Friday, November 21, 2008

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Yesterday I played through the Tomb Raider: Underworld demo for the PC one and three-quarters times, and I thought I’d post some thoughts on it. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of reviews of the actual game posted in the next couple of days, but I’m not a reviewer and in any case, gleaning useful information from the miasma of ad-supported, score-bound reviews is like … well, trying to glean anything useful from anything that can be described with the word “miasma.”

The hour or so I spent with the TRU demo (edit: somewhat more time today) was the longest amount of time I’ve ever devoted to a Tomb Raider title, so I don’t really have much of a sense of the history and idiosyncrasies of the franchise. I mention that because I’ve seen some reviews that seem to criticise the game for being basically about … well, raiding tombs. This seems strange to me. I’m no expert, as I said, but I would have thought you criticise a Tomb Raider title for not raiding tombs (as was in fact the case with some earlier titles, as I understand it).

Speaking of things other reviews seem to criticize the game for, I’m not quite sure whether the people who objected to the camera were playing the same game I was. I had enough camera control that I felt in control at all times (in fact the camera control was one of the selling points for me in a way, see below), and the demo never pushed me into “leap of faith gameplay” territory (to quote Yahtzee). It came close once, early on, but I was always able to manipulate the camera in a reasonable way such that I could see what I needed to see figure out where I was going.

Where I was going was, of course, the major part of the gameplay. I classify Tomb Raider as a “movement puzzle” game, alongside such notable favorites of mine as the Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia franchises. A “movement puzzle” game, as I use the term, is any game where the primary obstacle to the player is how to navigate the environment. There may be combat, but the main challenge and joy of the game is the environment itself and how the player moves around it. In the case of the Splinter Cell game (a Tom Clancy franchise involving the adventures of superspy Sam Fisher) the puzzle is how to navigate realistic environments without being seen, using an array of only slightly-larger-than-life acrobatics and gadgets. In the case of a Prince of Persia game, the puzzle is how to navigate fantastic environments using magical weapons and over-the-top, wire-fu acrobatics.

Tomb Raider falls somewhere in the middle. The ruins that Lara explores are more fantastic than realistic, but no more so than you might expect to find in Hollywood. And they were really gorgeous. I’ve read a couple reviews that mentioned moments that really make you say wow, and I have to admit that the first time I rounded a corner and saw the ruins I was headed towards I really did just stop and admire the view. It wasn’t just that the graphics were good; it was that somebody had planned that moment, had framed the shot, for no other reason than to say to the player, “This is where you are going. Isn’t it cool?” In a movement puzzle game I call that intelligent game design. I am playing the game to move around environments, after all. I appreciate knowing that the game designers know that.

Of course, I am also playing the game to move around environments in cool ways, and I must say that in that regard the Underworld demo was cooler than I expected. The actual range of movement was about what I expected—scaling walls, shimmying along ledges, action heroine leaps, balancing along narrow beams, swinging on poles, wall jumping, the usual sort of thing. What was unexpectedly cool was the way Lara did all that stuff. I was impressed and surprised by the depth of Lara’s animation. To give two examples, at one point I stopped on a staircase to look around. Ordinarily games don’t let you stop in between two steps on a stair, but as I was scanning my surroundings to see where I ought to go next, I noticed that Lara had one foot on the next stair up and was looking around as well. At another point, I was shimmying around a sharp corner, and the game let me pause, stretched precariously between the two faces of the rock I was cornering. The game was just full of little things like that that made the familiar process of acrobatic climbing unexpectedly cool to watch. From interviews I’ve seen the animation team is very proud of their work, and I would say they deserve to be. Ordinarily this isn’t the sort of thing that impresses me about a game, but again, this is a game I am playing in order to move around. The mere act of moving had better be cool.

As for the places I was asked to go—in other words, the actual level design—that was pretty cool too. It took me about an hour to get to the end of the demo the first time through. I felt suitably challenged during that time, and suitably badass climbing to, around, and through the ruins.

I also felt suitably badass during the two combats the demo gave me against Bengal tigers, which brings me to the subject of combat. First, the good. The tigers were faster than I was and I was not able to gun them down before they reached me. By itself that’s bad (but see below), but it did mean that I was forced to outmaneuver the tigers through my acrobatic prowess. Targeting was a non-issue; the game did that for me, which is just as well because I was spending just about every second dodging tigers in a pretty spectacular display of gunplay + tumbling. In other words, even the combat was really basically a movement puzzle, and it looked pretty much exactly how I wanted a fight with a tiger to look.

The bad—on the default settings it took an absurd number of 9mm rounds to put down a big cat. Thankfully the game includes a difficulty slider for how much health enemies have (and a separate one for how much damage Lara takes. Big kudos to Crystal Dynamics for separating those two features, which is the sort of very simple thing I’ve been saying game companies should do for years), so I think that will mostly solve that problem. Once I tuned the difficulty sliders to what I felt was more reasonable (less enemy health, more damage done to me), my weapons felt a lot better. Not realistic, but I’m okay if Tomb Raider is less than a simulation.

More perplexing is this question: while the wildlife fights felt well integrated mechanically, why was I fighting tigers to begin with? There was no indication I had stumbled into their lair or something, and in any case, tigers aren’t pack hunters. Oh, right, and remember the part where I was shooting the tigers? Other than the immediate motivation of trying to stay alive, the whole exercise felt kind of pointless. This goes back to not having played Tomb Raider games before. I gather it’s a convention of the franchise that Lara fights hostile wildlife. I can only imagine this is the result of some poor misguided soul back in the ‘90s who thought it was more acceptable to kill endangered species than human beings. As Ayudaren says, who could possibly have given that the thumbs up? At least with people you can shape a story so that the player feels that yes, these people need to die.

Fortunately, from what I gather, Crystal Dynamics has. In fact a major reason I bothered to pick up the demo in the first place is because I was excited about throwing Lara’s signature athleticism into the mix with some human opponents in environments other than ancient ruins. I can’t really comment on the story, of course, other than what everybody knows from the press—that Lara is looking for Mjolnir to access the underworld, and that all cultures’ afterlives are apparently the same, and I’m pretty sure the villainess from Tomb Raider: Legend (the Crystal Dynamics prequel to Underworld) is still alive. Which is all pretty standard fare for this genre of storytelling. The question is whether they handle the conventions and formulae adroitly or not, and that of course I can’t say from just the demo.

I can say that the voice acting I heard from the demo was surprisingly good. That doesn’t necessarily correlate with good writing, but it’s a positive sign. And of course it is valuable in its own right because, let’s face it, it’s Lara Croft. And if Lara is lame, then the game isn’t worth getting. Which brings us to the issue of Lara Croft.

First off, to get it out of the way, she looks good. We’ve come a long way since 1996, and Lara looks like a human being by now. A human being with large breasts, to be sure, but a human being with breasts. As opposed to, you know, a blow-up doll with melons.

I’ve never fully understood the fascination with Lara’s breasts, because as graphics capabilities have evolved it’s seemed clear to me that she has always intended to be an all-around attractive woman. She’s tough, independent-minded, smart, well educated, well bred, athletic, is comfortable with firearms, and generally solves problems using her brains instead of her body. In the quasi-mythic mindspace of a videogame, it doesn’t water down such a character for her to be pretty (and she is in this incarnation, to be sure). That would be like saying Achilles’ badassness is watered down by the fact that Athena helps him kill Hector, or that Hector didn’t really beat Patroclus because Apollo knocked him senseless first. It’s getting it all backwards. Really, there is nothing wrong or chauvinist with finding a character like that attractive, in the Natalian sense.

And she is attractive. If she wasn’t, to be honest, there’d be no game. Mechanically, Tomb Raider is a movement puzzle game, and Underworld looks like an attractive one to me. But that gets you to game theory. To move beyond game theory to game design, you need an awesomeness factor that turns the product into a brand. Lara Croft is what makes Tomb Raider awesome. But Lara Croft in a very expansive sense—the way she moves, what she moves in and around, why she’s doing it. And on those scores Underworld seems worth my money.

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