Friday, July 25, 2014

Time Raider

Yeah, turns out Tomb Raider 2013 is addictive. I finished it, then started again to see if the skills and upgrades system worked better if you gamed it a little. But all of this is time I should have been spending on the new circuit, or the grenade orders...and the apartment is looking pretty shabby, too.

I"m still ambivalent about some of the choices they made. And how well those choices work is impacted greatly by style of play...and by familiarity (aka, having done the game once already).

Half-Life2 suffered a little from this as well. It better presents the illusion of a wide-open environment, and you feel like you are making a unique pathway through it as you find places to climb, physics objects to move with the Gravity Gun, etc. It is on the second play through that you realize there is only one path, and all the options you chose not to take were not, in fact, choose-able.

Tomb Raider does have some wide-open explorable environments. But the set-pieces, most of the travel, and of course the developing story are all very much on a set of rails. And the camera does not help.

The Tomb Raider series has always been known for "death by camera." See, Lara's movements are XY along the camera axis. If the camera is behind her and you hold down "W," she runs forward. If the camera is on her right, "W" will cause her to strafe/scramble to her left. And jump direction is the same. Which means, inevitably, the camera will end up on a diagonal to your desired motion right at the moment you need to make a jump.

Tomb Raider 2013 is extremely cinematic. Which helps to hide some of the railroading the first time through, but also adds Death by Camera to the ignominy of Death by Quicktime Event (and, of course, Capture by Cutscene.)

A word on that last. If you started a drinking game for every time Lara is captured during a'd be too drunk to finish the game. Many, many important narrative events are railroaded by making you witness a cutscene (as opposed to a game like Half-Life or Portal 2 that relies on clever level design to force your actions whilst giving you at least a modicum of the illusion of free choice.)

Oddly, though, the one that annoyed me most when when Lara escapes from the two Russian brothers. Two guys, on a narrow bridge, and they've got your weapons. So the cutscene informs you that she grabs her bow off of one and jumps. Fifty feet into a river of blood covered in punji stakes. Presumably you were thinking they'd believe you died in the fall (can't imagine why they'd think that!). Except they don't, and they are free to go around and tell everyone else you got away from them.

Thing that makes this so annoying is; you've still got the climbing axe in this scene.

Right, another aside here. My two favorite weapons are the popular choices; bow, and axe. The bow just does everything. Silent kills early on. Powered shots are available from the start of the game as well, for punching through light armor. Fire and rope arrows later in the game. Ammo is plentiful and you can even recover your own arrows from your kills. The fire arrows are especially devastating, and appear fairly early on (in one of the best cutscenes of the game). You can drive enemies out from behind cover by setting fire to their surroundings, and then set fire to them -- which acts as a delayed kill on even semi-armored opponents, plus sows confusion and sets more fires (particularly if you've shot a Grenadier). And they work as well as anything else on explosive barrels.

The players at Spoiler Warning demonstrated how deadly axe melee could be. And this is one thing I wanted to try for my replay. So I concentrated on leveling up, both by taking the skills in the right order and by getting in some extra hunting. My Lara was hell on the wildlife in her area (As are all the Laras -- at least the Underworld Lara finally invested in a tranquilizer gun.)

And, yes, the axe is devastating. I was able to get pretty far with it just by button-mashing, but use of a little dodging, plus snap-shots to take out ranged opponents, makes fights against smaller/isolated groups go quickly.

All of the attacks are pretty graphic, but in one of the "Going a bit too far there aren't we?" design moments, you get extra points for a finishing move on an injured enemy. Also once you have the ice axe, the silent melee kill animation changes from a bowstring strangle to burying your ice axe in the top of their head.

This makes the reaction of your surviving crew-mates a bit jarring when they give a football cheer and call you a badass for taking out their guards. Um, does "badass" really cover putting an arrow through the throat of one from hiding, killing two more with a freaking ice axe in a savage close-corners melee -- finishing the second one off with a vicious and snarling ice axe trepan -- and then gratuitously setting the last one on fire and watching him burn to death?! I'm thinking a more appropriate reaction would have been shocked silence.

(And a little later on in that scene, if there was a dialog option I think my Lara would be saying, "Shut up, Reyes, or my next arrow is for you.")

So , anyhow, back to the bridge. At this point the game had given you plenty of chances to demonstrate that those two didn't have a chance. They didn't even have armor. And, heck, one of them had my stuff. It is a paucity of imagination that led the designers to chose for you via an imposed cutscene, rather than try to work around the possibility that you could wipe the floor with them, easy.

Heck, it would have been less annoying -- less character breaking, which is really the point -- if you were allowed to chose to run or fight, and the game showed you a cutscene of a bit of the bridge breaking off under your foot regardless. Or, since they did the same damn thing in other scenes, have machine gun fire open up on you from a covered and protected position, forcing you to chose to jump (or stay and die).

Another aside before I talk cinematics. I am playing on a Mac. I'm playing the PC version on a Mac (via Wine). So I had to do some creative button re-mapping. In Underworld melee is always available and your guns auto-target. Manual aim freezes your avatar in place. Tomb Raider 2013 doesn't have the martial arts moves. Your only melee option is to kick things, up until Roth finally gives you the ice axe. Then it becomes your only melee weapon until the end of the game.

Anyhow, the upshot was I didn't know Tomb Raider 2013 permitted strafing, and I didn't get the dodge mechanic -- well, particularly the dodge kill mechanic. Considering I was playing on the track pad of a laptop (and on normal difficulty, too), it's pretty amazing I got 2/3 of the way through the game.

After reading up on a guide to the controls, I re-mapped to my Orbit trackball, to where left mouse enters target mode, and right mouse fires. That made it easier to hit the dodge/scramble button, and release the fire button sometimes to take cover, and it made it possible (since I was no longer using a navigation finger to turn on targeting) to strafe and to snap-shot.

And having concentrated on axe and melee skills once combat took over from scavenging and survival, the heavy-shield guys that are introduced as early bosses fell within seconds. Scramble-dodge around whilst using snap-shot to take out the other guys (shotgun blast from close in, or headshot with the pistol. Shoot them in the legs first to slow them down if necessary. Or a charged fire arrow for the lightly armored ones). Then when it is just the big guy, find an open space and wait for him to charge. Dodge, use the Dodge Reverse to ram an arrow through his leg, then when he stumbles hit him with the ice axe; once to take him down, and once for the finishing blow.

Yeah, it is pretty nasty and brutal stuff! This is like if Tarantino designed a video game.

So cinematics. The game is exceptionally cinematic. It achieves this through a near-seamless blend all the way from total player control through to full-on cutscene. All are rendered in the game engine, real-time as far as I can figure, and there is often no real indication when you've got control and when you don't. (As opposed to Half-Life 2, which famously never takes away camera control from the player, instead choosing cunning tricks to make you look the directions it wants you to).

Here's the variations;

1. Regular play
1b. Scripted animations (Finishing Moves and the like)
2. Constrained camera and/or pathway
3. Slow-mo
4. QTE
5. Cutscene

In a typical sequence, a short cutscene presents you with an exploding bridge, then the camera whip-pans from looking at the bridge to looking at Lara. She starts to run. At some arbitrary point, she will only continue running if you are holding down the movement key for her, but the camera is fixed in such a way you can only run forward. Several jumps present themselves. One big jump arrives, and the game goes slow-mo as you miss and fall towards a climbable surface, giving you all the hint you need to grab the climbing axe. You are in normal control while you climb, although the camera is now glued to one side so you can't look down or up, and it switches to one more brief cutscene as she tops out. She crawls out facing the camera, the camera pans around to take in the new vista, frames her in it with the light just so...and without the slightest change, you are back in control once again.

So I actually had a harder time through some of these sequences the second time. Because first, the camera is dogmatic about being in the desired direction of travel, so much that if all you do is mash the "run" button you will almost always be running in the right direction. And everything is timed and only a few rare events actually require you to do anything, so ignore the fireballs and falling timber and all that rot and just run. And jump the gaps.

So, yeah, the first time through it feels like you really achieved something, and the whole pell-mell dash through falling bridge or burning building (Lara also does a number on the architecture in this game) is framed beautifully with camera angles that show it off to best cinematic effect.

And the second time you are aware of the rails, and if you happen to anticipate a move you get control of the camera wrenched from your hands just as you try to jump, jumping the poor kid off the side of the bridge. But, heck, this is still less annoying than Death by QTE.

What makes the QTE so annoying is not only are they graphic, not only do they have a meaningless difficulty (forcing you to replay the graphic death scene over and over and over), but they take you out of the game.

In each QTE, you are watching a cut-scene until the moment where, in fine Dragon's Lair style, a large picture of the controller button/key appears over the scene you are watching. Sometimes the button is blinking, asking you to mash it. Sometimes it is blinking differently and appears to want you to hold it or tap it. And sometimes it is a timed tap; hit it too soon or too late and the death animation plays. All of these take you out of the game, particularly as you are puzzling out which button is being displayed (as the choice seems too often arbitrary). The worst being the timed ones, where you are watching the button graphic to try to detect the moment when it wants to be hit.

This is oddly akin to the Standard Loot problem, where fairly quickly all the loving background detail becomes ignored as your eyes become focused on pattern recognition for the only things that actually matter in all that background; the loot, presented in familiar standardized shapes for easy recognition.

(And similar to the falling debris mentioned above; it can't hurt you so you ignore it. Anything that could actually hit you, will trigger a QTE that you then interact with. Otherwise, just mash the button and keep climbing.)

So too often you find yourself staring at small letters in a dark red font, wondering it it is an "E" or an "F," or watching a ring contract towards a fuzzy ring-like zone where either it matters that it touches the outside, or doesn't touch the outside, or is somewhere in the middle (and there is no clear guidance which)...and then the death animation plays and the entire damned cutscene plays again from the top.

This, to me, is what pushes my avatar over the edge. Not seeing all the dead bodies, not being shot at by everyone. No, having to listen to Mendelev or Molotav or whatever his name is growl how he's going to kill me slow...over and over and over and over as I keep having to watch the start of that cutscene to get to the moment where I can maybe hit an "E" or an "F" or something when a red ring is just about to turn into a yellow dot. After suffering through this a dozen times I was ready to kill everything on the island.

And, thing of it is; even outside of the player-patronizing use of railroads and camera control and QTE and so forth, these events could have been easily integrated much better into the play experience.

There is no point at which the game needs to take control away from you and give you arbitrary graphics and force you to guess at which key to hit in order to jump a gap. Not even in the most tightly-scripted, cinematic, partly cut-scene sequence. You jump because you see air, and a place to jump to, and you hit the right key because the jump key is always the space bar.

Point being, they could have trained you -- the way better designed games like Portal train you in the correct mechanics, the way this game itself trains you to use the climbing skills in a relatively safe environment and with a few early button hints -- to respond with the normal action buttons as if what was happening in the QTE was a normal action.

The game does this in other places.

And if it is so necessary that they have a specific event and/or moment for the story-advancing cinema-friendly event they wish to contrive, there are already existing mechanisms for it. The slow-mo sequences (which were also used in Underworld). And the Survivor Vision.

Here is it. If the game wants to underline that you knee Prokofiev in the crotch, go to slow-mo (which the QTE does already) and light up the target area with Survivor Vision. And let the player grasp that since this is melee, this is a melee attack, meaning the same button they've always used to hit people. And if timing is important, you can put that in the graphics, or even put that in the sound (and, again, there already is a building-up sound that follows these QTE moments. It just doesn't mate up close enough to be a useful guide).

Heck, the game practically goes out of its way to emphasize how little actual control you have during the QTE's. When fighting wolves in open terrain, you can tap the Dodge/scramble keys to avoid their lunges. When one of them jumps on you in a QTE, the game helpfully tells you (in a distracting overlay, to boot!) to mash the movement keys randomly. Pretty much baldly telling you it doesn't matter what you do, and completing the divorce of your actions from what is seen on the screen.

(And, no, you can't turn these off. The only "Turn button hints off" checkbox I found doesn't appear to do anything at all, and that also includes the immersion-breaking floating icons that "helpfully" appear every time you stand near an oil drum or a can of ammo you already have too much of or some other useless thing).

So integrate it. As the Wikipedia article so cogently puts it, early driving games were QTE because you just couldn't do the required stunts with the existing controls. Now we have physics engines, and essentially everything is done within the same framework.

And as for indicators; games are pretty good about using texture cues and lighting cues and camera cues. You don't need to have immersion-breaking floating icons drifting about every object you can interact with. Make them optional, at least.

And another sigh for how things don't matter. It is a peculiar situation they've set up. The Solari seem set up with a lot of internal fortifications. The fact that they are wearing their armor and weapons 24-7 in later parts of the game is at least partly explained by what you've been up to, but even the hints that they've been fighting with the Oni don't explain why they are so heavily armed.

Nor does it explain why you are doing so well. You got the bow off someone who died with it. Were they off peacefully hunting for a living in some corner of the island until a Solari scouting party happened by? Or were they trying to fight back like you were? The game seems unable to make up its mind. The Solari are so ready to do battle, yet they also seem surprised and even put out that an "Outsider" is fighting back.

(This is one of the few places that they have a nice realism; when you are hunkering down behind cover in sniper mode, you can hear them arguing with each other; "I'm not going out there, man! She's too good a shot!")

You don't have weapons they don't. Yours are all scavenged from the same wrecks as theirs, and even your fire arrow and rope arrow innovations aren't unique (later in the game the Solari use both against you.) Even Lara's speciality, the climbing, doesn't seem to make a difference. All the internal evidence is that the Solari are getting to work with the same wall scrambles and zip lines you are using. They only thing they seem to lack is the ice axe climb, and even that is unclear.

Which is a pity in a way; it highlights how the game so rarely gives you chances to make creative use of your outside-context skill set. To climb up to a ledge to avoid an armed party, or to ambush them from an unexpected direction. The most creative thing you do is set fire to everything, and, really, people who stack cans of gasoline, lit candles and oil lamps, into debris-filled decaying wooden buildings are basically applying for a Darwin Award already.

The archaeology is of course similar. The little items she finds are cool, and it is great to have her gushing over the history and context of the artifacts. It just looks really weird when you are finding them inside a room full of dead bodies while maniacs are throwing molotov cocktails in after you.

And of course they don't matter. The only "finds" that change game play are in the big treasure chests at the end of the optional tombs. Which, after a long wriggle through twisty passages, solving a complicated puzzle, then (in a cutscene) approaching a big fancy box and opening it to big fanfare...well, you never see the artifact. Apparently the only thing inside the ancient Japanese shrine deep under the mountain is a map, and the slide to a magnum pistol.

(Which could have been kind of cool in a more "Beyond Thunderdome" way, but, no. This is one of the places where game mechanics collide with world building. Tombs are worth experience points and weapons upgrades. And the latter manifests as "Part 1/3 shotgun found!")

The big secret, she puzzles out in an agonizingly slow way. Since nothing you do has anything to do with solving it one way or another. Setting fire to the body would have ended the story a lot sooner (especially given that outside of cutscenes, that's pretty much Lara's modus operandi. The only time "set fire to everything" isn't the optimal move is in the caverns, where it draws more Solari. Which you might want anyhow, if you are hurting for experience points.)

In any case, the game gives you no hint to how you are managing to tear through them like this. Mathias may claim to be better at surviving than you are, in his "We are the same" speech. (Sorry, no. I am killing people who chose to kill, you are killing people who came in peace -- and are still willing to try to talk to you.) But Mathias is sadly misinformed. After hewing your way through his Solarii, you take out the entire Oni army they've been fighting for decades -- over the course of an afternoon. I'm way better at this. The final fight against him would have been a curb stomp if it wasn't framed in a QTE.

So, sometimes the hero convinces you (Bruce Willis was excellent at this) by looking like he can take all that punishment and is just too stubborn to quit. And sometimes you just have to hand wave that one CEO in a muscle suit with rubber nipples can beat up thirty guys in a row. Or, such as this game, the shark gets jumped in such slow motion you just go with it.

Games try to present it that you have the advantage of unpredictability. Of freedom of action. They are trying to cover all the approaches, or send out scouts all over the place, and trying to coordinate their efforts, and all you have to do is be in one place and win each individual fight. Sure, it happens. The 82d basically had the early hours of Normandy handed to them that way. And it makes more sense when the enemy is disrupted, have lost communications, or when you are really coming at them from an angle they didn't expect.

But, really, it becomes hard to buy. So as a role-player -- and not as a simple button-masher who is willing to abuse the game mechanics in order to score points -- you end up with internal monolog in which you are superhumanly good. Or lucky. Or got bit by one of the special bugs in Edge of Tomorrow.

(Which is where I'm going with my own fanfic, if and when I stop playing games and get back to doing some real writing.)

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