Tomb Raider: A Game that Refuses to Let you Actually Play the Damn Thing

August 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Back in the days when I wasn’t really sure what the internet was for I used to buy the ‘Official Playstation 2 Magazine UK’ on a fairly regular basis. That monthly trip down to the newsagent was one filled with great anticipation – an act which provided my only real connection with the wider gaming community. Back in those days of course, any publication of this type spent the majority of its time dealing in those staples of video game journalism, reviews and previews, but every month the editors of OPSM2 would fill their back pages with more opinionated content and one month this took the form of an article entitled:

“Haters of the Greats”

Actually, that probably wasn’t the title at all, but it’s the best I’ve got for you right now. At any rate, one particular complaint from the article felt especially relevant to me as I recently made my way through Tomb Raider (2013). The complaint was regarding Metal Gear Solid 2 (then a recent release for the Playstation 2) and, if memory serves, went something like as follows this:

“Imagine you are sitting in an amazingly powerful sports car, a Ferrari or a Porsche, one that’s capable of absolutely bombing it down the motorway. Except whenever you come close to putting your foot down, the owner of the car sitting in the passenger seat beside you forces you to pull over and look at pictures of his stupid children. The car is Metal Gear Solid 2, and the children are Hideo Kojima’s numerous cutscenes and endless radio conversations.”

Tomb Raider doesn’t include hours of radio conversations, nor does its story come anywhere close to the meta-insanity of MGS2. Nor, it must be said, are its cutscenes even particularly long but their problem is that they’re constant and invasive – at best, unnecessary and, at worst, actively in the way. You’ll be climbing up the most generic of cliffs, only for the game to pointlessly cut away to introduce the presence of enemies. You’ll be crossing a rushing stream, only for the game to take control away, purely to make the camera more shaky and ‘atmospheric’. You’ll be rushing a group of enemies, only for a cinematic to happen, and for Lara to dispatch them with no input from yourself.

Even when the game isn’t foisting cutscenes on you, it’s generally taking control away in ways that make it feel like the game is playing itself. The level designers on Tomb Raider simply refuse to accept the possibility that you might not notice some of their work, or at least that’s the way it feels as the game patronisingly prods and pushes your camera this way and that.

At times, I could almost see the thought process behind all these cinematics. Rather than leave the static camera in the player’s hands, the game chooses to show a scene with more dramatic camera angles and more aggressive editing in an attempt to amp up the tension. Unfortunately, whilst it’s this is very effective in the non-interactive medium of film, a game’s tension comes from a completely different place; the interactivity and thus the chance of failure. As soon as a sequence becomes non-interactive, there is no longer a possibility of failure and any tension disappears.

One moment in the game really encapsulates this problem. After escaping some temple ruins, Lara needs to make her way down to the beach to warn her companions of the incoming imminent danger. Predictably however there’s a few hundred guards in the way and, most problematically, a machine-gun turret. Not to worry, what follows is fun, if unoriginal segment in which you run from cover to cover until you get to reach higher ground and can use a zip line to get behind the gunner.

There’s quite a nice sense of pace to this section. Enemies start to flank you if you remain behind a piece of cover for too long which forces you to keep moving forward. The constant threat of the turret on the horizon is a well-telegraphed end-point to this section and one that you look forward to overcoming.

So, after a tense ten minutes of gameplay, you finally find yourself ready to get down behind the turret… Only for the game to launch a cutscene midway down the zip-line, destroying any tension or chance of failure. In a feeble attempt to make the section at least a little interactive you’re permitted to pull the trigger yourself, but it might as well have been a quick-time-event for all the agency you’re actually allowed at that point.

It’s almost as though the game doesn’t believe you have the ability to play it right. It has an idea of how a scene should play out, and then takes away interactivity until you have no option except to play it one way and one way only. The game constantly thinks that it knows best.

Except, in many cases, it just doesn’t. Tomb Raider is a third-person, cover-based, action game that includes neither a button to crouch, nor one to, y’know, actually get into cover… This leads to some awkward moments when Lara will waltz into a firefight with a completely straight back until she’s close enough to some cover to automatically crouch behind it and, at other in the moments when all you want to do is run, Lara will instead stubbornly remain crouched instead.

Despite these problems, Tomb Raider ends up being a complete cake-walk, precisely because it takes away so much control – it’s difficult to ever actually fail at anything. I turned the game’s difficulty up to ‘hard’ within the first couple of hours of play, but even this wasn’t enough to make up for the gratuitous amounts of hand-holding and patronising internal monologues (“I need to get on top of that cage…” mused Lara to herself ten seconds after being presented with a puzzle).

There is something to be said for a game that makes itself accessible to people who haven’t touched every Tomb Raider game for the past ten years, but this heavy-handed implementation isn’t it. There are far more subtle ways of holding the player’s hand to ease them through a challenge – by using natural light in the environment to draw attention toward mission-critical items, for example. When playtesting reveals that a jump emerges too quickly for the player to react to it, the solution is not to slow-down time but to telegraph the event further back so that the player has the information they need to make it in time.

Ultimately, Tomb Raider only feels the need to hold your hand only because, in an attempt to make itself a frantic fast-paced experience, the game became too difficult. The solution in this instance should not have been to grip your hand ever-tighter, but to decrease the initial difficulty so that the player might be given full control over the experience, whilst retaining a chance of success. This is the real source of tension in a well-designed game, this cinema-lite experience that Crystal Dynamics have produced. 

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