Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The beautiful design of Tomb Raider.

There was a horrible fright last night when my EB Games called me and explained that they wouldn't be getting Tomb Raider Definitive Edition in until - perhaps - the end of the week.

This came as a crushing blow, as the past few days have been particularly crappy and the stars were aligning to make tonight the perfect evening to stretch out with a new game.  I've been working the day shift Monday and today, but tomorrow I'm on evenings - making tonight a long evening, if I so choose - and Kayla's taken the night off to go see a Jets game.  I would have precious hours to myself to wallow in sweet, sweet tomb raiding - a much-needed respite after the emotional turmoil I've suffered lately.

Was it not to be?

It was to be.  I called EB before I left work today, and lo, they had the LEs of the Definitive Edition in - which is basically a small hardcover art book with the game mounted inside, a'la The Hitman Collection. AKA "kind of the best packaging ever."

The art within isn't as strikingly lovely as the original, fan-artist made works that came with Hitman, but it's still a lovely alternative to your usual clamshell.  Square Enix?  I am loving your noble treatment of your newly-acquired western properties.  Thank you, Square Enix.

Much has been made of how much prettier the game looks on the new-gen hardware - and it's true, it does look much better - but playing Tomb Raider on the PS4 also provides the opportunity for me to showcase a moment I've always wanted to point out to you, but have been unable to as words would be fumbly things to explain what you can quickly understand with a screenshot.

About halfway through the game, Lara has emerged from a shanty town and is on her way to reunite with a crotchety old sea cap'n named Grim.  She must scale a makeshift gondola to ride over to him - but if you choose (as always) you can just wander around collecting crap and exploring.  If you do, you'll come to a room with some furnaces in it, and a strange cage suspended from the ceiling.

I love this cage.  It is the perfect example of what I love - not about Tomb Raider's mechanics, but its design.  I love the mechanics, sure - I love the platforming in this game, and thoroughly enjoy the action - but this cage showcases part of why the game is so endlessly fun to just putter about in and play.

The cage contains five sacks, which you must burn with your fire arrows to release the precious salvage within.  The only way to put an arrow into the cage is via four holes in it, placed at odd positions throughout. Running around the edges of the room are two catwalks, one with an incline, and in order to free the salvage,

you must wander around the room,

examining it from all angles in order to line up the salvage sacks with the holes.


and there

and all around.  For no real reason, other than you see it and understand it can be done.  That salvage has been placed in there for the sole purpose of you getting it out, if you're prepared to spend a minute or two exploring it.

Salvage is not scarce in Tomb Raider.  You find it everywhere you go.  Every enemy you kill has a bit of salvage on them, and you can purchase skills for Lara that increase the salvage you get from every source.
This room has no bearing on the story.  It has no meaning beyond the tiny exploratory challenge it offers the player - and I adore that Crystal Dynamics took the time to make a game that's not just beautiful in the vistas and tombs,

but in the understanding that they've created mechanics that the player wants to enjoy.  I always clear out that cage because I love just scrambling around a big room, working things out via Tomb Raider's silky-smooth platforming and easygoing shooting.

I love that room.  It's that sort of gameplay frosting-by-design - the game-as-playground, and not merely the narrative-driven action game Tomb Raider sells itself as - that made it one of the best games of 2013, and a day-one purchase on the new gen.

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