Well, that went quick. I was about to write a Pre-final Report on Tomb Raider, but as it turns out, the game was done faster than expected.
A grimy adventure
All I really knew about Tomb Raider so far was that we were in for a really huge change in concept, and that the game would be packed with really vile thrills.
So I’m at the same time disappointed and not really disappointed: the changes in concept are mostly modernisations and changes in tone, and the vile thrills are merely completely fucking exhilarating trills.
I think the change in tone was completely justified. The earlier games always felt somewhat too clean: There’s the milieu, there’s Lara, and never the twain shall affect one another. (Think of the original King Kong. I suppose the actresses in 1930s would have gotten a heart attack if anyone would have suggested that the characters would be shown with less than perfectly kept hair… in middle of a jungle. The previous Tomb Raiders aren’t quite that bad, but it’s kind of noticeable in retrospect.)
In this game, on the other hand, things are starting to feel like something is actually happening. It’s an actual adventure. You get a bit grimy in actual adventures. Everyone knows this happens.
Before the release, all I heard was vague talk about how the game would be a never-ending cavalcade of horrifying situations and sheer terror. Well… … …it’s not really any worse than any other video game. Pretty frigging epic at what it does, though.
With a game series as long-running as Tomb Raider, it’s always fun to see how modernisation tends to affect things. Each of the games offers something new and unique and interesting to the mix, while also observing the trends of the time.
Gameplay-wise, Tomb Raider is a little bit of a mix. Take the Legend trilogy as a starting point, use a modern open-world concept and get rid of the concept of separate levels, and use modern gameplay features.
I prepared for the arrival of the new Tomb Raider title by buying used copies of the Legend trilogy on Xbox 360. I had previously only played them on GameCube and Wii. What struck me now is that the Xbox 360 versions have actually focused pretty well on consistency - GameCube and Wii versions had a little bit experimental approach on controls (read: it’s anyone’s guess how you control the games).
And I think the game developers are definitely focusing on consistency on all fronts. It’s not a bad thing. When I can play a game after playing other games, that’s a good thing. If I don’t need to mess with settings in games because the console already knows I want inverted look on right stick, that’s a good thing.
So the new Tomb Raider is kind of a philosophical exercise on how to smoothen the controls further and offer consistency with other games in the series and especially other games in general. I was surprised how much the game actually borrows from, say, Gears of War and latter Mass Effect games - the only thing that’s missing is actually a separate command for going behind cover, because Lara is smart enough to actually dodge things herself. I even noticed that it borrowed the “shoulder switching” concept from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
It’s also borrowing the same health mechanics. I think I can now state for the record that health packs suck. People might say that having health packs and having manual health recovery would make the game harder, but I have to disagree there.
What this game really shows is that it has gotten pretty much rid of artificial difficulty. Dying a lot in the same spot is not “difficulty”, it’s pointless grinding. Difficulty is in challenging people to actually think and observe. I had no problems getting through the fights and puzzles without finding them too easy, so I’d say that the difficulty level in this game was pretty much perfect. The challenge comes from solving the problems the game presents to you. If you get randomly killed while doing that, it’s just pointless and adds nothing but frustration to the experience. Game developers are fortunately starting to realise that people actually want reasonable challenges.
However, there should be some kind of a balance between streamlining and cutting features. Lara is capable of doing some things she did in Legend trilogy. Not all. There’s just less environmental features that Lara is capable of using for traversal. A bad thing, or a good thing? Not necessarily, in my opinion, at least not in this case. At least they kept the core ideas of how to traverse the environment and didn’t throw away most of the stuff, like what happened to the RPG elements in Mass Effect sequels where streamlining got a little bit out of hand. If you remove boring features that were there in the past, you need to add more stuff that is even better than what was taken away, and I think Tomb Raider took away stuff that didn’t really have place in this game and put in other stuff to keep people happy enough.
Of course, some of the “modernisation” in this game could be stated as “developers on non-Nintendo platforms finally concede that The Legend of Zelda series and Metroid Prime actually did something right.” This iteration of Tomb Raider feels a little bit like a Zelda title, actually more so than any of the recent Wii titles - reminds me a bit of Wind Waker and GameCube Twilight Princess. The mechanics of the gameworld, the gradually opening branches, and collection of stuff and piecing together the documents and factoids reminds me of Metroid titles. It’s a great joy that good ideas just keep reapplied to new games, and not get tossed to the wayside!
Oh look, it’s Gears of War with Tomb Raider gimmicks. And it’s frigging awesome.
I’ve tested the multiplayer a few times. The only thing I can really say at this point is “this has potential”. In this form, it’s probably not the most Earth-shattering multiplayer game ever, but it’s fun in its relatively minimalistic grace. There’s not that many different game modes nor that many maps. But what little there is is actually pretty nicely done and seems pretty damn fun.
What I particularly like about it is that it won’t change the game mechanics randomly compared to the single-player game. There are a few tricks you can’t pull in singleplayer, but aside of that, everything works exactly as it did.
Will get back to this later.
Bad sides and the bottom line
If there’s anything bad I’d like to say about this game, it’s that it’s still bloody short. People were not particularly happy that Tomb Raider Legend was not a particularly long game. This game feels only marginally longer. Look, I’m not exactly expecting every game to be frigging Skyrim where you can sink hundreds of hours without even seeing a hint of the end, but the game definitely has some potential for more than just a few days of fun. That said, the game doesn’t feel like it should be only done once. I’m by far not bored at the moment. The side quests are also not particularly poignant - there’s a few gimmicky gathering missions that are greatly assisted by maps, and a few challenges that don’t really seem particularly eventful (but need good eyesight and patience, I grant them that). Overall, their only sin is that they’re not particularly thrilling.
I also would have hoped that the game would have taken more in from the survival elements. I really liked the bow, and hunting animals was quite fun, but it doesn’t really play that much into the actual game. I can only hope there would be more scavenging and tinkering and hunting in the future games. Like I hinted above, one of the annoying features of the previous games was that Lara had the right gear for every job - if she needs light, she has thoughtfully brought a lamp with her. This game forces the player to acquire gear. This game forces Lara to improvise. (Speaking of which, and sorry if I’ve stated it before: I don’t really care about licenced titles, but if there’s one licenced title I’d really like to see, that would be a real MacGyver video game. Improvising some gimmicks would make for an interesing game experience. And seeing the minorly-underwhelming-so-far Tomb Raider multiplayer and going in it without any preconceptions of what should have been it, it just occurred to me that I was kind of expecting a free-form multiplayer adaptation of The Hunger Games and was disappointed to not find it. =)
Overall: It’s a great game. It’s a modern game. It’s just the sort of game that fixes long-standing issues with the series and makes it very interesting. It’s just that it leaves me hungry for so much more, and sequels just can’t come soon enough. Get us more. (Hell, Eidos, just tell Thief 4 developers to drop stuff for a while and go for new TR DLCs. We taffers just got Dishonored to satisfy our sneakery needs, we certainly can wait a few more years for a proper Thief sequel. It’s no biggie. =)
But even in this state, I will play Tomb Raider through again. If only for the Skyrim tribute achievement. =)
Speaking of Skyrim, I was playing it right now, and combined with Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker achievements, I got some nice colour coordination going on in my achievement list:
…it’s really too bad that it’s too early in spring to play Alan Wake.