August was an amazing month for action games on PSN and XBLA. On August 10th we got Scott Pilgrm vs The World: The Game. Then on August 18th, we got Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, and on August 25th we got Klei's wonderful brawler SHANK. All of these games have couch co-op, old school sensibilities, amazing art direction, and some nice twists to old formulas. The game that I enjoyed the most (by a slim margin) was Lara Croft, so I wanted to explore it a little here.
[WARNING: There may be some spoilers here! Also I have only played through the single player campaign, so no cooperative insights here.]
In November 2008, Crystal Dynamics (Soul Reaver) released Tomb Raider: Underworld, the third game in their semi-reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. Despite being widely considered one of the better Tomb Raider games, Underworld wasn't exactly spectacular, reviewing around 75%, and comparing poorly to Ubisoft's 3D platformers.
Then, Crystal Dynamics did an interesting thing. While they continued to put time and effort into the next traditional Tomb Raider title (due in 2011), they started brainstorming smaller projects (including, apparently, Lara In Space). Some of these ideas were filed away for future use, and some were just thrown away (Lara In Space). But some of the team members were pretty excited about at least one of the ideas.
Using the same team (everyone who worked on Lara Croft also worked on Underworld) and the same technology (CDC Engine, whatever that is), Crystal Dynamics built an entirely new game in just a couple of years. And unlike the ill-fated Blade Kitten, Lara Croft has been a critical hit, scoring much closer to 85 or 90% on most of the major outlets. More importantly, it's really fun.
I think next to EA Partners, this may represent one of the greater successes of "indie-style" development working well for bigger companies, but there's a lot of other interesting things about the project that I'd rather write about. Also, in the interest of total clarity, this is the part of the article where I stop with the links and the research, and venture off boldly into the land of theory and exposition. But that's more in keeping with the spirit of Lara Croft anyways.
Unlike "normal" Tomb Raider titles, which are 3D run-and-jump games, Lara Croft plays a lot more like Diablo or Gauntlet. One or two players explore dungeons from a birds-eye perspective, fighting enemies and collecting keys, treasure and weapons to advance. Unlike Diablo or other "rogue-likes", Lara Croft doesn't have much (if any) randomly generated content - the level designs and data are mostly static, or fixed. This is par for the course for a modern AAA game, but this game veers off that path and embraces some seriously retro roots.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light thrives on the idea of positive permanence, a concept from the first Legend of Zelda game. What I mean by positive permanence is if you collect some important item but then die before you finish the level, you don't lose that item. Your spatial progress might be reset, and all the enemies will come back to life, but you don't have to go fetch that item again. Same goes for side quests or specific challenges inside each level. If you want a high score, then you want to make sure you don't die, but for the more casual player (or exhausted game developer) it makes for a wonderfully forgiving and encouraging experience.
Second, Lara Croft has buckets of secrets, and they're actually somewhat meaningful. Players don't just get achievements - the game almost always rewards them with an actual power-up, or equippable item. In a world where most successes are measured by the number of intangible quips on your gamercard, it was a relief to acquire in-game bonuses instead. It reminds me very much of DooM (or any DooM-era game), where players were as excited about getting that 100% SECRETS score at the end of the level as they were about actually finishing it.
Third, the way you find most of these secret areas or items is by solving a variety of puzzles. Many of these puzzles require the kind of intuitive leap that we associate with Braid, rather than Tomb Raider. Other puzzles feel almost like you're hacking the game, like sequence-breaking Metroid with an improbable series of bomb jumps, or leaping onto the bricks at the top of a Mario level and running behind the score. Since the fantasy of the game is about being an explorer, and having an adventure, secret areas that encourage players to go out of their way and push the boundaries of the game make a lot more thematic sense here than they did in the Super Mario or DooM games.
Lara Croft provides players with just a few simple tools with a lot of different applications, all of which revolve around manipulating the environment in simple ways. Players can use Remote Bombs to destroy traps and flip switches from a distance. Players can also throw Spears, which can be used as platforms if they hit a wall (a la Capcom's Darkwing Duck for the NES). Finally, there are almost always some Boulders around, which can weigh down pressure plates. Players can also launch Boulders with the aforementioned Bombs, or stand on them to get some extra height. I especially enjoyed the puzzles in the latter half of the game as they required you to use all of these tools together in interesting sequences, with a lot of those satisfying, intuitive leaps we talked about.
Since the game involves exploring a top-down dungeon, and shooting, and platforming, one might assume the controls were intimidating. Instead, they're a clever hybrid of existing input ideas. You use both thumbsticks to move and aim in a circle around the character, like an arena shooter. While aiming, Lara's guns are drawn, and she moves much more slowly. This has interesting ramifications for combat, and encourages players to not just shoot everywhere all the time, since it's hard to dodge things at that slow speed. Like an FPS, players use the right trigger to shoot, and then you have rolls and jumps on the face of the controller that work a lot more like a platformer. It's an interesting and successful approach, and a perfect fit for the gameplay.
They also did a great job of adding visual cues that help you learn and explore these puzzles and mechanics, that fit in very nicely with the presentation and fantasy of the game. Poofs of dust, jiggling stones, and nice camera work all provide subtle hints, without nagging "are you stuck?" messages, or distracting, non-diegetic highlights.
The thing that I really got excited about while playing is how divergent the fantasy of this game was from the other Tomb Raider games. Lara, the character, has kind of always been "the female Indiana Jones" (as opposed to Nathan Drake, "the male Indiana Jones"). 1997's Tomb Raider 2 even has a Venice boat-chase scene a la The Last Crusade:
In this new Lara Croft game, you are very much alone in a strange, hostile, and shadowy environment. To be fair, I am biased toward these sorts of scenarios, and the original Tomb Raider game had an amazing sense of solitude. But starting with Tomb Raider 2, people and relatively modern, brightly-lit settings became the norm for the series. It would be easy to classify the presentation of this new game as a "return to form," a return to embracing the pulp roots of the franchise. But the pulp roots of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light aren't in Indiana Jones or Doc Savage - they're in Conan the Barbarian.
Conan, you say? Totally, I reply. A traditional Tomb Raider narrative is something like "steal this artifact before some other wealthy, male jerk of an anthropologist does." But this game unfolds much more like an Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard tale: Lara is about to grasp an artifact endowed with ancient evil when greedy men interfere. The ancient evil is unleashed, and Lara teams up with a savage warrior to chase a demon through cursed temples and swamps, fending off waves of skeletons, giant salamanders, firey quadrupeds, imposing giants, and tyrannosaurs.
Instead of attacking bounty hunters or cultists, you spend a lot of time picking your way through crumbling and cobweb-shrouded tunnels, sweeping flocks of spiders with a flame thrower before leaping precariously to the next flimsy landing. Huge stone staircases, massive gears, and bottomless, foggy pits all lend the title a very obvious sword & sorcery bent. Interestingly, this game's brand director Karl Stewart was also involved in 2008's Age of Conan, with the same publisher. Is he a genuine Howard fan, or is it just a coincidence? Either way, I love the fantastical setting, and Crystal Dynamics executed it with a very high level of competency.
Beyond enjoying the presentation in and of itself, maybe the most important thing is that it's a perfect fit for the mechanics. You don't "collect" power-ups, you "discover" them. Arcane, obviously fictional temples of doom are an ideal setting for overly complex traps and puzzles, and the waves of primitive creatures suit the combat very well. It all just fits.
Finally, just briefly, I should add that the sound design is unremarkable but very solid (with the exception of the voiceovers, which I'll get to later). The music echoes the tense strings of a modern Hans Zimmer soundtrack; there is no desperate aping of John Williams to be found here. It doesn't really stand out but definitely heightens the sense of danger or mystery accordingly. The sound effects have a lot of diversity too, and are rarely annoying or repetitive. Everything sounds thick and crunchy and old and just right for the setting.
Lara Croft's levels seem to be broken up into a few different basic types:
Adventure: These sprawling levels come with a map, and can take an hour or more to fully explore. They're mostly horizontal, may require some backtracking, and generally have multiple distinct objectives. If combat intensity was charted over time, these levels would look like a plateau for the first half probably, with occasional plateaus popping up in the second half as you hunt for secrets and uncover nests of monsters. Fights tend to be longer and in larger spaces compared to...
Puzzle: These levels tend to be more vertical, with each "floor" the temple or tower including a couple of large, physical puzzles involving boulders, switches, spikes and fire. Fully exploring a puzzle level might take 20 or 30 minutes. The goal in these levels is usually something like "find and push these 5 buttons to unlock the exit." Combat in these levels is frequent but brief - the chart would look more like an EKG, lots of sharp, short spikes.
Boss: These levels tend to be a large arena full of traps used to attack or disarm a large enemy. These levels definitely emphasize combat and survival over exploration, but that doesn't mean there aren't a bunch of secrets in each one. Playing a boss level might take 10 to 20 minutes.
Again, there is no formal distinction between these levels in the game's presentation, and the basic way you engage with the game doesn't change, these are just meta-patterns I noticed while playing. Something that I think helps keep the game interesting is they almost never put two of the same type of level in a row. You rarely play two puzzle stages back to back, or one adventure level after another.
Lara Croft is barely 4 or 5 hours long on the first playthrough (though the game will be getting more maps and puzzles over the next few months). But I didn't mind in the least. There's very little repetition, and a really satisfying level of visual and mechanical variety. Nothing out-stayed its welcome. And what it "lacks" in surface size, it makes up for in depth. All the levels are engineered to promote and support speed runs - traps are synchronized to encourage and allow the daring player to rush through without having to kill time waiting for oscillating platforms to align. And I finished my first playthrough of the game with maybe half the items and secrets discovered, if that.
Inexplicably, despite all these mature, apparently well-considered design choices, the voiceover work and visual design of the cutscenes are pretty disastrous. The game begins, beautifully, by flipping through the pages of Lara's leather-bound explorer's journal. This is perfect - pencil sketches of statues surround hand-written text laying out the backstory. Your eyes travel around the images while an actress narrates the text (they actually do a great job of this throughout the game, giving you things to read or look at during loading screens, etc).
But then they unleash this:
3D models from the game, but rendered with an edge detection shader, and cut out as 2D billboards that tween around the scene. Meanwhile, they subject you to the worst voice acting since Symphony of the Night. The antagonist demon Xolotl (pronounced zo-loot), and Lara's warrior companion Totec, both sound totally hilarious, while Lara is merely embarrassing. This came as a bit of a surprise, especially after the lovely bit with the explorer's journal. Given the level of polish in the rest of the game, the voices and cutscenes really stand out in a bad way. I would have loved it if they had stuck to the journals for whatever story-telling they felt they had to include. That said, if making better cutscenes would have taken time or money away from the rest of the design, then they made the right call.
There are some funny physics errors (try jumping onto a thin railing), and you can do things like run into a temple door and run back out, even though the game is already fading to black as it switches to that temple's interior. You have to try pretty hard to find these things though, and they didn't bother me much. I felt like they were a wink or a nudge from the developers, encouragements to push the boundaries of the game, which helped a lot in solving some of the harder puzzles. I definitely felt like even if I couldn't figure out the right solution, maybe I could at least accident my way into a working one.
Despite the game's relatively hands-off approach to the player, and encouraging sense of exploration and hackery, there are still times when the game reminds the player too aggressively that THERE IS A PUZZLE IN THIS ROOM. These "challenges" are actually fun, and a welcome detour from the basic combat, but I would have loved it if they were left in my objectives list, rather than displayed anytime I happened to be near something interesting. That's a small gripe, though, given how well they otherwise eschewed the modern, hyper-linear, hint-driven approach.
Whoa I Didn't Mean to Write This Much!
I'd like to end with a note to the developers. Developers, if you're reading this, congratulations! You took a risk on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, and it was totally worth it. The mechanics, setting, and structure all reinforce each other, and the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts. By embracing the pulp roots of Tomb Raider (even if you changed the specific source), you were able to stay true to the franchise and still render an original vision. High fives! I am eagerly looking forward to your next risky project.