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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review Week Day 4: Tomb Raider Anniversary

The original Tomb Raider was one of the first computer games I spent any time with, and, like many impressionable early teens, it had an enchanting effect on me. For me, returning to the lost valley was like returning to my childhood (now if only someone will remake X-Com).

With the recent increase in the number of high production games there is a higher concentration of great games, so it's good sometimes to have a game come along that reminds us how things can go wrong. Tomb Raider: Anniversary is not a bad game, it's just mediocre. There are a lot of things it does well, a few things it does passably and a couple of things that it does poorly enough to detract from the rest of it.

The puzzling is excellent, with some true stumpers. They are all solvable, especially when the camera is working on your side and helps to hint at the next steps. Often, the continuous movement through a level gives a great feeling of acrobatic momentum. Towards the end, however, the puzzle difficulty comes less as a question of how to move around the environment and becomes the technical challenge of actually executing the necessary motions in the time allotted. In these moments the inconsistent camera becomes a serious issue. The angle of the camera at times works against the way you're moving the thumbpad (I played this with a 360 controller on the PC), sending you jumping off into space.

The Boss fights and cinematics show the same inconsistency. Most are entertaining, though only a few are actually difficult. The real challenge comes from finding the trick to beat them, different for each one. Each boss fight is preceded by or culminates in a quicktime event (some both) which are passably done and at times take away from the tedium of the inane cutscenes (story has never been a strong suit of the series). However, in some moments they drastically lessen the intended impact of the scene they are in, most obviously when Lara shoots Larson. Her over-dramatic display of guilt is a farce, since the game demands that you do it in order to proceed. This disconnect between impact and mechanic became especially apparent with the appearance of the T-Rex. What remains, in the original, one of the most cinematic, iconic and epic moments in gaming is here reduced to a trite and gimmicky quicktime event and boss battle. Before it was actually terrifying, as the music slowly built to the moment when the T-rex burst from around the corner, forcing you to run panicking away, firing wildly. In this game it's remarkably easy to off a T-Rex with a few spiky logs and timely button presses.

While many of the advancements in Lara's control and freedom of motion make the puzzles and levels more complex and interesting, changes like the quicktime events cheapen the effect. The one thing that the developers got very right though, is limiting the changes to those few things. There are no new weapons, no new levels, no drastic changes to the story (as incoherent as it is). The setpieces from the original remain largely intact despite the new ways you'll moves around them. If you have fond memories of the original Tomb Raider, this is an engaging walk down memory lane, even if it does fall short of the nostalgia. If you're looking for an acrobatic puzzling game and need to fill some time before the next Prince of Persia, the 8 hours it takes to play this to completion are worth it. Despite its niggling control issues and the occasionally questionable design decisions, this is a solidly executed platformer with a great sense of momentum and scale.

EDIT: This is the final entry for the review week, school and work have taken over and I don't have time to finish Bioshock to review it. As soon as I do have some time and some more games to talk about (Spore, Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 especially) I hope to have another review week.

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