Blog 517: Tomb Blogger 3

So, Tomb Raider was good but a bit shaky in places, while Tomb Raider 2 was beautiful but an exercise in masochism. Will Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft get the balance right?

Tomb Raider 3

Well, it’s certainly another game of incremental upgrades. Lara’s got a small suite of new moves — she can finally duck and crawl, and there’s a meter-limited sprint ability (is this a herald of even tighter timing challenges? Yes, yes it is), plus the ability to hang from monkeybars. Graphically, not much has changed with the character models — Lara’s level of detail is the same as in TR2, though I think other characters have had a small boost along with weapons and pick-ups, which have finally transitioned from billboarded icons into fully 3D objects. Environments are still made of voxel chunks, but the cube texture resolution looks like it’s gone up a bit and there are a few more bits and pieces of decorative mesh disguising the edges of the blockular world.

All in all, it’s got a slew of fairly subtle but welcome fiddly bits, without belting into giant polycounts. I have to say, if I ever get to make a fantasy epic RPG — I want it to look something like this.

Lara’s lounge looks very… cosy.

The level design is mostly better than Tomb Raider II, but it’s only got back to the level of the original rather than getting to somewhere good — there are still elements of plain old ass-pullery, like the frequent descents into darkness where flares don’t last long enough and are far too scarce, resulting in the need for atmosphere-ruining adjustments to the gamma to avoid endless headache-inducing squints as you search for tiny locks and buttons.

The rest of the time, it’s mostly about seeing where you want to be and then finding out the precise combination of jumps and ledge-grabs that’ll get you there — the same old recipe, delivered in that same crossword-clue level of abstraction that throws any concept of these being real places out of the window.

Look, male NPCs have NOSES.

After the first sequence of missions in the jungle, you get to choose where to go next. I picked London because I’m a Brit, but in a dazzling display of Mass Effect there are two other planets to go to afterwards. What this means for balance and the level of puzzle obtusosity (is that a word?), I have no idea — is there an implicit order that I’ve bucked, or will they all be equally challenging in their own ways? (Or, perhaps worse, will they just be palette swaps with no escalation or different flavour at all?)

Of course, the London levels feel very Deus Ex and not particularly Tomb Raider — not just in their midnight timing and grimy street setting (plus the abandoned underground station of Aldwych), but also in the fact that there are some guards you can avoid while they patrol the rooftops (obviously I wasted loads of shotgun shells on killing them because I am a Total Bastard).

I even found a secret alternative route to the train station foyer, meaning I could safely dispatch a torch-wielding thug from on top of a ticket booth. It was not particularly well hidden behind a breakable wall, but it’s a nice touch. I did remark earlier that Tomb Raider may have benefitted from a little bit of non-linearity in its level design, so is this the beginning of something wonderful? (And, now that I’ve got a Deus Ex reference into this blog, I just need to find a point of comparison to Unreal Tournament and we can play Kilbirnie’s drinking game.)

Who needs the curvature of the horizon when you’ve got a limited triangle budget?

Of course, Aldwych had to ruin itself with yet another brutal timing challenge. Three time-limited doors, no margin of error, tight cornering and a pool of water that cannot be escaped from — why do you keep doing this?

It’s the same issue that so consistently destroyed the last game. Just when I think I’m getting into a rhythm, starting to find things and follow the right paths, it throws in an impenetrable maze of backtracking or a timing puzzle that is crippled by the controls.
I really want to like the game, but how can I when it so consistently cuts my legs off?

I wonder if this is the true reason for blinking objective markers in the modern age. The world can’t really be used to navigate; you never quite know whether a door is going to lead to the level’s exit or another sideline, and a good number of issues go right back to just not picking out a textural cue that a block is mobile, a ladder can be climbed or an object can be activated. Was the solution for the modern age really not to make levels more navigable, more sensible, but just to print an icon that says “you need to go here now”?

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Overall

I can’t recommend it, though I really really want to. So much of the game — the fundamentals of acrobatic exploration, the themes of mystical artefacts and ancient tombs and forgotten technology, the graphics and the worlds — is perfect. But for every element that’s perfect, or approaching perfection, there are truckloads more that throw everything out the window. And that can be said for all three of these Tomb Raiders; things tweak and twiddle but somehow nobody ever thought to solve any of the real problems with the level design.

Which is a damn shame. I’ve still got the bulk of this game to go, but my interest is waning. I want to complete it, but at points I feel that it doesn’t want me to complete it.

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4 thoughts on “Blog 517: Tomb Blogger 3

  1. The funny thing about the first three Lara games is that they all seem to have equal share on being fan favorites, and all for different reasons. (Funnily enough, mine is actually 4).

    Tomb Raider 3 didn’t have enough ‘tombs’ for my liking, but I still kind of enjoy it. So pretty much in the same boat as your opinions! Just to add to your observations, there were two more very important (for the time) additions to Tomb Raider 3. which was coloured lighting (amazing back in the day), and triangles. Yes, triangles!

    I do remember laughing back in ’98 when a preview had Core exclaiming “We have triangles now!”. It was the first sign that they really just needed to change the engine. You’ll notice when playing that yes, indeed, the environments aren’t all blocks, but occasionally are half-blocks shaped as triangles which do make the environment a bit more varied, but harder to navigate because Miss Croft was designed for full blown squares only.

    Not that I actually minded the squares. It made the game easier to play, but was a sign of the times, and probably the bad control design.

    Another thing about your post, you mentioned that it used voxels. Unless it was a joke, the nerd in me has to correct you, so I apologise! Voxels are like a 3d-grid which is either filled or not. And while typing that, I can see how Tomb Raider can be confused for using voxels because it appears so grid based, though it is normal polygonal 3D. That is why the blocks have textures and can move smoothly (seen when Lara pushes a block. If the grid was voxel, the block would have to move instantly from one space to the other without a sliding movement). Voxels also can not show multiple sides of it’s ‘blocks’. Geek talk over! 🙂

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    • Ach, you cut right to the heart of my uninformed and unresearched ramblings! Voxel is surely the wrong word indeed, but I couldn’t think of any other term that summed up the grid-based world, since “tiles” are so commonly held to be 2D. It made sense in my head at the time. 😦

      The blocks make it very easy to know whether or not you can make jumps, but yes, I did notice a few diagonals that rather confused things. They were out of reach anyway (and that sickening crunch when Lara hits the ground :<).

      So, despite all this pain, am I destined to pick up Tomb Raiders 4 & 5 from GoG.com at the end of my slog?

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      • A month late reply… but I recommend picking them up for 4 alone!

        The difference between 4 and 5 is so vast as well, that it’ll make an interesting blog post when you get onto Lara’s 5th adventure/s.

        Just be warned, while 1,2 and 3 are all extremely polished games whether people actually liked them or not, 4 and 5 are shockingly underpolished in every way. Prepare to be lost and frustrated with 4, but it is oh so good (in that old game way).

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