Tomb Raider: Where the Survivor Stumbled

Let’s get the full disclosure part out of the way up front, shall we?

  • I love the new Tomb Raider.
  • I’ve never played a previous Lara Croft game.
  • I have 100% campaign completion on Normal, am going back through for my Hard playthrough, and recently bought a few cables so that I can play multiplayer with voice chat over PSN.
  • Nothing I’m about to say precludes my resounding recommendation that people go buy and play this fantastic game. It tells a great story, it’s set in a breathtaking environment, has some fantastic, memorable music, and is just a ton of fun, particularly if you’re the sort of person who feels compelled to find and collect anything that causes an incomplete fraction to pop up on your screen when you find one of it.

But in the wake of news of “disappointing sales” and a flood of unhappiness and ranting following the announcement that no single-player DLC is planned for the game, I think it’s worth looking at what happened and considering why.

The number one problem I have with Tomb Raider is that it is too easy. I say that not as a long-time fan who misses the challenges of older games, but as a platformer aficionado who has tackled extremely challenging and hazardous tombs in, say, several Assassin’s Creed games over the years (tombs which aren’t even fundamental to the franchise’s story or branding) and found that the most difficult moments in Tomb Raider were a cakewalk when compared to other games it can’t help being held up against. I had to work far harder to achieve full campaign completion in pretty much every other platform/exploration-driven game I’ve ever played (going back to PS1, say).

That’d be alarming even if this weren’t called “Tomb Raider” and if the franchise’s core fanbase hadn’t fallen in love with the challenge of each tomb. So while I think any fans who pass on this game because of its representation of Lara are simply making an incredibly ignorant decision, the fans who pass because of the lack of challenge? They have a point. It may be a great game, but it isn’t the type of game they wanted to play, not the type of game Tomb Raider used to feel like.

So here’s my “review.” If you played Tomb Raider for Lara, pick this up. If you played Tomb Raider for the sense of mystery, discovery, and adventure, pick this up. But if you played for puzzles that could stump you for hours, and if your sense of achievement is tied to the difficulty of overcoming extreme challenge? Then maybe this isn’t for you after all. And I think the extent to which that may apply to a lot of people who loved Tomb Raider in the past is rather sad. But beyond that, I can’t think of many reasons not to play this game.

While all that may seem a bit unrelated to the backlash over DLC, it honestly isn’t tangential at all. The campaign established a great toolset and delivered progressively harder tombs as Lara combed Yamatai, and I don’t think I was the only fan who not only hoped but took for granted that a “challenging tombs” pack was going to come out sometime soon. We were prepared to pay extra money for the challenge that was blatantly missing from the game. And then we found out it wasn’t coming…ever.

I attended the Tomb Raider panel at PAX East this weekend and the difficulty of the game (or lack thereof) was brought up. Crystal & Square recognize the outcry, and acknowledge the more rudimentary challenge level of this game. While what was said doesn’t necessarily excuse them (or the lack of DLC), it’s worth mentioning here. Two culprits were pointed to, each with its own merit.

The first is the tone of this Tomb Raider in contrast with past games. 2013’s Tomb Raider is rugged and real, powered by emotion and character rather than action and diversion. The story maintains a rather constant urgency and that’s a tone which is difficult to maintain even in the best of games. While diversionary romps through hour-long tombs may make sense for Ezio (especially if he hasn’t reached the next narrative waypoint to guide the story along), Lara is in a very present battle for survival and rescue. In terms of “gamey” mechanics, it simply wouldn’t make narrative sense for her to meander off into dark and dangerous dungeons while her best friend is in real danger of being sacrificed, or while she herself has not developed an affinity for crypts as of yet and would just like to be home in a warm bed. Sure, as the game goes on we begin to see the “old” Lara surface and a confidence emerge which ensures future games will have to up the ante. But in terms of this story? Extensive tombs really just wouldn’t have worked.

When you consider past Tomb Raider games, you’ll notice more of an emphasis on fun and fantasy, elements which while not absent from this game are definitely (and intentionally) subdued. Seldom does a moment arise in the new Tomb Raider where your suspension of disbelief is broken: Yamatai feels real, the danger feels real, and part of you wonders if that dangerous island isn’t actually out there, amassing shipwrecks and downed planes and populated by a manic and lost cult. Every tomb feels like just that: a tomb, a place actually used by real people who had a real purpose for the environment. The challenge of traversing it feels practical because it wasn’t created to be challenging, it just became challenging as traditional footpaths and the like eroded and decayed over time. In much the same way as a person who drops a ladder needs to find another way down from the roof, Tomb Raider‘s challenge isn’t overtly gamey. It makes sense contextually.

One panelist pointed out how in previous games the difficulty stemmed from mechanics like having to pull a lever in one room which seemed disconnected from the door that lever opened in some other room. We’re used to this in games, but if you think about it, no actual person would ever develop a system that complicated for getting into a room. Believability and difficulty are ever at odds in these tombs and in this particular case, with narrative in mind, I actually appreciate the thought that went into the design of each one.

And the second point, which is so obvious it’s almost surprising, is that you didn’t need to use survival mode to get through the tombs. I’m sure there are SOME people out there who figured everything out easily enough without that aid, but anyone who complained that the tombs were too easy after having used such a blatant newb-friendly crutch should re-evaluate whether the game lacked challenge because it was inherently too easy, or because they opted for the path of least resistance. The goal of this reboot was to open the door for a new generation of players to a franchise which had become stagnant and rather esoteric, and to the extent that accessibility precluded forced difficulty, the onus may be said to be on players for challenging themselves if the standard experience proved too simplistic. This mirrors my own thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII‘s auto-battle system: sure, I wish the fighting had been more complex and demanding, but I could have chosen to mix up my fighting and made battles more interesting of my own accord; my decision to do otherwise can’t really be laid at Square’s feet.

So perhaps you can understand and appreciate why the game’s core tomb set was easier than it might have been. But that level of forgiveness is trumped by the absence of DLC — an admittedly more “hardcore” product insomuch as casual players aren’t likely to seek it out — and the knowledge that people who wanted to buy more Tomb Raider content in the spirit of the original Tomb Raider were deemed less worth developing content for than the ostensible multiplayer crowd definitely stings.

This, then, is the second major issue I have with Tomb Raider, and that’s its focus on multiplayer. Now like I said, I look forward to playing multiplayer. I have heard decent things about it, and it sounds like it’s got an interesting twist on the typical formula. But the fact remains that no one is going to buy Tomb Raider on the basis of it having a multiplayer mode, robust or otherwise. And while the people who do play will obviously need a fresh supply of content to keep them hooked instead of wandering off to play other games, it seems a bit more balanced approach would have been appropriate.

I’m not going to repeat the (now trite) complaint that single-player games are having multiplayer shoehorned into them and that development costs are being taken away from making a better single-player product because of it. There’s some merit there for sure but I don’t think the issue with Tomb Raider was that not enough time was spent polishing it. If difficulty is my prime concern and it can be explained for non-resource-related reasons, then obviously something more is at play.

In this case, it may simply be the failure to recognize that reigning multiplayer champions like Halo and Call of Duty are simply not going to be usurped. Variety is great but the popularity of such stalwart mainstays suggests that the reason people keep buying and playing them is more to do with how they don’t change than with how they do; familiarity, rather than freshness, seems to be driving those mind-blowing sales.

So to come along and expect, as Square clearly did, that a game-changing multiplayer might make Tomb Raider more of a hit — and to back that assumption by developing multiplayer-exclusive content — seems a rather foolhardy decision. And it’s a shame, because you know they realize that too. A cursory glance at the backlash reveals a rather clear message: We don’t want more multiplayer. We didn’t even really want it in the first place. And the money we would have given you gladly for other content, you’ll never see, because you’re not making that content.

Tomb Raider is a great game, and hopefully the beginning of an extraordinary new life for the Lara Croft franchise. It would be tragic for the “poor” sales to preclude further games with this level of excellence being made, and on that basis alone I reiterate my encouragement to go buy yourself a copy. But I sincerely hope that, now that the origin story has been told and a “survivor has been born,” Crystal and Square learn from their mistakes here and deliver a follow-up which will live up to the bar they’ve set while thrilling the disgruntled fanbase that just wants to be forced to think a little harder. Just cater to the masochists and introverts.

We are gamers, after all.

A life in games. In music. Part Two.

I’ve played many games over the last eighteen years. Some were evanescent, forgotten even as I met them. Others, like childhood friends, are fondly remembered but vaguely; time has dissolved their features, erased the details. Ask about them and I’ll say “ah, yes,” and smile, but my brow will furrow if you press for much more than a name.

But another group remains: the indelible. The ones that have, for decades, stayed with me on my journey. The ones that changed that journey’s course. These are the games I seek to share with you, but sharing is impossible. Games are special because they’re interactive, and that means our fondness for them cannot be taught or shared. To love a game is to catch a fever and burn with it, perhaps for a season or perhaps forever, but always alone. Two discussing their love for one game may be at accord on many of its traits but never all of them; in a way, no two people ever play the same game.

Still, we try. You know the games I never played; here, then, are the ones I have. My words are mere formalities, meant to amuse but then, who knows, right? My hope is that by the time you reach the end of this you’ll understand me better, and where my words fail perhaps the music I’ve chosen will speak more clearly. So take a walk with me through my life. Remember these games if they’re part of you, and explore them if they’re not. These are the games that shaped my life; perhaps you’ll meet one here that changes yours.

This is a continuation of my musical journey, begun here.

PAX East 2012: Assassin’s Creed 3

On Sunday, amidst the swarming show floor of the third annual PAX East exhibition hall, I had the pleasure of sitting in on Ubisoft’s closed-door Assassin’s Creed III demonstration. Twice. For those who couldn’t make it to Boston this year (or who were too overwhelmed by the ever-intimidating line leading into the black box), here’s a walkthrough of the demo and some quick thoughts on what lies ahead for the popular franchise.

The Demo

After a brief introduction by creative director Alex Hutchinson (who provides the voiceover for the ten-minute demonstration), we are transported via animus to June 17, 1775. Location: Bunker Hill, Massachusetts.

A gorgeous New England landscape can be seen over the shoulders of a figure on horseback bearing the familiar trappings of the Assassin Order. As he dismounts and approaches the tattered array of blue-uniformed soldiers, we notice blue tails of fabric swaying beneath his white cloak. The assassin slides through the colonial ranks as a colonel — perhaps William Prescott — rallies his men into battle: “…and above all, do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

Hutchinson takes a moment to familiarize new viewers with the game’s new ancestral hero Connor Kenway with a faster, smoother version of the video released several weeks ago, dispelling for good the rumors that Connor lacks a hidden blade before returning to the battle lines and showing, for the first time, the sheer scale of battle that Assassin’s Creed III plans on offering gamers this fall.

Across an open valley we see a steep hill virtually covered with red-coated troops lining up and unleashing cloud after cloud of white musket smoke. Deviating from the crowded streets of past games in the franchise, Ubisoft needed to up the ante for NPC populations. Whereas previously an Assassin’s Creed game featured a cap of a couple hundred onscreen characters, AC3 boasts a mind-blowing two thousand to 2500. It’s visually impressive and psychologically daunting, and as gameplay resumes one suddenly realizes that any one of those thousands of soldiers is armed with a potentially lethal musket that could be pointed in Connor’s direction.

The target — British Major John Pitcairn — is nestled safely atop the distant hill and beyond all those guns. Given the choice between the assault and stealth paths up the mountain (provided intuitively, not via intrusive UI) the demo opts for the latter, and after carefully timing his runs between, over, and under cover (new motion mechanics allow for seamless environment traversal) and dodging a few stray cannonballs (read: new reactionary animations are in full effect here), Connor is vaulting into the branches at the base of the hill.

Those concerned that the parkour elements of previous installments would transfer sloppily or seem forced in a natural environment can rest easy: a handful of new animations ensure that whether hopping or swinging from branch to branch or hugging a narrow trunk while easing around to the other side, tree traveling looks natural and convincing.

Eventually Connor happens upon a group of seven redcoats heading towards the front lines on a dirt trail. The demo opts for an ambush, and a slick new weapon-selection UI pops up from which the rope dart — a new and immediately likable weapon — is selected and subsequently hurled towards the unfortunate British point man.

What follows is a flurry of action that, if not for the manufactured pauses of the demonstration, unfolds with almost shocking speed and accuracy. Connor hooks his first target and uses him as a counterweight to swing down from the tree in which he’s hiding only to land right behind his victim’s not-quite-sure-what’s-happening companion. One throat-slash later and Connor is brandishing victim number two as a human shield to absorb the shots from the five remaining soldiers who have — like the well-trained infantry they are — lined up to take aim at the intruder.

Hutchinson comically points out the still-dangling feet of the first victim as Connor drops his meatshield and rushes the now-reloading group, using his tomahawk, hidden blade, and pistol — and the enemies’ own bayonets and muskets — to rapidly dispatch all five of them. The camera dynamically zooms to catch the action as it unfolds, backing out in time to aid Connor in countering each new and unfortunate attacker.

Then it’s back up into the trees — painstakingly designed to reflect the reality of New England woodland’s lack of uniformity — wherein the game exhibits a newfound and impressive degree of verticality. Seasoned tree-climbers will recognize the “okay, I got to this point, where now?” pause as getting to the nearby cliffside becomes a puzzle in itself.

The cliff is a welcome change from the contrived climbing limitations of most buildings in prior games. Hutchinson highlights the wide variety of fissures and jutting edges which players can choose from while scaling rock surfaces, and Connor occasionally has to use both hands to achieve proper thrust as he climbs towards the British encampment.

Cresting feels an achievement in itself, but rather than celebrate Connor must quickly seek cover as a nearby officer rides by. We are thus introduced to stealth areas — dark or heavily-foliaged areas in which Connor can move and wait undetected. Feeling both more natural and realistic than arbitrary hay bales and inexplicably-effective benches, hiding in the bushes affords an opportunity to assess the situation in the camp and plot a course for Pitcairn, who is idling on horseback beyond the tents and meandering soldiers.

We are given the last bit of info from Hutchinson as Connor waits for the guards to turn their backs: Assassin’s Creed III will feature a far more fluid assassination system, allowing for constant motion and banishing forever the awkward vulnerability incurred when assassinating part of a larger group.

The remainder of the demo is pure action. Connor breaks from the brush and beelines for two soldiers in the middle of the camp. The game slows just enough for the impact of Connor’s weapons to be felt, and he’s immediately back to full speed, rolling to his feet in time to vault off a rock and swing his tomahawk towards Pitcairn’s throat as the animus collapses out and the game’s logo tauntingly leaves us wondering what follows.

Looking Forward

Full disclosure requires pointing out that I am an unabashed fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Though each game has had its minor flaws, I consider the series as a whole the most consistent and enjoyable of this console generation. Though it continues to run the risk of sequel fatigue, I have personally yet to feel that Desmond and his ancestors have outstayed their welcome.

My immediate reaction to the PAX demonstration was one of awe. The game’s sheer scale — especially character generation specs — is daunting. AC3‘s HUD is reinvented from the ground up to put more focus on action and less on navigation, shining with polish and pleasing in its minimalism. Everything moves so much smoother and faster than anticipated, and seeing that the tree-climbing is not, in fact, contrived put to rest one of my greatest fears for the decision to take so much of the game beyond city limits.

Much about Assassin’s Creed III remains unknown, and it’s still impossible to tell whether other aspects of the game will live up to the thrill of this weekend’s guided demonstration. Some little details — mechanical enemy behavior, for example — will hopefully (and likely) be ironed out over the next six months, and the faithfulness of 18th century Boston and New York will, I’m sure, be up for much scrutiny as I daresay more of Ubisoft’s demographic have walked those cities than, say, Constantinople.

Nevertheless if the size of the preorder line outside of the demo booth (which at times rivaled the size of the line for the demo itself) is any indication, seeing how good this game already looks leaves little reason for doubting that Ubisoft has on its hands a major contender for 2012 Game of the Year.

Special thanks to Spectra for providing access to the media assets used in this article.

The Creed

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
~Assassin’s Creed

Everything is permissible…but not everything is beneficial.
~Letter from Paul to the Corinthians

Great fiction has a tendency to draw us into its world. Games, books, and films captivate us with their imaginary universes with such strength that we find ourselves wishing, if only for a moment, that we could leave the real world to inhabit theirs. And when fictions overlap with reality in part, we sometimes wish they overlapped in full.

For me, Assassin’s Creed is one such fiction. After hours spent filling the shoes of Ezio and Altair through Desmond Miles, peeling back a conspiratorial veneer to reveal the true machinations behind so much of history, it’s almost disheartening to realize that there is no actual ongoing power struggle between the vast Templar and Assassin brotherhoods. Like many of the NPCs one recruits throughout the last two games, we are bored by a life driven merely by personal needs and desires; we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

A couple weeks ago I sent an email to my friend Jonathan regarding the opening of the epistle of James. “I just spent the majority of the last several days playing through Assassin’s Creed Revelations,” I told him.

One of the things I’ve always found really cool about the game is the idea of a brotherhood, an order of people all over the world who subscribe to a core set of beliefs about the world and live every day in an effort to make the world a little bit more like they believe it ought to be. And then I read this verse (N.b. James 1:1-2), addressing the letter to brothers scattered throughout the world, and I realize that’s exactly what my faith could be like (if less secretive). That said, “nothing is true, everything is permitted” is a lot easier to memorize than the apostle’s creed.

Candidly, he replied, “You could memorize 1 Corinthians 10:23 instead.”

Christianity is pretty complicated, but that verse from Paul speaks volumes to the overarching task we are faced with each day. Given freedom, it is up to us to determine which actions are best, which will make us and the world better, which will draw us closer to God and one another. Our end goal is the good of others (see verse 24), but we pursue this goal within the confines of liberty. As Altair says, “Our Creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise.”

Ironically the “Christians” within the Assassin’s Creed universe — the Knights Templar — function in opposition to both the “Muslim” Assassins’ creed and the words of their own saint.  If the true Christian and the Assassin seek wisdom through freedom, the Templars seek freedom through wisdom. The conflict between the two views comes to a head about two-thirds of the way through the main story of Revelations, when Ezio is confronted by an antagonist who tells him “We both strive for the same end, Ezio. Only our methods differ.”

Ezio responds, “Liberty can be messy…but it is priceless.”

The misguided Templars of the AC universe provide a wonderful cautionary tale for modern believers. In our efforts to spread the gospel and reshape society to reflect God’s kingdom, we must never try to force our beliefs on the unwilling. Free will is part of our imago Dei; to suppress or deny it is to deny the face of God.

Indeed, despite the initial disclaimer that has appeared before every Assassin’s Creed title screen that the game is the product of a tapestry of religious cultures and faiths, the titular creed and those who have carried it down through the generations are extraordinarily Christian. Desmond comes to realize that who he is and what he can do are a direct result of the great lineage he is a part of. His greatness is quite literally in his DNA. Without that inheritance his life is meaningless and empty — a fact driven home in the Desmond sequences of Revelations.

Moreover Desmond’s ancestors, while productive in their own age, come to realize that they are merely conduits for a power and a story bigger than themselves; vessels for transmission of a message and a responsibility older than time. Such is the message of the gospel: a creed of love and liberation established before the foundations of the world and transmitted from God via Adam down through the generations to Christ.

It’s rather incredible, I think, that a franchise which could be summed up as “a Muslim terrorist killing Christian leaders in various holy lands” carries beneath all the violence and intrigue a deeply enriching message that affirms, rather than dismisses, a godly worldview. And given the new context, it’s rather thrilling to know we’re invited to be part of the brotherhood.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything is permitted. Not everything is beneficial.

What a creed.