Tuesday, 25 December 2012

From Groundbreaking to Trend Following

Having been playing it recently on my PlayStation Vita, (a great piece of hardware but it's a shame about the sales), I want to talk about one of the biggest games of the 90s both in terms of quality and in regards to the immense popularity it garnered back then, Tomb Raider.

The box art for the first Tomb Raider game which first released in November 1996
The game was a huge phenomenon back then because of it's unique gameplay. Today, many see it as clunky and unresponsive but at the time it was fresh because 3D games were still in their infancy. Playing it today for me is still a very enjoyable experience. Yeah, the controls are heavy and archaic but they are consistent and any mistakes made are the player's fault and not anything to do with bugs or glitches unlike many games today. 

Tomb Raider was an unforgiving game. Any small mistake could lead to failure and losing quite a bit of progress due to the save crystal system the game used, unless you were playing on the PC then you could save anywhere but even that has it's risks. You had to think carefully about each jump and trap, making the game more tense and/or frustrating depending on the outcome of the attempt at the jump or whatever the game threw at you. The game's combat isn't very good, it wasn't back in 1996 either but that was never the focus of the game. Anyway, it made things more interesting and increased the tension due to the rubbishness.

The focus of Tomb Raider was always the levels. These levels which had big, overlapping puzzles and many opportunities to explore the landscape and discover every nook and cranny. Wonderful. No hand-holding either with the puzzles. These days, many games have glowing icons or objects, showing you what can be interacted with. That's fine but it isn't very challenging or fun, well to me anyway. 

It can't be understated how much I love this game. I'd love to see a new game in the vein of the original with excellent puzzles and lots of exploring and challenges. Sadly, it's increasingly looking like that will never happen. I'm talking about the reboot of Tomb Raider.

Box art for the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. HNNNNNNG.

When first announced, Crystal Dynamics, who replaced series creators Core Design (who have since gone defunct) after the mess that was Angel of Darkness back in 2004, wanted to redefine the series and take it in a new direction. Initially, that was interesting since they focused on survival and being lost on a deserted island off the coast of Japan. It sounded a bit like Metal Gear Solid 3 from what they were saying. Not classic Tomb Raider but it's a quality game and could work well if done right. However, after a long silence there has been a deluge of information but nothing shown sounds like nothing Crystal Dynamics said previously.

For a start off, for a so-called survival game, the game has regenerating health. No medipacks or anything. Just hide in cover for a few seconds and all wounds are healed. A popular feature of modern games which feels out of place in a Tomb Raider. Another thing out of place in a Tomb Raider is the excessive gore and violence. I know Tomb Raider has guns and Lara killing but in this manner, especially when this new Lara is made out to be inexperienced and vulnerable, yet can kill in cold blood like a seasoned veteran.

In this video, you see Lara kill some enemies in brutal fashion which completely goes against the theme that Crystal Dynamics were trying to portray. They are complete opposites and conflict with each other immensely. I know she is in danger but she looks so calculated and those finishers just top it off.

The Magical Shape-shifting Bow/Pickaxe combo...

Another feature brought over is the upgrade system found in RPGs and online First Person Shooters. This allows people to unlock abilities or useless stuff like cosmetic crap other ways to kill people. I'm not sure where this belongs in Tomb Raider. It seems like it's there to keep the OCD gamer who likes to unlock useless nonsense to keep them engaged because the gameplay itself is so drab and boring. 
Blow something up, earn some XP!!!!!!!1

Which brings me on the next point. The levels. In the original like I explained, the levels were the star of the show. In this new game, the focus is shifted on Lara and her growth as a character. The problem with this is that no one cares about Lara as a character. If you ask people who are aware of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider, pretty much no one will say Lara is best known for her personality. Why Crystal Dynamics insist on this, they tried it before deciding the reboot the franchise, is a mystery. A result of this is the increase in confrontation, the combat. This is one area where the reboot should beat the original to a pulp thanks to better technology. However, like Lara's character, this was never important and just served as a break from all of the puzzles. 

With this new-found emphasis on killing things to death, the challenging levels have been simply discarded, replaced by linear pathways which link the combat engagements together, as well as the 'cinematic set pieces'. Another one of those things brought in current gaming trends, used commonly in games such as Call of Duty and of course Uncharted, once referred to as 'Dude Raider', despite Uncharted and Tomb Raider not sharing very much in common... until now it seems. Uncharted has always focused on the characters and narrative instead of challenging gameplay but it works in that because the characters are interesting and have a good chemistry. The only thing Uncharted and the original Tomb Raider have in common  is having a globe-trotting protagonist who go in search of an ancient artifact. Both have similar influences, Indiana Jones being one, but ultimately take that influence and go in different directions. However, Tomb Raider seems to be going in that direction now with the highlighted pathways and objects as well as increasing emphasis on combat and story. I Think these two pictures show it well:

Says it all.

I like Uncharted, it's my favourite new game series from this console generation but that doesn't mean that I want every game to be just like it. Especially not Tomb Raider but I guess I must be in the minority because Square-Enix and Crystal Dynamics must think I do. It's as if there's a checklist for every popular feature in some of the most popular games and every one had to be ticked, including a Detective-like mode where objects and pathways glow to show where to go, as seen in the Batman Arkham games and Multiplayer. 

Yes, multiplayer in a Tomb Raider game. Not officially confirmed but it's as good as confirmed because GAME put up a description on their product page for it for then to remove it hours later. Luckily someone screengrabbed it because I didn't.

I may be overreacting but the game so far looks to be one of the most cynical, uninspiring and creatively bankrupt game I have seen in some time. Since they've got all of these features they might as well go the whole way and shove in some multiplayer which will be forgotten about a few weeks after launch most likely. The game has its fans but so does everything no matter how terrible and this looks to be no exception. Most of the people interested have no prior experience with the franchise and don't care about it's history and what it was about. Some Tomb Raider fans support it too but they're the type who'll buy anything with the name Tomb Raider on it. 

Many fans, myself included, are immensely disappointed with the direction of this game. It's not what I want in a Tomb Raider game and I hope this games fails. That might sound harsh, given the number of people at Crystal Dynamics and Square-Enix who have dedicated lots of time and effort into it but there has to be a point where you have to say that it didn't work and it's not what is right for the series. Maybe a break is what's best. After a short while someone else takes the franchise and takes it back in the direction of the original Core Design games but makes them for the current day with little compromise. One can dream. 

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