Tomb Raider Chronicles

Tomb Raider 4-5 - artwork 8Tomb Raider Chronicles is not the best game in the series, but trying to figure out exactly where it is on ‘the list’ is trickier than you might think. Unlike Angel of Darkness, it is not completely without merit, but unlike Tomb Raider 3, it’s difficult to damn it with the faint praise of ‘at least they were trying.’

The game picks up a shortly after the events of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, with Lara Croft missing, presumed dead. After a memorial service, several of her friends reminisce about past adventures. Much like Tomb Raider 3, the game is made up of mini adventures, however, where that game would say, ‘oh, you’re finished with Nevada? Where would you like to go now?’ Chronicles ties them together smoothly, with each FMV beginning in the past, coming into the present and then moving into the past again.

If there is one thing that Core Design always excelled at it was the soundtrack.  Sadly a lot of the score of this game is borrowed from the previous one, resulting in music for an Egyptian themed game turning up in a level set in Rome or Ireland.  Where Chronicles does stand out is in its soundscape, which often helps the lacklustre design come to life.  Whether it’s nearby church bells or the creaking of a vessel as it moves underwater, the sounds allow the player to become immersed in the locations long after the graphics have become dated.  The real standout is the Ireland levels, in which rain, thunder, owl hoots, crows, and the occasional other creepy sound can be heard.

It’s a shame, then, that the game is so often lacking when it comes to the visuals.  That’s not to say that the graphics are bad, in fact, for their time, they’re pretty good.  I can clearly remember playing this game when it came out, thinking, ‘this is as good as games will ever look. How can anyone improve upon this?’  Rather, it’s the design and imagination that is so often lacking.  It was really no surprise to learn that the game was put together with a series of rejected or abandoned ideas proposed for previous games(1), as Chronicles feels like a game in which randomly selected ideas are thrown together.  The most glaringly obvious example is Ireland, in which you are fighting a Russian demon. Why not draw on Irish history and mythology to come up with an opponent? Because they don’t, there is nothing particularly Irish about those levels.  Even one of the better sections of the game, Rome (which was clearly made at the beginning of what I don’t doubt was an otherwise rushed production), suffers this problem.  Yes, it has a colosseum, statues, and other architecture to place us in the location, but these are fleeting, and so much of those levels are just generic streets and buildings.

A real bug bear of mine in the classic era is a lack of level to level continuity. In the original game, the end of one level is the beginning of the next, giving a sense that each level is a part of something larger.  In every other game, save The Last Revelation, the beginning of a level is in a completely new location with no logical explanation as to how Lara ended up there.   On a few occasions, Lara is shown getting to the new area through cut scenes (Ireland does this particularly well), but on many occasions it’s as though Scotty from Star Trek just beamed her there.  The result is levels feeling more like set-pieces than actual locations to be explored (Rome being the only time in the game where the individual levels feel connected due to returning to a central area).

trinity laraYou’d never have guessed The Matrix had come out the year before this game.

The individual stories themselves aren’t particularly satisfying, despite the potential for them to be so. Rome only tells us that Lara is after the Philosopher’s Stone, we don’t learn why. In the original game her motivation is never in any doubt, and The Last Revelation pushed the storytelling up to a level the series had not previously known. To come directly after that, makes Chronicles seem a hollow affair in comparison. You could argue that she’s after the Philosopher’s Stone because she read Harry Potter, there is nothing to contradict you. In the last section of the game, Lara is after the Iris and wants it badly enough that she breaks into a secured building to get it. Again, we are given no real reason why, though if you’ve played the previous game, you can make the argument that it really belongs to her. Von Croy only appears in one cut scene, and never interacts with Lara directly, so any potential to enrich their rivalry or set up where that rivalry is heading in The Last Revelation is lost.

There are some stand out moments in the game play, such as the all too short ‘Deepsea Dive’ level has Lara exit the Russian submarine and move about underwater. In an era of gaming in which clunky controls were the norm, the suit handles extremely well, making the level actively enjoyable.  Lara is also given a few new moves that actually feel like a bit of a step up.  Being able to exit a tunnel front first instead of having to turn around is a blessed relief (though the game is a bit fussy on when you can actually do this).  Pole swinging is so beautifully graceful, I do wonder how they managed to go so wrong with the controls for Angel of Darkness, a next-gen game that seemed to take a step backwards in comparison to the late PlayStation One entries in the series.

Tomb Raider 4-5 - artwork 22In 2001, I struggled to imagine computer graphics looking any better than this

Unfortunately, the lack of imagination is not just in the visual design of the levels but in the game play as well.  There is often no logic to what the player is expected to do, with Lara picking up items that she shouldn’t know she needs until much later.  There are many times when it is not clear where to go in order to progress, such as a hatch on the floor which is incredibly difficult to spot.  The levels don’t so much feel like a journey as a pointless exercise in running back and forth, making them feel like padding, such as ‘Escape with the Iris’, in which you are not so much escaping as running around in circles only to end up back at the beginning of the level.

Chronicles also tends to go against logic set up in the previous games, which is an odd thing for the last game of the PlayStation One era to do.  An example of this is when Lara has to break open a damaged wall.  In Tomb Raider II, Lara shot at windows to smash them open, and this damaged wall looked like a similar strategy was needed, yet the bullets did nothing.  Instead, Lara has to be standing directly in front of it before the action button is pressed to kick it. The only other times Lara has interacted with the physical environment in order to open up a passageway is with the use of a crowbar.  The developers introduced this new approach in the last level of the game!  If that didn’t smell of laziness, introducing a new weapon, the grappling hook, in the last level certainly does.  I can understand wanting to bring new weapons into the Iris section to set it apart from what has come before, but it should have been done in the first level not the last.  There is a whole section of this level dedicated to Lara going off in a different direction in order to find and learn how to use the grappling hook, slowing the overall pace down dramatically.  The last level of any game, especially one called ‘Red Alert!’, should be fast and dramatic, not slow and clunky.

And then there’s the boss battles.  Rome feels like ‘traditional’ Tomb Raider, meaning very few enemies other than the odd animal, and as a result, there is an increased amount of boss battles, from statues, to a Hydra, to an octopus/spider…thing.  The latter is, on paper, the easiest to deal with, as you need to shoot out both of the eyes, however this is hindered by a truly awful laser sight that requires you to stand completely still in order to line up the shot – the boss is doing exactly the same, so if you aren’t quick, you’re toast.  The good thing about this boss, though, is that the shot out eyes tell that you are doing damage to it.  This is not the case with the other bosses in Rome, as they never seem to react in any way to Lara’s gun fire, causing you to wonder if you’re having any effect.  It is only with a lot of patience and persistence that you will begin to see damage.  The encounter with the Hydra was the most frustrating boss battle I have ever encountered in Tomb Raider because I was shooting for a good ten minutes before getting any sense that I was doing damage, all the while having to constantly side jump in order to avoid fire blasts that were, to all intents and purposes, instant-kills.

Tomb Raider 4-5 - artwork 23Both the Russian and Ireland levels deal with supernatural weirdness and both simply hint and some kind of ghostly creature lurking in the shadows, which succeeds in adding to the creepiness of the Ireland levels, but fails in the Russian ones.  Ireland’s level also has its Russian demon defeated in a cut scene.  This may sound fair given that this is teenage Lara who has no guns, but still a clever puzzle she has to solve while under attack from the demon might have given the end of the Ireland levels more drama.  This is done in the Iris level, when Lara has a gun and is in a position to have an actual fight again.  She has to trap an enemy in a room before filling it with poisoned gas in order to kill him, and while initially confusing, once I figured out what I was meant to do, I appreciated the puzzle and the challenge that came with it.  The other major enemy is a robot that must be shot with the second worst weapon in the Tomb Raider franchise (nothing could be worse than the harpoon gun).  Weapons that are not duel wielding tend not to work in the classic games, as combat relies on Lara being able to jump and role to avoid enemy fire.  One handed weapons make it incredibly difficult to pull off, and the Iris levels only give you the one combat weapon.  Admittedly, it has three shooting options, sniper, burst, and rapid, and in my experience, I found that sniper was the most efficient and saved on the already scarce ammunition.  But what this means is that Lara has to stand still during combat, something that feels completely foreign.

Tomb Raider Chronicles is a game that has moments that are interesting, clever, or downright brilliant, but they are just moments that never come together to make a good game.  If this game was just being made now, it would be downloadable content, some extra stuff to tide the player over until the next major release.  I can imagine Rome being downloaded and played, then a month or so later the Russia levels being released.  In a way, I played the game like this when I recorded my Let’s Play as I recorded it in four main recording sessions.  When the game is played like that, the shortcomings of each section – the pacing, the level design, the over abundance or dearth of boss battles – becomes painfully obvious.  Chronicles was a rushed production that Core Design didn’t intend or want to make, and ultimately it is the brand name that causes it to still be played to this day, rather than the quality of the game itself.  It’s a sad way for one of the biggest icons of the nineties to end on the original PlayStation – had they been allowed to just end with The Last Revelation Lara would have gone out with a bang, and a legitimately good game.

(1) 20 years on, the Tomb Raider story told by the people who were there

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Flow Free

I’m not much of a handheld games person, but I do love having a puzzle game on my phone, one that is simple in concept, but keeps me hooked.  Flow Free’s concept is incredibly straight forward: join the dots together, as though laying down piping. You can’t have overlaps and you have to fill every square on the grid.  What starts off as so-easy-it’s-insulting, quickly becomes fiendishly difficult, and being confronted by a 14×14 grid of seemingly randomly placed dots becomes daunting. 

first lastThe first and last puzzles in the game

Easier puzzles tend to be ones in which dots are joined together by laying a pipe around the circumference of the grid, as it meant I could just work my way inward.  More difficult ones involve the pipes moving through the middle, which could often take a while to solve.  There were many times in which I thought I had cracked it only to realise that there was one box on the grid unfilled, and so what I thought was the solution turned out to be nothing of the sort.  That being said, the more difficult the puzzle, the more thrilling it became when I finally saw how everything fitted together.

It wasn’t enough to simply solve the puzzles, I also had to gain a perfect star, which was done by learning how to solve them without making any mistakes.  To get a wee star next to a particular pack on the menu screen, I had to get a perfect score in each of the puzzles within that pack, usually a hundred and fifty.

IMG_3830To stop the game from becoming too similar, it also has a hexagon pack which involves laying down the pipes at forty five degree angles instead of the usual ninety degrees.  More challenging is Bridges, in which pipes can be overlaid in specific spots.  This inability to overlay pipes in the main game was so ingrained into me that when given the chance to do it, it requires relearning the game slightly.  Several bridges on the one level created a challenge that often took me quite a while to suss out.

There are currently two thousand, two hundred and twenty individual puzzles in the free version of the game, with the option to pay for more if you so desire.  There are also daily puzzles that offer you a new challenge – either lots of easy ones, or a couple of challenging ones – though not too difficult as they clearly want you to keep coming back to the game, long after you’ve finished all of the main packs.  I’ve been playing this game for two months now, which is longer than a lot of games I pay actual money for.  If you are looking for a simple little puzzle that will keep your mind occupied during those spare few moments here and there, this is a great one to try out.

E3 2017 Highlights – EA + Bethesda

A Way Out

The standout in what was an otherwise standard affair with EA presentations.  Two men – whose hair has a bad case of the seventies – decide to break out of prison and have to do so by working together.  What’s interesting is that it is a two player co-op game that you play with someone either online or, preferably, in the same room as you.  There doesn’t seem to be any option for single player, so I’ll be curious to see how it is greeted by gamers and whether the mandatory two player mode will hinder or help sales.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

There’s a lot to this extended trailer.  We are in an alternate world in which Nazi’s won the Second World War and the KKK are just casually walking the streets.  There are resistance fighters, such as the woman with the sadistic sense of humour, or the guy with the out of control robotic arm.   It’s a crazy world and I don’t know much about it, but I do know one thing: there’s a lot of Nazi’s needing punched killed in a bloody and gory fashion.  And boy, does the action look bloody fantastic.  If they get this right, this could be a great balance of well executed storytelling and balls to the walls action.  I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this one.

E2 2017 Highlights: Ubisoft

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

My first reaction to this new game at the beginning of E3 2017 was not overwhelmingly positive, but the more I see of it, the more interested I find myself becoming.  Given that the franchise is now a decade old, returning to the beginning point of the Assassins is most likely a soft reboot in order to bring in new people, or old fans, like myself, who drifted away.  The genius of Assassin’s Creed is that the game is not focused on one person, or a small group of people, but rather is an anthology that tells the stories of different people from different countries in different time periods.  That being said, I felt the series became somewhat stagnant.  Origins looks like it could be something fresh again, telling a story of a man in Ancient Egypt.  While certain elements seem a little off to me (does he have a telepathic link with that eagle?) the location is beautiful and the game looks like it could be a lot of fun.

Far Cry 5

The game that has vexed angry white men by making it’s bad guys angry white men.  I never played a game in the series until Far Cry 4, and I played that to death, so naturally I’m excited for more.  The main character is all alone in a closed off area in Montana and so has to build up relationships with the locals in order to survive.  Same goes for the ‘guns for hire’, who are no longer just generic soldier you call upon but rather people with specific skills that you assign positions and designate targets to.  There’s also a dog, which will also respond to commands to attack, because ever since I played Torchlight, it’s like every game has to have a faithful companion.  Visually, it looks wonderful and I suspect will be a lot of fun to explore.  The game looks like a lot of fun to play and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Beyond Good And Evil 2

The game everyone has been waiting a decade and a half to play.  Technically a prequel to the original, not much is known at this stage.  But after the trailer at the Ubisoft conference, two of the developers came onto the stage and their love and enthusiasm for the project was clear for all to see.  It’s hard not to be excited for the games eventually released.

E3 2017 Highlights (Sony)

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

After the disappointing news that there will be no Tomb Raider related announcements at this year’s E3, a trailer for Uncharted: The Lost Legacy was a welcomed beginning to the Sony conference.  While the two series have only surface similarities, it’s enough to scratch the itch.  Instead of focusing on the main characters, we are now playing as Chloe, occasional co-worker of Drake, and just as much of an entertaining rascal.  It contains that same balance of drama, character development, and comedy that has made the Uncharted series so popular, and the trademark over-the-top action seems to be firmly in place.  I love the idea of Uncharted branching out and telling the stories of the secondary characters, and putting two female leads front and center is very exciting.

Days Gone

Zombie games are fast becoming this generation’s World War 2 first person shooters.  After Dying Light a few years ago, I felt I’d had my fill of zombie apocalypses, but this has had my attention since last year’s E3.  The open world presented here is dirty and miserable.  There are bodies strung up by the ankles, giving Tomb Raider (2013) a run for its money when it comes to creepy grossness. And there are herds of zombies that run at you and can kill you pretty quickly.  The trailer also showcases the stealth elements of the game, which is less Sam Fisher and more doing bad things that will injure people and even leave some dead, if it means you will stay alive and achieve your goal.  The main character seems, on the surface, to be the generic tough guy, but there’s clearly more to him than that, and every time I see footage of this game, I become more and more curious about him and the world he is living in.

Shadow of the Colossus

The only game to ever make me feel nauseous, and the only game that ever had me kill innocent creatures for my own selfish desires has been remade for the PlayStation 4 and it looks stunning.  I dare say there are plenty of people who missed this game the first time around, or were too young to play it when it first came out, so it’s wonderful that they’re getting another chance to experience it.  The original was a rather short affair with little to do outside of killing the colossi, so here’s hoping the developers have put some extra content in to make it a worthwhile second purchase.  And here’s hoping they’ve done something about the dodgy frame rate and questionable control layout.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – VR

It’s not terribly difficult to get frustrated that six years after Skyrim‘s release we have yet to see a hint of The Elder Scrolls VI.  That being said, this is the perfect kind of a game for VR, especially given that you are meant to immerse yourself in the world it creates and explore every nook and cranny.  VR could really help to convey that feeling of living another life in another world.  Then again, it could be Bethesda attempting to milk Skyrim for all it’s worth.  I guess the gamers will decide that one for themselves.

God of War

Either I’m reading this wrong, or this is a study of toxic masculinity and how that affects young men growing up.  I probably am.  But still, despite not having played a God of War game in a number of years, this has got me interested.  The father/son relationship actually looks like something that could add some depth to what I’ve long been perceiving as a rather shallow hack and slash.  The world looks lovely in all of its dangerous glory, and I’ll be curious to see to what extent combat changes now that Kratos has a child in tow with him.

Detroit: Become Human

Building on from E3 2016, this time we are following a different character, Marcus.  While the trailer still shows us that this is a game of choices, it is focusing more on story this time.  Marcus is an android who sees his kind as a slave race to be freed.  Last year’s trailer caught my interest, but this makes me downright excited for the game.  A futuristic, neo-noir story about slavery and rebellion sound like my idea of a great game.  There’s no release date and I get the impression it’s still a while off, but this will certainly be one I’ll be keep an eye on from now on.

Spider-Man

This was – forgive me – marvelous.  Spider-Man leaps from wall to ground to iron beams effortlessly and quietly as he picks off enemies one by one.  He doesn’t just attack, but uses his webbing to ensnare them, or hang them up, or catch them when they fall off the side of a building, like something right out of the pages of the comic book.  And of course, the action only gets bigger from there.  Whether he’s leaping from surface to surface, or full on web-slinging, Spider-Man looks awesome and the whole thing looks like a tremendous amount of fun.  Even the quick-time-events, which I usually hate, look like an adrenaline ride.  Sony really did leave the best for last.  This looks like a hell of a lot of fun and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.