Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness
Eidos Interactive, Core Design
|Platform: PC, XBox360, PS2
English Voice Cast: Jonell Elliott, Eric Loren, Joss Ackland
How considerate of Core Design to provide such a perfect visual metaphor for what they did to Tomb Raider with Angel of Darkness.
Review by Jay Wilson
What is a fair chance? More specifically, what is the length of time or progress within a game that constitutes a fair trial?
I ask because, like Metroid, I played not only Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness but also BloodRayne II back in their day on their original systems. Like Metroid, I stopped playing both after less than an hour. And in all three instances, I felt a twinge of guilt because a couple dozen minutes hardly seemed fair for a multi-hour experience. This guilt nagged at me across the years until I finally gave in and replayed Metroid, Angel of Darkness, and BloodRayne II with the explicit intention of proving I had jumped the gun—that I was wrong—and to enjoy three games I missed out on once upon a time. And in all three cases, despite my good will, optimism, and open mind, I discovered my initial impressions and conclusions were accurate all along, and the act of playing them through to completion only gave me additional unnecessary ammunition to criticize the flaws that made themselves apparent in less than a single hour.
By far Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness was the worst. The game wants to be realistic at the expense of anything resembling a playable video game. In most 3D games, if you run into a wall, your on screen 3D avatar will continue the running animation, complete with all the properties of said run intact despite being unable to pass the barrier ahead. This looks ridiculous, but there’s a reason: so you, the player, can more quickly change direction and get to what you need to do. If you think running into a wall should bring your on screen character to a dead stop, then do play Angel of Darkness because it often does. You know what else? It’s even more realistic than that because Lara doesn’t burst forth into a full speed sprint the moment you push the analog stick. No, she first walks and then transitions up to a casual jog. These two realities collide to make the mercifully few battles unbearable.
See the peach colored bar under Lara’s life? That’s her grip meter which would be great if it weren’t tied to a level up mechanic that restricts you until you perform some predefined arbitrary task.
Because of the camera and Lara’s sluggishness, I ended up here instead of behind the guard. And the button to pick up items on the desk is the same button used to take down the guard.
Guess which one Lara did?
Lara can’t have her gun out while in stealth mode or while opening doors, nor can Lara crawl, commando crawl, or grab on to ledges.
But it’s not just walls that will bring Lara to a complete stop. Oh no, tables, chairs, furniture—hell, if she doesn’t quite clear a corner, she comes to a complete stop. And nowhere is this more apparent than the abundance of timed sequences where Lara has to race against the clock—be it tear gas or armed cops coming to arrest her—because once Lara loses momentum, it takes forever to get back to her mid-speed jog. If an obstacle is directly in front of Lara, her options are A. to pivot in place until she’s turned enough to start jogging parallel to the barrier, B. slowly sidestep ... one ... step ... at ... a ... time, C. jump sideways, but only if there’s enough room, or D. perform a reverse roll so you can circle back around but, again, only if there’s enough room.
With that in mind, about a third of the way into the game Lara has to escape from a chamber with three undying skeletons who throw fireballs. To open the door, Lara has to pull not one but two levers, and unless you approach at the right angle and press the button at the precise moment, you will then have to watch Lara position herself to pull the lever; no matter what, she’ll then take her sweet time pulling the lever; and then it’s up to you to get Lara away from the wall ... while fireballs constantly fly at her. When the fireballs hit, they ignite Lara, and she will continue burning until she runs under a waterfall halfway across the room. The skeletons have shields, so only the shotgun does anything at all, and if you do knock one down, by the time you disable the second (out of three), the first one’s back up. You can try to lure them to one side of the room, but both levers are right in the middle so you can never get skeletons far enough away. After much effort and many many retries, I’ve managed to pull one lever once without getting hit. All the strategies I’ve read say the same thing: ignore the skeletons, take the hits, and use medkits as needed or, in other words, “don’t even bother.”
I could go on, but there’s so much more to get to such as bringing out Lara’s guns. In Tomb Raider, by default, the camera hovers behind Lara, and when Lara turns, it turns with her which means the analog stick controls both Lara and the camera at the same time. However, when Lara goes into battle mode, the camera spontaneously goes independent and will do its best to lock on to the nearest target which could mean a sudden 135° turn and up/down/left/right no longer means what they used to mean. Now, everything—controls and camera—is relative to the target which, obviously, Lara has no control over. But sometimes the camera can’t swing itself into position because the quarters are too tight so it instead shows an extreme close up of Lara’s head, and since the target is out of frame, the analog stick becomes a roulette wheel—who knows where a directional input will send her? But the best is when an enemy is close and both he and Lara are moving and the camera just bounces around like it was inside a pinball machine and Lara stutters back and forth like a ping pong ball between two Chinese grand masters.
See the two torches on the walls? Directly below them are the two levers you have to pull. Now, see the waterfall on the far side of the room in front of the door? That’s the only way to put out the fire if the fireballs hit you.
This is the “stunned” lack of animation you’re supposed to be looking for in this boss fight.
While crawling, if you activate stealth mode Lara will lay flat and commando crawl to get under very low barriers such as these lasers.
Now imagine putting up with all of the above while in the middle of an ambiguous boss fight such as the ghost guardian in the Hall of Seasons. You’re supposed to shoot him until he’s stunned—again, he’s a ghost who flies through statues, pillars, and every other material object in the room, but nevermind—once you’ve stunned him, you’re supposed to grab an item that magically teleports from statue to statue’s outstretched hands. But the only indication that he’s stunned is that he momentarily pauses. That’s it. I honestly thought I had run into a glitch because the game never indicates he can be stunned—it barely indicates that he is stunned—or that you’re supposed to do anything while he’s stunned. The stun doesn’t even last very long so even if you know what to do you’re still not going to complete the battle because, to reiterate, the item teleports, and even if it didn’t, Lara can’t run in the direction you need her to run until she puts her gun away, but you can’t stun the ghost unless you have a gun out. Oh, and he can kill you in one hit so you’re not inclined to look around the room and experiment given that getting Lara to do anything remotely complicated is so God damn frustrating.
Crappy controls aside, this would have been a fine battle if A. there was a clear unquestionable stun animation, and B. stunning the ghost for the first time initiated a one-time cutscene that pans from the incapacitated ghost over to the statue holding the item Lara is supposed to snatch. This will cinematically establish a clear connection between the two phenomena thus giving the player unmistakable direction because if you’re going to make a fight that can go on forever you damn sure better make how to end it idiot proof.
Ah, but that’s one boss fight, and there really should not be much combat, right? After all, the game is called Tomb Raider, and Miss Croft should be in tombs performing the titular raiding Indiana Jones style. Well, I’m glad you brought that up because Lara has problems jumping in a straight line. On the PC version, Lara can perform a short hop by pressing walk + jump. The walk button does not move Lara at all. It just activates walk mode and puts an icon on the screen letting you know that when you do push a direction, Lara will not sluggishly work her way up to an unenthusiastic trot; she’ll walk like a normal human being. But despite there being no directional inputs, Lara will almost always veer off to the left or right and fall to her death even though the platform you were trying to jump to is right in front of her. It’s as if there’s a hidden lock on mechanic with an unspecified, counterintuitive, and impossible to pin down range. I’ve noticed if I stand at a certain Goldilocks distance—not too close and not too far away—she will jump in a straight line. Too close, and Lara will lock on to a platform ... in the distance, I guess? Too far away and Lara will lock on to ... the stalactite in the corner? I dunno. That’s purely speculation. All I can say for sure is I quick saved after every successful hop because in Angel of Darkness Lara Croft is physically incapable of making two jumps in a row.
So you die avoiding combat. You die in combat. Bet you think you’re safe during cutscenes, right? Wrong. Here’s a transcript in its entirety of an encounter Lara has with a crime boss. She’s just entered his hideout and passed through a room with a messed up guy lying in a hospital bed:
Lara has to race to this room before her breath meter gives out to acquire the gas mask ... so why does she still have a breath meter?
On the correct surfaces, Lara can not only scale walls, but also climb up ceilings provided her grip meter holds out.
This fish could not kill Lara. It would swim at her, it would run her into the wall while masticating, but not a sliver of damage.
I actually drown Lara once trying to see if it could do any damage.
I actually liked stretches of the game like this weird experimental botanical garden for its unique setting. Maybe it’s because by then it had become second nature to quick save after ... everything.
LARA: What happened to your man in the room out there Bouchard?
BOUCHARD: To Arnaud? You‘ve got something to say about that?
LARA: Maybe. It might be linked to what happened to a friend of mine.
BOUCHARD: I doubt it. Get out of here.
LARA: Do you know the name Eckhardt?
BOUCHARD: Never heard of him.
LARA: OK. You helped a friend of mine a while back. Werner Von Croy.
BOUCHARD: Names don‘t mean a lot here. Even real ones. What did he want?
LARA: Maps and information, on the Louvre.
BOUCHARD: I remember. Four weeks ago. Wanted to take a coach load of Japanese tourists to see the Mona Lisa.
So, at this point, Lara is given a standard dialogue choice, and keep in mind this is the very first choice in this particular conversation. Either, “Don’t jerk me around Bouchard. I lost that friend yesterday.” or, “Easy Bouchard. I lost that friend yesterday. Now I’m wanted for his murder.” Lara spent the night sleeping in an abandoned train car on the run from the police, she’s searched all over Paris for this prick, and all she gets is non-answers and smug sarcasm. In my mind, she’s not in the mood for crap, so let’s go with the former.
LARA: Don‘t jerk me around Bouchard. I lost that friend yesterday.
BOUCHARD: You better watch your mouth lady.
LARA: I‘ll watch nothing. I‘m sick of your Parisian lowlife ways. I need results.
BOUCHARD: Careful vixen. You don‘t need things to get any worse.
LARA: And how will that happen? You‘ll set these pussycats on me, right?
BOUCHARD: Wrong. I‘ll take care of this myself. Welcome to Paris.
Then he takes out a gun and shoots Lara while she stands there like an idiot all the while you, the player, have zero control. Yes, the cutscene kills you. Reload. Try again. First of all, you really should not kill the player for a branching dialogue choice—a logical branching dialogue choice at that. Have Bouchard call in his goons and start a fight? Sure. Fair enough. If the player dies during gameplay, well, mess with fire .... The other option could avoid the fight, and there’d still be some meaning behind taking dialogue X over dialogue Y. I’m fine with that. Second, let’s pretend it’s okay to kill the player in a cutscene; it’s still not okay to do it after one—the first—choice. Notice how Lara gets multiplicatively more hostile every time she answers. Notice how Lara provokes Bouchard. When the player picks “don’t jerk me around” it’s because he is jerking us around; it’s not because we want to provoke him. The lines, “I’ll watch nothing” and “you’ll set these pusscats on me” should be something the player chooses to say—additional choices between that and something softer, something more diplomatic. If the player makes three progressively more hostile choices back to back, then you might have an argument for killing them in a cutscene. But you know what? Making it lead to a battle where life and death resides in the player's ability to successfully play the game is still—and will always be—irrefutably the better option. Besides, isn’t battle hardened Lara Croft smart enough to know you should probably pack some serious heat and be quick on the trigger if you set out to piss off a frickin' crime boss?
So I come back to my original question: what is the quantitative definition of a fair chance? Obviously there’s no single definitive answer. Obviously there are many factors at play including the game, the genre, the complexity, and the individual playing the game. And obviously, the obsessive die hard fans will always cry out that anyone not overflowing with blind enthusiasm has failed to give their beloved precious a fair chance. But I think an hour is more than fair for most games, most genres, and most players capable of critical thinking.
I wanted to like this game. I love the modern urban setting, I love film noir, I love murder mystery, and I love exploration games.
Everything was in play for this to be my favorite Tomb Raider.
I think of The 7th Guest, Pac Man, Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fight, Mario Kart, Raid Over Moscow, Zaxxon, Ghostbusters (C64), After Burner, Suikoden II, Outrun, Phantasmagoria, Wolfenstein 3D, T2: The Arcade Game, Tetris, Tie Fighter, Parasite Eve, TMNT: The Arcade Game, Wipeout, Scorched Earth, Raiden, Samurai Shodown, R-Type, Shadow Warrior (2013), One Finger Death Punch, and Game Dev Tycoon—games from different eras, different genres, different periods of my life—all drew me in from the moment I started playing, and all made me want to continue playing beyond that first hour.
And I did. With no regrets.