March 26, 2015

That's A Wrap: Tomb Raider

warning: may contain spoilers

Okay. Here goes. Probably my most controversial blog to date. A game I'd put off for far too long, and then continued to put off because I was... put off. I procrastinated so hard for Tomb Raider, that even when PS+ gave it away for free, it was still months before I touched it, and honestly, I could've waited longer. Let me take this time to say that fans of this game are probably going to have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye with me on this one, so if you're sensitive to negative criticism, you may want to leave now.

Tomb Raider is Crystal Dynamics' shiny new entry to the long popular series, and I'll be honest: it's been a while since I've played a Tomb Raider game. In fact, the last one I can recall, I played on PC - and I haven't done that in ages... nope. Can't remember which one. This pretty edition was released in 2013 for PS3 and Xbox360 (as well as PC) and has since been remastered for PS4 and Xbox One, too. I'll admit that I was excited to see TR treated to a new installment, and everyone's seemingly unanimous, positive response to it only added to my expectations. I signed up for a really great game. What I got? Well…

From my first foray: I'm 5 minutes in and Lara has already been but through more than most holocaust survivors… jeez. How does anyone survive that many falls? The game is really setting itself up to be a serious, no-funny-business game, unlike Tomb Raider's frequent in-genre competitor Uncharted, which, F.Y.I., I love. A lot. Even the menu is very modern and action-y, which sets the stage nicely and accurately.
After an hour of play, I've concluded that this isn't a game for passive players. You need to be on your toes at all times; combat is not the most fun component (yet?) and exploring still feels a bit rough and unmastered. It's curious that I feel right at home with Uncharted, but with TR, I feel like I'm starting from scratch. Not off to a great start.



It was all downhill from there. But let's not get ahead of ourselves; credit where credit's due. This is one beautiful fucking game. As I mentioned in my "first impression," the game has a very certain action look about it, from menus to maps and the general setting. Some aspects and textures seem to be taking their sweet time to load, but once they do they're quite nice, if flat. At times, I found myself troubled by the lack of differentiation in some areas, and couldn't comfortably navigate due to poorly handled environment effects and color pallets. Generally speaking, the graphics are sharp and grainy on my new jumbo television. Beyond that though, I was no stranger to stopping to have a look around.
Of course, our star also got a bit of a makeover this time 'round. Cosplayers everywhere seemed to go apeshit over the prospects of "re-cosplaying" as Lara Croft, but I don't understand their enthusiasm. Lara's outfit is largely identical to her past incarnations, save for perhaps smaller boobs, longer pants and a lack of a magic backpack. Regardless, Lara looks good! She gets a little more beat up as the game goes on which helps you sympathize with her, and is a nice effect. I also wanna chime in for a second here regarding the updated version of this game for the new consoles. Even though I don't have a PS4 yet, I came across this comparison image online and I gotta say, I'm bloody impressed.

The sound in this game falls into no-man's-land for me. It's not especially impressive or memorable, but it isn't terrible or detrimental, either. Can't say I'm a fan of that combat tune.
The effects are loud and shocking, which is to be expected in an action game. I think where TR's sound department really shines is actually the environment sounds. I recently bought myself a sexy new gaming chair with wireless surround transmission and accompanying rumble effects and I gotta tell you, when there is a storm in this game, there is a storm in my room. When there's wind in this game, I hunch over to avoid it cutting across my ears. When someone talks, I try to duck and figure out where they are. This game actually succeeds in feeling eerie or suspenseful sometimes, largely due to its sound. It adds a great deal of desire to the game. I can't say I have any strong opinions about the voice acting or cast either, they blend in nicely with the otherwise plateaued soundtrack.

The plot begins rather benign, Lara and her crew are on route to the Dragon's Triangle - which bares striking reputation to the very real Bermuda Triangle - in hopes of uncovering the lost land of Yamatai, once ruled by the mythical goddess Himiko. Sounds like an ordinary thing for explorers/archeologists to do, right? But of course, it's never that simple, and Lara's ship is caught in an unearthly storm and the crew barely survives, taking refuge on the nearby island. There, Lara discovers that she and her crew are not the only ones there, past or present. You then spend the better part of the game surviving your adversaries while uncovering both random artifacts and Himiko's legend. The shine of this plot wares off extremely quick, feels like it drags on and never seems to come full circle. It's basically one, long "how can anyone possibly have luck this poor?" story, casually integrating Lara's forgettable team into the flat fable to try to convince you that it's relevant. The game fails to invest my interest in the story or any of the characters, who are kind of tricky to keep track of.

In addition to Lara Croft, our famous protagonist - more girly and amateur than in past games - you meet her curious crew: Sam, the chatty friend; Whitman, the annoying tv personality; Roth, the tough guy; Reyes, the stone lady; Alex, a nerd; Jonah, the big guy; Grim; the comic foreigner; and then Matthias, the bad guy; his lackies; and a bunch of angry storm guards. I literally had to google these names because these people are so boring that I forgot most of them and couldn't remember the names of the rest. There are so many undeveloped characters in this cast that it's actually frustrating.

And that brings us to the part where Tomb Raider really lost me: gameplay and combat. For a long while, I found the gameplay confusing and overwhelming. I expected to adjust to it, and warm up to it, but I never did. For starters, the way Lara moves, while somewhat realistic considering the situation, is dodgy and difficult. She's a total spazz! For no discernible reason at all, my jumps would frequently miss and Lara would straight up fall off cliffs instead of grabbing the ledge as I would dictate. There were instances where I couldn't tell how I was even controlling Lara. At first I had thought sixaxis, but that didn't work out either. Every time I'd load the file, I'd find myself completely outraged for a few moments over how ridiculous the controls were.
I don't like the camera in this game either! Regardless of my settings, it was over exaggerated and unreliable. The game sometimes disables the camera altogether to introduce awkward angles and just really leaves something to be desired in the controls department.
The use of terrible QTEs means I spend less time exploring and enjoying the game design and more time panicking about how it's going to screw me over - I'm admittedly not really great with QTEs, but even when I knew what to expect it would often take me several tries to succeed. It made virtually every area of the game feel repetitive and frustrating for me. Thankfully, the use of these annoyances spreads out over time, and became a less noticeable fault, but the game really bombards you with them in the beginning.
So when you're not having much fun, even the game's beautifully crafted environments begin to feel laborious, and then the game adds insult to injury by distracting you with environmental effects like water on the camera lens, in addition to darkness, fog and fire you're already having difficulty with. Sometimes the design in general is what makes the game so awful. There's one area in particular that I know is the bane of everyone's existence, it's a slip-n-slide segment where Lara has to avoid being impaled through the neck by dodging obstacles and blowing up obstructions. The issue, of course, is that you're moving very quickly and can't see anybloodything. All of the image just blurs together in a mush of rock, water and fog and makes getting through this section based largely on dumb luck. The game will go into slo-mo to try and help you but it ends up just throwing off your groove.
There isn't much of anything on your basic screen. Notifications will pop up as you collect salvage or ammo, experience and skill points, as well as tidbits of info like your next objective or when you unlock out-of-game content, but they quickly disappear so you can enjoy the beautiful backgrounds instead. If you use the game's special "instinct" mode, the screen will go completely black and white except for points of interest, which will be lit up in either blue (if you designate yourself) or yellow. You can use these markers to help you find your way. It feels like a bit of a cop-out, but when you get to the point of frustration that I did, you throw the book out the window and just follow these babies.

I don't know guys. I mean it's not all bad. The game introduces a lot of would-be fun gameplay aspects, too. If you're willing to overlook the repetitive respawning of enemies (there should seriously be a pile of wolves just there…) and other annoyances, you can spend your time exploring the ruins, finding treasure maps which lead you to not only historic items but journal entires left by your crew and opponents; ACTUALLY RAIDING TOMBS, which adds a bit of puzzle to the game; you're also meant to salvage the goods found in various boxes, nets and crates so you can update your weapons, and you can update Lara, too, with skill points acquired after completing tasks. A little into the game, you'll unlock the ability to warp back to previously visited places so you can continue excavating the area and completing maps you may not have had the correct abilities to conquer before. There are innumerable sidequests in mini-game formats, like shooting or lighting lamps, burning banners and other likeminded assignments. The game helps you keep track of your progress in an area with a tap of your select button.
There, it will list all the items and quests available and your progress in them. If I were enjoying myself, these gameplay exercises would keep me happy for hours! Sadly I found the repetitions, inhibitions and navigation issues ruining this experience for me, and eventually gave up on completing these components. Of course, this all insists on a lot of jumping, climbing and other activities you learn along the way - like creating rope bridges - which would also be fun if the controls were sharper and you weren't constantly interrupted by baddies.
Another area that received a bit of criticism from others was the game's numerous paths, tunnels, and caves, which seemed to make the game quite linear. Don't be fooled by these, they are a very small portion of a very large map, and as my pal Buried On Mars eloquently pointed out… how many load screens did you see in this game? Basically none. These tunnels are the replacements; they keep you busy while the next chunk of the game loads. A brilliant idea from Crystal Dynamics!

When you discover and/or return to camp - and there are two types: base and day camp, the only difference being the ability to warp - you're offered the opportunity to upgrade your skills as a hunter, survivor or brawler. Essentially, hunter upgrades improve Lara in combat, things like ammo capacity, steadiness and weapons expertise; survivor increases your skills in environment, such as looting and climbing; brawler skills improve your offensive a bit with skills like blinding enemies and making weapons out of things that are not usually weapons. Most of these are pretty straight forward (when you're playing the game, anyway) and it's up to the player to decide which rewards count most.
The game introduces new mandatory upgrades and tactics at a good pace, too. You'll slowly acquire rope and a lighter to make your bow a lot more interesting; you get the climbing axe, a grenade launcher and a reverse climby ropey… thing. This is one of the few accents of the game that is paced very well and doesn't overwhelm you.

The only other screen you need to know about is the one that pops up when you pause.
It's pretty straight forward. From here you can access your game options, go back and redo a bit, or just leave it there and go pee.

Combat was, hands down, the worst part of this game for me. Combat scenarios would pop up all over the place and sometimes out of the blue. Luckily, Lara will do you the honor of automatically arming herself when combat scenarios form. TR employs the same mechanic as Uncharted in that there is no health bar. Instead, the screen is drained of color, save for some red, as you inch closer to death. On the plus side, deaths are particularly gory and gruesome! The screen remains mostly clear during combat, save for your "crosshairs," which will turn red when you've got a catch, and an ammo update in the top right corner.
For me, basically every battle required multiple tries. I was either too slow, overwhelmed by baddies, or unable to concentrate. The games does offer you a couple of different ways to take out your targets but I never noticed any of them until after the fight. These guys are relentless in your pursuit and don't give you any chance at all to think. The design would suggest you're supposed to take cover and plan, like in Uncharted, but the cover does jack shit when you're being hunted. The baddies will almost always come after you or burn you out with grenades or molotov cocktails. This means combat is usually a run-and-gun situation which - when mixed with goofy controls - is a nightmare. I found headshots somewhat difficult to get, and otherwise the guys would require 80 million bullets and a blow to the head with my axe before they'd die. And of course, as the game goes on, the enemies get tougher, arm themselves with shields and turrets, and Lara decides to be a cheesy, B-movie, wannabe badass and the whole thing just goes to hell.
But let's put my bias aside for a moment at look at the mechanics of combat. As I said, Lara will automatically whip out whatever weapon she's got, which is often the bow by default. Once you have the bow, you're introduced to the stealth aspect of the game, as you can take people down with the cheap weapon. You'll have to sneak up to your target and follow the prompts to kill them. Of course, sometimes there are just too many guys around and even if you succeed, you're immediately uncovered and the shootout begins. This makes the stealth inclusion of the game unreliable at best, and while it's really quite fun, you can't hope to get by on it.
The bow itself evolves from the most useless piece of shit ever into a moderately impressive item, but you eventually gather other weapons as well. In order: hand guns, a rifle, you have no idea how happy I was to see the shotgun, and lastly you can master a skill which allows you to use your axe as a weapon, too. For the formers, you'll aim with L1 and line it up with the left stick. Pressing R3 gives you a zoom where applicable. Fire with R1. With the bow, you'll need to hold R1 to draw the arrow back, and preferably fire once it's fully cocked. Don't wait too long, though, or it'll snap. You can use the bow many different ways in the mid-to-late game, in that you'll have rope which allows you to tear down platforms your enemies stand on, among other things. Until then, you can cleverly use arrows to create distractions by pinging them off walls.
For the guns, shooter skills are a must. Apparently when you flick the game to easy mode it helps you out, but on normal mode there is no aiming help. This means crafting your settings is super important 'cause that camera likes to fly. I really didn't enjoy any part of the shooter aspect until I got my shotty, which is sad. I mean, I love those facking things and a shotty makes ANY game better, but I don't like feeling like it's the only way to get through tricky situations. I felt like the shotgun was the only thing that made this game bearable, and why I managed to finish it. Your shotgun is also used to blow up barricades and other obstructions, but you won't usually have to do this during combat.
As mentioned before, you can upgrade these weapons throughout the game, making them more stable and Lara more capable. Sometimes you'll even find designated parts to do massive upgrades to the weapons, like bringing them into this century. Also, some weapons eventually give way to multiple ammo types. To switch, you just have to push the weapons "wheel" in the direction of the weapon in question an additionally time. For example, to switch to fire arrows, you'd just push "up" after equipping the bow and silent arrows.

I expect a lot of you are reading this and thinking, "well, you're just not good at shooters" or "you're just complaining about the difficulty of the game." To which I say this: No, I am not good at shooters. I don't like them so I don't play them, consequently my skills are rubbish. You're right about that. But to me, a well designed action game helps a player learn and adapt to the game's shooting style. There should be some strategy and tactics that make the weapons fun to play with. I've become comfortable with loads of action games in the past UnchartedUnchartedUncharted regardless of their shooter components. The fact that TR failed to help me love it continues to prove my case that this is simply a less than stellar game. And the difficulty? Obviously when the controls aren't there, the difficulty shoots right the hell up, but normally - with a little perseverance and practice - I can master an action game within reasonable difficulty. For giggles, I even threw TR on easy mode, just to see if it helped, but I ended up feeling like I was missing something because of it. In easy mode, the the only real change is in combat. You're still battered in heat-seeking enemies, but they seem to take longer to load their weapons. The biggest change that I noticed was the auto-aim addition. In easy mode, pressing the aim button usually puts you right in the vicinity of the bad guy, instead of leaving you to it. This is helpful for killing guys one-by-one but not good if you like to use the surroundings (fuel barrels or roped platforms) to end the fight quickly.

There is one last gameplay aspect I should mention, but for obvious reasons I know nothing about it:
online multiplayer. I dislike online play to begin with and I wasn't about to subject myself to that bullshit for this game, but from what I can gather, online gameplay consists of the typical "two teams kill each other" games, either straight up team vs. team or with some sort of cat-and-mouse style rules...
… no thanks.

Regarding the controller, this is one busy control map, people:
Your left stick moves Lara; and the right is your camera; L1 is aim, while R1 is fire, except in the case of rope arrows in which you'll want to use R2; L2 is your unique "instinct" button, which lights up nearby points of interest to help you reach your destination (in yellow). If you've marked a specific point on your map, it will also pop in "instinct" but in blue. If you push down the left stick (L3) while in combat, Lara will perform a "shoulder switch" for the weapon in question; R3 will zoom in while you're aiming. All four right-side buttons are game for QTE's, but otherwise X is your button for jumping; it'll ask you to press square to execute most actions or investigate an item (collect loot, light fire, open a crate) but the button is also mandatory for climbing rock walls. Circle is usually only used in combat, for scrambling and dodging; triangle, when applicable will perform an axe attack or counter. Select brings up the map screen seen earlier, and start will pause the game and give you the outside options. Even the D-pad is employed in TR, it acts as your weapons wheel, where up=bow; down=hand gun; left=shotty; right=old ass rifle.

The game offers you easy, normal and hard modes. Obviously for me there was little comfort to be found in this. I played on easy and normal modes, and found the separation between the two unsatisfying. For me the true difficulty lies in the mechanics rather than the puzzles and combat. If you've quick hands and a less picky mind, you should have no trouble with normal mode. If you're new to action/shooters or as finicky as myself, steer clear of this title altogether.

For whatever it's worth, I can't make heads or tails of time in this game. My first chunk of play felt like maybe 45 minutes of work, so I was super surprised to learn that I'd actually clocked 3 hours and change.  After that, I was unable to keep track, since I played it over so many months and in such short plays. I simply wasn't motivated to complete it. This didn't help the experience much because every time I'd return to the game, I'd have to relearn the controls and remember the task at hand. Ultimately, I have no idea how long it took me to complete the game. The game seems to be missing a play clock.
In the end, it took a lot for me to muster the energy to play Tomb Raider. I simply never wanted to, and never experienced that "I cant wait to get back to playing this" feeling that I get with other games, like
Uncharted. In fact it's really puzzling to me that people compare these games so closely (thus the many comparisons throughout this reflection). On the surface, yes, I see the correlations: action, shooting, exploring, climbing, heath color, blah blah blah. But I certainly don't feel the same playing these games. I was disappointed that I never got to experience what all the fuss was about. I really wanted to love the game as much as everyone else but for me, TR is a blurry, dragged-out memory of frustration, too many QTE's, and unenjoyable combat mechanics. I just didn't have fun. I actually had to call in the help of others to finish it, and my only motivation for that was determination and visual-based. I kept waiting for it to pick up and suck me in like it did everyone else. But watching others play only confirmed my suspicions: the best way to play this game is to just blast through it. Forget the tombs, never mind the exploring and the items and the trophies. Get XP, salvage and upgrade, and bustle on through. When playing myself I found I had to play in increasingly shorter bursts, as I'd get so bored and just not enjoy anything. Even when the gameplay did pick up towards the end, I found I was being drowned in endless combat and the story was being spread so thin that it became predictable and disappointing. It doesn't take advantage of its potential at all.
Basically: unless you hate everything I love, and love everything I hate, don't play this game. For those of you that did love the game, you can look forward to Rise of the Tomb Raider later this year! But I think I'll be passing on that one, and I don't intend to pick up Tomb Raider again any time soon.

LOTIPS
  • Upgrades. Don't be a hero. You need them. You need to unlock certain upgrades before you gain access to others or get new ones, so get on it.
  • Don't conserve ammo. You shouldn't really struggle to find it. Embrace the shotty.
  • Getting the full story means not shooting the chatty people until they're finished their yammering.


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