Sunday, 3 May 2015

Lara in my pocket: Tomb Raider on Android review

Tomb Raider on Android is 99p. If you are able to play the game at all it's because you've already spent at least £200 on a phone, so I would only recommend against buying it if you don't have time to play it. 

There are small niggles with the port itself, and I'll get to those, but overall I'm happy to say that this is very much Tomb Raider, just the way you remember it. Archaeologist-adventurer Lara Croft is contracted by the mysterious Jacqueline Natla to find the Scion, a mysterious artefact buried in the long-lost tomb of Qualopec, in Peru. One T-Rex, several wolves and some flirty banter with a cowboy later, and Lara learns that the Scion is just one piece of three, and she's going to have to travel to Greece, Egypt and the lost city of Atlantis to pocket the other bits and find out just what Natla's got planned.

It's Adventure Time! Come on grab your... pistols...

I first played Tomb Raider a couple of years after its release in 1996, and it instantly captured my imagination with its engrossing puzzle-platforming set amongst vast, forgotten ruins. Its daunting approach of dropping you into a labyrinthine level with no clear objective (and very little ammo) was not unusual at the time, but it stood out amongst its contemporaries because the focus was on exploration and discovery rather than survival.

Compared to many of today's games, Tomb Raider is unnerving - there is no quest log or map marker telling you what to do next, and the massive levels often require you to backtrack multiple times, collecting keys and pulling levers. It's also full of incredibly evil traps, so a cautious approach is required throughout.

The infamous "Palace Midas" trap, where a little classical knowledge can save you...

Of course, it's impossible to avoid doom every time, which is why I'm happy to report that Tomb Raider on the Android has dispensed with the frankly sadistic "Save Crystal" system that blighted the PlayStation version. Some games, like Dark Souls and Alien: Isolation, use limited saves to ratchet up tension, and this technique is especially effective when the save system is entwined with the fiction of the game to the extent that you can't rest until your character does.

Tomb Raider was never one of those games because the difficulty is in pulling off individual complex feats rather than maintaining a disciplined approach to staying alive between save points. Successfully navigating a tricky series of jumps is often a matter of trial-and-error, so limited saves just make the game unnecessarily frustrating.

Lara's passport is signed by the Mayor of London. Non-British people - this is not a thing. London didn't even have a mayor until 2000, which makes me wonder what he's doing signing things in 1996. Unless... Lara is the mayor?

The Android version offers three save slots plus one extra one for the auto-save, which is triggered whenever you quit the app. This is an especially welcome feature when your battery runs out half-way through a level, which mine obviously did because I wasn't paying attention. The load/save speed (at least on my Nexus 5) is also extremely quick, meaning that you can save your game every time you have to do anything slightly risky or time-consuming. I will admit that doing this reduces the tension, but you have the choice not to do so, and if you're fitting in a little raiding on your commute, you'll appreciate the convenience of the save system.

I can feel the PC players with their quicksave hotkeys getting a bit fidgety, so I'll move on to the most distinctive feature of the Android game, and that is of course the control system, which appears as a series of buttons overlaid on the screen:

You get an achievement for doing this.

Although for the most part this is implemented very well, certain moves are tricky, especially jumping and shooting. Long-term raiders will know that the best way to kill an enemy is to fire continuously while jumping in all directions, making it difficult for an enemy to get a lock on you, or take a bite out of your leg, if it's one of those pesky endangered species.

In order to do this, you need to hold down both the jump and fire buttons with the same hand while the other controls direction. Unfortunately, the touch screen controls make this tricky, and it tends not to register a jump if you roll your thumb onto the button while also using it to hold down the shoot command (which is how you'd pull this off on a PlayStation).

Lara admires her handiwork.

Tomb Raider does feature a neat "drag and drop" function that lets you arrange the buttons on the screen. However, even with jump and fire right next to each other, I still found it extremely difficult to have the control I needed over both buttons unless I put the phone down on a flat surface and operated the controls with the index and middle fingers on my right hand while the left hand managed the D-pad.

This brings me to another control issue, and that is the way you walk rather than run if you touch the D-pad closer to the centre rather than right at the edge. I can see their thinking here; the walk button needs to be toggled rather than held down, and it's slightly fiddly to keep turning it off and on again when positioning Lara during a difficult jump sequence. But the D-pad on the phone is very sensitive, and I often ended up walking when I meant to run (or worse - diving when I meant to jump), thus messing up a complex manoeuvre that I had painstakingly arranged.

Remember this one, raiders? It is not easy on a touch screen.

Tomb Raider on Android apparently supports a gamepad, and although the reviews I've read on the suggest this is implemented well, I didn't try it out because whole point of playing a game on a phone as opposed to a PC or console is the convenience and portability. Needing a gamepad rather defeats the point - the game is so cheap on PC or on the PSN store that if you want the original experience you may as well just get it there.

I also encountered a fairly serious bug during puzzles where I had to collect three of the same item, for example the cogs in the Lost Valley, or the gold bars in Midas' Palace. The first time I approached a receptacle in order to deposit the item, Lara would say "No", and do nothing, but one of the objects would be removed from my inventory anyway. Luckily I'd been saving with obsessive frequency so all I had to do was re-load, but if I hadn't been doing that (or worse - only using one slot) I'd have had to do some significant back-tracking.

My only other gripe is that I ran into a bizarre graphics bug in the Colosseum, which began as soon as I entered the level and disappeared as soon as I'd beaten it. When it first appeared I turned my phone off and reloaded, and even returned to an save from the previous level, but to no avail; for an entire hour of play, Lara looked like this:

I'm guessing this has something to do with the model of phone I'm using (which was recently restored to factory settings, so I don't think it's other software that's causing problems), and it didn't stop me finishing the game, but considering the graphics otherwise look fantastic, it's a bit of a shame that I had to stare at cyber-bacon-Lara.

Yes, I said "fantastic". Tomb Raider really does look great especially if, like me, you last played it on the PlayStation and never benefited from the PC patches that beefed up the visuals. There are some really lovely textures that look like actual photographs, and overall the game is bright and sharp. Of course the models are blocky compared to just about anything else on the Android, but the game is so well-designed that you quickly stop noticing and become immersed in its world.

Lara takes time out to admire the bas-reliefs.

There are other thoughtful touches, for example you can choose between an "Ambient" soundtrack - looping, quiet mixes of music from the Nathan McCree score - or the OST, exactly as it appeared in the original game. The Ambient option is the default and has a calming, more modern feel, but for the full experience you really must play with the OST. The themes that play at key moments really add to the tension (panicky strings announcing a pack of wolves), the intrigue (minor key choral music heralding a devious puzzle), and the triumph (the main theme playing as the camera pans out over a new vista).

Home, sweet home.

If you're still not sure whether you want to play Tomb Raider on a 4-inch screen, you should be aware that it includes the Unfinished Business levels, which, as far as I'm aware, never made it to PlayStation. That means that for many long-term fans such as myself, this will be the first opportunity to play them. Add that to the 15 monstrous levels in the main game, and for 99p, you're looking at about 5p per hour of top-quality, immersive adventuring.

If you're an old hand who fancies replaying Lara's very first outing, the Android version is a fun, convenient way to do so. If you've never played a Tomb Raider game before (or joined the cult in the Crystal Dynamics years) and are wondering what all the fuss is about, this is a low-cost, low-hassle way of doing it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you sir, you put it perfectly! My first console was a Sega Saturn which my dad bought me Tomb Raider 1 and the first Need for Speed. And Lara was awesome! I bought both TR 1 and 2 on my Sony Xperia m2 aqua and its legendary! Lara was my first girlfriend after my first skateboard and now my wife.