Friday, 4 September 2015

Lara Croft GO and Hitman GO review: More please.

I presume that mansion's got a hefty mortgage, because since she stopped selling Lucozade, Lara Croft has needed a part-time job. Previous extracurricular projects in the fallow years between major Tomb Raider releases include the isometric Guardian of Light and The Temple of Osiris, which offer a clever twist on the puzzles, isolation and exploration of Core's original games. While this gameplay can't carry an AAA franchise any more, it's still my own personal catnip, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when Lara Croft GO, a turn-based mobile puzzle game, was released last week.

Lara isn't the first of Square Enix' Eidos recruits to visit turn-based territory. That would be the Hitman series' Agent 47, who made his mobile debut in Hitman GO last year, by the same developer as Lara Croft GOSquare Enix Montreal. Lacking the patience for stealth gaming, I initially passed over Hitman GO, but I enjoyed Lara's outing so much that I though I'd give it a (sorry) go.

Both games take place on a series of grid-based levels that Lara/47 can navigate one square at a time in order to reach an eventual objective. Levels contain special squares that allow Lara/47 to change something in the level (remove an obstacle, set a trap), as well as enemies, which only move when they do. Enemies can usually be killed by taking them off the board, chess-like, but this isn't always wise as they can be manipulated into operating a pressure pad, obscuring Lara/47 from view, or shielding them from attack.

Hitman GO is styled to look like a board game, with solid, plasticky characters that topple over satisfyingly when "killed". Consequently, I presume the GO suffix is a reference to the board game Go, but while there is a strategic element to planning your route around the level, the movement of the various elements is always predictable. You can do things to change your enemies' behaviour - open a door, create a distraction - but the outcome is always certain because you are not engaged in a battle of wits against an intelligent opponent.

Lara Croft GO shares its basic gameplay with Hitman GO, but dispenses with the board game aesthetic in favour of cel-shaded, subtly-animated visuals reminiscent of the lovely Monument Valley. While Lara Croft GO lacks that game's Escherian perspective shifts, its gameplay is deeper and more challenging, with more variables to keep track of, not to mention the constant threat of death.

That said, death is not a great punishment: the solutions to the puzzles often emerge through trial-and-error, and the result of succumbing to a snake, spike trap or a rolling boulder is a short loading screen and a return to one of the generously-distributed checkpoints. In fact, the interplay of mechanisms and enemies in some of the later levels was so intricate that I frequently found it easier to leap out in front of a hungry spider in order to reset everything than extracate myself from a mess of my own making.

Despite this, Hitman GO is by some margin the harder game. This is in part due to its structure: later levels are unlocked by earning credits for completing challenges, so good performance in an easier level allows you to dabble in the later ones. This means that if you're struggling to crack a puzzle, you can just return to an earlier stage to mop up some extra credits.

In contrast, Lara Croft GO is linear, meaning that although you can return to an earlier section at any point, doing so won't help your overall progress. This means that if you get stuck somewhere, you can't progress, so the difficultly has to be carefully calibrated to keep things moving forward.

This design approach is necessitated in part by the plot: a wordless story about a mystical artefact guarded by a huge and presumably ancient beast. Simple though it is, the narrative is beautifully delivered through charming animations and several short sequences - running across a collapsing bridge, diving off a cliff, tiptoeing through a dark cavern - that, while interactive, offer only one path and exist solely to set the scene and create tension.

Although the story in Lara Croft GO isn't poetic or allegorical like those of Monument Valley or Journey, the execution is similar, and adds mystery and poignancy to Lara's pursuit of the artefact. The motivation of the "classic" Lara Croft that stars in both this game and the Core originals has always been ambiguous. Is she an explorer, a treasure hunter, an adrenaline junkie... or is she chasing something deeper? Her inscrutability is a large part of her appeal because it allows the player to project their own desire for adventure onto her. By rendering her silent and putting the focus on exploration and discovery as opposed to a confrontation against a megalomaniacal antagonist, Lara Croft GO captures the introspection of the earlier games.

Hitman GO is altogether colder, but that's fitting for a game starring a genetically-engineered killer. The board game motif distills the act of assassination into a purely logical exercise in which victims don't feel anything and morality is irrelevant; all that matters is getting the job done. If you want to over-analyse this - and I obviously do - you could view it as a metaphor for how 47 approaches his job.

Of the two, Hitman GO has most replay value. Aside from completion, each level presents you with two further objectives from a selection that includes retrieving a briefcase, reaching the ending square within a certain number of steps, not killing anyone, or killing everyone. In most cases these objectives cannot be achieved in the same playthrough - it's generally impossible to grab the briefcase and manage to finish in "X steps or fewer" - meaning that you're encouraged to take a different approach to gameplay every time you replay a level, rather than try and optimise any one playthrough. This approach to game design is very much in-keeping with the ethos of the Hitman games, which offer the player a wide range of increasingly creative options as to how they take out their mark.

Lara Croft GO's collectibles take the form of relics hidden around the environments, but in order to grab them you just tap where they appear on the screen; you don't need to maneuver Lara into place first. This encourages you to pay close attention to the beautiful level design as you scrutinise it for telltale sparkles, but it doesn't compel you to explore or try out new approaches to gameplay. Since the level design is a fair bit more complicated than that in Hitman GO I guess that's fair enough, but at the end I was left wanting a bit more challenge.

I'm not going to complain too much though, because the rewards for collecting relics are unlockable outfits from the old Tomb Raider games, including three favourites that did not make it into Tomb Raider: Anniversary: the bomber jacket, Area 51 camoflage and the Antarctica padded jacket. For old fans this is a lovely touch, and the icing on a reverent cake that also includes the classic handstand and the ability to scare off bugs with a flaming torch, as Lara spends a lot of time doing in The Last Revelation.

There are a couple of additional outfits which you have to pay for, but these are from other Square Enix games rather than Lara's original wardrobe, so I quite happily gave them a miss. The spectre of in-app purchasing also hovers benignly over Hitman GO in the form of paid cheats: you can buy solutions to the puzzles and pay to unlock later levels instead of completing challenges. I find it hard to get too annoyed about this because the alternative to paying extra is just, you know, playing the game (...or looking up the solution online, which Square Enix must have known people would eventually do).

Both these games are wonderful (and at £3.99 each, pretty wonderful value), so I'm hoping that Square Enix's other Eidos acquisitions, Deus Ex and Thief, get similar treatment as we wait for their respective AAA follow-ups. With its pure stealth gameplay, Thief seems better-suited to the format, but Hitman GO's challenges makes me think Square Enix Montreal could do a good job of designing distinct stealth/combat paths through turn-based Deus Ex levels.

I go through phases of being a bit depressed about the state of gaming today, and the difficult positions the industry sometimes puts its creators in. It's easy to get nostalgic about the laissez-faire, console-led years when Lara and 47 were born, but that period had its own problems. Today, the cut-throat app market and eye-wateringly expensive AAA dev cycles might place limitations on risk-averse publishers and struggling developers, but Lara Croft GO and Hitman GO are examples of the brilliant games that can be made when those limitations breed creativity.

All screenshots were taken by me on the Android versions of the games.

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