What Tomb Raider gets wrong

Now rendered entirely in orange and blue for that authentic Hollywood look.

Actually, Tomb Raider — by which I mean the new one, which I co-reviewed yesterday 1 — gets several things wrong, most of which I’ve already touched on both in that review and in the lookback I published last month. But here were are at 2-Dimensions.com, where I bang on endlessly about game design. So let’s look at what Tomb Raider gets wrong in the Anatomy of a Game sense.

The answer, actually, is quite simple: It compromises mechanical consistency and reliability in favor of visual immersion.

The original Tomb Raider takes a lot of flack for its dated feel; and really, why shouldn’t it? It was the work of people groping their way blindly into 3D game design, so some crustiness is to be expected. For all that it has grown musty and awkward in hindsight, though, the PlayStation (and Saturn, and PC) original did one thing right: It put its game mechanics first. This is something people often mock and complain about, because part of this design involved Lara Croft using tank-style controls and moving around within something of restrictive layout grid. Yet while that chunky approach to navigation may have felt less immersive or natural than people expect from contemporary software, it ensured the game played well.

When you controlled Lara in the original Tomb Raider, you could predict exactly how she’d move. If you had to make a tricky running jump, you knew to sidle up to the edge of a ledge, take a couple of steps backward, run forward and press jump after exactly x number of steps. Every action Lara took worked on similar principles, leaving no ambiguity about her adventures. The game world matched this level of predictability with interactive components whose nature you could deduce at a glance: If you could climb a wall or sidle along a ledge, you knew it simply by looking at it.

It wasn’t an elegant approach, but it was perfectly practical. But that style of design has slowly faded from the series under Crystal Dynamics’ stewardship; they’ve pushed Lara’s adventures more toward real-world visual verisimilitude and further away from an emphasis on pragmatic game mechanics. Again, some of that is to be expected — the original Tomb Raider‘s gridded precision made sense in the low-poly environments of the original, where everything consisted of boxy shapes and intersected at hard angles. Movement on a grid doesn’t make much sense when everything is rounded and natural-looking. Still, I can’t help but feel classic Tomb Raider‘s underlying philosophy didn’t have to be thrown out with the bathwater, and its absence from the latest entry in the series speaks to a fundamental change in the purpose of the game.

For all that people dump on the old games for whatever reason, at their heart those early adventures — at least the first two, and arguably a few after that — were about exploration and puzzle-solving. They were, at least relative to contemporary action games, fairly cerebral. The mere thought of expecting players to think for themselves has long since become box office poison to purveyors of big-budget action games by necessity; if your game makes players feel like they’re not hyper-skilled geniuses, they might not like it, and then how will you make back your big budget?

God knows Tomb Raider on PS1 wasn’t exactly Mensa material, but the hidden tombs of the latest game really show how low the bar for player agency has become. Presented as intricate and complex side adventures, in reality the bonus tombs each consist of little more than a single puzzle that requires you to apply basic game mechanics in a slightly more complex fashion than the designers dare to expect of you along the critical path. Any seasoned fan of the series can walk into these “challenging” bonus areas and deduce the solution at a glance… and just in case you take more than about two minutes to complete the task at hand, you get an on-screen prompt telling you to use Lara’s Detective Vision 2 to show you the solution. The message is clear: Please don’t hate this video game. You’re super-duper smart!!

The hidden tombs in Tomb Raider are practically identical in scope to the random puzzle caverns in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Of course, the difference there is that the caverns in that game are littered throughout the overworld and aren’t presented as any big deal — just another way to earn an extra hundred rupees by figuring out an advanced application of your tools. Here, they’re presented with such fanfare as to come off as some sort of misaimed attempt to appease old fans, which is like Paul and Ringo wheezing their way through a couple of ’60s standards and calling it a long-awaited Beatles reunion.

“Are you not entertained!?” crow the producers. “Meh,” reply the fans, turning back to Dark Souls or whatever other rare creature they can find that taps into their primal urge to absorb themselves in a demanding game world. The producers shrug in turn and look at financials and calculate ways they can tap into a much larger audience than that grumpy handful of legacy fans, who don’t represent enough of a demographic to justify triple-A budgets. “Skyrim is the answer,” they smile to themselves, blithely unaware that the “it plays like Skyrim!” schtick they’re about to start peddling for the upcoming sequel is as worn out after last year’s E3 showing — all open-world, all the time! — as the “it plays like Uncharted!” line they presented for the last Tomb Raider was after E3 2011.

Of course, Crystal Dynamics already had the solution to the Tomb Raider playability conundrum in their grasp: They solved it perfectly with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, which updated the mechanics and layouts of the 32-bit original to feel more contemporary. For whatever reason, though, they threw all that out in favor of a game where the environments are so unintuitively designed that they had to highlight the interactive bits, where eyeballing viable jumps is so unreliable that checkpoints dot the landscape to compensate for your inevitable failures, where the game explicitly counts the numbers of tombs raided 3 despite the fact that said tombs are so slight (and the “hidden” areas literally pointed out with arrows painted all over the environment screaming, “HEY! SECRET HERE!”) that the puzzles within would barely constitute an insignificant middle-of-the-level room in the older games. But at least the leveling system gives you fine control over how personally and bloodily you can murder several hundred people while trying to rescue the princess (or reincarnation of the Sun Queen, same diff), right? And the ouroboros continues to choke on its own tail.

For all that, there are parts of the new Tomb Raider I enjoy. In terms of beloved franchises having their corpses desecrated, this ranks as little more than someone enjoying a picnic on its grave compared to the indignities inflicted on certain other classic series. But man, talk about a games industry trend I could live without. What’s so shameful about a game you play rather than simply experience?

1 For the record, the secondary reviewer has no impact on the score; that’s entirely the main reviewer’s call.

2 Detective Vision courtesy of Batman: Arkham Asylum, published 2009 Eidos Interactive/Square Enix.

3 “It’s like some kind of… star trek.

26 thoughts on “What Tomb Raider gets wrong

  1. I feel like for all of their hardware missteps Nintendo is always slightly ahead of the curve in game development. Where it relates to this is, I feel when you look at Skyward Sword, Nintendo was where the rest of the AAA devs are right now. Trying to present a game in a way that feels free, but does not dare let the player experiment, get lost or fail. Nintendo has hit the wall already and is bouncing off, as a result they do experiments like A Link Between Worlds, they add two difficulty adjusting settings in Fire Emblem and ask the player if they want the tutorials, for two examples. So I guess I would say I expect that in a year or two AAA devs will have the same epiphany and start experimenting. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

  2. I enjoyed Tomb Raider overall. There were aspects I was disappointed by, but by and large, it was a fun experience. The combat is no longer superfluous, and the platforming, while maybe not up to the level of Anniversary, is certainly better than the overall jankiness exuded by Underworld (a game I also enjoyed). It’s pretty responsive, and I didn’t have much problems with lining up jumps, but maybe I’m weird like that.

    However, the biggest flaw is one that you touch on, and it’s the distinct lack of complexity. I love puzzle-platformers. I love them a lot. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time really nailed this sort of game, and I’ve always glommed on to games of a similar bent. I probably would have never played Tomb Raider in the first place without the shift they took in Legend.

    Aaaaanyway, original point. The platforming, while responsive, just isn’t very interesting. And the tombs, as you mention, are so simplistic as to wonder why they even bothered. Yes, it’s cool to find stuff, but it needs to be more challenging to, as Poirot would put it, “the little gray cells”.

    But yes, in a lot of ways, it’s Uncharted. Although I think there was more intricate platforming in Uncharted as well. So if they can shore up that portion of the game and keep the gunplay intact, I can see a sequel being quite excellent.

  3. If big budgets and good game designs are mutually exclusive, then what PSN or XBLA game has the design older Tomb Raider fans would like?

  4. Eloquently put. You just might be the best writer to analyze modern gaming’s single greatest failure: the trend towards hand-holding, simply because you understand so well how older games work. I enjoy this type of write-up as sort of counterpoint to the Anatomy of older games.

  5. @touchofkiel I wouldn’t say “best,” but yes, this is ultimately what I’ve intended Anatomy of a Game to lead to: Examining games that abandon solid design principles in favor of elaborately gilding the player’s path forward like they’re Christ making the triumphal entry.

  6. It seems like the complaints you levy pretty much sum up how I feel about a lot of modern AAA games. While I feel you could leave the Tank controls in the past, I definetly prefer the precision and deduction of what can be done by good game design. That said I will still probrably pick this up sooner or later as it it is probrably the best PS4 game other than Resogun right now. And I haven’t played the original version from last year yet.

    I am playing through some GOW games because I never played them before and I own all the PS3 HD remasteres. And I feel pretty much the same way. Playing through Ascension, it looks great, but the gameplay is pretty much repetitive and simple and from one level to the next I never feels like I’m off the rails or doing anything more than playing an old school beat em up with QTEs. Except GOW doesn’t really have a history to fall back upon where it was better like say Tomb Raider or Sonic. So maybe that’s why it doesn’t get as much flack.

  7. My ideal Tomb Raider has a plot structure kind of like Mass Effect - beginner tomb, then three tombs you can tackle in any order which unlock a final tomb. Throw in an overworld like Assassin’s Creed IV (except you drive an SUV around Egypt or Iraq instead of a ship in the Caribbean) and then as long as you nail the tombs, you’ve got a pretty good game.

    Hrm. Maybe all I want is Prince of Persia 2008 with more interesting platforming?

  8. By the way, slightly different formula (overhead, twin-stick shooting), but Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was awesome, so that would be a good XBLA/PSN game to look at. (Also, I think it’s on Steam.)

  9. This is by and large the most annoying problem AAA games have right now. I’m so damn tired of glowing interaction points or not being able to jump until you’re standing at the spot where the prompt shows up. Lords of Shadow and DmC both annoyed me a lot by doing this, and both of those games also decided to heavily segregate platforming from combat. So not only do they offer less complicated combat obstacles, but also their platforming is so simplistic and directed that it becomes a complete joke. But it seems most critics don’t care because they’ve got great art direction and the gameplay isn’t completely terrible. What also annoys me is that I get a sense of “these games don’t feel as videogamey” from reviewers, whereas to me it only makes it feel more artificial.

  10. Definitely agree; I like being able to figure things out with a glance, but without it being shoved in my face. Sort of like in A Link to the Past, when you see a tree and think “I can hookshot that!” rather than the specific grapple points of later games.

  11. For the record, I LIKE the controls in the original Tomb Raider. Sure, analog control is smoother and more intuitive, but tank controls make more sense for a game like the original Tomb Raider where you need to make a lot of precise jumps.

    Tank controls let you turn your character and the camera with the d-pad at the same time, making it a breeze to line up jumps, which is something analog controls can’t do. Another advantage is that with tank controls up is always forward. When you want to line up jumps and jump straight ahead, this is a huge advantage. We’ve all had the experience of trying to make precise jumps with an analog stick and having the angle be slightly off.

    Tank controls take a bit of getting used to, especially for people who are used to analog, but I think they can still have value in the right kind of game. I’d like to see another game try that method again.

  12. I’m with you on this.

    The first Tomb Raider game I ever played was Tomb Raider 2013, back in April. I give it a solid Not Bad. The shooting was competent, it was sort of fun to poke around in attic crawlspaces for GPS whatevers, and Lara had a cute accent. You touched on every modern game trend that bugged me about it, with one more — the tacked-on ‘leveling-up’ and ‘character customization’ “systems” (sorry for the quotation mark abuse, but ‘systems’ is supposed to be extra sarcastic) that every AAA game frankensteins into their product these days.

    Character building in, say, Skyrim or Dark Souls is cool because those games offer lots of flexibility in how you play them. Since Tomb Raider doesn’t offer this flexibility, these ‘branching’ “upgrades” (okay, I’ll stop) are just miniscule mechanical adjustments to the moveset she starts the game with. The combat is Tomb Raider has been QA’d and polished to where it can’t go any other way than The Experience the designers want you to have, but they paradoxically want this popular feature, so they shoehorn in something limp that basically lies to your face and tells you you’re making the Lara that reflects how YOU want to play.

    The second Tomb Raider game I played was about two months ago, Tomb Raider 1996. To make it even more ugly and unergonomic I played it for the Saturn. I was probably about 10 minutes in before I knew it was far and away better than the new one. One of the most impressive things about that game is how immersive, organic, and detailed the environments are, especially given how proto it is. You can tell the six (six!) people who made that game were supremely inspired to bring the player into this world, to tempt them with treasures and confound them with labyrinths and crush them with traps.

  13. Agree with Womb Raider, especially because it doesn’t solely apply to this game. It’s far too common in the modern action game to have these upgrades that aren’t much of anything really. As an RPG fan, I like the statistic-ization of non-RPGs, but most of the time it’s incredibly superficial.

    Parish, you mentioned games where it’s clear the devs want you to be the ultra super bad-ass Hollywood movie hero at the expense of actual player agency. Can you think of a single time where it was so well executed that it just actually worked? I’m sort of curious now. I want to say God of War, but the combat is so robust that it doesn’t seem fair to compare it to on-rails sequences like those in Tomb Raider, for example.

    In other words, has there ever been a time when the play-themselves sequences just sort of clicked for you, and you DID actually feel like the hero the devs so desperately want you to feel like?

  14. I am a long time tomb raider fan, Tomb Raider II to me today is still a solid mechanical game that I felt held up gameplay wise nothing much can be done visually as it is a ps1 game but the DNA talked about in the article is well there, anyone agree with me or disagree?

  15. Nick, I prefer Tomb Raider 1 for a few reasons. I think the level design is better, I prefer the limited save system with the crystals, and I think TR2 had too many human enemies.

    But Tomb Raider 2 was a solid game, and despite it’s flaws it still had many bright points. The underwater levels where you explored the sunken ship were pretty brilliant. And yeah, I like the mechanics in all of the early Tomb Raider games.

  16. I’m with Flipsider — TR1 was the stronger game, in part because it had fewer human enemies. Unfortunately some organization or another flipped their shit about killing imaginary animals, so Core changed the series’ focus — killing imaginary humans is somehow more acceptable. I liked the underwater levels, too, except for one thing: The intro where you’re dropped into the water and have to swim to safety before suffocating is one of the first instances of do-it-or-fail game action set pieces I can think of. And I hated it as much then as now.

  17. Sorry Jeremy, but that’s one of my favorite moments from TR2. Sure it’s unfair, because you’re timed and you need luck to find where you’re supposed to swim to. But it’s also tense and very memorable, while not being too unfair. (You don’t much of any progress in TR2 when you die.)

    It’s the good kind of set piece, one which stands out by throwing a unique challenge at the player and forcing them to overcome it. In a modern game, that same kind of set piece would have arrows pointing where to go, or invisible walls to prevent you from going off track, or you’d just have unlimited air or something. And while that would make it more fair, it would also ruin it.

    What I like about old games is that they aren’t afraid to take the player on an adventure, and sometimes that means putting them in unfair or tricky situations. Newer games, Tomb Raider 2013 included, often feel more like a ride at Universal Studios: they try their hardest to make the player feel like their on an exciting adventure, but no matter how hard they rock the car player knows they are always safe and can just keep progressing forward with ease towards the inevitable conclusion.

  18. @Flipsider I am not particularly fond of ambush/trial-and-error game design. To me, the best games avoid do-or-die one-shot gimmicks and give you a fighting chance to survive without relying on pure luck or repetition. But that one moment is all I’m talking about in TRII; I loved exploring the inverted sunken ship that came after that one bum sequence.

  19. I don’t blame you Jeremy. But I’m just saying that when used sparingly, ambush/trial and error game design can work, and that underwater scene in TR2 is an example of it being used well. Unfairness when used sparingly can create some memorable moments, and the underwater scene is unfair in a way that makes sense to the story and creates a tense and memorable scene. That’s why I think it works, and I know I’m not the only one who remembers that particular scene fondly.

  20. @Flipsider I think my favorite stages for TRII would be venice or the Opera House, I half smiled playing Assassins Creed 4 with the main climbing and doing a jump to a wall behind him.. I can remember specifically doing that in Tomb Raider II but really those mechanics come from the original Prince of Persia. The ending of Tomb Raider II with the house it was a general awesome way to end the game.

  21. Just wanted to chime in (super late to the party I’m sure) with my love of the original two Tomb Raider games.

    Sure, they had finicky tank like controls, but they worked for me because I was forced to play cautiously, methodically even and think about every move I made. They’re a couple of the few games that made me feel (on a visceral level) that I was way too high in the air for any sensible person. I had to navigate those games like I’d probably navigate cliffs and ledges in real life. Which is to say extremely slowly and extremely carefully.

    And for my money TR1 beats TR2 (aside from all the other very good reasons people have already mentioned) because almost every room was iconic and unique. It’s been years and if I really thought of it I could probably recall a good portion of every area. In contrast TR2 areas were a little too cut-and-paste for my tastes.

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