Sunday, June 24, 2007

That Which Anniversary Lacks

Note: This discussion of the game Tomb Raider Anniversary was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Briefing: I posted this on the tombraiderforums, and I thought it was a particularly well written explication of exactly what Tomb Raider Anniversary is missing in terms of the original Tomb Raiding experience. So I'm reproducing it here.

(Begin post)

Having played through Tomb Raider Anniversary, including unlocking all the rewards, I can say that it was a very enjoyable gaming experience. As with any game, there are complaints and there are praises to be awarded. I thought the gameplay additions such as the grapple tool and the adrenaline dodge really added something to the Tomb Raiding experience. Many people have complained about the camera view, but for me, it wasn't a problem, as I used my PS2 controller on the PC. Being able to simultaneously control Lara's movements and the camera view with the two analog sticks felt perfectly natural to me.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed playing Anniversary, since it is a remake (okay, re-imagining), you can't help comparing it to the original, and in that respect, there were two things that were a major disappointment for me. Again, they didn't ruin the gaming experience, but they did disappoint me, because in these respects Anniversary does not live up to the original.

The first thing is the music. The background music in the original Tomb Raider was so memorable for me. The echo-y sounds in the Caves, and the dripping water and distant animal cries in the Cistern, these really added to the tomb raiding experience, and stuck in my mind over the years. In comparison, the ambient sounds in Anniversary are lacking. And the orchestral scores that accompany certain sequences, like every time an enemy comes up...they just felt out of place. I like the idea of having a different score for each type of enemy (though the mischievous playful quality of the rats' theme pissed me off because those little nippers were anything but :p), but in the end, it just doesn't make sense hearing orchestral music deep inside a long forgotten tomb, you know what I mean?

The other thing that majorly disappointed me about Anniversary was the level design. Missing areas aside, as there were plenty of nostalgia-invoking sections, even the parts that were there didn't feel as exciting to explore as they were in the original. And I think I know why.

After playing through Anniversary, I was taken by the desire to replay the original. So I dusted it off and, after some frustration, got it running reasonably well on my XP machine. I was fully anticipating my expectations of the original levels to be shattered by playing through them again, realizing that all my fond memories were more nostalgia than substance. But what happened was, I was once again amazed at the levels and how much fun they were to explore. And then it hit me, why the levels in Anniversary weren't as exciting. And reading through this thread, I'm excited to find that Kasperg is the first person I've come across that has been able to put into words this feeling I have. Elysia has also described it as "honeycombing" in her excellent diary.

(QUOTE by Kasperg)

The TR1 levels had a different flow in terms of architecture, sometimes having areas bigger than what was really needed. That made if feel less linear.

Anniversary seems to retain most of the key areas from the levels (central rooms, puzzle rooms) but in some cases it might seem like the transition from one to another pales in comparison to TR1. Where you used to have one room overlooking another one, you might find that the connection is now a rather boring L-shaped hallway with some occasional trap.
It's true that the original puzzles are now bigger and better (specially after seeing the St Francis' Folly media), but that "something" that linked and intertwined the areas in a level to one another seems to be absent. Concept art shows that some of the areas have been rethought as symmetrical, which is kind of a step back in terms of architectural interest. Gathering what I've seen, there's no complain on textures, models or ambience. It's just the layouts might be inferior to those of the original. Could this be related to the 3D engine's limitations?
I'm an architecture student and do level design as a hobby, so I might be worried about nothing. I don't know.


The Palace Midas and the City/Temple of Khamoon levels especially stood out for me as good examples of the difference in level design between Anniversary and the original. In the original, Palace Midas truly took my breath away. That one tunnel that twists and climbs up through rock passages, opening out onto the roof of a structure that you stood at the foot of earlier in the level, really excited me. And the Aqueduct! Oh, the Aqueduct is soo cool, but it's nowhere to be found in the Anniversary version of Midas' Palace. (Wait a minute, you're telling me that structure in the main statue room is the aqueduct? Talk about disappointing...).

As for the City/Temple of Khamoon. Most of the areas were preserved in Anniversary, but they were unnecessarily separated. I almost suspect that that's the reason they renamed the level "Temple" of Khamoon and not "City" of Khamoon, because in the original, it really felt like a city, in that you could see practically the entire level from the main chamber with the Sphinx and the Obelisk. Going through some tunnels and then walking back out onto the main chamber, but standing higher up in a chained-off area that you couldn't reach before, really makes you feel like you're getting somewhere, and that these rooms are part of something, and not just distant, separated cells connected by long, identical passages... Realism? Realism be damned.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I really enjoyed playing through Anniversary. The unlockables were exciting for me (the level commentaries and the comparison galleries were particularly interesting), and I'm still playing through it periodically in order to take advantage of the beautiful custom outfits the modders on this forum and others are creating. I don't know if my complaints here will be perfectly helpful for the continuation of the Tomb Raider series, as basically they are only areas where Anniversary pales in comparison to the original, and since most Tomb Raider games aren't remakes of existing titles, I suspect the game developers are more interested in moving ahead rather than trying to recapture past achievements (and I understand this). However, I was really happy to find somebody else that could articulate the feeling I had about why the levels in Anniversary didn't stand up to the originals, and maybe somebody else will read this and discover that they too had the same feeling.

(End post)

And now, for those that missed the comment in my other TRA thread, here's a link to a graphics comparison between the two games:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tomb Raider Anniversary

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Tomb Raider Anniversary is a "re-imagining" of the original Tomb Raider game, with modern graphics and gameplay, in celebration of Lara Croft's 10th Anniversary. Having beaten the game and unlocked most of the secrets (still working on the last few) in the last four days, I can say this was an enjoyable gaming experience. Not surprising, considering the quality of the original, but I can't say that Anniversary could replace the original.

First, the pros. The graphics are light years ahead of the original, and Lara's lookin' better than ever. Some of the additions to the gameplay are quite fun, like the grappling hook and the adrenaline dodge technique (infinitely frustrating before I got the hang of it, but infinitely exciting afterwards) - which revolutionizes the action/combat factor of Tomb Raider, at least compared to the original. The unlockables are quite exciting, too. In addition to art galleries and character profiles and the like, you have unlockable cheats which includes things as useful as infinite breath (for those long underwater passages), as pointless yet cool as equipping Lara with stylish sunglasses, and as bizarrely interesting as textureless mode. Plus, being able to unlock alternate outfits for Lara is brilliant.

Now, for the cons. Most (all?) of the negative aspects of the game exist only in comparison to the original, but considering that it's a remake, such comparisons are par for the course. Anniversary simultaneously feels like a modern Tomb Raider game, while harboring endless nostalgia for the classic environments. Ultimately, though, I feel as though the environments in Anniversary are somehow lacking. They look fantastic, and are far more detailed than in the original game, but the feel, the personality, the atmosphere of the environments isn't the same. Anniversary is brighter, and less claustrophobic, and yet the really big spaces don't feel quite as big.

And the sense of adventure is somewhat compromised - I like the way another reviewer described it. In Anniversary, it's like there's one set path through the levels, with all the ledges and swinging poles and grapple loops marked out, so that you can walk into a room, take a look around, and know exactly how to progress to the next chamber. Ledges that aren't part of that path are largely inaccessible (unless they lead to a secret, in which case they're usually fairly well-hidden).

In the original Tomb Raider, it was more of an effort to figure out how to move from point A to point B, and the various ledges and areas you could access - some that led to secrets, others that led to dead-ends - heightened the feeling of adventure and discovery - the feeling of entering a tomb that hasn't been populated for hundreds, even thousands of years. Though I would recognize a particular area in Anniversary, it wouldn't be as exciting as discovering that area in the original game. Maybe it's partly nostalgia - having explored these areas already has eliminated the excitement - but I still feel like something of the atmosphere of the various chambers is lacking in Anniversary, and it leaves me desiring to go back and play through the original again.

(Read this post for a more in-depth study of what's lacking from the Anniversary version of Tomb Raider).

(I would love it if there was, like, a source port of Tomb Raider, like there is with Doom, or something like that - completely faithful to the look and feel of the original game, with minimal modification. But then, it's not much of a multiplayer game, and I haven't heard of anyone designing custom tombs.)

A note on controls: When I first downloaded the TRA demo (which led me to buy the game), I initially had difficulty with the keyboard/mouse controls. Other people might not have the difficulty I had, but I like to think of myself as primarily a console gamer, and I'm used to using a controller. Keyboard is fine for simple games that don't have a lot of commands, but for a game like TRA, there's just way too many keys to keep track of, and hitting them fast when you're in a jam seems like a crap shoot.

So I plugged my PS2 controller into my computer, and mapped all the most important keys to where they felt right. Having the dual analog sticks was especially helpful for simultaneous manipulation of Lara's movement and the camera view. Jump, Crouch/Roll/Drop, Shoot, and Grapple were on the Circle, Square, X, and Triangle buttons, respectively; I put Aim Lock and Manual Combat Mode on the shoulder buttons, along with the Prev/Next Weapon selection. The only mildly awkward thing was constantly pressing start to Interact with the environment (picking things up, pushing switches, opening doors, making Lara move faster on ledges, etc.), but it just took a little getting used to. Everything else I left on the keyboard; I think Esc for Pause, Tab for Inventory, and the shortcut keys for quick medpack were pretty much the only of those I even used.

If there was anything else, I didn't miss it. Oh, the Walk and Sneak keys. As essential as Walk was in the original Tomb Raider, I hardly even used it in Anniversary, and if I needed to, it was already accounted for by how much I moved the analog sticks ('barely' for Sneak, 'softly' for Walk, full-on for Run). Another thing, I originally had the Prev/Next Weapon selections set to the analog buttons (when you actually press the stick like a button), but I found that in heated battle situations, I ended up unintentionally hitting those buttons while moving around (inconveniently scrolling through weapons while trying to fend off a charging enemy), so I disabled them and put those functions elsewhere.

Recommendations: Obviously recommended to Tomb Raider/Lara Croft fans. I don't know how Anniversary compares to the other recent TR games on the market, but being a dedicated fan of the first three games, this new yet familiar gaming experience felt like a good introduction to modern TR. I can't say that it's a must-play for any and all fans of the original Tomb Raider game, but if you're even a little interested in how TR has changed over the years, or else if you just feel nostalgic for your favorite old tombs and want to rediscover them, give this game a chance. Just don't give up on those boss battles before you've made an effort to learn the adrenaline dodge - it's like riding a bike, and you'll love it after you learn it.

The Bottom Line: Tomb Raider Anniversary is a really fun game, and a heartfelt tribute to the original that started it all, but should not be taken as a substitute for the original.