Monday, 22 November 2010

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness Review

Crippled by bugs, poor design choices and gaping plot holes, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness is generally held to be the worst of Lara Croft’s outings. The game - which follows Lara’s race through Paris and Prague to clear her name following her mentor’s death - was a critical and commercial disappointment and led to publisher Eidos dropping British developers Core in favour of the American Crystal Dynamics.

But behind the game’s numerous problems lies the most interesting Tomb Raider to date. Although many of the game’s shortcomings can be attributed to practical issues such as new hardware (The Angel of Darkness was the first Tomb Raider title to be written for the Playstation 2) and timing constraints, the most glaring of the game’s flaws arise from Core’s excess of ambition, not their lack of it. For the curious (and patient) gamer, time spent exploring The Angel of Darkness’ hidden corners can yield rich rewards.

That said, it’s impossible to discuss the game’s qualities without first addressing its problems. Most troublesome of these are the Role Playing elements which complicate Tomb Raider’s puzzle-platform structure.

The game contains a number of “dialogue trees” which take place between Lara and various NPCs. They complicate Tomb Raider's linear narrative and imply choice where there is none. Players should only be given control over a character’s behaviour or conversation in games where the story is designed to adapt accordingly and the character is supposed to be an invention of the player.

Furthermore, decisions between different bits of dialogue not only feel random (there’s no obvious “good” or “bad” choice), but they don’t have far-reaching implications across the rest of the game. The conversations only have one of two short-term outcomes: the NPC either helps Lara out or they don’t. The whole exercise is distracting, and the interactions would have been better served by a cut scene.

An even more illogical RPG device is the game’s insistence that Lara is not “strong” enough to perform certain tasks. The Angel of Darkness features a “grip” meter that slowly depletes as Lara hangs on to something. If it runs out before she has reached the other side of whatever it is, she’ll fall.

There are several points in the game which demand more, “grip” than Lara has at her disposal. This means that she has to go and find a completely unrelated task to perform (such as pushing a block), after which she will inform the player that “my arms feel stronger”. Then, she will miraculously be able to monkey-swing across the gap. This is irritating mainly because it doesn’t make any sense. Surely her arms would be more tired after pushing the block? And don’t the two activities use completely different muscle groups?

Illogical narrative devices in games make it harder for players to suspend their disbelief, and thus make them less immersive. The “grip” device in The Angel of Darkness is a transparent substitute for the “pull lever, open door” mechanism that served Tomb Raider perfectly well over the preceding years. These “strength” increases do not affect any part of the game once they have been acquired and implemented once, so there is no practical difference between Lara’s biceps and Doom's key cards.

These design flaws are made more irritating by the monumental amount of bugs. I had to reload this game more times than I care to remember simply because Lara either got caught in the scenery or fell through the map.

And yet reload I did. Despite its exasperating flaws, there wasn’t a single point during The Angel of Darkness where I considered giving up. I was completely hooked.

The first of many brave choices in the game is to place Lara squarely on the wrong side of the law, thus finally acknowledges the elephant in the room ignored by all previous Tomb Raiders. How on earth is this woman allowed to run around with guns, slaughtering security guards and stealing things without attracting the attention of the authorites?

The game opens with Lara dressed in jeans (jeans!), trying desperately to escape the Parisian police. After seven years of playing havoc and taking lives, Lara Croft is finally on the run.

In this light, Core’s decision to include dialogue trees begins to make sense. By having Lara interact with various civilians (amongst them: a prostitute, a pawn shop owner and a tramp), her actions are no longer confined to a fantasy realm, and are thus endowed with more significance.

The question is not so much whether the device is successful (it isn’t) but whether it should have been attempted in the first place. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the very idea that Lara’s actions had consequences in a mundane reality. Although all the Tomb Raider games (and films) are all supposed to take place in the “real” world, The Angel of Darkness was the only one which I believed could have done.

And then there’s the plot. It doesn’t quite make sense, but this is because The Angel of Darkness was originally intended to be the first game in a trilogy. There is a twist in the final moments of the game which contradicts much of what went before but would (we assume) have been explained in the sequel.

This aside, it’s a far darker and more engaging story than any Tomb Raider before or since. In her quest to clear her name (without even being sure of her innocence), Lara uncovers a plot involving a serial killer, a set of occult paintings and a plot to awaken the Nephilim, a hybrid of angels and humans. The journey is littered with corruption, intrigue and human test subjects, and she soon finds herself in the Strahov Fortress in Prague, her own salvation forgotten.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the game was the inclusion of a second playable character, Kurtis Trent. He doesn’t say a word for the first two-thirds of the game, leaving Lara as suspicious of him as the player is. When he does talk, he reveals himself to be equal and opposite to Lara in many ways. They both drive motorcycles, for one thing.

They’re also both loners who have spent their lives sacrificing human content for ancient mysteries. By allowing the player to control Kurtis, they are able to learn about him as an individual character rather than just view him through Lara’s eyes.

The environments that Kurtis and Lara explore are the most disturbing of the series, made more so by the fact that the early levels are set in recognisably urban streets. Knowing that the experiments in the Strahov take place just miles away from the luxury apartment which Lara explores earlier in the game endows them with an extra sense of menace.

After the unprecedented success of the original Tomb Raider and the creative peak of Tomb Raider II, the series began slipping into a comfortable rut. Like countless other Tomb Raider fans, I’d been ready to slip on The Angel of Darkness like a woolly jumper. Instead, I discovered an altogether more interesting garment, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one.

Had The Angel of Darkness merely been an underwhelming game, its problems would be unforgivable. But they arose as a result of Core’s refusal to play it safe, and their admirable desire to take the Tomb Raider series to more complex and interesting places.

Thanks (as ever) to Katie for the beautiful screenshots.

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