Sunday 31 January 2016

The Fall and Rise of Tomb Raider

I've enjoyed the Tomb Raider series(s). I mean, I've enjoyed all four (five?) of the different series of games that are called that or offshoot from that original 1996 title.

The grid-based frustration of the early games, back when exploring Croft Manor on PC was part of the post-Quake explosion of 3D that eventually resulted in me saving for a (3Dfx Voodoo powered) Orchid Righteous 3D. That amazing moment where buying new hardware suddenly made a load of games I already had into completely new games, jumping forward a generation. After the 3rd game in as many years, I started to lose track and the reviews started to indicate the series was coasting into the drain. That grid-based movement system could only survive so long and when analogue sticks were the norm, it made very little sense (especially by 2003 for the 6th game in the series). Hell, I even went back to that first game when it came out on mobile the same year as Angel of Darkness (where the grid was a better match for the nGage's digital buttons than the PS2 evolution of the series).

Then the series was rebooted in 2006 with a trilogy of games that completely redefined how the input system worked. Rather than being forced to perfectly input what the level demanded, the system looked at what the user was pressing and then did the most sensible thing. Pointing in the vague direction of something catchable and pressing the jump button probably means the player wants to jump there. The reboot, Legend, was a great romp; the remake of the first game, Anniversary, reminded me of those hours spent in 1996 while feeling completely contemporary in 2007; but I started to feel fatigue at the greater focus on combat (rather than exploration, traversal, and working out puzzles), the slightly rough edges on intuiting what input was demanded, and the increasingly fantastical plot in Underworld. But this was also the time when Naughty Dog was starting to make an exploration/puzzle-light, combat-heavy (and unfortunately bullet-spongey), very cinematic push into the sub-genre with Uncharted. Underworld was the first Tomb Raider that had to compete with Nathan Drake and I preferred the WWII zombies to the Norse zombies.

So the AAA Tomb Raider games went dormant again in 2008. Nathan Drake was left to take control of that sub-genre and move it even further away from puzzles and towards combat. But Lara Croft emerged as a budget series that courted mobile. 2010 saw Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light emerge on consoles, PC, and mobile. A co-operative puzzle game with more of a challenge arena design than a linear progression, it managed to get a console sequel and spin off to a pure puzzle game on mobile, last year's rather enjoyable Lara Croft GO.

While that was happening, AAA Lara Croft came back for another reboot. A new origin story this time, rather than repeating the story first laid out in 1996. 2013's Tomb Raider would have made my list, if not for the fact I didn't get round to playing it until the start of 2014. It polished those controls (including removing suicide from most of the traversal controls, leaving it for the QTE moments), expanded the combat so periods of action actually felt good, and completely reimagined progression into a semi-open world. This was a series of areas in which you could really explore, with collectibles to encourage full discovery of every surface. The story was a lot more grounded, despite still engaging with fantastical elements (as Uncharted does), and everything was just the right side of the reboot scale to feel both fresh and familiar. A 1996 relic had been completely transformed into the new series. The only thing I really missed: it lost the tomb raiding. There were hardly any puzzles left, leaving the traversal to feed into the open area designs and upgrade paths that unlocked new paths as you came back to areas. It all worked to make a great game but I remarked at the time that this was the best Uncharted game ever made. Better combat, more open areas and backtracking to justify the traversal as more than busy-work in linear levels, and a great story: this was the natural evolution of Uncharted. But it had shed the puzzles and lack of combat focus that made Tomb Raider games distinct from what Naughty Dog makes.

Which brings us to Rise of the Tomb Raider, released on Xbox last year but just this week arriving on PC (and coming to PS4 at the end of the year due to Microsoft paying to give Uncharted 4 some breathing room - something I'm sure Sony are none too unhappy about).

The 7 optional tombs of the last game have been bulked out, both each being larger puzzles and including 9 of them; the combat feels a bit better but I couldn't narrow down why; and the traversal skills have been slightly refined on top of the already-great power curve. It's all rather minor tweaks rather than any radical departures but as the sequel to the reboot of both mechanics and story, this game was always going to feel incremental. It's not a knock against the game, which feels every bit as great to slowly unwrap as the last game.

The engine has been completely rebuilt, although a 360 port does exist to enforce some consideration for 2005-era silicon on the general design. Within those constraints, the game (and 2013's title was never bad looking on PC and did reasonably well as a 1080p port on the current console generation without much tweaking to that PC template) can occasionally look stunning and rarely less than competent under a range of lighting conditions.

The 2013 reboot managed a diversity of locations and conditions hard to believe could exist on a single small island (because they couldn't, welcome to suspension of disbelief), giving it a great visual range. Rise fails to quite live up to that standard and, while it is by no means just a game about the same looking ice and snow, this is disappointing. There is a brief intro chapter in the desert to remind you of the old jet-setting level design ethos the series once had and some short cinematics in a room of Croft Manor and a small apartment but this is another exploration of a single contiguous space. Just like in 2013, that means a few very large and non-linear levels, many more linear sections you pass through a few times to hoover up optional tasks or travelling back for story reasons, and some corridor sections that literally exist to allow narrative to play or provide a break from the action as you move between areas - single use traversal or combat puzzles. As you spend most of your time in the large areas with fast-travel available throughout, this may contribute to the lack of variety felt. The large areas are not all the same but not as different as in the last game.

Rise is mechanically solid. The combat is still good enough to feel like you're getting a change of pace when it arrives, and you can upgrade out both skills and weapons to tailor that experience. Range with a rifle or bow or focussing on throwable makeshift gear, all the way into a melee-focussed character - the options are there and you can expertly switch it up as your upgrade tree fills out. Stealth and using the traversal tools during combat is not the deepest experience but is enough to facilitate competent stealth play. While the last game was contemporary to the Last of Us, this one feels like it maybe references back to that range of combat experiences - although that could be more down to how similar they both played in 2013 so a 2016 sequel that refines either one would maybe look like it was moving towards the peak of the two. If you can't see 6 different objects (mainly bottles) to throw and distract an enemy near you, you're in an area where combat is impossible.

Traversal is still an almost Metroidvania-lite experience of slowly collecting all the tools needed to travel anywhere and travel quickly. This isn't a game focussed on combat everywhere (small patrols that repopulate areas after first cleared are trivialised by the mid-game combat upgrade curve so just become resource dispensers) and lots of the more open areas rely on traversal being diverse with the more linear stuff needing each tool to be fun to use. Rise stands up to this task just like the last game, although there is now even less focus on QTEs, almost completing the transition away from their heavy use in the 2006-era trilogy. But those few times when the controls don't read my desired input correctly and result in a needless death feel all the more frustrating today (especially when it is one jump that consistently misreads my intent until I realise what input combo is actually required or direction to request the jump in). This is not to say Rise is worse that earlier games; it is not, and the checkpointing means you will never lose a collectible and usually only go back seconds. But my standards are always rising and it feels like Tomb Raider is standing still on this. It's not yet to the point where I never look at the death screen and think "that's not what that input is requesting happens!"

So incredibly solid, a worthy successor to the last game, and something everyone should play if they got any enjoyment out of the 2013 reboot. But why don't I feel the same passion for this as the last game? On the one hand, this is more of the same and not a heady combination of familiar and fresh - this isn't the series realising something Enslaved or a Naughty Dog game hadn't: going more open with the levels can be really good.

On the other hand, it's also the story and, crucially, the characters. The last game wasn't perfect, but when you got on that boat at the end there was a reason to care about the ensemble cast of secondary characters who made it with you and the ones who didn't. That cast is largely not returning and, strangely, not being replaced either. This is not the solo logs of Lara Croft raiding tombs, but the characters that do appear feel little more than vessels of ideology (which is better explored in the collectible texts) and functional story progression. Lara Croft is possibly the only vaguely human person in Rise. And that really hurts the story's urgency in a game filled with side-missions and collectibles. I hate to use the tired phrase, "this story is really video-game-y" but I'll say that this story presentation wouldn't have been out of place in a game released next to Underworld, where I last felt the narrative was losing me. World-weary, depressed Jesus fights the evil papal army sounds like an Assassin's Creed parody. Better characters and dialogue could have made a mechanically identical game to this stand a lot taller.

Finally, I need to address a potential disaster for PC gaming. In 2013's Tomb Raider, I played at max settings and 4K to remove aliasing (SSAA). This one I could only get near high settings at 1080p30 (with FXAA) and changing most settings or even resolutions lower than my picks did not make the game much better. Short of completely turning off the real-time shadows entirely, not much moved the needle and nVidia's numbers indicate this isn't just my mid-range machine (awaiting FinFET GPUs, and hopefully HBM2 if that gets into the affordable enthusiast tiers). "Newer game requires faster machine" isn't news and I accept that this is a better looking game and I do like the higher settings I struggle to run the game with. However, I have gotten to a place where the game is consistently around 30fps in all areas with my current settings. Except for when it isn't.

Sometimes the game will, when rendering something that I've seen it do before at 30fps, crunch down to a stuttering mess. We're talking ~10fps averages. Unplayable. It can also drop down in-between this and normal performance. At one point the performance woes got so bad (8fps average, indoor area) the map menu, which stops rendering the game (check your GPU logs, the load is <10%), couldn't get past 15fps - something was bogging down the CPU so badly it couldn't dispatch enough calls to render a 2D menu. The only thing I consistently found was that restating the game fixed it; going down to 720p or turning all the settings down (to minimum) didn't and the GPU logs didn't indicate something on my end like a heating issue or even something as visibly broken as Just Cause 3 had (logs showed the GPU stalled and then flushed the VRAM (or just stopped using it for a tick?) the same moment that game degraded into low perf mode). Reviewers have mentioned this issue. And I've heard this being reported on nVidia and AMD GPUs so it's not a specific driver bug.

I also want to bring in a 3rd PC port from the last 12 months and talk frankly about potentially ruining the experience of paying customers. Batman: Arkham Knight. The Denuvo (seemingly memory-resident rather than on-start one-time-check) anti-piracy technology is used in all three of these games that have unpredictable and somewhat setting-agnostic performance issues that (at least in my experience of Rise and JC3) seem to be a degraded perf mode that the game drops into. The game is capable of doing the job required, but sometimes it stops and you have to restart it to get back to the normal perf mode. And this happened more than once or twice. Both those games I've put in tens of hours and have encountered at least that many times when I've needed to quickly restart after the game massively chugged (as a persistent state, whatever location I moved to) for no good reason and with no alleviation coming from turning the settings all the way down. It's random as I've had it happen within a minute of booting the game up and had no issues for several hours solid gaming.

Rise is better than JC3 on my machine: I was annoyed but once I realising this wasn't my settings/machine but a bug causing a degraded perf mode, I could quickly react to seeing perf had stalled and restart to get back into the game. Frequent checkpoints find another use and SSDs show why they're mandatory for the PC experience when that loses you less than a minute. JC3 hit that degraded perf mode so regularly that I had to stop playing it for a few weeks. Some patches and my machine getting an OS wipe (moving from Win7 to Win10) later and it was still there but with about the frequency I find in Rise, so I could complete the game. I really hope this is just a coincidence or some bug in some shared code between Rise and JC3 (both Squidix published) because if this new anti-piracy software is getting in the way of the game code talking to the GPU drivers and stalling into a low perf mode, we are going to get a lot more bad PC ports that should really sing on a mid-range PC. I include Batman on this list because, despite having somewhat different perf issues, it was something the devs said simply wasn't fixable and if the anti-piracy layer was broken then those devs could not fix that if the publisher would not accept simply disabling it.