problem that they were not equipped to solve - not to mention endless searching of areas for collectibles if the player wants to collect them. Though there was one GPS cache I had to look at a youtube walkthrough to find its location because, for whatever reason, it wasn't flashing up the prompt to pick it up when I'd run over it multiple times. Overall, very well-implemented.

Tomb Raider also suffers from the dreaded "cutscene ambush" wherein all your items are confiscated. I really, really wish that developers would find a way around this problem without deus ex'ing the player through use of a non-interactive medium within an interactive skill-based medium.

The biggest flaw of Tomb Raider is that it is too gamey when its stated goal is to provide a more realistic character and thus world for her to inhabit. In the other Tomb Raider games Lara is a superhero and her actions are fantastic compared to the mundane world we inhabit. This makes sense within the world of Tomb Raider as much as Superman makes sense in the DC universe but in the process of trying to make a more realistic and relatable Lara Croft they failed to also transition the world in this regard. There are too many instances where the realistic world of Tomb Raider is torn asunder by completely unrealistic events: explosive barrels halfway up a tower for no reason, villages on fire before you arrive, unnecessary or unfathomable deaths, overtly supernatural beings and ridiculous near-misses (I'm looking at you, rotor blades!).

Yes, these things were Lara Croft... but that Lara Croft is supposed to no longer exist. The purpose of a reboot is not to just put a new sheen of graphics over the same game play and world - it is to remake the world and character in a new image. In this respect Tomb Raider 2013 is an abject failure and although it may have been popular with critics and gamers (metacritic of around 86) the only aspects I think are good are the game play mechanics.

Technical aspects:

It's 2013 and we still can't achieve 'rounded shapes' like Carmack was able to in Quake 3 Arena?

In-game cutscenes crashed and failed to load a couple of times throughout the game. These are controlled environments where the player has no input and it is ridiculous that this was allowed through QA. Worse still, I was playing on the PS3 so there's even LESS opportunity for excuse based on hardware differences of the platform.

Other than that, though, the game was stable and well presented. I thought the vistas you are presented with were fantastic... it's an incredible shame that they never placed a screenshot feature in this game and I miss the functionality after playing games on Steam and also Dragon's Dogma. I realise that the PS4 is bringing enhanced functionality to this aspect of playing games but I also hear that developers can choose to block it. My hope is that they don't. This is why I'm using stock images for this review.


The game part of Tomb Raider 2013 is good. The interaction of the skills and abilities is pretty tightly designed and exploring the island habitats using the traversal mechanics is great. I'm not really a fan of more cover-based shooters as we have enough of them - especially Uncharted being the only contender in this genre - but this one is at least implemented well. 

Unfortunately that's about as good as it gets. If you start to think in any way about the story or events in this game it all falls apart and it quickly becomes apparent that the game is poorly constructed. It's a blockbuster movie and in many ways it reminds me of the duality of films vs reality in Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Only, in this piece, Lara gets the flesh wounds and ridiculous movie reality in the real world.

Back-seat designing:

I'm putting the current game design out in the cold and starting from scratch!

I would make it so that your decisions have multiple fail states that would affect the game in minor ways. As I noted above, player agency is lacking in this game and I want to put that back in - even if it is invisible.

I would also have an actual character arc for Lara at least. I would have her being headstrong and cocky in the beginning of the game. The other archaeologist and her interpret some artefact differently that points to the island that they want to reach. The more experienced archaeologist, arse though he is, is correct but Lara's father's friends basically support her and go forth in her recommended direction. Thus the island that they end up on is the wrong island
Therefore it really is Lara's fault for their predicament and she really should feel guilty about the deaths of her friends and acquaintances. Her character growth would come from realising that she was wrong and also wrong to lean on the ties of her family to gain the advantage. She would grow in knowledge about artefacts, tombs and interpreting data through a series of personal mishaps as she gains experience "in the field" during the game. This experience could also be called upon in future releases as a reason for the way her character deals with different situations: e.g. "I work alone because I can't fail someone else again and have their lives on my head!"

Speaking of which, Lara would not be physically fit as she is in the current game. She'd be weak and unable to jump or climb far and she would not be very good in a combat situation. These traits I would increase over the period of the game and it would happen invisibly to the player, behind the scenes, whereby experience points would be generated based on the play style of each player such that each Lara would end up competent at the end of the game, though not necessarily identical. This wouldn't be that hard to implement technically but it would require a reworking of the island structure and game world logic.

The island and the cult would have to change: this was supposed to be a game about survival and growth of the character based in a more realistic world. So, to facilitate that, the island would lose its supernatural element: There would be no god-queen-body-hopping rubbish. No weather control powers, only one unfortunate storm that sent them into a reef and set their ship sinking. The island itself would be in the disputed waters between Japan, China and Taiwan and be uninhabited - giving a reason for the lack of knowledge of the island interior and the currents and weather around it. It would also be a risk heading to it because any intervention of help to a distress call from any government would be met with suspicion and potential confrontation by the others.

There also wouldn't be very many cultists, maybe 20-30 in total. These would all be hardy survivors from a couple of wrecks that occurred decades ago. Thus there would be no huge shanty town... though there would be world war 2 bunkers on the island and a radio mast/tower but it would not be working without a lot of maintenance and repair. The cultists would not be indiscriminate killers... though they would want to capture and control the women on the crew - an act that would probably result in the deaths of the members of the crew that tried to stop this and a set-up for the resulting continued conflict between the crew and the cultists. The other important thing about the cultists would be that they are all 40-60; these are not young men who are going to go around jumping and whooping. They will be calculating, conniving and maybe a little feral.

Lara not only has to learn to survive the dangers of the island but also to rescue her colleagues and crew members. To build into the multiple fail state design that I'm advocating, rescuing your crew members would not be a definite thing. I.e. you could sneak into an outpost and rescue your crew stationed there, killing the enemy that was guarding them. However, if it doesn't go to plan and you're about to die, the crew member will rescue Lara in a cutscene, forfeiting their own life.

One thing about the dangers of the island, as I put it just above, is that there would be a second storm approaching the island with a building gloom and darkness from clouds massing on the horizon. Pelting rain storms would grow stronger towards the end of the game, affecting clambering (by slowing it down) and movement with Lara (and the enemy) slipping and sliding around in muddy areas. This would add to the thematic "battle against the odds" climactic feeling as Lara reached the end-goals of the game.

Fixing the radio tower would be the reason and use for collecting salvage, not to upgrade weapons but to achieve your goal of being rescued and this would be the final part of the game with a build-up to re-activating the radio, calling in help ("We'll be there in four hours. Make sure you're ready as we'll only get one pass at this before the next big storm rolls over the island!") and then rescuing your remaining comrades after or before facing off against the leader of the cultists - who you defeat as the final enemy. The game climaxes with you achieving survival and a new recognition in the eyes of your surviving colleagues and in you escaping on the rescue helicopter.

The end.

* God from the maker/developer