When Worlds Collide

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In a previous post I critiqued the supposed intersection of blockbuster movies and blockbuster video games argued here; namely, how there is a substantial difference between the bigness of games like Skyrim and the over-the-top-meant-to-distract-you-bigness of blockbuster films.

In my original post I quoted what the author felt was a good example of a “big” game done right: the most recent installment of the Tomb Raider series. To wit:

Tomb Raider is a prime example of this type of game: big, action-driven, ably balancing key set pieces with exploration and options, but always making sure that the peripherals of the experience relate to the central narrative.

At the time of my post I had yet to play this game, but did have some fairly extensive experience with the Tomb Raider franchise, having played all but one of the previous installments. For the most part I thought that they all followed a fairly familiar script and, while being fairly entertaining, were not actually very “big” games due to the (in my opinion) somewhat needless linearity of the gameplay. Two of the more recent installments (TR Legend and TR Underworld) had a far more open feel, but for the most part I thought this was more illusory than anything, since the big spaces ended up being essentially giant boxes from which there was only one way out or only one way through.

I was impaled by rebar earlier, but I can still climb this radio tower.

It wasn’t until earlier last week that I finally had a chance to play the most recent title; Xbox Live was running one of their Games with Gold specials, and it was only $10. I also had a $15 Xbox Live gift card, so the experience was essentially free to me.

This post is not meant as a review per se, but more of a way to evaluate whether Tomb Raider is a good example of the qualities of a well-executed “big game” or not.

1: Is this a big game?

In many ways, yes. There are quite a number of different areas, and many of the areas (especially the outdoor ones) certainly convey a sense of immensity. Whether trying to reach the radio tower, the cliffside bunker or the deck of the Endurance, there is a certain unmistakable scope to one’s surroundings, and thus in this sense the game is big.

So much to see, so little to do

However, as with many previous installments, the vastness of any particular space is an illusion, as there is usually only one possible path through that space, which usually involves zip lining, some moderate platforming or use of bow and arrow and rope. While the game is gorgeous to look at, there is a certain frustration in that so much of that world is simply closed off to the player, as there is no way to explore beyond the set path, except in very limited circumstances. There are mountain ranges and such begging to be seen, but the only latitude given for exploring is in very small and unremarkable forests or in run down shanties that all look pretty much the same.

Lots of this

And then there are the numerous times when you are underground or in small spaces where you simply cannot go anywhere else but in a straight line. Sure, the game tries to make up for the linear forcing by adding twists and turns or by changing camera angles or having Lara look around or twist through obstacles, but the reality is that you are pressing one way on the control pad and the game is doing the rest.

Now, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, and I actually think the games does an admirable job of masking the linear forcing or working it into the game mechanic, so for the most part it doesn’t feel terribly irksome. But there are times when you want to go a bit more off the beaten path and the world (or worse, the gameplay) stops you from doing so, and it is during those times that the game begins to feel very small.

2. Is this an action-driven game?

Undoubtedly. In fact, I would say that it is the driving action which gives this game its particular heft. At times it can feel a bit dizzying; you are trying to do some platforming, and then all of a sudden things start to fall out from under you or there is an explosion which blocks one avenue and forces you to go another.

Oh Sam, you’re always getting into trouble

As far as platforming tropes go there is nothing new here, and I actually think the game does a fine job of weaving the action seamlessly into the gameplay. Plot movements and such don’t feel as tacked on as they did in previous installments., and the game actually transitions very well from an intense action section to the entrance of a new location.

For example, there is a scene where Lara falls (for the thousandth time it seemed!) off a cliff or a waterfall (I forget, there were so many) and tumbles down over and over, finally coming to rest at the bottom of the cockpit glass of a downed bomber that has crashed into the mountainside and is hanging precariously over a waterfall, ready to fall at any moment.

When Lara hits she cracks the glass, and it begins to crack more and more. She is seriously hurt at this moment, and can’t really scramble to cover. But in the cutscene she finds an old parachute pack near the pilot’s seat, and manages to grab it right as the glass cracks. In midair she puts it on, to have one chute fall away before the backup kicks in. The next sequence is basically “dodge the trees.”

Nothing in there was particularly exciting as far as gameplay was concerned, but the action of the entire sequence was fairly well done, and added excitement to where there probably wouldn’t have been any before.

Thank goodness this WWII era parachute still works!

One deep flaw with the game, however, is it is these types of over-the-top action sequences which begin to form the heart and soul of every set transition, which wears a little thin after awhile. True, Lara is supposed to be (at least traditionally) this really badass heroine, but you are required to suspend disbelief so many times that it starts to feel a bit ridiculous. Granted, that is perhaps part of the allure, but as I was playing I had the author’s critique of blockbuster movies in mind and couldn’t help but feeling that this example of what a good blockbuster game should be was playing into everything that makes bad blockbusters bad.

Of course this crashing plane is about to hit you!

Lastly, while this is a throughly action-saturated game, much of that is once again an illusion. While I don’t think there were necessarily any sequences where you were on the dreaded rails, there were countless times that you were trying to outrun an explosion or a collapse or something else where you were essentially on rails; simply push the control pad forward and hit jump. In small doses this is fine, but it was as overused as over-the-top explosions in bad blockbusters are used; I would in fact consider those sequences this game’s over-the-top-explosion trope (and there were plenty of actual needless and unexplained explosions to boot!)

And then, of course, there were the incessant quick-time events. In my opinion nothing yanks one out of the action and narrative quite like these unfortunate game mechanic choices. And seriously, the end boss/nemesis is defeated with a quick-time event?

3. Does this game balance exploration with options?

Er, kind of sort of?

To be sure, there is an exploratory side to Tomb Raider, but it is admittedly minimal. In this Tomb Raider installment there is actually not much of a focus on raiding tombs; in fact, the tombs constitute most of the games’s (very limited) exploration. There are various tombs off the beaten path (which I think is how the in game text describes it) that you will not naturally come across unless you do a bit of exploring. The difficulty is that the tombs are largely easy to find (they are fairly well marked); worse, taking the time to explore them doesn’t necessarily yield much reward.

Granted, you can find parts to upgrade weapons (the ‘options’ portion), but this was what I thought was a very weak part of the overall mechanic. Even though I dutifully upgraded Lara’s abilities and weapons, I never got the sense that these upgrades gave me any extra advantage. Rather, it seemed that for every upgrade I made, the enemies simply got more difficult in turn.

True, this is the case of nearly every game, but often there is as least a bit of time lag in how much more difficult the enemies become, or at least the upgrade allows you to defeat enemies you couldn’t before. With a few exceptions (like the grenade launcher) I never got the sense that any of the options I chose made any difference whatsoever.

After all, it seemed to take just as many rounds from a pistol to kill enemies as from my bow and arrow. And sure, this may be somewhat realistic, but it gave me very little incentive to want to upgrade my weapons or abilities.

Another thing that took away choices was that I seemed to be able to achieve the upgrades with very little effort. I certainly was not trying to find everything, but over the natural course of the game all my weapons seemed to upgrade with me having to do very little. I’m not necessarily complaining about weapon upgrades, but it’s hard to characterize it as a choice when simply playing the game gives me the upgrades without additional effort.

In many respects I was reminded of the game mechanic from most of the Legend of Zelda games. You know at some point you will get a bow and arrow, the hookshot, usually some kind of hammer, etc. These things are necessary to beat the game or progress, and are only presented as choices in that sometimes you have to figure out which weapon or tool will work in a certain situation.

In Tomb Raider the bow worked about as well as the pistol or as the machine gun or as the shotgun; the only question was whether or not one had enough ammo to supply. I wouldn’t necessarily see this as a mark against the game, but it certainly doesn’t seem to count as truly providing ‘options.’

(In contrast, Skyrim rewards or punishes you for choosing certain skills or weapons. If you level up fairly high and do so mostly with Bow skills, trying to all of a sudden go with a two-handed sword offers a near certainty of death, which means you have to decide how to level up your two-handed ability before tackling previously suicidal situations.)

Further, while there were different options for combat, none of the options really seemed to make that big of a difference. While I died a few times during the combat, for the most part the AIs were such bad shots that I could either stand out in the open or shoot from behind cover and still take nearly the same amount of damage or dodge the same amount of fire. To make matters worse, the AI actually seemed to be better shots (perhaps the game engine compensating) when I was shooting from behind cover, which made the choice not really a choice at all. And of course if I did duck behind cover all of a sudden AI with infinite explosives started tossing them at me. Granted, this is perhaps a somewhat realistic scenario, but it defeats the purpose of having cover if I take the same amount of fire and damage (and sometimes even less, since dodging works almost every time!) while out in the open or behind cover.

4. Do the peripherals relate to the central narrative?

I honestly don’t know what the peripherals of this game are supposed to be. I suppose finding all the tombs is somewhat of a peripheral experience, but it only relates to central narrative in that the tombs are a part of the island have the same look and feel. Nothing about the tombs I explored seemed to have anything to do with the central narrative, and personally that is not what disappointed me; rather, I felt that they really offered no true incentive to explore them.

The thing about exploration is that it is only something you want to do if there is some payoff for it. I know that in Tomb Raider you can collect relic sets for different areas that boosts you XP, but in all honesty I never really noticed the mechanic of XP or how it related to anything I could upgrade or the rest of the game mechanic. It could be that I simply wasn’t paying attention, but I suspect that it was that the mechanic of offering options was far more illusory that I initially thought, since no amount of extra effort seemed to have any meaningful payoff.

Granted, sometimes you just explore for the sake of exploring, especially if the game rewards you with interesting things to see. But the tombs were not interesting in the slightest; most of the time the only distinguishing feature was a large Buddha-esque statue surrounded by candles with a big treasure chest. Thinking back on them I can’t remember anything even slightly remarkable between one or the other, save perhaps for the means of reaching them. (Another gripe here- for most of the tombs the path is largely shrouded in darkness, which means you can hardly see your surroundings at all. A touch of realism? Perhaps. But it makes the process of exploring tombs one that is utterly forgettable.)

The difficulty with the exploration of a game like Tomb Raider set against something like Skyrim is that the exploration in Tomb Raider has no noticeable payoff because the bigness of the game is illusory.

In Skyrim you can do some pretty needlessly meaningless things; for example, trying to boost your Alchemy level to 100. This entails finding certain types of ingredients and making lots and lots of potions. It’s kind of monotonous, and the payoff isn’t actually all that grand. But since getting to the items you need doesn’t require a great deal of platforming or any nearly on-rails experience, retracing your steps is trivially easy and often will yield new things than the last time you were there.

Games like Tomb Raider, on the other hand, since they emphasize the action in a world that is not as big as it seems, make the process of retracing your steps much less desirable. I am kind of a completionist, but there was nothing terribly enticing about collecting all the relics or even getting all the gun parts, simply because I knew I’d be doing the same platforming all over again.

One challenging thing for games like Tomb Raider is that if everything tightly weaves into the narrative, the narrative has to be really good. Otherwise the entire experience falls flat.

This is going to be murder on my hair…

The narrative arc in Tomb Raider was ok. It was certainly darker and grittier than the previous installments, but at times I couldn’t help but feel that it was simply trying too hard. It chose to reveal some of the backstory through found objects in the world, which is fine, but the plot was so meandering and convoluted that nothing really seemed to make sense. Sure, that was partially the point (“logic won’t work here”), but I got the sense that the writers were trying to make it as dark and twisted as they could to sell the origin of Lara Croft that in many cases they simply overreached.

It was entertaining enough, I suppose, but there just wasn’t anything really gripping about the narrative. Granted, I have never expected Tomb Raider to be about the plot, and fortunately the gameplay largely made up for this failing. I found myself constantly wondering why the things that were happening were happening, why the people here were behaving as they were, etc. Most of this was left unanswered, which I suppose is fine for a game, but it left a bit of a bad taste for a game that some see as exemplifying a tight integration of narrative and gameplay.

Nope! Hair is still perfect! That ocean water does wonders…

Conclusion

In the end, I thought Tomb Raider was a pretty entertaining game, definitely worth the price I paid for it! In the end, however, I find myself coming back to this final point: As far as ‘big’ games go, I am on my fifth character in Skyrim, and even though I have completed every quest line multiple times before I still work through them to try out a new way of playing the game. Tomb Raider I simply cannot see myself playing again; not because I didn’t enjoy it or because it wasn’t a good game, but rather because in many ways it felt a lot like the blockbusters that games shouldn’t be- lacking in depth and full of eye-candy to make up for it.

Something you watch once, shrug and say “that was pretty cool,” and then move on to the next thing.

Like raising my Two-Handed skill to 100.

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Jason Watson

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