Joe Abbott's Weblog

Letters home to mom

Thoughts on Tomb Raider

Posted by joeabbott on December 16, 2013

imageThe Tomb Raider franchise has been with us since 1996; in that year a female protagonist, Lara Croft, took center stage in a video game but for the majority of gamers was known almost solely for the size of her bust, as opposed to her exploits. Earlier this year the brand was given a reboot and, as is trendy, the latest game focused on her formative years (aka, origin story) and redefined her first real adventure. Square Enix, the publisher, downplayed her physical attributes and instead focused on a young Lara who is setting off to find adventure somewhere in the south Pacific.

I finished the main story yesterday and without reservation, declare this to have been the most entertaining video game I’ve played in a long time.

A while back I started into “achievement hunting”, which means playing games with the main intent of getting achievements (rewards/badges/recognition) … which are allotted for having completed a specific part of the game, for accomplishing a specific feat, or other subtext to the game. In recent games, achievements have less to do with completing the main story and more to do with finding a certain number of hidden items or some other accomplishment. For example, Tomb Raider awarded me the Looking for Trouble achievement (worth 10 gamerscore, GS) for locating 25% of all GPS caches (a hidden object) in the game; I also received the Big Game Hunter (worth 15 GS) for hunting and skinning 10 deer on the island.

I’ve noticed, however, that I’ve been having less and less fun playing games while focusing on achievements. Which is why I really enjoyed Tomb Raider. At no point did I worry about achievements at all … I just kept playing because the story was engaging, the gameplay was fun, and I cared to keep playing more! The game was that good. Yes, I started the game on Wednesday and finished it Sunday. Loved it.

I’ll break down the game as I saw it but I have to note that I have not played any multiplayer, have a lot more discovering to do, and played the game on “easy”. So my take is likely very skewed and is given after experiencing a narrow slice of the game.

Story

imageAs noted, the game takes place in the South Pacific as Lara and her crew search for the lost island nation of Yamatai. They’re running low on funding for their archeological expedition and, following Lara’s intuition, in spite of a growing storm, make a last effort to find the island in the Dragon’s Triangle.

The crew consists of a Dr. Whitman, a somewhat foppish senior archeologist who is made out to be inept and focused purely on making a scoop of sorts and cashing in. Lara’s best friend, Sam(antha) is also on board as the videographer; a Conrad Roth, her protector and mentor is also along. In addition, there are 4 or so other crew members with minor roles.

On route to finding the island, the ship they’re on sinks in a catastrophic storm but the eight members noted above survive but are split up. In the ensuing scenes, Lara is made captive, finds her friends, loses them, kills a number of attackers in self-defense, and is beaten, bruised, and harmed bodily in more ways than a person could live through. But live she does and manages to thrive, besting all adversaries, finding her friends, and ultimately thwarting an ancient, evil power trying to find its way back to earth.

I’m certainly leaving a lot of details out, but the write-up on wikipedia is exceptional and for those who wish, click to the Plot section of the Tomb Raider page.

What I liked most about the Tomb Raider story is that it’s somewhat based on reality; in that, there is (was?) a Yamatai that’s in debate as to where it really is (was?), it’s likely in the area of the Dragon’s Triangle, and was ruled by a Queen Himiko (who featured in the game as the vessel of the evil power). The reality ends somewhere around there and I start to doubt crazed islanders, human sacrifices, and supernatural forces that control weather. Or that’s my take.

Additionally, a good part of the story is related via journals Lara finds around the island. Through these occasional finds, you slowly learn more about her crewmates, the islanders, and past inhabitants. It’s a great story-telling device and done exceptionally well.

So the story on whole passes muster and does better than most adventure games. The writing is high quality and reasonably deep, allowing the player to suspend a bit of disbelief and enjoy a rollicking romp around a tomb-festooned island with Lara.

Gameplay

Billed as an adventure game, Tomb Raider largely unfolds as a third person stealth game with an over-the-shoulder first person shooter vibe tossed in during fire fights.  RPG elements of leveling up are introduced through both experience points and loot-scavenging, but they play a back seat to the modest puzzle solving and open world exploration.

imageFor the majority of time discovering the various parts of the island, Lara moves well and convincingly interacts with her surroundings. A couple of times I’d find that my progress would be blocked by modest roots in the forest or I hadn’t apparently completely cleared a tree bole to round it; but, in the shanty town and temple environments, she moved without a hitch. In those spaces when not sneaking, she’d largely rely on a gameplay strongly reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, but it lacked in some of the polish to bring it to the same level. Still, it’s a mostly solid execution and the moves are both believable and fun.

While sneaking, the game helps the player by auto-arming Lara just before bad guys appear, allowing you to move freely until that time happens. It’s at these times Lara will also auto-sneak and crouch when next to low walls or other environmental detritus. While I liked the game auto-arming my Lara, I was disappointed at not being able to control the crouch-and-sneak move. Admittedly both auto- mechanics were driven by the same factors, not being able to crouch when I wanted to stole a bit of control from me (the player) and removed me a bit from the immersive world. I constantly found myself depressing my left thumbstick (without success and for no apparent reason) in an attempt to cause Lara to hide during appropriately tense moments!

When Lara was successful at sneaking into position behind a bad guy, you’d get a prompt for a button to push for an execute move. Depending on how you’d leveled Lara you’d either get a quick auto-finish or you may have to hit a timed button mash to complete the sequence; failure to finish would either give you a second chance during a melee skirmish or you may be thrown to your death or finished off in some other gruesome way.

And, even when playing on “easy”, I died a fair share. Thankfully the game seems to understand when tricky challenges approached and saved the game just before that area, keeping you from ever having to repeat much in the way of the story. And an additional nod to the game engineers, after you die, the game loads very quickly, getting you right back into play to see if you can remember just how to avoid a repeat demise.

As noted, you have two ways to level up your Lara while exploring the island: through experience and through scavenged material. Experience is rewarded for just about everything: hunting and skinning animals, uncovering new areas on the map, completing tomb raids, and fighting through the enemy hordes. For each accomplishment you get a modest 10XP, 15XP, or sometimes larger boosts (for completing major parts to the story or completing a tomb raid), which are then applied toward moving you to the next level. The game does a nice job of underplaying the role of your “level” and internally tracks how far along you are without making it a central focus of the game. It’s also reasonably generous for the average tomb raider and by the game’s end, I’d leveled up enough to have one of my skills maxed and others well on their way to completion. This helps to ensure the player cares about a continued progression and enjoys using this feature.

While moving around the environs, you will find crates you can break open and loot, netted caches you can burn open, lockers to unjam, and downed enemies you can search; all of these allot modest amounts of “scavenged material” which accrues in your backlog. As with experience, the scavenged loot will build up until you find a campsite, whereat you can then decide on how to invest in spending that booty.

imageLara will eventually kit herself out with a climbing axe, pistol, rifle, shotgun, and a trusty bow; each weapon can be upgraded to improve its performance. While many aspects are improved purely with an appropriate payout of scavenged loot, some items require that you find a completing part in the environment: such as enough rifle parts to improve that weapon to a more deadly class of rifle. As with experience, there are so many opportunities to find loot that you can constantly move the needle of progress forward and will look forward to finding that next campsite so you can upgrade your guns just a bit more.

A final mechanism provided to the player is Lara’s Survival Instinct. By engaging this feature (which can be done at nearly anytime and as often as a player wishes), specific features in the environment will light up, giving cues to puzzle solving, negotiating the environment, or for finding collectibles hidden about. While I initially considered using this feature as a bit of a “cheat”, through playing the game I realized it was intended that the player leverage this tool early and often. For example, by triggering the Survival Instinct while overlooking an area, you might be told your map has been upgraded to include the locations of a new tomb to explore.

While Survival Instinct is helpful, it’s by no means a sure thing. While most puzzles were modestly challenging at best, one in particular drove me to the Internet to figure out how to solve it. Yup, I was on the right track and Survival Instinct confirmed I was using the right parts, but my timing was off. In this one puzzle, you turn a crank to close shutters on a window through which a strong gale blows; after this, you can raise a hanging platform via another crank. Once completed, you can jump to the platform as the shutters blow open and toss the platform high enough so you can then leap to a beam. If (when?) you fail, the hanging platform will settle back down and you’re left having jumped short of the beam, only to try again.

I failed over a dozen times and, in the end, found that if I turned the crank on raising the hanging platform too soon after closing the shutter, it would never blow high enough to ensure I could make the subsequent leap. So, I found that success meant closing the shutters, running to the platform crank and waiting an additional two seconds, then cranking it up, jumping to it, and only then did that platform blow high enough that I could make the leap to the beam. Why waiting a couple extra seconds mattered is a mystery I’ll need Lara to uncover at some later time because to me, it’s without explanation or sense.

In spite of the stray root blocking progress or puzzle that was too hard (for me!), the game gave me probably 20 hours of very enjoyable gaming. It mixed open world exploration (I realized I forgot to mention the zip-line travel which was a hoot!), stealthy fighting, rewards to improve my Lara and her gear, and tomb puzzle solving: a great mix that had me forgetting about achievements and getting into playing. And that means Tomb Raider did many things right.

imagePresentation \ Design

Tomb Raider is tremendously successful in creating a world of seamless transition between jungle, WWII era industrial, shanty town and shipwreck locales. All are beautifully rich, textured, and appear unique as you move about. While open-world usually means fade-in as scenery pops into focus as you approach, Tomb Raider avoids a lot of that by having reasonably constrained areas attached by minor tunnels, by encouraging the player to stealthily move about (where this sort of thing is less obvious), or by having the player move about during nighttime scenes (which minimizes all detail). It’s a nice job of keeping the player in-world and immersed in the gameplay.

While the worlds are beautiful, Lara gets the tar kicked out of her.

Starting the game in a grey top and brown pants, Lara’s clothing shows the wear and tear of her adventures as she’s muddied, clothing is modestly rent, and blood stains are near-literally worn on her sleeve! It was a seldom scene which showed Lara’s face that I didn’t think, “man, she needs a shower!” (see the picture at the start of this post).

The one design element that failed to meet the bar was the enemy AI. It could have been as I was playing on “easy”, but there were some stupid foes putting up a fight against my Lara. Repetitive movements into and out of cover, failure to flank and pin me down, and static entrance patterns into the scene made it fairly easy to exploit some of these baddies for an easy win. While I expect that my Lara would give less and take more damage in fights based on the difficulty level I chose, I think the problems I saw would be persistent across all gameplays.

Overall, the world is largely believable and made my time on the island immersive.

Achievements

imageimageOne of the “rules of achievements” I heard from someone many years ago is that the good game gives a player an achievement within 5 minutes of starting the game. Sort of a way to keep that fish nibbling the bait. In that way, Tomb Raider fails, as it was my second session with the game before the first one popped for me! That said, I very much like how the game continually doled out the achievement rewards: three on Thursday, seven on Saturday, and 11 by the end of game on Sunday. After that, I played a half hour of running about and picked up two more. And while I apologize for mixing metaphors, that’s the carrot on the stick that I like … a steady popping of achievements as I complete the game.

In all, there are far more collectible achievements for this game than I usually like, but the items you’re collecting make it an interesting foray. While there’s a throw-away bunch of ancient artifacts (vases, fans, coins, masks, etc.), many come with entertaining dialog from Lara as you look over the items uncovered and if you don’t learn a little, you’re likely just not interested or listening. More interesting finds include diaries or treasure maps and GPS locators that assist in finding additional tombs or other interesting caches.

There’s a good balance in the achievements that make Tomb Raider fun to play through and additionally fun to continue playing after the game ends. By breaking up the map into areas, each of which has a set of known items to explore and find, the daunting task of completing the achievements is minimized. I’d give the achievements a B+.

Coda

There are some aspects to Tomb Raider I haven’t touched on (multiplayer gameplay, I’m looking at you), but I’m a single-player at heart and there was quite a bit here for me to enjoy in this game. While I might enjoy Far Cry 3 for stealth a bit more or Assassin’s Creed for parkour-style exploring, this game had an engaging story, a likable protagonist, an immersive world, and enough polish in many ways to keep me interested in coming back to the controller.

Let’s call this one an A- and a hearty recommendation. And now, if you don’t mind, I need to get back to Yamatai and find another tomb to raid with Lara!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: