What Tomb Raider gets wrong

tomb-raider

Now rendered entirely in orange and blue for that authentic Hollywood look.

Actually, Tomb Raider — by which I mean the new one, which I co-reviewed yesterday 1 — gets several things wrong, most of which I’ve already touched on both in that review and in the lookback I published last month. But here were are at 2-Dimensions.com, where I bang on endlessly about game design. So let’s look at what Tomb Raider gets wrong in the Anatomy of a Game sense.

The answer, actually, is quite simple: It compromises mechanical consistency and reliability in favor of visual immersion.

The original Tomb Raider takes a lot of flack for its dated feel; and really, why shouldn’t it? It was the work of people groping their way blindly into 3D game design, so some crustiness is to be expected. For all that it has grown musty and awkward in hindsight, though, the PlayStation (and Saturn, and PC) original did one thing right: It put its game mechanics first. This is something people often mock and complain about, because part of this design involved Lara Croft using tank-style controls and moving around within something of restrictive layout grid. Yet while that chunky approach to navigation may have felt less immersive or natural than people expect from contemporary software, it ensured the game played well.

When you controlled Lara in the original Tomb Raider, you could predict exactly how she’d move. If you had to make a tricky running jump, you knew to sidle up to the edge of a ledge, take a couple of steps backward, run forward and press jump after exactly x number of steps. Every action Lara took worked on similar principles, leaving no ambiguity about her adventures. The game world matched this level of predictability with interactive components whose nature you could deduce at a glance: If you could climb a wall or sidle along a ledge, you knew it simply by looking at it.

It wasn’t an elegant approach, but it was perfectly practical. But that style of design has slowly faded from the series under Crystal Dynamics’ stewardship; they’ve pushed Lara’s adventures more toward real-world visual verisimilitude and further away from an emphasis on pragmatic game mechanics. Again, some of that is to be expected — the original Tomb Raider‘s gridded precision made sense in the low-poly environments of the original, where everything consisted of boxy shapes and intersected at hard angles. Movement on a grid doesn’t make much sense when everything is rounded and natural-looking. Still, I can’t help but feel classic Tomb Raider‘s underlying philosophy didn’t have to be thrown out with the bathwater, and its absence from the latest entry in the series speaks to a fundamental change in the purpose of the game.

For all that people dump on the old games for whatever reason, at their heart those early adventures — at least the first two, and arguably a few after that — were about exploration and puzzle-solving. They were, at least relative to contemporary action games, fairly cerebral. The mere thought of expecting players to think for themselves has long since become box office poison to purveyors of big-budget action games by necessity; if your game makes players feel like they’re not hyper-skilled geniuses, they might not like it, and then how will you make back your big budget?

God knows Tomb Raider on PS1 wasn’t exactly Mensa material, but the hidden tombs of the latest game really show how low the bar for player agency has become. Presented as intricate and complex side adventures, in reality the bonus tombs each consist of little more than a single puzzle that requires you to apply basic game mechanics in a slightly more complex fashion than the designers dare to expect of you along the critical path. Any seasoned fan of the series can walk into these “challenging” bonus areas and deduce the solution at a glance… and just in case you take more than about two minutes to complete the task at hand, you get an on-screen prompt telling you to use Lara’s Detective Vision 2 to show you the solution. The message is clear: Please don’t hate this video game. You’re super-duper smart!!

The hidden tombs in Tomb Raider are practically identical in scope to the random puzzle caverns in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Of course, the difference there is that the caverns in that game are littered throughout the overworld and aren’t presented as any big deal — just another way to earn an extra hundred rupees by figuring out an advanced application of your tools. Here, they’re presented with such fanfare as to come off as some sort of misaimed attempt to appease old fans, which is like Paul and Ringo wheezing their way through a couple of ’60s standards and calling it a long-awaited Beatles reunion.

“Are you not entertained!?” crow the producers. “Meh,” reply the fans, turning back to Dark Souls or whatever other rare creature they can find that taps into their primal urge to absorb themselves in a demanding game world. The producers shrug in turn and look at financials and calculate ways they can tap into a much larger audience than that grumpy handful of legacy fans, who don’t represent enough of a demographic to justify triple-A budgets. “Skyrim is the answer,” they smile to themselves, blithely unaware that the “it plays like Skyrim!” schtick they’re about to start peddling for the upcoming sequel is as worn out after last year’s E3 showing — all open-world, all the time! — as the “it plays like Uncharted!” line they presented for the last Tomb Raider was after E3 2011.

Of course, Crystal Dynamics already had the solution to the Tomb Raider playability conundrum in their grasp: They solved it perfectly with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, which updated the mechanics and layouts of the 32-bit original to feel more contemporary. For whatever reason, though, they threw all that out in favor of a game where the environments are so unintuitively designed that they had to highlight the interactive bits, where eyeballing viable jumps is so unreliable that checkpoints dot the landscape to compensate for your inevitable failures, where the game explicitly counts the numbers of tombs raided 3 despite the fact that said tombs are so slight (and the “hidden” areas literally pointed out with arrows painted all over the environment screaming, “HEY! SECRET HERE!”) that the puzzles within would barely constitute an insignificant middle-of-the-level room in the older games. But at least the leveling system gives you fine control over how personally and bloodily you can murder several hundred people while trying to rescue the princess (or reincarnation of the Sun Queen, same diff), right? And the ouroboros continues to choke on its own tail.

For all that, there are parts of the new Tomb Raider I enjoy. In terms of beloved franchises having their corpses desecrated, this ranks as little more than someone enjoying a picnic on its grave compared to the indignities inflicted on certain other classic series. But man, talk about a games industry trend I could live without. What’s so shameful about a game you play rather than simply experience?

1 For the record, the secondary reviewer has no impact on the score; that’s entirely the main reviewer’s call.

2 Detective Vision courtesy of Batman: Arkham Asylum, published 2009 Eidos Interactive/Square Enix.

3 “It’s like some kind of… star trek.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , .

26 Responses