Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics. Gameplay.

Upon taking control of Lara Croft, first impressions are that there is an awful lot of pushing forward and responding to button prompts. These impressions will return frequently throughout the game, but luckily the game quickly opens into an entire open world island to explore. Lara has lost none of her ability to run, jump and climb the un-climbable, and there is plenty to climb. The level layout is generally well designed, with the exception of the Shantytown, which feels like a bit of a confused mess. A lot of the areas can and will be revisited at different times of the day, but because of this, areas designed for daytime play fail miserably if played at night. (Again, Shantytown is a prime example).

I did encounter a few environmental bugs while playing, more than should be present in a game of this calibre. I frequently got stuck in a hovering fall when jumping off ledges that the developers didn’t intend me to. A few times I fell through the map, and on a couple of occasions, sections of a level failed to load, leaving huge open areas of infinity (usually in, wait for it... Shantytown). Obviously the load error is down to streaming, but the other collision errors are down to shoddy placement of the collision mesh, and the designers not pre-empting the habits of gamers to push the exploration boundaries.

It is a recurring complaint with every Tomb Raider game that Lara spends too much time killing, especially for an archaeologist. This time around Crystal Dynamics have tried to justify it with a plot that forces Lara into killing, but she soon becomes a mass murderess with a body count (probably) higher than all previous instalments combined. The gameplay surrounding gunfights works nice. Lara can shoot from cover, but most cover will eventually break under pressure from enemy gunfire, forcing the player to keep alert of their surroundings and on the move. Lara can scramble while on the run, which lowers the probability of taking damage, and later can follow up a scramble with a quick flick of ground dirt into an enemy's face, leaving them prone to attack. Lara can dodge and melee attack, eventually upgrading to a killing blow, although unfortunately this usually consists of responding to a well-timed button prompt.

All enemy archetypes are present in accordance with 3rd person action/adventure difficulty curve rules - grunt, armoured, heavy and shielded. In addition to this, there is some nasty wildlife to keep you on your toes along with some not so nasty furry animals you can equally murder without prejudice to fulfil you XP bloodlust.

Trading XP for new and improved skills is pretty much the norm for action/adventure games these days, but it is a feature that adds an extra layer to gameplay if done well, and keeping the system simple is the best approach. Thankfully Tomb Raider does keep it simple - every notable action Lara performs will earn her XP, which can be traded for skills which in turn allow Lara enhanced abilities in areas such as fighting and scavenging.

Lara starts the game pretty helpless, but soon acquires a bow and arrow to help her through the Hunger Games. Soon you will be packing a pistol, and will collect more powerful weapons during the course of gameplay, meaning you don’t have to worry about missing any along the way. Lara’s bow and arrow serves as a handy little gadget for opening and accessing areas that are wrapped in rope. The novelty of using it this way eventually wears thin, but luckily you can upgrade it to help streamline the tedium, a smart move by the designers. You upgrade the weapons by scavenging little convenient boxes of nuts, bolts and cogs that serve as currency to buy the usual increased firepower, handling and so on. Doing it this way certainly works, but I don’t know if Crystal Dynamics realise how much little things like this undermine the story that they are so desperate for you to invest in.

There are plenty of side missions that involve collecting or discovering conveniently placed items such as diaries and GPS locators. If you like that sort of thing then they should keep you entertained, if you see them as padding then Tomb Raider will be a short experience for you. (If you do manage to collect them all though, there is a nice little easter egg in homage to the original Tomb Raider games).

One thing about the side missions that would anger me, if I was the sort of person to get angry about games, is the fact that the game's namesake - tombs, have been relegated to nothing more than a few shallow puzzle rooms. It’s pretty disrespectful to fans of the franchise to make the tombs such a minor side thought.

Extra sensory perception, it would seem, is this generation’s replacement for sparkling items of interest. Most associated with the Assassins Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games, Tomb Raider’s survival instinct feels like a quick and easy solution to a design problem of level clarity, as a result you end up using it more and more frequently as gameplay becomes a chore.

Of course, Tomb Raider comes bundled with the usual standard bolt-on multiplayer experience you come to expect from 3rd person action/adventure games fulfilling the marketing department’s demands. It really didn’t need to be there and that’s about as deep as the multiplayer analysis needs to go.

The original Tomb Raider game, and some of its sequels, developed by Core Design, still stand the test of time remarkably well, if you can get past the dated controls. They come from an era when true talent was behind games, not like todays boys club industry. This Tomb Raider feels very current, but you can’t help but think that may be because developers these days are afraid of straying from the flock. It feels like one of those teen movies about the kid who is so desperate to be liked by the cool kids that he changes, and forgets his true friends.

The Tomb Raider reboot ends up being one of those games where you enjoy playing through it, but with hindsight you start to realise it was all a bit of an empty experience.

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