Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I Love/Hate Tomb Raider Anniversary

Tomb Raider 2013 was the first Tomb Raider game I'd ever played. I liked it quite a bit, despite all of my criticisms, though I realized it was a very different type of game than what was originally established in the 90s by Core Design. To get some more perspective on the series, I decided to try the one-two combo of the original 1996 Tomb Raider and its 2007 remake, Tomb Raider Anniversary. Originally, I planned on playing corresponding levels in each game side-by-side for direct comparison, but I gave up on that endeavor after only completing the first level in the original game.

As it turns out, the original Tomb Raider hasn't aged very well, and I just couldn't bring myself to put up with its clunky control scheme after getting a taste of the more modernized Tomb Raider Anniversary. From what I could tell of that first level, Anniversary seems like a faithful remake that captures the spirit of the original game with all of the same setpieces and puzzles, but with obviously better graphics and better controls. Anniversary takes it one step further by adding some of its own original content in the form of extra explorable areas on the side with extra hidden rewards, which I think makes Anniversary the definitive edition of this game, which is not to be confused with 2014's Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.

Whereas my opinion of Tomb Raider 2013 remained a flatline from beginning to end, consisting of enthusiastic enjoyment marred by disappointing missed potential, Anniversary marked a much more dramatic rise and fall as I played through it. I was so impressed by its level design, its puzzles, and its convincing emphasis on platforming and exploration over combat that I was prepared to declare Anniversary one of my all-time favorite platforming games early on. The more I played, however, the more I realized how much I'd grown to despise it.

As a true puzzle-platforming game, Anniversary blows Tomb Raider 2013 and all three of the Uncharted games out of the water. In each of those games, the platforming felt cursory, as if it was included simply to check off a box in the marketing campaign. You were essentially always following a linear route through an area, and the gameplay involved was no more sophisticated than holding the control stick in a certain direction and occasionally pressing the jump button. Platforming basically required as much involvement as walking down a hallway and opening a door, and it served the same mechanical purpose -- it just looked nicer. 

In Anniversary, platforming is the entire essence of the game, and it feels so much more mentally and physically engaging. Instead of mindlessly following the only possible route through an area, Anniversary places you in large, complex rooms that require you to explore multiple different paths to figure out what you need to be doing and how you're going to accomplish it. Typically, each area in a level will contain multiple mechanisms that you need to operate -- you first have to pick the correct path to reach the mechanism, and then you sometimes have to solve a puzzle to use it. Once you've activated the contraption, it alters the configuration of the room, and you need to decide how to manipulate your environment to reach other areas. 

Anniversary makes you think about what you're doing, but it also demands a certain level of dexterity and timing to succeed. The game frequently requires you to make it through an entire "course" in one go, with multiple opportunities for failure forcing you to start the process over from the beginning. Sometimes you're acting under a time limit that adds a necessity for speed in addition to accuracy and precision, but more frequently you encounter restrictions on how long you can stay on a certain platform before it retracts or before you get hit with some hazard, or you're expected to time your jumps so that you dodge an obstacle that will kill you or block your access. 

The game instills a very rewarding feeling of trial-and-error, both in terms of its mental puzzles (figuring out what you need to do) and its physical demands (performing the actions successfully). The game is totally linear in terms of what you need to do to complete each area, but it doesn't feel linear because the game allows you to explore different options and strategies, experimenting to figure out what works and what doesn't. By allowing different attempts to fail, you get to feel that rewarding "eureka moment" when you piece the puzzle together and find the solution. The game expects you to use your own wits and develop your own skill, which makes it satisfying to complete each level because the game's clearly not holding your hand.

Going through the options menu, one of the very first things I did was enable the "manual grab" option that makes you press and hold R2 to grab onto a ledge, rather than the game doing it for you automatically. It's such a simple change in the control scheme, but it did wonders for making me feel more engaged in what I was doing. I've become so jaded by games doing everything for you automatically that it feels like your actions don't really matter; it was nice to play a game where it mattered not only where I jumped from, but when I jumped (to dodge obstacles, to reach a platform as it moved into position, or to get the most momentum in my jump), and also that I press a button to grab that ledge since all of this gives you a greater feeling of control over the game and makes your specific actions matter. 

Levels are frequently designed so that you're in large, spacious rooms, or a complex series of rooms that you have to go back and forth between, with a lot of ground to cover -- this provides a lot of opportunities for exploration, to find optional artifacts, relics, health packs, and ammunition. Optional challenges are always a good thing (provided they're implemented in a meaningful, rewarding way) because it feels satisfying knowing you accomplished something that not everyone will accomplish. Since you have limited, non-regenerating health and limited ammo for all of your special weapons, finding those items provides a tangible reward for your efforts that will make later parts of the game easier, while the relics and artifacts are used to unlock bonus content. There's a lot of hidden, optional content in this game, too -- I'm usually pretty thorough about doing everything I can in one playthrough, and I was surprised by how much stuff I completely missed.

The levels all look nice, too, offering a lot of exotic variety as you go through the game visiting Peru, Greece, Egypt, and a weird alien-looking pyramid. Each room in each region has its own unique mechanisms that you have to manipulate, but what's perhaps more impressive is that everything is tied together by a specific theme. In Greece, for example, a lot of chambers are based around kings, gods, and mythological figures -- in the Midas room you have to get lead bars and convert them to gold by placing them on Midas' hand; in the Poseidon room, you have to play with the water level to reach the top of a tall tower; in the Damocles room you have to dodge giant swords that fall from the ceiling. All of these contraptions are totally absurd when you think about them existing in a real tomb or temple, but you have to appreciate their inventiveness and their coherence to theme.

There's a lot less combat in Anniversary, as compared to Tomb Raider 2013 or any of the Uncharted games, which means that when it does happen, combat is actually tense and exciting. When you have to fight a giant tyrannosaurus rex, it's awesome. When you get ambushed by two gorillas and two lionesses, it's legitimately frightening. For the most part, combat is just there to keep you on your toes and to whittle down your health packs in a sort of light survival system -- combat isn't all that sophisticated, but it serves its purpose well and ensures that most combat encounters feel unique and properly timed. 

It's also nice that you only ever fight wild animals (and weird, alien-looking monsters) in Anniversary. I criticized Tomb Raider 2013 quite heavily for feeling like a "murder simulator," and was a little put off by how quickly Lara went from an innocent college graduate to a ruthless, efficient killing machine. Anniversary, in contrast, feels much more lighthearted on account of its greater emphasis on platforming, puzzle-solving, and non-violent confrontation, but its finicky, inconsistent controls pissed me off so much that it made me wish I could murder things. 

The trouble with Anniversary is that it relies too heavily on what I'm going to call "scripted hotspot platforming." What I mean is that Lara normally has certain limitations on how high, how far, or at what angle she can jump, but she'll perform differently as the game necessitates, depending on the context of the level design. Say there's a gap that would normally be too wide for Lara to jump across, but the game intended for you to go that way; when you try to make that jump, Lara will call upon her superhero platforming powers to extend her reach beyond what she'd normally be capable of in any other context. 

This becomes problematic when you try to do something that the game didn't expect, like if you try to make a certain jump you're supposed to make but don't jump from the exact, precise location the game intended, or if you approach it from a slightly different angle than the game intended -- because you'll fall to your death and assume Lara can't make that jump, thus leading you to investigate other possibilities when you were already on the correct path. On other occasions, you'll make a jump successfully the first time and then fail on subsequent attempts, for inexplicable reasons, because you didn't realize that you had to be in that exact, perfect position to make the jump in the first place.  

On yet other occasions, you encounter things that look like you should be able to do, but inexplicably can't. This creates a lot of "false leads" as you repetitively try to do something that seems reasonable and totally possible, wondering what you're doing wrong in terms of finding the game's intended hotspot, when in fact you're expected to come back to that object later from elsewhere in the room. Sometimes the controls demand such insane precision that you can miss non-hotspot jumps by as little as one pixel or one degree, so you never know exactly why you've died or why you've missed a certain platform because its rules are so unclear.

In the pictured scenario above, you have to make it from point 1 to point 7. In order to get across the gap, you have to jump onto the ankh-shaped switch at point 2, which extends a platform beneath you at point 3, while also activating spinning blades of death that run along the blue lines. The blades move in inverse directions, so the solution to this scenario is quite simple: you wait until they're on opposite sides of the room, then jump across to point 4, shimmy up to point 6, and climb around to point 7. I got through this sequence with no problem on my first try, but after failing a jump shortly afterward and having to restart from the last checkpoint, I could not for the life of me get past this sequence again. 

When you activate the ankh switch, both blades are in the exact positions you need them to be in (the top blade going left and the bottom blade going right) to get from point 3 to point 6 safely. Already knowing the solution, I immediately jumped from 3 to 4, only to find Lara refusing to grab the ledge at point 4. I then died five or six more times trying to figure out what I was doing wrong when I had done it so easily the first time. As I eventually figured out, you have to wait until the blades make a full circuit before attempting the jump, which I did the first time observing their patterns, or else Lara will miss the ledge at point 4, even though it's perfectly doable without waiting. 

In other words, there's a hidden script you're supposed to follow in order to make that jump, because the character on screen acts independently of the player behind the controller, and that's bullshit design. 

Even when Lara is not brazenly defying me, the game still kills me frequently with its plethora of random glitches and inconsistencies. I grapple onto a hook and Lara disconnects it immediately, falling to her death; I climb up onto a ledge and she glitches out, popping on and off the ledge for a second before plummeting to her death; I shimmy along a ledge, and she randomly lets go, falling to her death; I climb up a pillar, press to jump up to the next groove, and Lara does the correct jump animation but plummets straight down to her death; I try to leap onto a horizontal pole, and Lara instead does a tiny little hop, falling to her death; I press up at the top of a ladder intending to jump up to the next ledge, and Lara instead jumps away from the ladder, falling to her death; I try to jump from one horizontal pole to another, and she falls the opposite direction of her momentum, plummeting to her death.

These kinds of glitches and control issues only crop up about five percent of the time, but when the entire game revolves around platforming, that five percent adds up very quickly. A couple of times I had to go through a section four or five times before I made it to the next checkpoint, and I swear I did the exact same thing each time, but died a different way each time. I spent so much time replaying sections of this game that I was perfectly able to beat, just because the random number generator decided it was time for me to die again. It got to a point where I was so fed up with the controls and the random nonsense deaths that I stopped going after relics and artifacts altogether, even when I knew exactly how to get them, because it just wasn't worth the potential frustration of having to repeat more sections of the game.

As much as I enjoy the puzzle-platforming design, many of the more complex puzzles can become a tedious chore if you don't know exactly what you're supposed to do right away, because you get stuck repeating the same platforming sequences over and over again as you move between the various mechanisms trying different orders and different combinations. Trial-and-error can be a very good thing, but there's almost too much trial-and-error in certain puzzles, and that problem gets exacerbated when you have to perform a complex series of platforming actions between each and every possible trial -- especially when the controls are so apt to get you killed randomly and thwart your progress. I think the puzzles also rely a little too heavily on the same levers for everything you do. 

When you complete each of the game's four chapters, you're presented with a quick-time-event cutscene that takes all the fun out of the situation. Quick-time events are criticized in almost every context, but they're disappointing in this game because I want to be playing these epic action sequences -- not watching it happen and pressing a button to advance the cutscene. They're easy enough that I can't complain too much, except for the final boss fight that suddenly gives you only a half-a-second to hit a certain button, which is basically impossible to do unless you know when it's going to happen in advance, so the game's climactic finale was ruined by making me watch the same cutscene three times. 

I started out absolutely loving Tomb Raider Anniversary, but somewhere between the halfway point and the three-quarter mark, I realized how much it was actually pissing me off. I have a lot of respect for its level design, its puzzles, and its emphasis on exploration and platforming over combat, but the inconsistent, finicky controls, the scripted hotspot "splat"-forming, and the random glitches were enough to completely ruin the experience for me. I was feeling eager to try Tomb Raider II or possibly Legend or Underworld after finishing Anniversary, but now I'm not so sure. 


  1. Nice review, as always.

    Has anyone ever recommended inFAMOUS to you? You should try it if you haven't.

    1. I think exactly one person before you has. It's on my to-do list, but since I don't currently own it and I'm trying not to buy any new games until I clear through some of my collection, I most likely won't be getting around to it for a long while.

    2. Cool. Something for you and your readers to look forward to.

  2. Overall I think they did very well with Anniversary and to me it is by far the best Tomb Raider game out there. But this may be because the good game has already been there and they only had to lift it to the actual technical standard with slight changes and improvements.

    I'd really like to see both Legend and Underworld reviews since they are huge letdowns compared to Anniversary.

    1. I don't currently own them, but I was willing to break my rule of not buying more games if I'd thoroughly enjoyed Anniversary. Since Anniversary kind of me pissed me off, those games will have to wait until I've cut some sort of dent into my collection.

  3. The first two Tomb Raider were the best, everything after that...

    Few cutscenes, level exploration, inventory/ resources conservation/ management. Good memories though I can see why someone who wasn't playing them back when they were released might not be able to get into them. Like people not being able to get into System Shock because of the graphics, UI and controls.

  4. I'm sorry, but saying that Anniversary is the definitive edition of this game is about as asinine as saying that Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong is the definitive version of that movie. These are two different movies. Likewise, Anniversary isn't an update of an old game, but a new game pretending to be an old one.

    I personally despise Anniversary. It's the only Tomb Raider title I actually rage quite on, and I've played ALL of the other Tomb Raider games to completion. I would seriously rather play the original game 10 times in a row before touching this one again.

    I hated the control scheme of the Crystal Dynamics' TR games. The 2013 Tomb Raider at least knew how to utilize a modern analogue control scheme well, but in the LAU trilogy, the speed of the controls was crippled by an incredibly clumsy imprecision and a camera with a mind of its own.

    Say what you like about the clunky control and "grid" system of the original series, but at least it was consistent. At least it worked like clockwork. At least Lara would always move forward if you hit the forward button, no matter what direction the camera was facing. At least it was far more about your ease with the controls, and your choices in utilizing Lara's skills to navigate the environment than it was about your reflexes. At least that Lara had a sense of weight to her, rather than the acrobatic flea/squirrel she seems to be in Crystal's games. At least the PC version of this game wasn't an afterthought.

    Anniversary also does not improve upon the design of the original save for the puzzles in St. Francis' Folly. That's it. The rest of the locations are like miniature golf versions of their counterparts in the original game, all streamlined and depressingly shortened, because modern gamers just don't have the patience for true exploration. I can't recall one moment in Anniversary where I got lost, and that's a bad thing.

    Yes, the graphics are better, and some locations look closer to what they were originally supposed to be, but the game has a much more muted and washed-out palette than the original, which gives every location a monotonous feel. TR1 Egypt was much more colorful, and Atlantis was creepier.

    While I liked the sound design and ambiance, I disliked the dramatic music score, with its tiresome epic choir that pretended it cared so much about every battle against every single rat, bat, crocodile, or gorilla along the way. The ambient tracks, musical queues, and haunting themes of Nathan McCree's original score were so much more effective.

    And I loathe QTEs with every fiber of my being. In the original, you had to defeat Larson in battle before watching a brief cutscene in which Lara interrogated him, which was so much more satisfying than having to play through a series of timed prompts to disable him in exactly the same way every time. And you could avoid the T.rex in the Lost Valley (if you were lucky), escape through an alcove, snipe at it from a distance, or stand your ground and dispatch the beast then and there. You weren't forced into a maddening arena with invisible walls, and utilize the infuriating bullet time feature to precisely time his defeat. The original game let you deal with enemies as you saw fit. And if it looked like you could grab hold of a ledge, you could.

    And I'm not even going to touch upon how I disagree with the entire story arc and Crystal's interpretation of Lara's character, and the the story of the first game in particular.

    It truly breaks my heart that most modern gamers don't have the patience to play this series. The old games were brilliant, in their own way. They just didn't hold your hand and demanded more of you than most of today's games.

    1. Have you guys played the fan remake of Tomb Raider II? It has the gameplay style of the TRLAU trilogy but the paths, while still linear, aren't that very obvious. I got lost at the very first level (the only level you can play in the demo, anyway), and it felt good. Lol. I missed getting lost in a TR game.