Friday, December 1, 2023

Tomb Raider: Introduction

For the 200th game, I went back and forth on some games, even giving Smashing Pumpkins a thought, before deciding on this. For as dead as 1996 is going to look now, I really anticipate that year having a lot more going on that such losses don't matter so much. At least I hope so. And Tomb Raider isn't really much of a shooter despite the label, instead it's more of a cinematic platformer in 3D, where the shooting is mostly incidental.

There are many, many different versions of this game. Ranging from the technologically superior DOS and Mac versions to the PSX and Saturn with music and Resident Evil-esque saving. Even the Japanese get in on it, changing Japanese versions of the games, primarily to make them easier. Then there are later N-Gage and mobile ports. And there's the remake, Anniversary, and the upcoming remaster. Neither of which are relevant here, though I have heard mostly bad things about Anniversary, as it cuts out massive chunks of this game, but changes the controls.
With the Macintosh version not working for me and the best modern engine port Croft Engine also not working for me, I hit upon using Tomb 1 Main, a port which more or less focuses on making the game look better and improving controller support. That last bit is important, considering how absolute ass it was originally. Also, it offers the ability to play the Japanese version...somehow?

The story is that of Lara Croft, British aristocrat who left the good life behind to be an adventuress and travel writer. This profound shift in personality occurred when, after her plane crashed in the Himalayas, she found she enjoyed surviving and traveling alone more than upper class society in Britain. Now she has made a vast fortune writing, including her own mansion.

The game itself begins with a meteor hitting Nevada, revealing a strange artifact and a strange winged woman. I'm sure the game didn't just accidentally spoil itself in the opening cutscene. Then we get Lara meeting, over a video call, the very American Natla, of Natla Technologies, and her henchman, the very American Larson. She wants Lara to find an artifact called the Scion, which is what we saw a moment ago. Lara isn't swayed by money, rather, only by a sense of adventure in going to Peru.

Let's talk about Lara for a second, and the problem that the games themselves have. This is a hard game to market, platformers are overwhelmingly kiddie fare. This is a platformer based around precision jumping, shooting is incidental. While third-person shooters were a thing beforehand, they were hampered by how awkward it was to play a game where the PC is just sprites in a 3D environment. (Die Hard by Dynamix for instance, sure to be a highlight when I reach it) So advertisers go the lazy route and market the hell out of the hot female protagonist, with third-person shooter being what the game nominally is.

This is actually documented as being the reason Toby Gard, lead designer and creator of Lara, left Core Design. Citing advertisements that made her out to be like a page 3 model. Not exactly something that bears out in-game, which puts her more into a bit of an anti-heroine. The kind of lady who is going to go out of her way to save innocents but kill everyone she does fight. Which, come to think of it, is every version of Lara, except here she doesn't have parental issues that plague all the reboots.

Before I begin the game itself, let's go to Croft Manor, the tutorial level. Here Lara tells you how to play the game. This is the other now controversial aspect of the game, the controls. Specifically the tank controls. Unlike a lot of other platformers and shooters, this shouldn't really be a controversy. The basic gist is, you move like a tank; Lara runs automatically, shift causes you to walk, delete and page down sidestep. Alt jumps, end is a quick turn/roll 180 degrees Ctrl is the generic action/shoot button, and space unsheathes your weapons. Numpad 0 functions as a look mode, where you can look around with the arrow keys.

I can see it being an issue for 5-10 minutes, but it shouldn't be as hard as it seems to be for some people. Every action Lara can perform is consistent, from climbing up a box to her jumps. Going back without shift causes Lara to jump back from one end of a tile to another, do it off a ledge and hold ctrl and you can drop down from there. Or, you can then run forward, every running jump Lara takes has her take one tile of run up, something which requires a bit of practice, but it's not that difficult. Lara has a vertical leap of about 2 blocks and a horizontal one of 4, assuming a running jump. You can figure out everything but the diagonal jumps here. Since at this height you can't take fall damage. Going into stuff like hanging from a ledge or swimming isn't that complex either.

Side note, Tomb 1 Main adds controls for changing the camera or selecting weapons/medikits with the number keys. Nice additions, but not absolutely vital. I don't think I used the former at all here.

Beginning the main game starts another cutscene. Lara and her unnamed local guide go off to some mysterious giant doorway. Lara climbs up, pressing a secret button, opening the doors and revealing a pack of wolves. Lara kills them all, but not before they kill her guide. He probably wasn't going to survive this place anyway.

Oh, yeah, this port adds in Lara's ponytail, originally that was only in the sequels. A much increased draw distance. Not really sure I care for it all that much. Yeah, it's nice, but the short draw distance helped create the mood, you know? These darts here can hurt Lara, but as long as you just run through the area non-stop you'll be fine. For the record, I haven't played this game in like, 5+ years, and before that it was a long time since I played it. I don't have a perfect memory of things or anything, but I remember the opening stages pretty well.

It's pretty hard to see this sometimes from the screenshots I chose.

I ignore the path forward to look at this random slope. Slopes in this game, well, they work like you'd expect, they move you to wherever they're aiming. But because this is a nice fancy 3D action game, you can shoot on it, or you can jump on it. Like to get to a secret above it. Kind of cruel as the first secret, ensuring that the first time you play this and thus need it, you probably aren't going to get it.

This is very immersive with it's HUD elements, the enemy health bar only shows up when there's one, while yours only shows up when you have your guns out or got hit.

Up a very obviously shown cliff are some bats. So, combat. Combat is just about ensuring Lara is pointed in the right direction and holding down the fire button until your target is dead. If it's coming after you, you jump away. Enemies make this hard by preventing Lara from jumping, causing her to enter her "bumped into object" animation that only plays rarely otherwise. Lara's default pistols have unlimited ammo. That's all I have to say about combat for now.

There's another secret here, another tricky jump to be made...diagonally. Wow, we're really screwing over players just starting, aren't we? I didn't even think it was possible to reach this level.

It also helps that you can't see the seams from this distance.

This game still has some neat looking areas. And if you didn't get the message that you should be looking around, the next area has you looking up to find your way out. Feels like this section was really intended to wow people with how open it is. I can't actually think of any games released before this which were real time 3D and this open.

In the next couple of areas you can snipe some wolves from the safety of a bridge, and then a bear over a jump. If you go down here, you can pick up another medikit. Getting back up gives me a little bit of trouble, because while you can climb up to the bridge from the ground, as Lara doesn't need to climb up against walls, 3D objects, like the rope on the bridge block Lara from moving. Yeah, that's annoying.

Not visible, the puzzle here or the secret to the left.

Two more medikits and then I'm in this area when the music changes. So, the music. This was added in by the port, as this is generally the reason why you'd want one or want to play a console version. It's very atmospheric for the most part, and then sometimes it spoils that you're about to shoot some creatures. It can be very distracting. Anyway, on the left there is another secret, this time a large medikit. And a timed door puzzle, which you just pull a switch some distance away from a door and jump over a block to reach it.

After another set of highly dangerous dart traps, I see this. Not the wolf, the cracked ground there, collapsing floors. The way these work is, if you run over them or jump on them, they collapse after a moment. Enough to let you say, do a running jump or jump off them. If you walk over them, nothing will happen. (or not as I will explain later) Another large medikit and one final switch and the level is over.

I'm going to get a good picture here! (gets a crappy picture)

Next level, a wolf ambush. All four of them. Trying to take the perfect picture here kind of hurt me. Not that I'm worried, there are a lot of medikits in this game. Jump out of their way and hold down the shoot button. I've starting to dislike the way wolves look in this game, they don't work with the simple models in the same way that Lara does. So, this level.

I really liked this level back in the day. It's a nice little open-ended level. You got a pool in the middle I'll get back to in a moment. There are three or four interior rooms here, which you gradually unlock. A hallway going behind all of them, containing two more grottoes with one wolf. Then there's a room like a stable where there's a medikit in an alcove...

I'll show the menu in more detail later, but every time you press esc, all your items come out of your backpack, which is nice, if a bit overly complicated.
...where a bear just randomly attacks me. I thought that was later. There's a trick here I thought I could engage in, climbing above him to snipe him, but damn if he isn't persistent enough to prevent me from doing that. So much for just holding onto medikits. This is honestly a bit troublesome, because in the original game I could have sworn that he popped up after doing something else. Now, the pool.
Underwater Lara is quite the graceful swimmer, turning around with the arrow keys and swimming forward with alt. She's got some decent speed and about 2 minutes of air. The former is a double-edged sword, it's possible to overshoot something, and depending on if you're against a wall, like if you're pulling a switch, it's not easy to put yourself against that switch. This is perhaps why the game is extraordinarily generous with the amount of distance Lara moves when you press action underwater.

This pool area has two secrets, one with a medikit, linking back to the main room and another one, here, with another medikit and magnum "clips". I'm not going to see the guns for these until much later in the game. I think it's possible to obtain dozens of these before ever possibly getting a pair.

The inventory, as I mentioned is somewhat akin to the rest of the game, minimalistic as possible. Press enter twice on an item to use it, once to select it, and another to confirm. There's also a compass here, which by default just shows what direction you're going in, but by this mod also tells you your stats for this level. Like how many items are left. Up switches to puzzle items, I have none yet, and down switches to options, including saving.

Right, the main event. The way forward can be found simply by using a switch next to a door, a quick climb and jump later, and you're here. The manual explains this, but the game doesn't, so I imagine this confused some people. Moving blocks, you hold down the action key, then push the block forward or pull it. This is different from climbing them, you jump then press action. That last bit is important here, there's a big medikit up there which, while you can try to jump over some unstable tiles, it's just easier to climb on top of this.

The next room has two important items, but the first thing you notice is the patter of bats. Funny, they're the only enemy so far with a sound to indicate they're awake, wolves and bears just kill you. After taking out the bats, I find out I don't have any way to reach up. Huh, guess I'm coming back later? But wait, there's no way out. I forgot about the block.

This brings us to the adventure part of the action-adventure Tomb Raider is sometimes considered. There are puzzles. Not usually the most clever puzzles, I must admit, but some of these feel a little bit clever. This though is just your usual key and door stuff. Use action on the object and you use whichever one you select.
After going through some dart traps that you can't just run through, I get treated to this. Nice. Distracting me from the wolves to my sides. If you look closely you might be able to see a wolf in front of me, but that isn't activated, perk of unintentionally strong viewing distance. This area is one I remember quite strongly, you go through three doors in turn, to solve jumping puzzles.
The game is very nice about this, presuming you still have figured it out, since you get water below. Oh, and at the end, you have to climb out downward through the area you just saw, if you're clever and land on the right place, you can pick up a pair of shotgun shells. Those you aren't going to have to wait to use. There's also a medikit.
Ah, turns out that person is still me, and I was wrong, you can't walk over unstable tiles. You can hang from them for some reason. Game logic. The section that follows is very nice on the trap front, you get some swinging blades, then pull a lever thinking it'll open a door, only for it to open the floor beneath you.
There's a bear on the other side, but there's a hole in the pool. This leads to a second floor, where the bear is very unwilling to reveal himself so I can shoot him. He's growling...occasionally, guess they do emit a sound. Eventually I can take him out. This area is a bit deceptive, two switches are hidden, so at first you put the idol in, thinking it'll open the door. It does, behind a set of bars. One of the switches opens that door, the other stops the blades on the way back, in case you missed the idol somehow. Also hidden, a set of uzi "clips". Those are going to be hiding in your inventory for a long time.
The next level starts with two ways forward, a waterfall down and upstream of a river. I go upstream, since there's something very important up there. Past the winding jumps over the river there's a wall of gears. That's not important right now since it's missing a few. This is the level's objective, but diverting the flow of the waterfall for reasons.

Instead, what's important is just past those, a pair of bones with a shotgun next to it. Not the most graphically impressive one, considering it's basically just a pistol with an extended barrel and a pump. It's usefulness is questionable at the moment, I picked up 2 shells before and this comes with 2, for a total of 4.

Down the waterfall, there are your usual wolves, with a few positions you can safely take potshots at them from. Side note, I did a little exploring, and on my way down I accidentally did a swandive into rock rather than the water. You can do that by pressing shift and jump together. I think it makes a deeper dive, but it has the disadvantage that Lara will die if she doesn't land in water. On my way back I accidentally bumped into a wall platforming upstream on the river. Not quite as simple as I gave credit, and more than a bit annoying.

In retrospect, the short draw distance probably contributed to the difficulty in finding this area.
There's a path deeper into the waterfall containing more wolves. They're not really a problem yet, even when they come in numbers. But the wolves den is a dead end, without even any items. How do you advance? Well, here. It's difficult to see when you're up against it. I remember that much being troublesome as a kid.
Another skeleton...with a big medikit. Strange, and another one in the distance. Still, looks like a nice place.
And when you get in there, jumpscare. Dinosaurs. They're genuinely troublesome compared to the wolves and the bears. As a kid, these scarred me because of this and how unexpected they were. The lower draw distance helped. This is a surprisingly open area compared to the previous caves. It never really looked like it to me, but this is supposed to be outside, to me it always just looked like a bigger cave.
Oh, wow, when you're fighting this thing you don't realize it has some awkward buckteeth.
Further in is the T-Rex. The game's first boss. The PSX combat music kind of ruins his appearance. He attacks much like previous enemies, bumping into Lara and occasionally biting at her. Only this guy gets a one-hit kill attack. It's not as hard as I remember to just fight him normally, though I get killed just near the end via his OHK. He's faster than Lara, but loves to stop and roar at her. There's a little side area where you can hide in and take shots at him if you so desire.
This area, in retrospect, is the strongest section of Tomb Raider, a game I think in general is very strong in it's level design. While the line between secret and required object here is blurred at times, it's just something that leaves you wondering what you can do and where you can go. Can I reach that bridge? You wouldn't think so, but you never know. You can...and you have to, because there's a gear over there. But you know what is a secret?
The top of this temple. I'm not going to say how you get up there, but I will say this is a great time to figure out diagonal jumping and the precise angle that Lara can no longer stand on a platform, only slide. This section is done whenever you find three gears.
It's no great puzzle figuring out how to place the gears, they're all the same. This switches where the water goes, to a side area, which if you explored before, might think is the path forward, but only has another secret area. There's also one hidden on top of some water tiles.
The way forward is here, time to do some tomb raiding. This is where the Tomb of Qualopec is, hidden under a waterfall. One would question some of the logic here, but considering I just cleared out a valley full of dinosaurs consisting entirely of carnivores, cleared out some more carnivores with no apparent source of food getting there, we're not exactly playing in something trying to be realistic.
This is a pretty neat area. You seemingly have no path forward but here, which drops a boulder from above. You can dodge this. Obviously they were going to do this, since it's so famous. Behind the door is the Scion, it even shows a nice fancy camera angle, but you can't go this way. Instead you have to root around for a switch to open a door.
More dinosaurs? Behind them are three paths forward, each unknown until you reach them. Well, I'm going to the passage on the right, since you should always go right in a maze. Or was that left? You know, I wonder if suggestions of the direction you should go in correlates to which hand the person primarily uses?
My chosen path leads to some blocks. I don't like this too much, but I'm forgiving Tomb Raider for it more than Resident Evil because you at least get more of a puzzle for it than push object over obvious hole in ground. This is one of those weird ones where you get multiple blocks to push in a small hole...until you get here. Ah, a switch over collapsible tiles...considering what I know, that means this is a trap. Only I walk over it, thinking I'm being tricked, only to discover I've just killed Lara and I missed that there's no collapsible tile under the switch. After reloading, the switch opens up one of the doors on the other side of the opening room, the one I didn't show.
The middle path, well, this one does the collapsible tile under the switch, leading to a room full of wolves. Despite the ctrl+alt key configuration being the sort of thing that can automatically activate some inconvenient Linux functions, it works pretty well even in this area. No items, but there's a block you have to push out, then to the side using a conveniently placed...uh...balcony? What do you even call it? There are a few medikits here, one slightly hidden, and a switch opening another door. I do note that in these close quarters that the camera can be annoying. If I were to make one change to the games controls, I would make the camera more Resident Evil 4 than this.
Honestly, playing it like this makes it difficult to imagine playing it any other way.
The left path leads to the most memorable part of this section, the sliding block jumping puzzle. You use switches here to move giant blocks in such a way that you can reach that area in front of Lara to the right. There's a hole at the bottom to Lara's left which connects to the area behind the left pillar, another hole to it's left leads back to the area behind me, opening up the path to the pillar to my right. There are switches behind me and to the right of the right pillar. Pull these, and then do a couple of diagonal jumps and you get the final switch.
Naturally, more dinosaurs spawn when you open the final door. Past that joker is another dart hallway, this time the darts will hit you if you just run across. So jump over them. Now, throughout the level there have been these gold statues, they're 3D objects, but they can and do have objects behind them, including a secret here.
You won't find it until you've already climbed up to it. This is an area full of collapsible tiles, which, reveal spikes below. Just minimize your usage of them, right? Yes and no, there's some magnum magazines under there in addition to the shotgun shells up top. I forgot how to safely drop down, and Lara gets impaled again. As I'm trying to keep my saves to a minimum, that puts me back to before the final two paths. I do them in the other order this time, turns out the dinosaur spawns when you solve the sliding block puzzle, lame. You have to jump into the safe area from a weird angle. To get out, you just walk over. Running causes Lara to get hurt, and even somehow jumping up from spikes hurts Lara. Running I can get, but jumping away from the sharp object?
The Scion...somehow this didn't really feel like that much trouble to get. Also, you can kill one of the mummies here...not that you have any reason to, it's just killable for some reason. Time for a peaceful escape.
This was originally a lot more pixelated, making it harder to see how goofy Larson is.
Why, it's Larson, Natla's lackey, taking potshots at me. There's a secret in the pool here, but otherwise you've just got this nice little arena to fight him in. You can climb back up, but the path up the river is blocked and so is the path to the valley. He's mostly just hard because you can't really dodge gunshots and he gets the first shot. Three shotgun blasts take him out, and you know what? I can only think of one better thing to use a shotgun this game anyway.
Cutscene, Lara asks why he was sent after her, especially for one piece of the Scion. I don't actually get that much of what Larson is saying. His voice is not especially clear. He does mention that Natla hired another treasure hunter to get the second piece, a Pierre Dumont, while also insulting the heck out of him. Considering the time period, it feels less like something an American would say and more something a Brit would say. He doesn't mention where, Lara will have to ask Natla. He then goes for his gun while Lara looks away, but she does a sick roundhouse kick on him, and the level ends.

Next time, St. Francis's Folly.

This Session: 2 hours 00 minutes

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