Why Tomb Raider doesn’t work

This blog post is a personal review about the last Tomb Raider game, which came out the 5 march 2013. It contains no spoiler about the story.

Before talking about the game, I would like to be sure that everybody reading this understand my initial point of view. I don’t see myself neither as a casual gamer or an hardcore gamer, I’m between these two states. I have done some Tomb Raider games before (Legend, Anniversary and Underworld for example), I played a lot the Prince of Persia games and never played a game from the Uncharted saga (so I won’t be able to judge Tomb Raider from what Uncharted did or did not). I consider myself as a game developer but not as a game(play) designer, so maybe my interpretation of what is wrong is itself wrong in a certain sense (the problem is maybe somewhere else than where I’m pointing out).

I played this game with a fresh mind. I was prepared to the fact that it’s not a Tomb Raider (which means a game filled with platforms, puzzle and exploration and sometimes all of that combined at the same time). I was prepared to see a game different.

Character/Story

The story of this game is fine for me, the characters feel good or at least believable. They have their own strength and weakness. If you play the game whit the original voices you can heard the different tones and accents which increase their credibility. The most important character is of course Lara Croft. Some dialogs are also very good, giving to the character a presence, they are not just tools to tell a story.

Lara is quickly introduced in the game with the accident of the ship in the storm. She is quickly kidnapped inside a cave and has to escape. When you escape you get the first injuries (the first of a very long list). Since it is the first one and that you don’t know the game, you feel a bit the pain (mentally) that Lara might be feeling herself. You don’t have the time to know Lara, you quickly have to move forward to find you friends.

 

I understand why the game do this, today making a game with a long introduction is often considered as bad. As well explained here. However I have a problem with this system, even in the beginning. Often the game take the time during a cinematic to show that Lara suffer (like all the gore death that you get when losing), but when it’s for moral pain (like the death of a close character) the cinematic end right there and don’t let you think about it since the gameplay grab you back instantaneously. That’s why cinematic were invented, they are here to tell your more story and avoid you to miss it. Your mind can rest and understand more deep thoughts during these type of moments.

It’s because when you play a game, you have a mechanical mind, you search to find a reward and the other game interactions. You often miss/don’t listen the story. Even Half-life 2 that doesn’t use proper “cinematic” (with fixed camera angles) use limited spaces/environments when the story is told (example : the Laboratory of Dr Kleiner) to be sure that the player never miss what the character are saying. Your interaction are limited is those moments.

Also, during a cinematic you don’t have any control, therefore it’s logical that characters talk and share concerns about something (for example). However when you are playing, Lara can says something like “I can’t do it !” and I have a problem with that. I don’t mind a character that comments its own progress, even if I think it’s a bit conflicting with what the player is doing (you are “moving” not “talking”, so your player actions conflict with the character behavior who is talking). This is my opinion, but I accept that some characters can comment their environment. Like a character telling more story about where he is (like “It looks like their were people here” near a fire).

The problem in Tomb raider, is that Lara is commenting negatively. Again, I understand this choice : it to show than Lara think she can’t, then do it, and discover some strength she wouldn’t have thought she had (and gain then more confidence). The problem is that it’s conflicting with the player. I had the feeling that Lara was saying “I can’t do it” and me “Of course you can, I’m the player, I’m doing it”. Therefore, a distance was created and increased with the time. Lara became more like a talking doll than a character that I was playing with.

Quick Time Events

Currently the only game I know that do QTE (Quick Time Events) very well is Prince of Persia : The Two Thrones. In PoP it’s the player that initiate the QTEs, not the game, therefore players that don’t like them can avoid them. They ask the player to only use one input but at a precise time (obviously) and performing them well give you a reward.

Example : you have a guard that you can attack normally or attack him with the QTE, you decide. You launch the QTE, the input asked it the same button that the one used to attack with you sword, meaning you can’t be confused by using an incongruous button. If performed well, your result is very simple : you eliminate your opponent in one shot. This mean you gain two rewards : you can avoid an enemy like this and you don’t lose time in a fight. In PoP this is important because you are first an athletic character, not a fighter. So being quick and precise is enjoyable. And important point : if you lose the QTE you will just have to fight the enemy normally. There is absolutely no constraint, only profits.

Tomb Raider do none of that. The QTE are decided by the game designer, you undergo them. They are only here to slow you and block you path. For example a blocked door can be opened by a QTE. Or during a cinematic, a bad guy is attacking Lara. You have to defend her by performing a QTE. They rarely use buttons that you use during ingame actions. One rare QTE that use the right inputs is when Lara get her leg stuck, you will have to quickly move the stick on the controller to free her. Otherwise, the QTE are based of random inputs (random as they don’t relate to the player actions in general, the inputs don’t randomize the buttons asked if you redo the QTE).

In the end, most of the QTE happen during cinematics where they are not needed. They are lazy tries to get the player implicated in the actions performed. I strongly think it’s better to have a directed cinematic that a one that try to get you implicated. Missing the QTE is even more frustrating as you have to re-watch the same cinematic again. Giving no reward other than the right to continue your path will more frustration. I read on a lot forums that players (myself included) missed the first QTEs of the game as their are badly designed and confusing. They also happen in place that you don’t expect, so you can’t be ready to react quickly and you have to lose. It’s just silly die and retry without justifications.

Game mechanics

Tomb Raider is a game featuring a lot of shooting. To give the feeling of an adventurer they give to Lara an upgradeable arc (by progressing in the story) to access parts of the levels that are out of your path. This arc is explained during the tutorial were you also learn how to hunt (which is not required at all as Lara doesn’t starve). So the first use you get about the arc is how to kill with it.

 

You will also gain some weapons that will be upgradeable. Here is the first problem : the upgrading system is cryptic. A lot of upgrades look all alike, what you have to purchase first to unlock other upgrades is also very confusing. Nothing seem really related. So you quickly upgrade what you can without really understanding where you go. The fact that the arc will evolve is not obvious at all. Of course you will get a more powerful arc, but for the fights (as the interface explain how more powerful to kill the upgrade will be). It’s not explained that the arc will also helps for the few platform actions. The only time you understand that the arc was gaining in “power” was on the last part of the game when a friend of Lara give to her a new and advanced arc during a cinematic.

As how the arc is presented and used during the game, you think way more about how to fight and survive against your opponents that passing time about how to progress in the level. You can’t go to a way without meeting bad guys that you have to fight. Tomb Raider is a game that is afraid to let you rest and think. The developers decided that you have to fight again and again. In the end, you totally forgot to explore unless that you want to collect every shinny things on the ground. Unfortunately, I’m clearly not this type of art collector. Beside, this part of the game is very week and seems to have been added only to increase the life of the game.

Tomb Raider is the game that try to mix too much things. In a game like Mass Effect, I liked sniffing around to learn new things about the context and the environments. Tomb Raider unfortunately doesn’t offer an appealing universe. The game is based on an island where you constantly fight, but it’s also an ugly island. What do you want to learn about a place that is disgusting you ? It’s disgusting in a lot of sense : because of the events of course (death, bad guys, mysterious and horrific forces), but also because the level are most of the time very ugly (because of the art direction).

The game is also full of nonsense. I mentioned above that Lara can sometimes comment her progression, talking about where she is and so on. Why is Lara talking where she can do something and when the game doesn’t allow you something she stays silent ? I have a good example which will explain my complaint about the arc : in the game the arc can be attached with a rope to some weak spots. This allow you to move objects or break some beams. There is in last parts of the game some walls which have the same weak spots. If you try to break them with the arc you can’t, because you need to see your friend which will give you last and mots powerful arc before.

Here is the problem : you have no clue that you arc is not powerful enough as the wall looks like every other things breakable that you met before. Lara doesn’t say anything, meaning that if she don’t complain you don’t think “I can’t do it”. How can you expect a player to know that he has to see his friend to progress ? Especially since upgrading the arc this way is totally different for what you have done during the rest of the game. The player can’t think about doing such a thing since he learned to do something else and totally different.

They are also some other choices that are really annoying. When you enter special places such as the optional tombs, you always have a little cave to pass through before discovering the tomb. The game forces you to use the torch as this path is always in the dark and also stop Lara to run, making you slowly walk. Again, I understand the choice : making you walking is to put you in the mood, adding the feeling that you are exploring the place and being a careful adventurer.

The problem is that you are forced to walk not only in the first time but also all the other times. When you come back from the tomb but also when go to the place again. Why when you know the path, when you know the place your are still forced to walk ? Its not that the path is dangerous, it’s most of the time a corridor in the dark where you can’t hurt yourself. So the illusion of danger is relative : once you do two or three tombs you quickly get the pattern. The developer never update/change this type of way so you get bored and frustrated because the game force to you behave in a way that you feel limiting.

 

This is also the opposite of what Lara is : instead of seeing her progressing as she get more confident on her own skills, the game keep acting like you were the same person that you were at the beginning. Which is totally false because you gained a lot of new skills, as a player you are more able to control Lara and judge the environments since you become more familiar which the dangers that you met.

The game lack to evolve by itself but also block you to do it on your side. This is probably a good resume of why Tomb Raider frustrate me so much : the game expects you to be stupid and protects the character… Until it decides you are older enough to run near a cliff and doesn’t catch you. There is a cave near the slum that is also a path in the dark, there is a part of the way that you can run (big surprise !) unfortunate, there is a hole that you need to pass through. For this you have a beam to walk on. Problem, since you are running and not always paying attention, you can directly go to the hole and miss the beam since the beam is not aligned to the path. The game catch you most of the time and Lara grab the ledge instead of falling the hole… Not here unfortunate, Lara go straight to hell.

This is one of the big problem of the game : it goes back and forth between two states (one asking you to be smart, the other expecting you to be stupid) without telling you anything. How do you want to have fun when a game changes its mind at every levels, at every corners ? How do you want to enjoy exploring something when half the time you enter in a trap of the game mechanics ?

That’s also why I think the climbing system of Tomb Raider is a huge mistake. Making it not procedural means that the game designer/level designer need to think at every possibilities to be sure to not forget what the player will try to do. In Tomb Raider ledges are placed by hand by the level designer. This land to some places where Lara can jump very high and pass a ledge by half hee size but doesn’t catch the ledge because the level designer didn’t thought you could try this. Forcing you go around, frustrated, and losing time.

There is also the gore death. One question : why ? Especially that much. Some people started to find these death hilarious because it was simply too much, it stopped to be believable and seemed silly. Making Lara impaling herself on a rusty and sharp bar and slowly dying is good enough to be put in a game ? For a game that try to build a character (as it presents Lara being new and naive) it goes too easily on the graphics and shocking side, totally forgetting that Lara and the player have a brain too. A lot of tests and reviews say that the progression and maturity that Lara gain is too weak, especially compared to the event that she meets. The game focus too much on scaring/shocking the player and forget that he has a story and a character to make grow.

Some other game mechanics that I don’t like are the thin cliff where Lara has to pass slowly because she can’t run here. First, this absolutely not needed : what is the point ? What is the game trying to tell on these actions ? These actions are totally scripted, you have no interactions on them. They doesn’t serve anything. The only benefit are that if you are pleased by the male gaze you will be nicely lurking Lara rubbing herself against a rock. Great, I think players really needed this. These events make cut inside the player path and flow, probably to put a pause on the rhythm but again they happen at moment that don’t need it. Often it was just to show an area transition, it wasn’t before or after a fight.

Same thing happening when Lara climb two near cliff walls. The game start with a nice fail here because Lara make an awkward move to stuck herself between the walls (she is like aspired by the walls). Then the game wait you move Lara by using the controller inputs. These type of interaction are not logical because their are too long to launch, meaning you understand that you have no control. In my case I put my controller down and wait that the event pass. Then the game stop and wait that you press the input. The problem here is that again the game oppose two type of behaviors : one being handling you without letting you any choices and then suddenly it waits that you make the move. The game is constantly like this.

Prince of Persia : The Two Thrones for example was doing similar movements much more nicely and easily : they were faster to make. In PoP you can walk slowly on beam above the void. To make the transition between the running you were doing and this slow movement, the game smoothly moved you on the beam and was waiting to your input. This transition was done fast enough than you didn’t felt you were losing control, keeping the game fluent and without making you frustrated. Tomb Raider is trying to be like a movie and forget that it’s first and foremost a game with a player waiting to play behind.

 

Level Design

“This is the key to player actually having fun in the level. We need to come up with an obstacle to stop the player from simply reaching the exit, and provide a way for him to overcome the challenge. We also need to make sure the challenge is thematic -that is doesn’t strike the player as ot of place or goofy for the kind of game he is playing. This is called Dissonance, and you will constantly need to avoid this as a Level Designer.”

“The best gameplay mechanics are those that need no explanation, allowing the player to simply work out how to interact with them from his own observations. This makes the players feel clever and allows the designer to stay out of the picture while they play.”

Ed Byrne, “Game Level Design” – 2005

 

There is an other gameplay that I would like to complain about in Tomb Raider : the button that you can use to call a special vision. This vision put the game in black and white and highlight the most important things of the level that you can interact with. This feature by nature is a proof that the game designers/level designers didn’t do well their job. If you need to call this feature to help you progress, it’s a proof that your level is not understandable and reeadable. I tried to play without using this feature. I blocked in the levels all of the time because of things and path being not obvious enough to be differentiable from the rest of the level. Take a look at the following screenshot :

The game ask you to reach the blue smoke. Simple question : how ? Are you able to define the path that you have to follow to get there ? Of course not, you have mountains everything that block the view and the path is broken by many holes. They is a problem of focus in Tomb Raider. If you look far away, you should be able to create you path in mind. Skyrim do this very well for example because as you travel, you recognize the distant structures on the horizon, making you able to create in your mind your actual position in space. You should be able to create a route to follow. Tomb Raider doesn’t offer this liberty as its levels are just zig-zagging corridors connected by chaotic intersections. I’m not asking for an open world, just to clear path.

As a comparison, you have a similar level in Far Cry 1, where you reach the top of a cliff with two path possible : going around the cliff or using a hang-glider. The choice are obvious because you directly see them from your position. On the screenshot above, there is a barrier that block your path. How do you expect the player to think about progressing if you create a visual and therefor mental barrier ?

Only a few levels get a true soul, most of the time you are evolving in corridors surrounded by gray cliffs under an horrific wind. Everything looks the same. There is also a slum. Why would you like to go in a slum ? The slum in Mass Effect 2 for example was interesting because you met some interesting characters and was near a mysterious place. In Tomb Raider you just try to rescue a friend, so unless this fact you wouldn’t want to go there, especially to fight against the same type of annoying enemies. There is of course some really beautiful levels and environments, but they are tainted by (again) the fights with the same and boring enemies.

 

I have an other example of wrong level design. It’s about a tomb. The game feature some non mandatory level called tomb. They are just small area where you have to solve a very simple puzzle. They are always too simple but badly presented/explained. One of them feature a seesaw that you have to block to let you jump at a certain high. Here is the problem : this puzzle features actions that you have never done or will never do in the rest of the game. It also feature behaviors that change the one you met outside and are not logical. Take a look at the following screenshot :

 

The puzzle is : take the gas cans an put them on the seesaw. With the weight you will be able to jump from the opposite side to the wall that allow you to climb. From this state you will be able to jump on the scale. The problem here is multiple : first this is the first time you met a puzzle based on weight physics, meaning the player has no idea that such thing can exist in the game. This is also the first time that you can grab and move objects like this. Do you know where this tomb is ? After half-way of the game, it’s in the slum. What you see here are very basic actions that you should have learned during the tutorial/beginning of the game. Not now, not here.

Any game based on puzzle makes you learn in the beginning because that’s here that you are discovering the game, meaning that you are more attentive to what happens. If you learn something new later in a game, it’s never really new, it’s just an updated version of an actions that you already discovered. Simply because when you are in the middle of a game you encounter too much things to be attentive. Making you learning actions in the beginning will give you tools to react and solves the puzzles you will meet after. Portal do this, Prince of Persia do this. Tomb Raider don’t do this. Hhat you learned during this puzzle will not be reused later. What do you gain with learning this ? Nothing. And I’m talking about logic here, not achievement/gold rewards. What makes you enriching your mind here ? Again : nothing.

In Half-life 2 (which has a similar puzzle) the player was able to learn because it was in a situation without any weapons and it was in the beginning of the game, letting the player the time to learn any new behaviors. In Tomb Raider, learning new behaviors is made during the big puzzles, they are never explained before. You could say that the player has the time here to learn. The problem is that you have to resolve a “big” puzzle, no just this part. You have to find a way to the end of the tomb. So you don’t think and learn the same way has you have to resolve an overall problem instead of a part of it.

The other problem of this tomb is that the puzzle expect you to fail. The trick is really ugly and was made just to make you losing time. On the third screenshot of this tomb you can clearly see that I was able to access and climb the wall. You can also see that Lara is in a position ready do jump. Lara can’t go more away at this place, you can also see that her head is looking straight forward, not up or down.

What happen if you jump ? Lara don’t jump on the scale of course but on the wood planks just before. Walking on this planks make them break and you obviously fall. This force you to re-jump and re-climb the wall again. The problem here is that you can’t ignore this comportment, you can’t expect it neither because the visual response of Lara before the jump doesn’t let you think that way. You clearly see that you shouldn’t have landed on this old and weak platform.

Conclusion

Of course, Tomb Raider has some good points. The cover system for example makes the game very pleasant to be played, Lara can move quite well (even if there is an awkward air control giving to Lara the feeling that she has a jetpack). Some place are gorgeous and some characters interesting. Unfortunately Tomb Raider is tarnished by too much errors and problems. Every time I started to enjoy the game there was something to put me out of the game and making me frustrated and angry. Too often the game feels unfair or worse : ill-conceived.

All the time I had the feeling that tomb Raider wasn’t been enough tested, as the developer missed/forgotten too much possibilities that the player could be asking/trying to do. The result is here : a game that disappoints because it promises a lot of things and broke them one by one. I think Tomb Raider is a good case study on how game mechanics and level design can fail is you don’t expect and understand correctly your players.