Tag Archives: Crystal Dynamics

Microsoft E3 2015 Recap

Microsoft E3 2015

There was actually something genuinely surprising about the Microsoft press event yesterday, but it’s probably not what you think: there wasn’t even a sliver of a presence for Call of Duty. That showing has been happening like clockwork for the past forever and it wasn’t there this year.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad or even how I feel about it, but it’s certainly remarkable. But there was plenty of other news for the Redmond company and their little gaming machine that could (and then did and became a beast of an ecosystem for entertainment).

You can also watch the entire presentation if you’d rather do that.

Halo 5: Guardians

There was a substantial co-op demonstration that happened. And that just about sums that up. At this point I’m pretty sure you know if you’re going to buy a new Halo game or not, let alone get excited for hearing 343 Industries studio head Bonnie Ross talk about the brand new engine that runs single and multiplayer at 60 fps.

Warzone, however, sounds pretty fun. It’s a new 24-player mode where you’ll face off against both AI and player-controlled enemies via drop-in, drop-out co-op. The maps are massive at four times bigger than you’re used to. Josh Holmes of 343 appropriately called it “ambitious.”

Backwards Compatibility

This is an ostensibly big move. This will open up an entire generation’s worth of games up to Xbox One owners for free (so far it’s just a smattering of titles) and will definitely set the system apart from the PlayStation 4 feature set, something they’re keenly aware of.

“We won’t charge you to play the games you already own,” said head of platform engineering Mike Ybarra, an obvious jab at the fact that PlayStation 4’s backwards compatibility works only so much that you can stream old games via PlayStation Now. Ybarra says it won’t take any extra development from studios and players just need the original disc to download a new digital version. It’ll be available to everyone this holiday season.

Fallout 4

Here’s so more Fallout 4 footage, including stuff we didn’t get to see yesterday during Bethesda’s event. I mean, it all follows the same path of content, but it’s bonus gameplay at some parts.

Game director Todd Howard also announced that PC mods will work for the Xbox One version of the game, but not right at launch; that will get added somewhere in 2016. And they’ll hopefully bring that same compatibility to the PlayStation 4 version.

Forza Motorsport 6

We already know there’s a new Forza game. Even if you didn’t know that, it seems like you could have assumed that anyways. Turn 10 Studios’ Dan Greenawalt says there will be over 450 cars and 24-player multiplayer. That’s kind of all the excitement I can muster for this.

Tacoma

Even if Tacoma just ended up being Gone Home in space, I’d still be cool with that. But developers Fullbright has earned more respect than that. It’s very obviously going to be about a singular experience and story-driven, but rehashing the same ground is (hopefully) beyond them.

Co-founder Steve Gaynor announced that their upcoming game will come to Xbox One and PC first before hitting Linux and Mac.

The Long Dark

Billed as “the first survival game on Xbox One,” The Long Dark is very obviously a survival game. You’re out all alone in a frozen wilderness and have to face the cold and wolves and whatnot.

The bigger tidbit coinciding with this is that Microsoft now offers Xbox One Game Preview, their own Early Access. The Long Dark isn’t out now, but you can play it on Game Preview right now. (Game Preview is not be confused with the Xbox One Preview program, although it exists within that and, yeah, you get it.)

Ion

Dean Hall, creator of DayZ, announced his new project Ion. It will also be available on Game Preview first and will attempt to realize Hall’s vision of “a game that wasn’t a game.” The press release describes the game as “an emergent narrative massively-multiplayer online game in which players build, live and inevitably die in huge floating galactic constructions.”

It aims to feature fully simulated environments involving power grids and heating and a bunch of other things to maintain space living. It seems pretty neat, though it may cross that line into too ambitious real quick.

Sea of Thieves

Rare is making a new game! What more do you need to know? Hopefully not much more because they didn’t give us much more.

Rare Replay

Coming August 4 to the Xbox One, the Rare Replay collection will feature just about every game you’d want to play from Rare’s history. This includes some serious bangers like Battletoads, Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Blast Corps. If this doesn’t excite you then you must be dead inside.

Gears of War Ultimate Edition

This remastered version of the original Gears of War will come to Xbox One on August 25. It’ll have updated graphics (which Kotaku has a nice comparison of), integrated Gears of War 3 gameplay features, and the additional content previously exclusive to the PC version from 2007.

Gears of War 4

I dunno. Are you guys excited for a new Gears of War? I’m interested, I guess, but not necessarily looking forward to it. It’ll be the first one not developed by Epic Games. Maybe there will be a fresh take on some of the old staples of the series we’ve grown accustomed to? Gears of War 4 will hit during holidays 2016.

HoloLens

This is a pretty impressive demo for Minecraft with HoloLens, Microsoft’s 3D head-mounted display technology. In it, one player is on a Surface tablet playing the game while the other assumes a more godlike role through HoloLens, able to peer into the entire world and manipulate it from on high.

But it’s also very much unbelievable and in a not great way. Do you remember what we were promised with Kinect? Yeah. And having worked with this sort of tech before, I’m all the more wary. Still cool, though.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

There was also a trailer that came out, but that’s pretty much inconsequential compared to the gameplay demo they threw down. It’s coming across as even more Nathan Drake than before, but it still looks great. Drake’s defining characteristic is that he’s lucky as shit and knows it. Lara didn’t have that.

In 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara started with getting impaled and it somehow went downhill from there. But this demo shows Lara dodging bullet after bullet and that’s kind of Drake’s thing. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it seems worth mentioning.

And that’s it! Actually, there was a lot more like the above promo for the new Xbox One interface, the Xbox Elite controller (which will cost a whopping $150), and a bunch of other games, but these were kind of the big hitters. It’s fantastic that Microsoft focused so hard on games this year. It felt refreshing.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a distinct lack of Kinect talk, and with the lack of Kinect in the new Xbox One bundles, it calls to question if Kinect is being swept under the rug. I don’t necessarily buy it, but Ben Kuchera raises some good points over at Polygon.

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Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris Review: One Fish, Tomb Fish

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

Sometimes all a game has to do is make you forget. For all the lofty goals we’ve attached to the medium as we elevate it to artistic discourse and social commentary and eSports careers, there’s still that very necessary niche that needs filling, the one that we dip into when we just want to have some a good time. That’s where Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris steps up. It is, quite simply, just fun.

Very notably, this once again lacks the epithet Tomb Raider despite the fact you’ll actually be raiding quite a few tombs. It follows in the steps of its Raider-less predecessor Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. You’ll play as Lara (or one of her three other cohorts including competitor archaeologist Carter Bell and Egyptians gods Horus and Isis), exploring pyramids and tombs while shooting a bunch of bad guys and solving some puzzles.

Temple of Osiris matches the blueprint for Guardian of Light pretty much one-to-one. Fixed perspective, co-operative play, dual joystick shooting, and engaging with ancient spirits on a personal level. Osiris’ brother Set has come back to take the world as his own, but Osiris’ wife and son have roped both Carter and Lara into helping them combat Set’s nefarious schemes.

The story is classically outrageous in true Tomb Raider fashion. It doesn’t really do much, though, other than set up the mismatched quartet to go to a bunch of underground and cavernous catacombs as you attempt to collect the parts of Osiris to resurrect the dispensed god. The plot is told through some nicely voiced and good-looking comic-style freeze-frames but mostly just stays out of the way.

Which is a good thing, considering how fun it is. From the outset, it seems exceptionally simple. You move with the left stick and aim and shoot with the right stick and right trigger. You can jump, drop bombs, light torches, and, most importantly, dodge. It feels a lot like Bastion in that way. Inclusive of the fixed perspective and dual joystick controls, the dodging feels as paramount here as it does in Supergiant Games’ title.

It certainly lends an appropriately and engaging chaos and speed to the combat. The dodge roll allows you to move faster and avoid attacks, and as a consequence, allows you to control the spacing, which is your greatest asset in this game. If you’re not paying attention, you will go down in the blink of an eye, irrespective of the health upgrades you gather.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

That material consequence makes the action much more engrossing. Especially once you get to enemies like flaming scarab beetles that scorch the ground and crocodiles that fire lightning at the ground and golden balls that spew out more enemies until you zap them with your magic staff, you’ll find it that much more important that you never blink and you keep moving. It’s impressive how well the game deftly spreads out your attention while you try to reconcile it back together.

To wit, it is imperative you find an appropriate distance to place yourself from the screen. The game has a tendency to scope out the camera at a frame where it’s hard to tell a vase from a lamp let alone the exact proximity of those ornery crocs. Similarly, it’s hard to attach any affection or personality to the characters. I didn’t do any co-op play, but I can’t imagine that adding more people would improve the situation.

This especially holds true in scenarios involving spiked floor panels that activate with pressure. Either one person goes and everyone stays behind (boring for everyone else) or everyone tries to coordinate the ambulation (frustrating for everyone). The combat seems like it would be fun in a Gauntlet kind of way with more people, but a lot of the layouts deep in the tombs feel far more geared towards solo play. (I’m told, though, that the puzzles scale up around the number of players.)

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

The puzzles themselves, however, are pretty good. Many of them involve at least some modicum of intermediate problem solving followed by two scoops of dexterity, satisfying both parts of your gameplay needs. This includes the portions where you have to accomplish certain tasks (or “challenges” in the game’s vernacular) like collecting skulls or pushing enemies into a pit or forcing a boss to eat one of his own minions.

From this and scripted portions of the game, there is some great variety. At one point, you have a boss fight on a giant flaming, rolling stone ball, forcing you to dodge falling meteors and rising lava pits while keeping a grip on your place on the sphere. And in another, you will fight a humongous, underwater crocodile while only managing to jump between floating planks of wood. The game switches gears and changes pace often enough that you never truly get bored with its rudimentary mechanics.

A problem, though, is, on occasion, the controls. While most of it feels fantastic from the moving to the dodging to the shooting, it becomes inconsistent with the platforming. Sometimes you can mantle up after catching a ledge by just pressing on the stick and other times you need to press jump, a confusion that has cost me my success on several challenges. And some ledges have stickiness to them to prevent rampant suicide. Others don’t. You don’t know what you can rely on.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

And then a lot of the puzzles and some of the combat rely on using Osiris’ staff, which is swapped to and fro like any other weapon while locked to down on the D-pad. You never want to stop moving to switch weapons, but having the staff out is always far handier. Up until, that is, you have to shoot things with bullets and shells. This led me to stumbling out of the starting gates in many battles by using the staff (which has unlimited and very weak ammo) and percolating with frustration rather than relishing in the surprise of battle.

A cool part of the weapons system is that you can spend all the gems you collect on opening chests, which will give you rarity-graded pieces of equipment like rings and amulets, both of which have a serious impact on your strategies. Amulets allow you to do especially power maneuvers once you fill a gauge that goes up when you dish out damage without taking any. This might mean you start spewing powerful scattershot or drop fire bombs or regenerate health and ammo. And the rings give you increased weapon damage or speed or reduce your bomb radius or reduce your resistance to poison.

They’re more or less randomized as you open these chests and get them from finishing challenges, so how you adapt to the gifts you’re given will determine how well you do in combat. With a greater bomb radius, I wanted my bombs to reload faster so I could drop more of them. With an amulet that refills ammo, I was free to use the more ammo-intensive and more powerful weapons. They’re meaningful and interesting wrinkles to an otherwise straightforward fighting system.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

I do mean it, though, when I say this is a fun game. It only took me about five hours to blow through the entire story, but I also did it in one sitting. It’s a rare game that hooks me that hard. Even though Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris does nothing new in the genre or even in its series with its limited aspirations for greatness or originality, it does what it needs to do. And what it does it something you would probably enjoy.

+ Moving and fighting is snappy
+ Spectacular lighting and overall great graphics
+ Rings and amulets are meaningful pieces of loot for a simplistic system
+ Puzzles are nicely demanding in just the right ways
– Inconsistencies and inconveniences in controls are frustrating

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris
Release: December 9, 2014
Genre: Action adventure
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Available Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Single-player, co-op, online co-op
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.laracroft.com/

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The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

The Year in Review: #2 Tomb Raider

I don’t know what to tell you. I liked Tomb Raider. A lot. But that’s the majesty of having a personal top ten list for game of the year; this isn’t a defense or accusation or anything of the sort. This is me sharing my experience with you, and that’s it.

Tomb Raider is an objectively good game, but it also contains its fair share of problems. For example, it builds up a vulnerable yet powerful hero in Lara, but also one that has yet to tap into the character we’re used to seeing fighting tigers and cartwheeling over crumbling structures. When she kills a person for the first time, it’s tense and meaningful in a way we didn’t think we would ever get from a Tomb Raider game.

And then she goes on to immediately kill a dozen more before racking up nearly a thousand corpses by the end of the game. It’s immensely squandered potential. We could have had an action-adventure game that held all of its action and adventure within our hearts and heads instead of shooting the shit out of dudes and animals.

Tomb Raider

However, judging a game for what it’s not is never a good idea, though ignoring it as part of the final product is similarly foolhardy when it jukes you like this. But the Tomb Raider we’ve gotten is still something special.

What sticks out the most to me is the simple act of actually playing the game. It feels just superb in so many ways. Lara handles in a way that hews closer to her days in short shorts and a crop top than the bumbling steps of Nathan Drake, but in the nuances of her animations, she still comes across as a green adventure, just one with huge potential. She dodges quickly and effectively but inelegantly; she strikes quick and reliably but never hard; she shoots fast and accurately but tentatively.

So while the narrative impetus to see Lara grow into someone more capable is tossed out the window, the character-player interactions mostly see them through to the end. This also includes, however, Lara’s use of the bow. This might be why I liked Tomb Raider so much more than most people (though everyone still does seem to like it a lot). I limited myself to use only the bow.

Tomb Raider

It felt personal that way, and the entire game hinges on connecting to the personal strife of Lara on this island. The bow shoots much like any other firearm: hold the left trigger to aim, press the right trigger to fire. But its actual controls are inherently imbued with agency. You have to hold the right trigger to draw the arrow back and release it to fire. That alone sets it apart from a gun’s “press to kill” modus operadi.

This means that every arrow you let fly is one you send out with conviction. You set the arrow, drew the string, and released. It forces you to consider the implications of your actions. It even enables the sensation of regret in the midst of killing, allowing you to re-quiver your arrow.

But to do that, you have to release your left trigger before your right one, disengaging from the same side you began it with. The reversal itself is worth consideration. Its movements are opposite those of the kill, reflecting the desires to see an arrow penetrate some thug’s head and the desires to remain hidden and let a life go untouched.

Tomb Raider

Unfortunately, you only reach this point of contemplation once you’ve reached the end, still relying on the bow, recovering arrows and cursing its speed when all you need is rapid fire power. This personal choice in effort and challenge colored my time with Tomb Raider.

Many of you will otherwise find competency where I found excellence. Its objective qualities are straightforward: amazing art design, Camilla Luddington’s stellar voice acting, and so on. But for the ruminations of life, death, stoicism, and conviction caused by the drawing of a bow, Tomb Raider is my number two game of the year.

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Throw Them Bows

Throw Them Bows

2012 was the year of the bow. According to Giant Bomb, there was such a massive influx of games that featured bows and arrows that it was impossible to ignore. Hell, even Amazon got in on the joke. There was Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis 3 (granted, it is from 2013, but bow-centric marketing started long ago), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and dozens more that highlight the art of archery. Wreckateer, the XBLA title from Iron Galaxy, was pretty much just about a single bow.

I’d been thinking about writing this for a while, but Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton wrote up a piece about bows this week. It talks about the quality of an assortment of modern video game bows including Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis 3, Skyrim, and Far Cry 3, but there’s one I want to talk about in particular and that’s Tomb Raider.

For all its flaws, I really, really, really like Tomb Raider. I think it’ll be another week or so to get past the reactionary phase of playing a great game to determine whether or not I truly loved it, but Crystal Dynamics reboot of the classic franchise just might be one of my favorites for the generation. Lara Croft in this game is fantastic (writer Rhianna Pratchett did a terrific job humanizing what used to be a 13-year-old’s sexual fantasy) and she plays like a tuned-up Ferrari, but the highlight of the game is definitely her signature bow.

Throughout the course of the game, it transforms both literally and figuratively. You will be able to use found parts and salvage to upgrade Lara’s starting weapon, going from a bundle of sticks she snatches from a tree-bound corpse to an Olympic-calibre instrument of simplistic projectile death. But you will also go from using it for hunting wildlife for sustenance to using it to traverse wide open chasms in the mountains to solving puzzles to straight-up murdering fools.

Perhaps starting out using the bow as a non-human killing device is key to my love affair with the weapon. I barely remember the actual cutscene where Lara approaches a downed deer and uses an arrow to finish it off, but I do remember how I lingered about in that opening area killing rabbits and crows and things. It was a different experience than when I hunted in Assassin’s Creed III because I was so enamored with the idea of using my athletic prowess to catch up to animals and ending them with my hidden blade. It was different from even Far Cry 3 because the things I hunted were far too dangerous for a mere arrow (explosive rounds were often the solution).

Let alone the fact that Lara is instantaneously capable of handling a bow, Tomb Raider stuck me with this thing and it made my very first non-directed actions in the game extremely personal. I immediately associated all movement and goals with destinations at the end of a road that only an arrow could drive. Non-bow-related skills became nonessential. I was all the way in.

The bow itself, though, also has a large impact on why I love it. You pull the left trigger to bring it up and then the right trigger to draw the string, releasing your right index finger when you want to fire. The longer you pull back, the stronger the shot will be—to a point. Hold too long and Lara’s aim will shake, her arms and fingers tiring from the immense strain the taut system exacts on her muscles. Eventually, the entire operation poops out and you’re out. This gives the mechanic a seriously realistic feel; it mirrors exactly what you would expect to happen with such a primitive, non-compound bow. It also parallels what you are experiencing within the game: your aim begins to tire as well, a tracked target delivering diminished returns over a quick, well-timed pull.

Releasing the arrow, too, is supremely natural. With both triggers actuated, you simply release the left trigger and the arrow is quivered. It reminds me a lot of the first Assassin’s Creed‘s control premise where each button controlled a single part of your body like your head, each arm, and your legs. The left trigger controls the bow arm and the right trigger controls the string arm, so when you release the string but not the bow, it fires. Release the bow, however, and not the string and you release all the tension in the string as the bow encroaches on the base of the arrow. It’s a simple but effective metaphor that serves to empower and simplify the player’s action.

Of course, firing the arrow is only half the equation. What happens when you hit something is the other half, and enemy reactions to the bow are simply sublime. I was never one for the gore porn style of horror films like Saw and Hostel, but I do demand commensurate reaction from my actions in video games, even if that means being a little macabre. So when Lara lets loose an arrow into a bad guy, I want it to feel like it should, like some dude just got three feet of wood and metal through the chest.

The sound when you nail someone in center mass is perfect. You feel the thunk more than you hear it, though truly your ears are the only things receiving any meaningful input in that regard. It’s a thwip, fhhhwww, thunk and the guy is reeling. These are sounds you’ve probably replicated a millions times with just your mouth when you played cowboys and Indians or pretended to be the Green Arrow or retold your take on Robin Hood, and to finally hear it accurate recreated as if they delved deep into your mind and came back with a WAV file of your childish notions of audio design.

Then, when the arrow does make contact with someone, it looks just so incredibly right. It’s not an overdone effect like when you blast someone with a shotgun in the game (it’s cartoonish, but it works), but instead it is subtly appropriate. Or at least as subtle as you can get when a razor-tipped rod shuttles into a dude’s eye socket at 130 mph. There’s just the slightest hint of a delay, suggesting that the reactions to a death blow is more cerebral than physical, which seems accurate given the total force of an arrow is nowhere near enough to physically knock someone down. But the way the head snaps back and the body crumples. Jeez it’s perfect. It gives the bow such a deadly feel without turning it into a string-mounted laser like in Crysis 3.

And once you start using it to ignite flammable gas and hook up zip-lines and pull down structures, you develop an all-encompassing relationship with the bow. It’s not just for hunting and it’s not just for killing. Instead, it’s for getting you out of a jam. It’s for getting you places you can’t get yourself. It’s a security blanket that gets you where you need to go. For Lara Croft, it is always the year of the bow.

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The Relative Scale Of Tomb Raider

The Relative Scale of Tomb Raider

I promise this will be the last time I write about Tomb Raider. Okay, probably not, but it’s a Good Game, and Good Games tend to bring up a lot of interesting questions. Journey, for instance, is a Good Game, and it asks you what does unconditional love mean to you. Shadow of the Colossus is a Good Game, and it asks you if doing bad things to enable good things is truly good or bad at all. To be fair, bad games make you ask questions, too, like why oh why have you forsaken me god, but that’s not necessarily an interesting question for video games.

The question that Tomb Raider asks is can you divorce the scale of experience in gameplay from that of the narrative. As you are probably well aware of by now, this Tomb Raider is a reboot of the entire franchise. There is a new real life person playing the role of the series protagonist Lara Croft in the fantastically British Camilla Luddington, the raiding of tombs has gone the way of hunting deer, and gun battles with jungle cats have been replaced with stealth kills with a bow and arrow.

This reboot includes the fact that Lara is no longer the gymnastic-enabled, quip-wielding badass from the old games. She is still quite a badass to be sure, but she is also much more inexperienced (it is, after all, her first expedition and boy do things go sideways) and thus much more vulnerable to jarring encounters. This famously includes near-rape, her first murder, and a sizable puncture wound through the entire side of her lower abdomen.

Narratively, this all works. Lara is established in just the way she needs to be: young, naive, and untested. We feel for her even before the real meat of the game begins because we all know how it feels to be in her shoes (or at least relative to what the character used to be and what other video game characters offer). I don’t know if we necessarily want to protect her, but we definitely do pull for her. She, much like all of us, is vulnerable. Her mortality is tangible and authentic and, above all else, breakable.

So when she is chased down like an animal by a bigger animal (metaphorically speaking, though she soon will be running from real animals as well), it’s not hard to sympathize with her because that fear is palpable. When she escapes a collapsing tunnel, we get that sense of urgency because we know that just a single rock could jeopardize her freedom. That three feet of iron she gets through her side is a reminder that she is not unbreakable, that is she not a space marine or tier one operator.

All of that sets the relative scale with which we operate. It is the ruler by which we measure all other circumstances of the game. Because Lara fails to make a jump over an inhumanly sized chasm is because she is supposed to be human, so we set the baseline of the scale. Because she is able to kill but is visible shake over the traumatic experience, we know where the spectrum ends.

But when the gameplay of the game snaps the ruler in half and stabs a pirate in the neck with the jagged stumps, we’re confused. Now that one of the few rules we’ve managed to establish in the game (and make mistake; rules are important, even when they’re just the ones we’ve cooked up in our head) is totally and utterly broken, we don’t know how to feel about subsequent events. It’s like holding a magnet near a compass; our compassion is thrown out of whack—skewed.

Call of Duty, oddly enough, does a rather good job with this marriage of narrative and gameplay scale. Things that kill you in a cutscene—say like at the end of No Russian in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2—kill you in the game, i.e. a headshot. The problem that modern Call of Duty games is that the narrative scale is so huge, we become numb to anything over a certain threshold. One nuke might as well be two nukes or three nukes or a baker’s dozen. One dead playable character might as well be all of them. We don’t know how to judge the impact of major events simply because of the size of the scale.

One skyscraper in the middle of suburbia sticks out because you can tell that, relative to the little two-story houses around it, it is huge. But in the middle of Manhattan, 20 stories is just the same as 30 stories or 40 stories. That’s the problem of narrative scale. The problem with Tomb Raider is relative scale between its presentation of character and plot and its gameplay. It’s as if someone drew lines all over those skyscrapers and turned them into optical illusions. We still have the compass, but we’ve lost magnetic north. And now we’re lost with Lara.

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Tomb Raider and the Croft-Drake Affair

Tomb Raider and the Croft-Drake Affair

Tomb Raider is a good game. I’m not quite done with it (damn you, friend-that-just-bought-a-pinball-machine), but I started out liking it and only felt my affection growing with each passing day. There were, admittedly, moments where I felt like it faltered or stretched itself too thin—Conan O’Brien’s “review” highlights one of these parts—but it’s hard to hold those against what is an otherwise well-executed and cohesive reboot of a known quantity.

This isn’t a complaint for me, but I have noticed and agreed with some people pointing out that Tomb Raider also tends to skew a bit closer to the Uncharted series than you would expect. These moments largely fall in the first third of the game, but they’re definitely there. The seminal franchise from Naughty Dog is known for its bombastic set pieces that often include crumbling buildings, speeding trains, and capsizing ships with you placed smack-dab in the middle of them. Built on top of fantastic shooting and climbing mechanics that give you an over-the-top yet grounded interpretation of the Indiana Jones mythos, Uncharted pulls off spectacle with aplomb.

You should know, though, that “grounded” doesn’t necessarily mean realistic. It just means that the characters and situations feel like something born from this world and not one where everyone is built like refrigerators and have chainsaws attached to the end of their guns (not that there’s anything wrong with that). However, Naughty Dog knows they aren’t building a realistic setting for Nathan Drake to explore and fight in. For all we know, all of his muscles are contained within his arms and his bones are hollow like a bird. How else would he be able to jump and climb the way he does?

“Realistic” is what Tomb Raider goes for and, well, ultimately fails at. Realism is when Lara impales herself on a piece of rebar and is rendered immobile by it. Realism is when Lara has to kill a man with her own hands and is visibly shaken by the process. Realism, however, is not what happens immediately following those two events, namely killing shit ton more dudes with an adeptness and ferocity heretofore unseen save for the likes of Kratos.

And Nathan Drake. Along with the Master Chiefs and Kenshiros of the world, Nathan is one of the most prolific mass murderers ever known to mankind. But he started out so human. He was purposefully made and animated to stumble as he ran, not effortlessly glide across the map like some transplanted figure skater. Rocks and ledges and little divots in the ground would cause him to misstep as he ran through the forests and ruins of the world, much like we know we would if we were similarly accomplish travelers.

He would lean into or touch walls and railings. Not even his balance was infallible. He would lament the incessant flow of bad guys impeding his progress and point out the absurdity of his actions. He, for all intents and purposes, was like us if we had infinite upper body strength and a penchant for untreated gunshot wounds.

Aside from the aforementioned leaking bullet-shaped holes in his torso, Nathan is presented to us as a human. He is a human murder machine among a society of other ostensibly human murder machines, sure, but he is still presented as a human within his milieu. It just so happens that everyone else is as trigger-happy as he is. You can see this in the beginning of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves where Nathan infiltrates a museum with cohort Harry Flynn. We are shown right in front of our eyes that Nathan Drake is not a superman. Next to us is someone just as capable as our hero, just not as lucky. Or charming. Or kick-ass. But it shows us that in this world, Nathan is just a regular ol’ dude.

Lara Croft is given similar trappings in this Tomb Raider reboot. She is, by far, the least graceful iteration of the acrobatic archaeologist that we’ve ever seen. Rather than cartwheeling and flipping over gaps and sauntering into battles with tigers and bad guys with guns blazing, this Lara is made to be human. Big falls see her stumble and trip. Rather than scream a bloody war cry as she runs headlong into battle, her voice shakes and breathing quickens as an encounter with even a single enemy looms tall. Even acquiring her first weapon is no easy task. Solid Snake climbed up a tree and grabbed his gear. Lara tumbles back down to Earth.

As far as we can tell, Lara is just as durable as Nathan, though. Despite the three feet of metal piercing her side, Lara still manages to clamber up cliffs and parachute through a seemingly endless basin full of trees like a leafy game of Plinko. She absorbs a commensurate amount of bullets and punches from her foes and she still comes out the other end ready for more. The only difference is that the world that Lara is in—the one we are made to accept that she and everyone else in the game exists and operates within—is made to look as human as she is.

We are not given a Harry Flynn. We do not know that Lara exists in a world made for combat where guns and henchmen flow like wine and other flowing things. Her kills are instant with one-shot initiative. She is hyper-personalized, and thus we apply similar human facades to this largely faceless fodder.

Tomb Raider seems to have had an equal chance at being called Lara Croft and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, each unfortunate event on her maiden expedition being of Lemony Snicket proportions. And that’s something we can all identify with. Her circumstances make her a product of her environment, so from her personality to her aspirations to her fears, we associate those with being human, which is easy because they are all very human in nature. So it’s a sizable departure when she starts killing dudes by the droves.

Nathan Drake isn’t humanized in quite the same way. Through his attitude and interpretation of his predicaments we are led to believe he thinks like we do and acts like we do, but it just so happens that he can do so much more than we can do because he lives in a world where that sort of thing just happens. Jumping off cliffs into a raging river below just sort of happens when you escape from bad guys, just as you do climb a falling train car as you nurse a bleeding tunnel of mangled flesh in your side.

Tomb Raider is still a good game, and those Uncharted comparisons are fair, to say the least, but there’s a facet in that Venn diagram that goes mostly untouched, and that is where Lara Croft and Nathan Drake diverge in their presentation. It’s not just who they are and what they say but it’s also where they are placed and what situations are thrown their way, much like how it’s not just the meal served but the plating and the fancy Top Chef-esque squiggles of deliberately placed sauce that makes the dish. It just so happens that Nathan’s humanity was designed to accommodate his murderous bent while Lara’s was not. We hoot and holler when Nathan runs from an explosion, but we simply pull for Lara’s survival. And then we question why she has to kill 20 men along the way.

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Tomb Raider’s Killing Curve

Tomb Raider's Killing Curve

Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider, the reboot to the storied classic franchise of yore, is less than a week out, but reviews are already running and they’re looking pretty good. I personally haven’t finished it yet but so far, the reviews match up: this is a fantastic game. The opening is a bit too Uncharted-y for its own good, but a stride is found, hit, and stridened soon after. There’s even a bit of Sleeping Dogs in there where it has a very realistic veneer but most of the internal workings are a bit goofier and more cartoonish than you’d expect (which I feel works is this case).

However, there’s one part that kind of sticks out at me and based on conversations I’ve had with other people that have played Tomb Raider, mine isn’t the only craw it’s found its way into. For all the drama that surrounded the marketing of this game from the seemingly unintentional but still sexist comments from executive producer Ron Rosenberg to the sexual assault scene, the fact that they decided to bring Lara Croft back to human roots of being vulnerable and new to the world of being a tomb raider/killer was a good decision in my eyes. The part that isn’t so good is how they did it.

Which is to say that they kind of didn’t do it. Lara does indeed start out inexperienced in the matters of taking lives and general survival, but she quickly steps up her game to Master Chief-level stuff. Her first kill definitely does what the designers and developers intended, which is to shock and disturb you as a player. It’s supposed to be a striking contrast, crossing that line from thinking to doing without any of the former, and you’re supposed to be shaken up—I know I was. It is almost the complete opposite of Hotline Miami where you start out numb to the macabre acts played out at your hands (only to get number).

But not five minutes later, Lara has killed many more times. The act of killing a man with her bare hands apparently no longer fazes her. I understand (the implicit notion) that Lara is one of those sorts of people emerge as an unwittingly cool customer under pressure where if it’s him or her, it will always be her that comes out on top, but there is no transition. There is no curve. According to Tomb Raider, the learning curve for killing is less of a continual slope and more of a sharp drop into easy sailing. Granted, that initial plunge is a huge hurdle, but after that, taking lives is as easy as breathing.

This rang a familiar bell to me and probably did for a lot of other people, too: Far Cry 3. The protagonist Jason Brody is stuck on a pirate-infest island where mercenaries and tigers basically set the rules and he must rescue his friends from some largely unseen evil clutches. He goes almost immediately from dudebro that has never killed or even thought about killing a man since that would take away precious mental processes from thinking about skydiving and saying things like “let’s crush it” and “get your pump on” to a well-oiled death machine.

There’s similar drama, too, surrounding Jason’s first kill (as well as the rest of the game). It’s definitely not has heavy-handed nor as impactful as with Lara, but the intent is the same; we’re supposed to see that murder changes a person and it isn’t to be taken lightly regardless of reason. The messages are ultimately different (or from what I’ve heard as I have yet to finish Tomb Raider), but the point is made.

The point, however, is kind of dulled due to the bludgeoning rock that is the broken killing curve. Yes, this is a video game, and yes, these games are better served to play the way they do earlier rather than later, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some game out there that could cultivate this notion into its own experience rather than having it play into some overarching design that can barely accommodate it.

It seems that the designers were aware of this, too. Concessions are made throughout both games that seem to acknowledge how they skimp on this established but underutilized inner conflict. For example, both games feature hunting. In Red Dead Redemption fashion, there are animals wandering around the game world that you can kill and skin for either materials (Far Cry 3) or sustenance (Tomb Raider). Without any preface, both Jason and Lara can clean and cut a felled beast with ease, and only later is it revealed through optional or easily missed dialogue that both used to hunt with their families in their younger years. They are both so throwaway that it seems like afterthoughts shoehorned into the game because that was all they could do to justify some of the hyper accelerated capabilities of both protagonists.

Of course, as with the killing and whatnot, this all better serves the game, but is there not a way for this to be incorporated from the get-go? Or maybe somehow used as a narrative mechanic? Here’s a thought: the first skinning of an animal takes time. Like, way more time than a player would be comfortable sitting through. A full minute of watching the character struggle with how to rip the hide off a buffalo, saying something like “I wish I’d gone hunting more with my dad” or “that documentary made this seem so easy.” You know what? Make it a mini game. Make it arduous or difficult but make it mirror the difficulties of the character.

But the next time they skin something, it takes less time. The button inputs or the dexterity requirements of the mini game are lessened. Over time, the mechanic of skinning an animal becomes easier and quicker for you because it would obviously become easier and quicker for the character. They learn, and it comes through in this narrative mechanic. Muscle memory and simplified or streamlined motions kick in and eventually you only have to initiate the process and you’re done. It communicates to you that the character has grown without a single line of dialogue or text and it rewards the player for playing. It’s a win-win.

That is, of course, something that has to be deliberately designed and integrated into a game. Plugging that into Far Cry 3 or Tomb Raider will probably serve only to worsen the experience for players, but what I’m saying is that it’s not impossible to have a game with this gradation of murder instead of a jump and a swim in Death Lake. It’s not impossible to ride the killing curve. It’s just that Tomb Raider doesn’t have one.

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