Monday, 3 August 2015

Raided

I had a bit of free time with no family around at the weekend, and managed to complete the 'new' Tomb Raider on the PS3. I've been playing it alongside the original game (until Win 10 borked my DOSbox - not sure what happened there, but I hope it's not going to be a big issue...I'm wondering whether it might have been more sensible to stick with Win 7 for a bit), and it's been very interesting to compare them. The new game has clearly changed direction, following Uncharted and similar games away from level-as-puzzle, and toward an open world (-ish, the game is still made up of very clearly defined areas that you can travel between, rather than being truly open). I guess they wanted to make it more story-driven, but for a game that's supposedly all about setting up the origin story for Lara Croft, they made a right hash of it. The characters are all stereotypical cut-outs, and you never feel any connection to them or feel any sense of loss when they invariably get murdered. I did enjoy the combat, but it didn't feel particularly Tomb Raidery, it was just a pretty standard cover shooter. I think it's actually handled much better in the original Tomb Raider (in concept rather than execution) where it's more about your battle with the wildlife as the only inhabitants of these undiscovered places. Once those combatants are gone, it's all about the loneliness and the sense of exploring the space. The sound design of the original Tomb Raider is beautiful - really enhancing your sense of being the only human in this place - it's all echoing water and wildlife and the wind rushing through these ancient carved corridors, rather than the bombastic and cinematic of the new game. That's where a game doesn't have to be like cinema. We don't have to constantly rush on to advance the plot. With games - in an aspect strangely more like staring at a painting in a gallery rather than going to the cinema - you can stop and explore your surroundings. That's what Tomb Raider has always been about for me, the ability to look around and work out where you want to go next, and how you're going to get there. The Secret Tombs in the new game were a slight nod towards this, but it's telling that the developers didn't feel brave enough to include this more sedate, puzzling aspect in the main game story - perhaps they were worried that gamers would then get stuck and be unable to progress with the storyline?

I also found it slightly odd that while we have Lara as the great female protagonist, at the same time we have her rescuing a weak female damsel in distress. Was it really necessary to follow that trope? The story could have gone a million other ways. (And on a similar subject, I'm also not entirely sure why every enemy had to be a burly (often Eastern-European sounding) male. Sure, you can maybe spin it out as "they're the only ones the cult allowed to survive", but a little variety might have been nice. Ha, maybe a few more examples of dangerous wildlife would have done it - sure, shotgunning gorillas in the first game was never politically correct, but it felt thematic.

Oh, and my final point is about the verticality. The first Tomb Raider games really gave me the willies - sorry, I don't know a better term for it. That brief sensation of physical panic when Lara looks down - or almost falls off - from a high ledge. The simple graphics, but strong physicality of those early games invoke a strong unconscious reaction in me that the modern game just didn't at all. I don't know if it's because in the modern game, you never had to look around and climb down from anywhere once you'd reached the top - the radio tower highlighted in the video is a case in point - once you reach the top of an area you'd always just magically zip-line down or the game would cut to you at the bottom. I don't know if the developers felt it would be boring to climb down the same thing you've just climbed up, but they're not the same thing at all. Climbing down is difficult, and it involves always looking down - reinforcing the sense that you're in a high, dangerous place, and forcing you to constantly consider your own mortality. Again, I think perhaps the developers were worried about the pace of the game and that modern cinempathetic (hey, I made a new word) gamers wouldn't have the patience for it - but please, developers, have a little faith in us and in your game. Have the confidence in your creation to let us explore it. If it's an enjoyable, exciting place to be, then we're not going to get bored by it.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the game - I did - but it didn't feel like a Tomb Raider game, and I missed that. Luckily, I've got all the old games to enjoy, so it's back to Tomb Raider 1 for me now (as long as Win 10 lets me).

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