14 April 2006

















































Tomb Raider Bell-end, more like

There are 456 different screenshots of Tomb Raider Legend on the game's official website. (38 pages of 12 shots each.) Precisely seven of those 456 are actual pictures of the game in action, as it will look while you're playing it. Why do you think that might be, viewers?

If only he'd pursued his dream of a career in interpretive dance.

This reporter's never bothered much with the Tomb Raider series of games. The first one came out very roughly around the same time as Super Mario 64, and when it came to 3D exploring-and-adventuring fun, playing the two games one after the other felt like going from driving a gleaming Ferrari down the Champs-Elysées to traversing the streets of Bristol on a broken pogo stick in the rain. The blocky movement, primitive control and contrived landscapes - next to the shiny new future offered by SM64 - made Tomb Raider look, ironically enough, like a relic of a long-gone historical era. Struggling to make the ostensibly elegant Lara Croft rotate on the spot, blunder drunkenly face-first into walls and stumble off the murky edges of cliffs was simply unbearable once you'd sampled the slick, precise, intuitive analogue control of the dumpy little plumber in the bright red dungarees.

So Tomb Raiders 1 and 2 each got only a fairly superficial examination - playing a couple of levels of each out of professional duty and then giving up in relief - and the third, fourth and fifth games in the series were barely glanced at. The next release in the franchise's main line, 2003's universally-panned Angel Of Darkness, didn't get so much as booted up. So when your correspondent heard that the first iteration by the series' brand-new development team was a polished and slick affair, returning to the strengths of the earlier games but also with a vastly-improved interface finally incorporating proper analogue movement and levels not transparently made of uniform-sized blocks, he decided to approach it with an open mind and a hopeful demeanour. Yeah, okay, now I feel like an idiot, but you've got to at least give naive, trusting optimism a shot every once in a while, haven't you?

There Is No More Time To Solve This Puzzle.  (The answer: press 'A'.)

Let's cut straight to the chase, shall we? Tomb Raider Legend is the most depressingly, insultingly, cynically awful videogame I've played for at least three years. It's designed for an audience - no, a market - of 13-year-old boys with no attention span and no motor skills, but it short-changes even them, with gameplay that stretches the definition of "interactivity" to breaking point. It's about as sophisticated as Dragon's Lair, but without the charming and internally-coherent setting and atmosphere, or the likeable characters. It's a tenth- or eleventh-rate platform game interspersed with "puzzles" which all chiefly boil down to either rat-in-a-maze trial-and-error, or simply turning up the brightness on your screen so that you can see the dark opening in a slightly less dark cave wall. It's got a camera controlled by an epileptic arse-fetishist on rollerskates. It's got underground swimming sections, for Christ's sake. TRL's very worst crime, however - the one which eclipses all of its many other flaws in its sheer soulless, heartless, thoughtless ineptitude - is the lazy and contemptible way in which it treats the hapless player's suspension of disbelief.

Now, pretty much every videogame ever made relies to some extent on the player's willingness to overlook some realities of science. If James Bond was to really be carrying the entire arsenal of weapons he can have in his inventory at one time in Goldeneye, he wouldn't be able to move, far less run around tirelessly mowing down an infinity of Soviet troops seemingly being generated out of a cupboard in the Severnaya bunker. Mario couldn't really survive a 1000-foot leap off Tall Tall Mountain simply by pulling his knees up and landing on his backside at the last moment. Criminals in huge industrial dockyards don't really take cover behind inexplicably-placed barrels full of petrol, just waiting for a Virtua Cop to pop a single bullet in and wipe out the whole gang in a massive explosion. But the player enters into a compact with the game designer whereby he turns a blind eye to such liberty-taking, as long as the gameworld is always consistent within its own set of rules, and as long (if it's supposed to be at all "realistic") as it doesn't completely take the piss.

If going down pipes has always led to a secret room, you can't suddenly have one that instantly kills you instead. Infinitely-respawning enemies can't just materialise out of thin air, they have to come FROM somewhere. If you actually get to the room where the game's generating them from, it has to stop, at least for as long as you're standing there watching. The illusion has to be maintained. You have to be allowed to plausibly believe that you're really there in the secret base or the Mushroom Kingdom, not sat in your living room wasting your life moving a few blobs of coloured light around on a TV screen.

Tomb Raider Legend takes this sacred contract between gamer and designer, shits all over it, then wraps it up, sets it on fire outside the player's door, rings the bell and runs away.

"Phew! Those spikes are at EXACTLY the right height for my backflip move!"

If your reviewer was to list every instance in TRL of the game offering its hand to the player to be shaken, then pulling it away and thumbing its nose instead, WoS' hefty 5 Gb of webspace would run out halfway through, because practically every single ledge, ropeswing and conveniently-placed boulder in the game represents a direct insult to the player's intelligence and trust. So we'll just pick out a tiny handful of the most heartbreaking ones.

- After a small introductory section, Lara finds herself in a massive Inca temple somewhere in Bolivia. It's inhabited by heavily-armed mercenaries, a bunch of whom Lara's had to shoot in a noisy gun battle to gain entrance. Nevertheless, she still manages to walk round a corner into the first of several prowling jaguars, which apparently these heavily-armed mercenaries are quite happy to have wandering around their enclosed workplace. (Evidently they're not too fussed about the spike pits and crushing-wall traps either, since nobody's bothered to disable these in all the time they've been there.) Their blasé attitude is even more mystifying when we discover that these jaguars are apparently wearing body armour, being that they can casually absorb 20 hits at point-blank range from Lara's automatic assault rifle - never at any point considering running away, as any wild animal would actually do at the first sight of our heroine - before keeling over and dying. (And while we're here, how the hell did the jaguars get past the spike pits and crushing-wall traps anyway?)

- Shortly afterwards, Lara encounters one of the game's bad-guy characters, who engages our heroine in cut-scene discussion on a rope bridge across a chasm. While they're chatting, Lara somehow fails to spot a GREAT BIG HELICOPTER FUCKING GUNSHIP cruising up alongside her and taking up a hovering position about ten feet away, inexplicably failing to either disturb the rickety wooden-plank bridge or drown out the conversation with the hurricane-force windblast of its rotors. Nevertheless, when the chat is over, the bad guy walks off and signals this seemingly silent stealth helicopter and his other minions to attack Lara, who - let's remember - is stranded halfway across a narrow rope bridge over a deep gully with nowhere to hide, with a dozen armed mercenaries having had their sights trained on her for a good 30 seconds, as has the GREAT BIG HELICOPTER FUCKING GUNSHIP TEN FEET AWAY.

Despite the GREAT BIG HELICOPTER FUCKING GUNSHIP being ONLY TEN FEET AWAY, the chopper's machine-gunner somehow fails to register a single hit when he opens up on the hapless adventureress, and she sprints across the rest of the bridge to fight with the other mercenaries in the large open space on the other side. Evidently dismayed by their lack of success, the baddies aboard the helicopter now simply hover off dejectedly in their mighty battle-craft (or perhaps the klaxon's just gone off for their lunchbreak or something) and take no further part in the battle.

- In the next level (a village in Peru) you eventually find yourself in a flashback cut-scene. Except - sweet mother of Jeebus - this is a playable flashback cut-scene. Yes, in a desperate attempt to crowbar some more gameplay into what's an embarrassingly short £40 game (you can apparently play through the whole thing in well under four hours, and the typical first-play completion time is about eight), the game forces you to plough through a dark, crappy and tedious section from which you KNOW Lara survives - because you've just been playing her ten years later - and whose only purpose is to flesh out the feeble, clichéd excuse for a backstory ("Hey! That character from the previous game who we thought was dead! Maybe they're not dead after all!") a tiny bit. It's absurd.

(Furthermore, all the rules have just changed. Spikes exactly the same as ones in previous levels which you could - indeed, HAD to - climb up or swing from are now mysteriously impervious to being grabbed, and in fact present an impassable obstacle. A rope dangling a maximum of nine inches above Lara's head can't be grabbed unless you take a flying run at it from a raised platform eight or nine feet away. As you run away from a spider monster, the game flashes up an icon of arms firing pistols, yet you have no weapons and what you're actually supposed to do is jump across some ground obstacles and fall down into a hole.)

- Later, Lara finds herself standing on the roof of a flatbed truck which is thundering along a desert canyon in pursuit of her friend Anaya's jeep. Lara leaps off the cabin roof and, in a Matrix-esque bullet-time cut-scene, somersaults and spins through the air ahead of the lorry, shooting its driver through the windscreen and landing neatly in the passenger seat of the jeep. Never mind the fact that the instant her feet left the roof, what would actually happen would be that gravity and physics would catapult her "backwards" like a Wile E Coyote contraption gone wrong, at an effective reverse speed of 50 mph (depending on whatever speed the lorry was doing, given that unlike Lara it's still having forward-propulsive force applied to it) and smush her messily all over the canyon floor. Don't try this at home, kids.

Oh no! A zombie! Apparently!

These, chums, are only some of the things that were so offensively stupid they made me actually go so far as to switch the Xbox off in disgust and go and do something else for a few hours lest I heft it out of the living-room window. The game throws up a lesser moment of utter contempt roughly - no exaggeration here - once every 60 seconds. Whether it's...

- moronic enemy AI (enemies standing blithely out in the open looking dumbly straight at Lara even as she empties entire rifle clips into them, or endlessly repeating "She's around here somewhere! Where did she go? Find her!" to each other when all you've done is take a single step behind the frame of the door you were just standing in);

- humiliating hand-holding (in a gun-battle, the game will regularly flash up a "Y"-button icon, indicating that merely pressing that button will cause Lara to target and flawlessly shoot some tiny target in the far distance which will blow up - hey! - a petrol barrel, and kill every enemy in the vicinity, though her normal marksmanship sees her miss four out of every five shots at a man-sized object 15 feet away even when she's "locked on" to it);

- abysmal motorbike sections, where you'll be repeatedly shot by multiple enemies without any hope of avoiding their attacks, but it's okay because there are health packs scattered across the desert floor for some unknown reason every 200 yards;

- terrible inventory management, whereby Lara can carry any number of gigantic Inca treasures almost as big as her body but no more than three tiny little ammo clips or health packs, and the latter of which she won't use unless you explicitly tell her to, quite happily dying with a full complement of health packs right there in her pockets. This is quite a common idiocy in games, but Goldeneye solved it with perfect elegance TEN YEARS AGO and there's absolutely no excuse for it any more;

- more awful, awful inconsistency, so glaringly and insultingly ludicrous it surely has to be some kind of practical joke. In the Peruvian village, for example, Lara can shimmy up flagpoles but not telegraph poles, can't jump up and grab onto the roof-edge of buildings only a foot above her head even though moments ago she could shimmy along stone ledges three inches wide by her fingertips, can kick open some wardrobes but not other ones, etc;

- or the frequent announcing of save checkpoints, sometimes literally 30 paces apart, and which might as well flash up the words "SOMETHING BAD IS WAITING AROUND THE NEXT CORNER!! SAVE NOW!!!" onto the screen;

...Tomb Raider Legend is constantly treating the player like a total moron who can't be trusted to figure out a single thing for themselves. While the game has supposedly moved away from the "uniform blocks" structure that sometimes made it far too obvious where you were supposed to go, the replacement is even worse. Here, if you see a ledge, you're supposed to shimmy along it. If you see an overhanging tree branch, you're supposed to swing from it. If you see a rope, it's for climbing up. If you see a huge slab of rock, miraculously balanced on a boulder like a see-saw, you're supposed to shove something heavy onto it. (You'll encounter just such a situation twice in the first 20 minutes alone.) If you see a crate that can't be destroyed, you're supposed to move it onto a pressure pad clearly marked on the ground. And so on. If there's something in the environment that you're not supposed to use directly and immediately, that isn't a part of the sole permissible route you have to take to get to the end of the game, it simply won't exist.

"If my latest game was a pool of fetid donkey piss, this is where it would come up to."

There's a reason for all of this, of course, and it's not only that Crystal Dynamics know that most of the people likely to be buying this game are undemanding, ham-fisted dimwits who just want to see Lara's unfeasible knockers jiggling as she leaps athletically from rooftop to rooftop, but can't be relied on to do it themselves because their fingers are still all sticky from the jam they were eating straight out of the jar with their hands moments earlier.

The main reason that Tomb Raider Legend is so insultingly easy, and so crassly inconsistent, is because its publishers want you to see all of the fancy graphics they spent all that money on as quickly as possible, and then go and buy another £40 game. There's almost no replay value, nothing to discover or unlock except a pointless Time Trial mode, and the levels are so linear and restricted that there's nothing to go back and explore for. The "gameplay" is only there to delay you for just long enough as to be decent, because what this really is is a movie. All the developers want to do is tell you their third-rate, B-movie story, acted out in terrible, stilted dialogue scripted by videogames programmers, and wow you with a few big explosions and shapely thighs, just like any other Hollywood blockbuster.

Anything which might cause someone to get stuck for even two or three minutes needs to be avoided at all costs, because (a) you don't want your short-attention-spanned audience to get all frustrated and restless, and (b) you don't want anyone hanging around in any of these half-baked environments long enough to notice how shallow, lazy and artificial they are. Give us your money, coo obediently at the pretty lady for a day, and then fuck off.

TRL summed up in one pic - great big tits and people who can't hit a barn door from three feet.

And that's the answer to the question in the first paragraph, pals. Publishers regularly release hundreds of screenshots, yet none of the game actually in action, because they don't want you to look at their games like games. They don't want you to see status bars and health readouts, they don't want you having to work stuff out, or find your own ways to get past obstacles - they want you to have a preset, managed experience that's exactly the same every time for everyone who experiences it. A movie, in other words. Unfortunately, videogame developers are mostly socially-dysfunctional sci-fi nerds (as, to be fair, are most videogame journalists, which is why hackneyed, pseudo-interactive crap like this so often gets an easy ride in reviews). They couldn't make it in the film business in a thousand years, so the "movies" they make are really, really bad ones that'd be laughed out of any cinema.

And buying videogames is a really expensive way to watch bad movies, chums. For about a tenth of the price you can go and watch a good movie, written by proper writers and acted by proper actors, and which will generally try not to insult your intelligence TOO obviously. And what's more, you can just sit back and enjoy it, without having to press coloured buttons when the screen flashes them up and tells you to, like some kind of poor lab chimp.

If you're a real diehard Tomb Raider fan (hey, I dunno, maybe you never even heard of the N64) and you feel that, well, all these criticisms applied to the earlier games and you don't really mind them, then at least do yourself and the planet in general one favour. I guarantee, here and now, that within ONE WEEK from today, you'll be able to go into your nearest games shop and find a minimum of ten unwanted copies of this in the second-hand bin at a discounted price. Take the money you've saved and send it to Amnesty International, or Liberty, or the Worldwide Fund for Nature, or just give it to a tramp. But please, whatever you do, don't buy Tomb Raider Legend new, and thereby increase the sales figures of this loathsome, cynical, repellent soggy sack of monkey cum. They hate you. Don't pay them.

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