Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Tomb Raider 2: Dagger of Xian Review

The original Tomb Raider game released in 1996 was perhaps the biggest unexpected breakthrough in gaming in the 90's, it was created by a small british development team named core design, it was fully 3d (which was still new at the time, and this meant it was competing against well known franchises such as Super Mario) and most surprising of all it contained a strong, independent female protagonist. Far from being a damsel in distress or the main man's love interest, Lara Croft took charge of her adventures on her own, it was this, and the general brilliance, gaming innovation and solid level design of the original Tomb Raider that made it a gaming legend and an icon of popular culture.

With that in mind, Tomb Raider 2 had a lot to live up to, following such an iconic game it had an almost impassable standard to live up to, and was expected to expand from everything that the world loved about the original. It needed to be the same thing, but 'cooler' and 'more action packed, more adventurous'!

But is this the way it turned out? Well let's have a look.

It's safe to say that if you have played the original game, or any of the next three sequels for that matter, you should feel right at home with the controls from the beginning of Tomb Raider 2. As I mentioned in my review of the first game, Lara Croft handles like a shopping trolley, she wheels forward with incredible ease she backs up with a bit of effort, and she is overall extremely rigid, however this all works very well in conjunction with the game engine, as you might have noticed from the screenshots already, the entire game is made of blocks. It's not really minecraft, but the grid system is the basis of every level, this was perhaps not even noticeable back in the day but the truth is it's aged horribly. I'm sure that a lot of gamers first experiencing the classic Tomb Raiders have to genuinely hold back the vomit from witnessing what looks like such a lazy 3d engine, but as you play through the game you'll learn that the grid system may look a bit ugly, but it is your friend. With Lara the trolley and the world made of squares, you can easily tell if you're going to be able to make a jump, three squares for a running jump and grab, one square for a stand and land, if you pay attention to the way the game engine works you'll master the environments in no time.

Having said that the grid system is ugly, I don't mean to say that the entire game is, well, the entire game is the grid system, which is ugly, but it somehow manages to get away with some beautiful sights. The game is textured brilliantly, which I know sounds like an absolute half-assed excuse for a compliment, but it truly is, it could have gotten away with so much less effort with the texturing, but there are always great details, dirty tiles, rusty metal, the textures, the imagery of it all is what makes the sights worth seeing in Tomb Raider.

The visual appeal may sound shallow to some, and perhaps just irrelevant to others, but the truth is that the visuals of Tomb Raider are a huge factor in one of the core ingredients of the formula for the appeal of the games, exploration. Being a Tomb Raider is "so cool, isn't it just so cool? Isn't it awesome? Going into tombs and stuff and going to like Africa or whatever and shooting things and getting cool stuff? Right? Isn't it just so cool and fun?" That's what it is. That's what attracted me to it as a kid, that it's a game in which you get to travel to far-off places and entre mysterious locations, some that were last seen by ancient civilisations, how exciting is that? And the sight of a golden tibetan monk statue is when you really feel that the most, or a gigantic sunken ship, or a dragon! Exciting right? And this game has all three of those things in one storyline, and many, many more! So it definitely does make you feel like you are a Tomb Raider and you are on an exciting, exotic adventure.

The only way it could be better would be if there was some great music to go with it, unfortunately in my opinion, there simply isn't. The game heavily relies on ambience during the gameplay, which is fantastic, I'm not complaining about the ambience, it does it's job brilliantly and makes you feel secluded in a scary place, which is how you should feel. But it would be nice if there were some great tracks that pump up in the exciting bits, there are some tracks that appear now and again, but they're just awfully mediocre and not memorable at all. It feels like for a game that puts music in such a 'Less is more' kind of place it really should have made more of an effort with what it did deliver.

Most of the gameplay in Tomb Raider involves finding way to traverse the landscape in order to get closer to a certain artefact, this means a lot of platforming. Lara's moveset is varied and flexible to work her way around any mountain, once you get used to how frigidly she moves you'll enjoy controlling her. Although some of  her movements are noticeably slow and tedious, such as shimmying from one place to the other (which you'll be doing a lot) and climbing ladders, you'll spend a lot of time staring gormlessly at Lara's blocky backside waiting for her to get to the top of the ladder. As I mentioned early, because of the grid system in the game it is easy to be able to predict jumps and know what you're doing, but this doesn't mean that the platforming is easy, in fact it's a bloody good job that the save system allows you to save anywhere this time because you'll be needing it, you'll fall off high ledge again and again and again, if not because you made a jump to somewhere you can't reach then because you simply slipped off the edge.

However, the biggest threat to your life in this game is not the platforming, as it was in the first Tomb Raider, this time around it's actually the enemies. In any other game this would be a good thing, I mean, enemies are supposed to kill you, but in Tomb Raider the action is jittery, awkward and distracting. Every so often when you're exploring you'll run into an enemy or two, or if you're in the last half of the game, four enemies or six, and you'll whip out your guns and shoot them down. It's fun in the beginning, yay shooty shooty dead tiget woo. But when enemies start getting actually threatening you'll loathe the sight of them, and not in the way that you should. The game uses auto aim, which  means that the only way that combat can be in any way difficult is if they make the enemies take way too many hits before they die. You will need to shoot a mountain lion about fifteen times before it'll die. Okay, fair enough, it's a game. But when they attack you there's nothing you can do, nothing except either run away (which means you can't shoot them) or jump over them, backflip, sideflip, to avoid getting hit, you'll be doing a lot of jumping up in the air during combat and trust me it is very annoying. The game has a good arsenal, seven weapons all together, they don't differ hugely but it's fun to switch between them.

The last half of the game is when the enemies start getting obnoxiously hard, some human enemies will take two grenades (the most powerful weapon in the game) to die, it's insane, and cranking up the statistical power of the enemies is never a good way to make a game difficult. Seriously, by the very end it's all some serious Ninja Gaiden shit.

Swimming is in the game, it was a feature in the original Tomb Raider where it was used occasionally as part of the intractable environment, apparently Core Design seemed to think that they had wasted Lara's swimming abilities before, because this time they really push the underwater sequences on you, I mean they really push it on you. First of all there's the introduction of the harpoon which is a weapon you can use underwater, this means that all underwater sections are pumped full of the most irritating enemies in the game!!!, tiny fish, other harpooners, and they eat away at your health as you're trying to maneuver your way through the giant (and I mean giant, Core really pushed it with how big the water sections are, there will be a lot of drowning) environments before you run out of breath. It's all very frustrating, and what makes it even worse is that your harpoon is actually the shittiest weapon in any video game ever. The shots fly out of the gun like a snail, meaning enemies can quickly dive out of the way, and that's if you're lucky, it's almost impossible to get a good shot underwater! Because you're not grounded the enemy could be below you, above you, anywhere around you, and you have to turn to face them with shopping trolley controls and by that time they're close enough to give you a full body massage, it's pointless, you just have to swim past them or they'll kill you. I'm not expecting to swim with the dolphins but the underwater sections are just so torturous.

Vehicles are introduced in this game, a motorboat and a snowmobile, bad idea. They don't work with the engine at all, they are huge hunky blocks that for some reason handle better than Lara, but in a way that no vehicle could, I think Core Design accidently switched Lara's controls with the snowmobile at the last second, that makes sense of everything. The vehicles are just uncomfortable to drive, they are constantly crashing into everything around them because they slip around like a banana peel as if they are immune to friction, it's a jittery and annoying experience, it doesn't work as a variation on the gameplay, it just feels like an awful version of the same gameplay.

If the overpowered enemies and risky platforming aren't enough to have you dieing every two minutes, the traps will get you. Like a lot of things that were used in Tomb Raider 1, in Tomb Raider 2 they have been cranked up beyond moderation. Spikes will fall out of the ceiling at random, water suctions you didn't know where there will pull you into a mechanical fan, it can get pretty obnoxious and unexpected. When a game kills you in the way that, you're just walking through the level doing your business and then a sword falls on your head from nowhere that you couldn't possibly know was there, it feels less like you're a tough action hero overcoming challenges and more like you're the level designers little bitch. It'll have you beg for mercy, "No! Not again! Please I haven't saved in ages!" you'll whine as you backflip from a ladder onto a space which the camera won't allow you to see, and find that it is indeed covered in spikes. Sometimes there's only one way to find out with these things, and that's to try and probably die, there is a lot of trial and error.

That's not to say this trial and error can't be fun, because it can be, that's what Tomb Raider is all about, or at least the classics anyway. Realising that you've just run into a hallway with a indiana jones boulder chasing you is exhilarating, coming across a series of traps, swinging spike balls, shooting disc blades and swords that you have to strategically maneuver across is really fun and enthralling, and a lot of those moments are in the game. But sometimes it's just not done right, there will be an equal amount of times that these moments are a fun challenge as there are times that these moments are unfair attacks on the player, eg hidden falling spikes. So the traps are a mixed bag, you'll appreciate them sometimes but you'll hate them other times.

For a game that makes you feel enclosed and secluded, it has some huge levels and environments. These levels will take you 40-60 minutes from midway through the game, they are huge sprawling locations with all sorts of paths, I will say that there is the right amount of backtracking in this game because I think we all know that's a risk with games with huge levels. But it never feels like it's being pushed on us too much, you won't feel annoyed by going back a few areas to finally open that door you never got to because now you've found the key, you'll get a kick out of going back and forth in these places actually, not that the game really makes a point of it, you'll always feel like you're going to new areas and seeing new things. The unfortunate thing about the huge environments is that the Tomb Raider engine has an awful draw distance, as demonstrated by a few of the screenshots already, in the distance everything just fades to black. It looks awful, but more than looking awful it is detrimental to playing the game. One level, the Maria Doria, is huge, probably the biggest level in the game in terms of physical size, and you have to go up and down the wreck of this ship getting keys, pulling levers, opening doors, finding secret passageways, but you can't see anything on the other end of the ship until you go all the way there, it's extremely frustrating as you have no idea if you're heading in the right direction. The truth is, there are times when you will wish that they made these levels smaller, it seems like they were trying to show off when really just making a fool of their engine.

The huge environments aren't exactly littered with puzzles, it seems that this game is primarily an adventure game, then an action game, and then a having things fall on you and kill you with no warning game, and then a puzzle game. The puzzles are rare, not even in every level, unless Core likes to think of their awkward movable block formations as puzzles (which now that I think about it I'm sure they do) but their rarity has a certain value, if they were everywhere it would detract from the platforming and exploring experience which as I've said is the reason people play Tomb Raider. The puzzles I've encountered are fun, not hugely challenging.

As for the storyline, I'm not entirely sure what to think about it, in terms of actual plot it's pretty half-assed even for a Tomb Raider game, it's basically that she is exploring the Great Wall of China (because why not?) and then runs into this temple which she can't access but finds a guard hired by some dude who also wants to get in so she goes and finds the dude and it's all about some dagger that can turn you into a dragon if you stab yourself in the heart. Okay great, none of it is interesting to anyone apart from the dagger, it's a really great artefact to set the player on the path to find, when we know that the goal is interesting we enjoy the adventure that much more. It's a good premise and it makes the adventure seem worth while, but he storyline with Marco Bartoli (the antagonist) is boring and irrelevant, the player doesn't care, it's loosely put together and just an excuse for her to travel to all the places she travels too.

The locations themselves are very different from the original Tomb Raider, the great wall of china is a rocky, uninteresting place full of predicticalities, the streets of venice are, well, just streets full of water, not particularly interesting either, however the Tibetan mountains are a great location, very exotic and adventurous. I won't ruin the last location for you, but it's a big risky idea that makes for the game's best levels.


Tomb Raider 2 is a solid action adventure game just like it's predecessor, it falls short in very few places and is designed by a highly skilled development team who really polished and perfected the levels. Unfortunately, the way the game handles enemies and traps can sometimes make playing Tomb Raider 2 a drag, as with the forced incorporation of vehicles. Still, for the most part it looks great, plays great and is a fun, engrossing adventure game that you'll want to complete, even if it does have many unbalanced aspects in the game formula. I'd recommend a few other Tomb Raiders before I recommended this one, but it certainly stands out from the series in it's own ways, so I can believe that it is rather a lot of peoples favourite. Give it a go, it's definitely worth a play.

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