Monday, July 28, 2014


I know I've been ranting on this one game for a while. But it hurts to see so much good work done, then squandered on some avoidably stupid choices.

Why the icon overlays?

Here's what I'm talking about:

In the middle of a claustrophobic, atmospheric, tightly-rendered scene, this op art object is floating in garish primary colors. Eventually the helpful caption goes away, but the icons will always be with you. The only way to partially avoid them is to interact as quickly as possible without giving them a chance to display.

Immersion breaking? Take another look at the above. What do you see? A HUD? Bullets remaining, damage taken, experience points to date? No! All of her health is indicated via animation cues and screen effects (the frame gets blood-spotted, and if you are really hurt, it all goes black-and-white -- very effective emotionally as well as communicating quite clearly.

Let me note, all the objects that can be interacted with share the usual law of detail. They are usually lighter in tint and more saturated in color. Most of them have standardized forms you quickly learn to recognize (the standard salvage crate, for instance). The game doesn't have a wide variety of interactions; you either hold "E" to pry it open, turn it on, or set fire to it. Or, in some places, "E" to light the torch then "E" again to set fire to it.

(Yes -- Lara's first resort is setting fire to it. Later in the game she will add blasting it with a shotgun. And there is not a single place in the game where it is a mistake to operate every single button or lever you find. At no point do you realize "Oh, I should not have turned on a damaged generator in the middle of this room filled with gasoline fumes!")

In case you needed more help in ranged interactions, the cross-hairs change color when you are over something worth shooting. Which could be annoying but it a more acceptable break from reality.

But the icons. Grrr! Half-Life has a HUD (excused by the high-tech suit you are wearing) and it doesn't need them. Portal doesn't use them. Not only do they harm immersion, but they get in the way. They cover up things you need to see. There's times I was hit in melee combat because a giant floating icon decided it just had to tell me about the loot-able body I was standing on.

(Incidentally, if you are going to be a power player, then loot the bodies during the fight. You might fight twenty guys, but after the fight ends all but three of the bodies mysteriously disappear.)

The fire graphic goes on to cleverly "fill" in the same elegant way as the old Coors sign visible from Highway 101. Which is how the game designers decided they needed to communicate how long you have to hold your torch on something before the fire was properly set. Ahem. Which you could just, you know, time out by trial and error. Plus, there's a freaking sound effect -- you could just, you know, listen to that.

And as for seeing the object the first time, if for some reason the peculiar texture, the in-game placement, the camera framing, the lighting cues (the usual shaft of light occurs in several places), and the stereotyped form didn't clue you in, then you could always turn on the Bat Vision -- I mean, Survival Vision -- and it would light up for you.

The only slight defense for the damned icons is the usual start-of-game problem. Which is to say, the things that a game needs to do in the first levels, when you are unfamiliar with the conventions and the designers expectations and how the controls work, can become annoying and even awkward later.

It is akin to the scaling problem in the Civilization series of games; it is a lot of fun managing all the small details of one city, visiting it on every turn to check the health and happiness of the population and managing construction of standard infrastructure like granaries and temples. But it is really, really annoying to be forced to do all this minutiae when you are running a world-spanning empire.

I've played Civ games where you have options to hand off these mundane details to city mayors or other AI. But none, yet, where your graduation from worrying about the small details is a natural progression supported by the game; where you implicitly move from chieftain of a tribe to someone who has gained advisors and staff to do things for you.

Anyhow, so I could see it being annoying in the first parts of the game to be clicking on everything randomly, hoping to find out what works. But that doesn't excuse having the same exact mechanic (minus at least the floating captions), staying with you throughout the game.

And, heck. If you are going to have a mechanic that tells you, "Pick up this thing, it's important!" then why are you sticking with the same stereotyped shape? There's no longer the same reason that every single "journal" in the game has to look like the same leather-bound book, whether it is a scrawled note by a dying Roth or a deliberately penned scroll by an ancient Japanese priestess.

And there's no reason for the WWII issue ammo cans, and the wooden crates full of salvage, to be appearing in exactly those forms in an ancient monastery occupied by undead Samurai. If you are committed to an icon popping up like a Whack-a-Mole every time you pass near a collectable, and the things glow neon-bright whenever you turn on your Lara Radar, AND they appear on your pop-up map and can even be set with a searchlight-into-the-sky beacon...!

Then you could have mouldering scrolls and desks full of random papers and all sorts of more interesting forms to press the "interact" button nearby and trigger the "Lara reads a journal entry" screen.

Collectable objects and salvage and loot and buttons aren't the end of it. Enemies get icons floating over their heads as well, turning fights into some kind of black comedy version of The Sims. Do I really need to say you could indicate their status better? "Suffered a fatal wound" is already indicated clearly by the animation; those guys are crawling around on the ground, whereas the injured ones are still charging you. And "You can use a finishing blow on this one" is the same thing as above...(and that's ignoring the extreme ludonarrative dissonance of the "finishing move" crap being in this particular game).

Really, the experience becomes a lot more like playing World of Warcraft online (well, with chat turned off). So much for the immersive sole-survivor experience the same was aiming for.

Notice I didn't quite say "realism." Unlike the game play missteps. that area is acceptable. As nonsensical as this island gets, would you really want to miss out on experiences like....this?

(I had my graphics dialed way down for this, because otherwise the huge fight that's coming on that suspended trawler becomes difficult.)

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