In this series I go in depth into what I observed about the game design of titles I have played and what I learned from them. I will talk in depth about the whole game so expect spoilers.
For me, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is such a two sided game. There are so many aspects of this game where, I can see what they were trying to do, but it doesn’t quite come off. When this game comes across as bad, it is frustrating because it clearly trying. Often the goals it aspires to are it’s own worst enemy, in that attempted design decisions hold it back, or have the wrong outcomes.
SotTR is a modern breed of game, one that tries to do everything. It is a game of stealth, action, exploration, crafting, platforming and puzzle solving and more. As well as having a story and cinematic presentation. There is a lot to be said for knowing what the appeal of your game is and delivering on that as best you can. In this regard, SofTR fails, the good parts are spread thin and diluted by too much other stuff that needn’t be there, but is there because there is a kind of belief in AAA games that these things have to be included.
So let’s talk about something it does well first. The puzzles and exploration. My earliest memories of Tomb Raider was the original Playstation game. Lara didn’t talk and didn’t really have a story, it was a 3D, platforming, exploration, puzzle. That DNA still exists. It is just let down by a slightly linea feel to it. As much as I enjoyed the climbing sections, you start to deconstruct the gameplay into what is basically pressing a button when prompted. There is usually only one route through any climb and obstacles present themselves one by one to be overcome with one specific action. The challenge in a way becomes recognising the language the climbs are presented in and understanding what the game wants you to do; A speckled bit of wall, this must be a press x to attach with your hooks bit. White scuffs on a wall, press jump twice to scramble up, It then becomes frustrating when the solution is not that clear and you find yourself dying for and not understanding why. Doesn’t sound that fun when I put it that way but there was a certain challenge and satisfaction to completing them.
Exploration is there a plenty. Many open sections allow you to wonder around, take in the scenery and talk to locals, and following the paths here and there is always rewarded in a bit of treasure or some new challenge to take on.
As for the puzzles, yes they are mostly linea and require you to find one specific solution, but again that is not such a bad thing. The puzzles usually consist of several moving parts and require experimentation and observation to assess how the elements work together, then building a model of the interactions in your mind to plan a configuration that will help you to your goal before executing said plan. Some things suffer a bit from video game logic (like the ropes that somehow are able to push on attached objects) but once you grok the mechanics, it is great to work through and find the solution.
A theme in common with all the above is one of those “I see what you were trying for” moments. You see, the game appears to me, that it was designed to not look to game-like, and to look more cinematic. The HUD is stripped down as much as possible in most case and care is taken to try and have you control Lara with only characters and scenery on display, no health bars, way pointers or other video game clutter. Except so much of the gameplay requires you to be able to recognise what is a gameplay element, and what is functionless scenery or an invisible wall.
Great in theory, but in reality it runs into a little trouble. A vital tool in completing this game was Lara’s survival instinct vision. With a button press, so long as she kept still, you could see the world in a view that highlights important objects. In puzzles, this was key in identifying the components of said puzzle. You might mistake a carving for a bit of set decorations, but seeing it in instinct mode it might glow orange, cluing you in to the fact that it might be an important tool in finding the puzzle’s solution. Then in climbing the distinction from what is a climbable object or not is trained into you. Rather than have glowing highlights for handholds, SotTR teaches you its language. Non Climbable ledges are off putting, overgrown with plants or broken and dilapidated structures, where as climbable handholds are usually denoted by a white marking on their edges.
Sometimes the lushness of the graphics does gameplay a disservice, blurring the lines between scenery and gameplay elements, other times, it does lend a cinematic edge. One could be mistaken for thinking it was non interactive footage as Lara climbs around, precariously hanging from ledges and scrambling to keep hold as the structures invariably break and crumble under her weight. But as a player, you need the information of what is the game and what is scenery, this is where the frustration lies, because in the hundreds of small moments of navigating the world, the game sometimes cannot communicate well enough with its players given its self imposed restriction on game elements that would traditionally help you along.
Another drawback of removing video game clutter from the screen is that much of the burden of information giving is loaded onto the writing. Lara has a lot of unnatural sounding dialogue as she pumps out voice lines meant to speak directly to the player. Rather than a quest indicator directing the player, Lara will make little soliloquies to herself but for our benefit. She is constantly telling the player “I have to” do this or “I need to find” that. It beats the usual gameplay trap of “follow the icon and do the thing.” but can get grating after a while. And the game is not great at picking up the difference between using survival instinct vision to get a clue, and using it simply to get a better view of your surroundings.
Next, let’s look at - what for me - was the game’s biggest stumbling block, that of the stealth and combat and the sometimes blurred lines between. In short, both thematically as a character, and mechanically, Lara Croft is not built for combat. Which makes sense. She is a normal person in extraordinary circumstances. Lara has as much chance of walking away from a bullet wound as I or you do. She isn’t trained in combat, she hasn’t any ballistic armour, to have her shrug off bullets like a character in a military shooter would be absurd.
It makes sense, throughout the whole game, tension is built around the idea that here is a woman constantly moments from death, fighting tooth and nail to survive. If I am not mistaken, combat serves a smaller part in this game than in the previous installments. I can think of only a handful of moments in which the game implicitly had me fight a group of enemies head on without an alternative solution. And reducing the amount of combat is certainly one way of approaching the problem. But combat was still the most common cause of death in my playthrough, even with the combat difficulty turned down.
I believe the problem lies in the “everything and the kitchen sink” gameplay of the game as a whole. Especially on a console, you only have so much real estate for input controls and when a game tries to do a great many things, you end up with overlap and multipurpose inputs. Designers have to get creative in how they set out inputs. As combat is a tertiary (at best) function of the game, it is stuck trying to fit all that is needed into a relatively small space, this makes the combat feel clumsy compared to what we may be used to in games more centered around gunplay. As an example, there is no input space for cover controls. As we have established, Lara cannot take many hits before dying, so keeping in cover is essential to surviving a firefight. But without a dedicated cover control, it is left as a contextual decision made by the game. Walk to piece of scenery you’d like to use as cover and the game will usually pick up your intent and have Lara crouch and snap into position. But often in a fight, with chaotic movement and aiming at enemies who are moving and flanking, I would often find that Lara had snapped out of cover and was instead,standing proud, out in the open, soaking up bullets.
Then there are all the controls around on-the-go crafting that the game includes. Mid fight we can cobble together special arrow, jury rig explosives and create poisons. All this is handled through a complex system of button taps, holds and tap while holding commands that gets daunting to use accurately whilst bullets are flying around you.
Then there are the sections with melee opponents; wild animals and tribal savages. As badly optimised as the gunplay is in a firefight situation, the frustration only mounts when enemies that move quickly and take many successful shots to bring down, and enemies that charge and swarm you. In these situations it can feel somewhat hopeless. Of course there are upgrades that will help in these fights, but there are usually no way to avoid them, so if you choose to spend points on other upgrades, you may struggle.
And there is the problem, you can choose to upgrade Lara in any of three categories, but with the fights being unavoidable and a large barrier if you keep dying, it can be problematic for those who do not expend points into combat upgrades. Even in stealth sections where you are encouraged to avoid open conflict, any mistake on your part thrusts you into open combat. With some scrambling and hiding you can get back to using stealth. But often it comes down to fighting your way out of the situation or dying and trying again.
I think there are ways that could have made these fights a better experience and more in line with the narrative of Lara Croft. I feel it somewhat out of character to have her mowing down enemies with an automatic rifle. I would have loved to see her utilise some of the scrambling, improvised, split second survival that is a feature in other parts of the game. Perhaps more ways to use her environment to her advantage, ways to fight dirty and tilt the fight in her favour. Perhaps snap decision moments, where the game slows and you can focus your attention of this or that to defend or attack more indirectly. Ie, a troop of gunmen close in, the player gets to decide, do I try to take out the brittle supports of the ledge they are on, or shoot a wasps nest to distract them, or dash through some thick brush to escape momentarily and maybe turn the encounter into a stealth one.
The other problematic area for me was the writing. Clearly the historic and archaeological aspects were well researched and dialogue is generally well constructed. But it had a bad habit of raising my eyebrows at its lack of sense. Perhaps a symptom of having a game in place that a story must be delicately constructed around. They present Lara in a light of a well meaning person heaping too much responsibility on herself by trying to stop an evil organisation from destroying the world. But really, the way Lara pins the blame of every bad thing on “Trinity” you could start to wonder who this “Trinity” really is and if she isn’t imagining them or making them the subject of some overblown conspiracy theory. Then there are the natives, a tribe isolated in the jungle for centuries, yet who trade in modern technology, speak perfect English and repeatedly fail to recognise a barely disguised Lara as an outsider despite her British accent and white skin. I just found myself incredulous throughout the story
So there is my take on Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Frustrating is the word that best sums it up for me. Not just in the sense of getting frustrated at all the punishing deaths from minor errors and clumsy mechanics. But frustrating in how clearly you can see how much they tried here. There was a lot of care and love put into this game but it missed the mark on so many occasions. I like the idea of making a cinematic game by adding action and suspense packed moments played out with established mechanics rather than the previously used methods of cutscenes or quicktime events. I enjoyed the world and scenery and getting to explore it through character interactions and finding artifacts, puzzles and secrets. I think it suffers the AAA action adventure game blight of trying to be a jack of all trades. In the indie space it is acceptable to focus on narrower gameplay. SotTR probably contains enough material for several games; I would certainly play a game about climbing and puzzling in ancient deathtrap ruins, I would play a one-calamity-after-another survival game where you descend ever deeper into the Heart of Darkness looking for a way out, I would play an environmental storytelling game where you collect artifacts and documents to learn a place’s history. SotTR has all this, plus the seen it all before mechanics that somehow just have to exist in a AAA game or else presumably no one would by it (“You know know what this game needs to sell copies? Guns and crafting, like Fortnite and Minecraft.”). If anything, this game reminds me that as a designer, it is important to keep an eye on what makes your game engaging and deliver on that as best you can. Variety is good, but I felt like the brilliance in this game was forced to be spread very thin and the spaces in between were filled with the everyday and the ill conceived. Oh to have a modern Tomb Raider that is just environment exploration and storytelling, with platforming and puzzles, without the morally dubious story and the endless murder of mercenaries and indigenous peoples. I can dream.