29 May 2013

Review: Tomb Raider (Xbox 360)

Now and then there's a game that defines a whole genre. This time it's a re-boot of a franchise which revolutionized action adventures and sparked the imagination of an entire generation of gamers. Ladies and gentlemen, Lara Croft is back and she's better than ever. A survivor is born.

A clean and fresh-faced Lara, you don't know what's in store for you..

I have been a fan of Lara's adventures ever since the first Tomb Raider was published in 1996 for PC, PSOne and Sega Saturn. Never before had a game offered such a free 3D environment to roam about with its buxom and bold heroine. The game was full of thrills and wonders, no running straight lines in corridors with guns blazing. To be honest, the quality of Tomb Raider games decreased title by title until it hit the rock bottom when Lara made a step to the next generation in Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness for PS2. The less said about the game, the better. At this point the publisher Eidos did the right move and switched the development of Tomb Raiders from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics of Gex fame.

When Tomb Raider: Legend for PS2 saw the daylight, it was evident the move was a wise one. Lara Croft was blooming again and the next game, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a sort of a remake and homage to the first Tomb Raider, continued the trend. At this time there was already a new generation of consoles so both adventures were ported to Xbox 360. They turned out as rather bland conversions without fire and soul though. Tomb Raider: Underworld was the first game designed for the new generation while PS2 owners had to do with a port. Alas, Underworld was boring, tired and unremarkable so once again it was PS2 version which had the most playability. Nevertheless Lara needed a boost to make a spark again. The once revolutionary franchise had gone stale while the likes of Uncharted series conquered the action adventure genre. Once again a re-boot was in order but Crystal Dynamics remained in the helm.

A big game hunt, you as the target! A bit like Hunger Games, only better.

 It took five long years of sweat, blood and tears until a new Tomb Raider was born. We meet Lara Croft at the age of  21 at the threshold of her first real expedition aboard Endeavor, seeking out the truth behind the legend of a shaman queen Himiko who ruled Japan some 2000 years ago. Her base of operations was Yamatai but historians have debated for decades where the island was actually located. Lara has a hunch about it though and despite of difference in opinions by her expedition mates, Endeavor heads towards the infamous Dragon's triangle which makes Bermuda triangle look like a fun fair in comparison. To cut the story short, all hell breaks loose, Endeavor is shipwrecked and Lara is washed ashore of a hostile island, separated from her friends and civilization. The good news, Lara was right, it's Yamatai. The bad news, the island is controlled by a mad cult seeking to resurrect queen Himiko. Why is the cult's mad leader so interested in Lara's best friend, Samantha Nishimura, and why the dangerous, unfathomable weather conditions prevent everyone leaving the island?

So what if I look like Himiko? It's only a coincidence! I'm Sam!

The new Tomb Raider borrows much from Uncharted series, mixing story telling, exploration, shooting action and QTE thrill rides in a very similar manner. Before anyone shouts "copycat!" though, Uncharted games themselves owe everything to Tomb Raider franchise. Nathan Drake's (mis)adventures would not simply exist without Lara lighting up the torch in the first place. In a twisted sense of fate, Tomb Raider has essentially come home and now when it stands in the same ring as the rugged Mr. Drake, the poor man has no other option than to tap out. Tomb Raider spoils its genre. I tried to play Uncharted games again after completing Lara's amazing adventure, but I couldn't. They lacked the drive, oomph and all those other necessary things to carry me on.

The beginning of Tomb Raider is a bit straightforward and guides you by the hand but don't let that fool you. As soon as you're left alone and vulnerable, as much as Lara finds her inner strength to carry on, the game picks up the pace never slowing down again. The balance between exploring and action is perfect, you won't be bored with either. You can see your next goal in the map and by the survival instinct vision but it's not as simple as running to the marker. More often than not, you have to climb, jump and sometimes tumble your way forward. These moments are what Tomb Raider was made of and is again. Often locations will offer environmental puzzles to solve with Lara's athletics and abilities she will pick up through the journey. While the puzzles aren't entirely hard they're arresting and even more so in the optional, hidden tombs which rely entirely on solving their clever riddles.

"I used to be adventurer like you but then I took an arrow to a knee."

The arsenal at Lara's disposal starts with a makeshift bow and a puny pistol but as the story progresses, she will also wield a shotgun and a rifle. As Lara gains experience points by killing enemies and fauna, exploring the island and completing the story objectives and gathering salvage and new parts, the weapons can be upgraded from flimsy to lethal. I stuck with the bow to the very end, upgrading it to the 100%. There's nothing more quite as sexy and sinister as Lara with her silent, swift weapon bent for a headshot. The cultists hellbent to kill "the girl" all around Yamatai will pop up in the most inappropriate places and times. Action set pieces don't feel forced as they are paced perfectly. At these moments you really come to realize how great the playability is. You don't have to think which button makes this and that as it grows to your backbone. If you fumble, it's never because of the game and its mechanics, more like you being careless. Also controlling Lara has a good sense of weight to it, making her athletics more lifelike.

Every so often the narrative kicks in, revealing more of the mysteries of Yamatai and presenting the protagonist in increasingly shitty spots, making you want to see more of the game. It's like a playing a great action movie. No, more than that as there's no awkward camera angles or other shoddy attempts to cover obvious stunt doubles. Every scar Lara gains tells a story itself. Speaking of that, Lara who became a sex object in her prime time, is stripped off all that superficial glamour. As much as she's a pretty face, she's covered in bruises, cuts, dirt, mud and blood. Where's a shower when it's needed?

Who are you calling a sex object?

Most of the games I have played of late have lost their steam towards the end. But Tomb Raider doesn't suffer from a flat tire. It hooks you and keeps you hooked all the way to the perfectly choreographed finale, full of perseverance and anger. I felt empty after completing the game. After all it had kept me playing intensively for several days. What's next? I won't settle to anything lesser but most of the games are of lesser quality. Tomb Raider isn't that short of a game, certainly not something you could finish in a day or two as was led to believe in early, half-hearted reviews. There's a lot of replay value too, not only to experience it all again but to scour every hidden document, treasure chest, GPS cache and salvage part there's to find throughout Yamatai. It's a matter of honor as well.

Visually the game is flawless. The environments are lush and filled with detail, holding great beauty in its decay through the overcasting shadows and lighting. The framerate never jerks and the drawing distance is remarkable. The character models make a fine line between realism and stylizing, looking not too real but not too artificial either. Why the hell would we need the new consoles when the games can look this good today? Mostly ambient music creates an eerie soundscape for Lara while her voice actress makes an amazing job at bringing forth a survivor waiting to be born, tender but spirited.

Shadows and flames dancing as Lara makes the bad guy dance. Who needs next gen?

Oh, there's a multiplayer thrown in there too. I have nothing to say about it as I didn't try it out. Tomb Raider is foremost a strong, story-driven single-player experience. It's also worth mentioning queen Himiko and Yamatai are actually based on true historic facts. Of course, Rhianna Pratchett who served as the main writer of the game spun the legend with a flight of fantasy true to the franchise's history. How else could you meet thousands of years old Japanese soldiers protecting their long-dead empress? It never gets silly but chilling and almost realistic in all its impossibility.

Tomb Raider is one of the rare games this generation I give a perfect score without a hint of hesitation. It's not because I'm biased to Tomb Raider, it's because the game deserves it. In truth I was almost hostile towards the game before I played it as I didn't believe in the re-boot. But the game won me over, over and over. There are action adventures before Tomb Raider and there are action adventures after it. I find it hard for any game in its genre to come close to it let alone surpass it. More than a survivor, Lara is born again.

10/10

It's not over yet...

Note: I posted this review to GameFAQS too so if you see this in there it's written by yours truly. I edited this version a bit.

15 May 2013

Back to basics

I hated Resident Evil 4. It turned the classic survival horror series into a crap shooter with horrible controls. Yea, I know. It's hailed by the critics and the gamers alike as one of the best videogames ever. But still I hated it with every fiber in my body. Resident Evil 5 was better. Well, at least it looked great and Sheva is one of the hottest video game femmes ever. It was a blast as a local co-op but I think it's pain in the backside as a single player game with the braindead AI controlling the partner. But as much as I enjoyed it a few years ago I'm afraid I wouldn't enjoy it anymore. That's why I haven't touched it ever since I completed it with my brother. Better to have good memories.

Resident Evil 6 was a hopeless case. The game didn't know what it was for its own good. Gears of War clone or whatever it fancied itself to be. A total mess, leaving even Capcom themselves admitting they didn't quite succeed with it. So we are left with the whole Resident Evil franchise hanging by a thread. There have been talks about even re-booting the series. But there might be hope on the horizon.

Resident Evil: Revelations was a success on Nintendo 3DS and now Capcom is ready to launch it for PS3, Xbox 360 and WiiU with touched-up graphics, new monsters and other whistles and bells. Capcom has laid everything on the success of it. If it sells well, Resident Evil franchise will march on. If not, it's a cold and unpleasant re-boot waiting for the once great survival horror games, wiping away the grand legacy the series hold.

Fuck! Could you, like, come back later? I need to find more bullets!

If there's justice in the world, Resident Evil: Revelations will sell truckloads and thus the series would survive, like its many protagonists have survived all these years everything Umbrella corporation has thrown at them. Because, judging by the demo, the game is a breath of fresh air into the stale genre, putting survival back to the horror and horror back to the survival once again.

The game is a mix of old-fashioned and modern, like playing old good Resident Evils with next generation controls and viewpoint. Character moves fluidly (it's a pleasure to watch Jill's, ahem, backside) and environments hold a eerie sense of suspense. It's not the greatest looking game this generation, not by a mile, but it just adds to the charm I had with it. And lo and behold, I even managed to run out of bullets but luckily the demo ended soon after that. You know, I don't remember that happenig with three last Resident Evils or in any other modern action game for that matter. The game brings back that sweaty tension of savouring every bullet you have. The clip is empty and there's bound to be a horrible monster around the corner...


Jill Valentine, a classic in a new skin. I approve!

I for one can't wait for the full game. Hopefully it will be keep me at the edge of the seat like the good old Resident Evil games used to. And Jill, albeit very different to her Resident Evil 5 appearance, looks very, very nice.

Survival in horror and horror in suvival. Nice!

15 February 2013

Another case why an old game is better than its remake

When I saw Karateka in PSN store, I was mildly excited. One of the old time classics remastered to today's standards! What could go wrong? Oh, so many things like most of the remakes of old classics have shown us. That's why I was only mildly excited and soon that excitement waned off to make room for reluctance to download the trial. But still I decided to give it a try, hoping it would surprise me in a positive manner. And indeed surprised I was.

You might be fooled to think this is your daddy's "stupid old blocky" game, kiddo

Jordan Mechner's original Karateka was published in 1984 for Apple II. It was a tactical martial arts adventure where you, the karateka, had to save princess Mariko from the clutches of evil warlord Akuma. The game progressed with the karateka taking down progressively more challenging guards one by one until you confronted Akuma himself. It was all very classy with stylishly minimalistic graphics and tactical approach to fighting. You had to variate between low, middle and high punches and kicks and adjust your distance to the opponents. I only played the Commodore 64 conversion of the game (pictured above and below). It was admittedly strangely slow compared to the original but all the strategy and challenge was there.

Well, I have news for you kiddo, you're so wrong

29 laters Karateka makes a new appearance on Xbox and PS marketplaces with re-imagined graphics and gameplay and as it turns out, the game is yet another case why the original is miles better than its modern remake. Karateka 2013 doesn't respect its heritage whatsoever and gives a damn about what made the original game so impressive; the gameplay has been stupified into a simple, run-of-the-mill rhythm game.

You can't hit or kick your opponents until you block their attack first. This opens an opportunity to smash either your one punch or one kick button until you have to block again. This is repeated two rounds for normal opponents and more for tougher enemies. It's incredibly repetitive and stupid and there's not even a bit of strategy or skill involved. Just time your block, smash buttons away, block, smash again ad nauseam. Gameplay couldn't be more far off from its original roots. I can't see why the full game would be any better, just more of the same formulaic lethargy. Oh, you can choose between three heroes in it! Yay...

Because this is what you get kiddo, a simple and stupid hit-the-button game

Also, intended graphic style fails. Characters and backgrounds rendered in Unreal engine try to mimic Disney's Mulan art style but falls short as there's obviously no understanding of the said art form behind it. It's just a cheap, lifeless copy.

The original Karateka is genuinely exciting and rewarding experience where your skills and thinking at the end of the joystick matter. This is not nostalgic ramblings either as I just played the game on a C64 emulator after this modern travesty and was happy to find out the game had stood the test of time remarkably well and still can be heralded as a great game.