Saturday, August 22, 2015

Tomb Raider on "hard"

I decided I was going to stay away from the 2013 game until I made my Mac upgrade; with luck I'd have forgotten enough of the details to make it fresh again, plus I was going to play it on the "hard" setting. And oh yes...turn up the graphics a bit.

Well, the first and last didn't work so well. Oddly enough, except for some glitches, running the PC version in Wine appears to get as good a framerate, maybe even better. Well...part of what I'm seeing is possibly an intentional wandering reticule imposed by the "hard" version.

In any case, "hard" actually corrects some of the ridiculousness of the game and perhaps even a bit of the strong ludonarrative disconnect. Lara is in a rather more realistic amount of danger. You can get killed with one or two swipes of a blade, and a machine gun will kill you in a fraction of a second if you let yourself get caught out in the open.

Regenerative health is slowed way down, to the point that injuries you take in a battle essentially are your problem in that battle. And in the close confines of the game levels, with smart, pursuit-oriented AI, you really have to work to break away enough to get any recovery. All in all, it feels a lot more like catching your breath for a moment; effectively, you are still hurt and going to die if they hit you again, and you can't just hide behind a rock and wait until your hit points are back to full.

Meanwhile the enemy regenerates, and as fast (or faster!) than you do. They can take a lot more hits than you can, and if you don't concentrate on putting them down for good they will recover and come back after you in very short order.

So cover becomes a lot more necessary. Furthermore, "hard" introduces a flinch status effect; if you get hit at all, you reel and drop target. So no more standing out in the open taking calm headshots. You really have to use cover, and pop your head up for brief moments only.

Oddly enough, though, I was able to play to the end getting killed at about the same rate I was used to. Partly because I'd been playing through just the combat sessions most recently and trying stupider and stupider things (like using only the pistol, or by trying to get through the big fights on almost entirely melee). I was able to get through the set pieces by making my decision cycle just a little faster (aiming quicker, finding cover quicker), and increasing my situational awareness (really staying conscious of incoming dynamite, enemies with ranged attack, and also keeping an eye out for environmental options.)

Oh, yeah. The flaming barrels also do less damage to the enemy, so you can't rely on them as much. Or, rather, you have to use them as a stun effect and follow up.

Starting a second run, I was feeling comfortable enough with "hard" setting to indulge in some melee again. This was tougher, as the enemy ranged fire is a lot less distracted by your running around, and the melee AI is a lot smarter about reacting to an early dodge. I got killed by ONE samurai half a dozen times before I finally figured out how to demonstrate to him that ancient steel katana against aluminium alloy ice axe wasn't as one-sided as he thought it was.

Discomfitingly (but quite realistically) the game believes the proper technique in many of the larger set pieces is to select the automatic rifle and hose. In the final showdown against the Oni (about a hundred samurai) it works just fine to re-enact the Battle of Nagashino; only instead of putting lacquer armor against volleys of arquebus, you are relying on the devastating firepower of a modern assault rifle with underslung grenade launcher.

You can actually get through a lot of the battles with not particularly much trouble by hosing with the automatic rifle, using the plentiful ammo the game has made available for that one weapon. It is a lot harder on "hard" to cherry-tap with just pistol or bow, as both do significantly less damage with each shot in this mode, and the game still doesn't see fit to distribute their ammo quite as copiously. I actually had to go through my old routine of allowing melee opponents to close so I could whack them with the ice axe then go through their pockets for reloads for my preferred weapon!

Oh, and as is the wont for cover-based games, the cover mechanism itself gets you killed a lot. Get too close to a crate and Lara will hunker down despite being in a pitched melee battle at the moment, and despite being on the side facing the machine gun at the time. And as you try to maneuver her around to the side which actually provides some protection, the seek-cover AI makes her cling to the damned thing instead of moving nimbly, as if the damned thing was covered in rubber cement.

On the good side for the game, the AI is smart, and will toss grenades in after you as well as sending flankers. It is pretty much impossible to camp and snipe. You have to keep moving. And that too is realistic.

So, yeah. It feels a lot less like you are invincible, and even bows and arrows a lot more credible a threat. Automatic weapons are properly terrifying; you have to prioritize those and give them no chance to hit you at all. Because even a couple rounds or a fraction of a second caught in the open will kill you.

And that makes Lara's cutscene reactions a little more plausible (although why, particularly after the game's little Japanese history lesson, it insists on having her arm herself with her weakest weapon in every cutscene instead of just pulling out the automatic rifle...)

Of course, it would still be a better game it Lara had options other than fight her way through everything, if the big set-pieces weren't so egregiously insistent on being arena-style combat against a massed and alerted enemy (which only emphasize how appallingly silly it is that Lara survives them), and if tombs and puzzles weren't given such a grudging and even patronizing treatment (a very "Oh, very well, if you have to have these things...")

I've said it before. She's a climber, she's smart, she's an archaeologist. And she has the usual "hero" angle of winning through because they are desperate enough to try something spectacularly foolish and dangerous. But none of this is utilized by the game. She doesn't get the chance to do a risky climb over their heads, or find something cool and exploitable in her environment, or read an ancient inscription to find a secret way. Instead she fights face-to-face (even hand to hand) and wins because the player's mouse hand is just a little faster at lining up the reticule than the AI is.

That doesn't support the character or the underlying story, and it doesn't feel real either. And at the end of the day, for every bit of accomplishment you feel, there is an accompanying bit of frustration in how the game is manipulating you and/or taking the play out of your hands entirely.

At first blush the experience is cinematic, but the more you play, the more conscious you are of just how much work went into coldly and cruelly patching every possible hole to ensure that no player, no matter how good, could possibly take the tightly scripted vehicle off the rails for even a second.

And once you realize that, you can't help but squarely blame the creators for completely failing to realize the story they are trying to present is poorly thought out to the point of being schizoid. That their meticulously crafted combat sections have damned-all to do with the story of the young archaeologist trapped on this demon-haunted island.

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