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Combat: Why the next Tomb Raider should have 0% of it May 19, 2009

Posted by tombraiderfanboy in Crystal Dynamics, Fan Pulse, Future Games.
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Combat. It’s what’s been holding back Tomb Raider for the last three games in the series. Almost always, this aspect of the game is panned by professional reviews — and reasons vary: sometimes because it’s repetitive, totally unnecessary, or not well executed at all from a mechanics standpoint. It’s not the focus of the game either, and that’s something both the fans and the top man at Eidos agree on: “Tomb Raider is not focused on combat; it’s about puzzles, exploration, and discovery.”

It shows

And it does show, really, that it’s not the focus of any Tomb Raider game, so much so that what’s supposed to be an evolution of gunplay and combat throughout the ‘Raider series culminates in its abysmal iteration in Underworld. For one, 1UP puts it that “it always feels like a chore that simply distracts from exploration […] They’ve managed to make combat less interesting and less fun than ever.”

Eurogamer seems to give an explanatory note for 1UP’s gripe. It’s the “rubbish” AI, they say. “You begin to notice something’s wrong when you find yourself shooting six tarantulas as they emerge from the exact same spot in the scenery and follow the exact same trajectory across the wall. Later on, sharks, panthers and tigers all pose a bit of a challenge, and are all satisfying to shoot in the face, but then there are the two-legged enemies. They all look the same, follow the same attack patterns and are incredibly stupid. The men with guns on the ship have never heard of taking cover, nor even moving out of the way when being repeatedly shot in the chest.”

Meanwhile, CVG stomps on the overall mechanic of the combat system, saying that “there’s no cover system to speak of, and her melee attacks are spectacularly useless. Nine times out of ten she’ll clumsily fly-kick straight through an enemy, leaving you open to a volley of health-shredding gunfire.” It’s so “awful” that CVG has gone so far as to advise players of Underworld to “ignore the combat.” A step-by-step guide even follows: “Go to the Options menu, then Game Tailoring, and set enemy health to Low. Think of the shooting bits as an inconvenient, but necessary, distraction.”

IGN, pointing out the adrenaline system and the difficulty (or the lack of it), states, quite simply and direct to the point, “While combat still isn’t the primary focus of the game, it occurs frequently enough in a level to stand out as a weakness.”

The fix

It’s either this world or that. No pulling off a Hannah Montanah, no getting the best of both worlds. With every resource devoted to building the combat system, time spent on polishing Lara’s world, her environment, and the peril that comes with it, is wasted.

Instead of hiring a concept artist who specializes in creating Lara’s gears, guns, weapons, a techman who gets into the details of collision detection, the sequencing of gunplay animations, and a lead combat programmer who ensures that all contributions are in place to at least have a playable combat system — why not hire more people who can work in collaboration on the technical aspects of exploration, Lara’s animation, the direction of real-world peril, and the visual fidelity of the world Lara’s in?

The fix is this: Let go. Like a grudge you’ve unconsciously nurtured against that heartbreaker, just let it go. Let it go like you would a nasty habit you’ve developed in the past year on a January 1st. Focus on what really matters: the aspect of you — err, rather — of Tomb Raider that undoubtedly deserves the greater attention. More so than crushing shoe-sized Thai bugs, pumping lead into albino arachnids, exchanging bullets with Lindstrom clones, and, yes, even Lara herself.

Environmental peril

What then would be the sense of danger in Tomb Raider?

While the vertigo-inducing, vertical-scaling ways of Lara Croft are enough to give us that tingling feeling, why don’t we take it a step further, by looking back, far back into the ’90s? Tell me, Team Lara, what happened to real dangers of boulders running into and after Lara, chasing her down a tunnel filled with spike pits and swinging blades? The age-old handles that crumble at Lara’s softest touch? How about the crushing floors that open doors into pitch-black abyss? You had them. But they weren’t enough.

The danger that Tomb Raider offers belittles what cover-based combat does — the combat system that almost every single third-person game is now trying to emulate. The peril of Tomb Raider is in the environments. Ones that Crystal Dynamics barely had, but still had — albeit in a far more superficial level — in their last three games. These environmental dangers should feel real and of consequence. They should challenge the players, but never frustrate them.

It’s always been said that combat serves as punctuations amid strings upon strings of words, of solitary exploration, and of cerebral puzzle-solving in ‘Raider world. Instead, why not punctuate the immersion with sections much like Legend’s Nepal? — That part that required the player to do acrobatic combos to survive the crumbling structures on the face of the snowy mountaintops? How about the timed section in Anniversary’s Atlantis where, unless you pulled off the precise string of acrobatics needed of Lara, you would always end up falling into the lava pit (picture above)? The fire room in Anniversary’s Greece should also bring up some memories of being challenged, as should Underworld’s sinking ship, had the environment been more consequential on Lara’s health bar.

Such are perils of the environment — ones that Crystal Dynamics showed they themselves can deliver. There should be nothing to stop them from giving the fans more of these, and less of the panther-kicking action of late. Give us real danger from the environment — ones that test our ability to control Lara with utmost precision and our capacity to keep our cool during instances of extreme time pressure. Give us that, and then we start completely ditching gunplay.

BUT THEN, with all this inspired fantalk of having 0% combat in the next Tomb Raider game, one important question would have to be asked: What would her twin pistols be for then? Answer “nothing”, and you might just get a ‘Raider innovation right at your fingertips. Answer “something else” with a critical-enough mind, and you might just get the same.