Experienced Points: Rise of the Tomb Writer

By Shamus
on Feb 8, 2016
Filed under:
Column

Last week on the Diecast I kind of sneered at the story in Rise of the Tomb Raider. In my column this week I kind of back off from that by suggesting that the story is fine in broad strokes, and it’s the over-abundance of needless cutscenes that kills it. And now that the column is up I realized this problem is more widespread than I thought: The cutscenes were the worst part of Hitman Absolution. And like I said in the article, they didn’t do the Thief reboot any favors either.

Square Enix has a bunch of talented game developers working for them, but someone at the top has decided to turn them all into shitty filmmakers. I suspect it will take a few more crappy games and millions of dollars in needless expenses before someone comes to their senses and dials back on this nonsense. The first step is admitting you have a problem, and right now I bet the wannabe movie-mogul behind this is still thinking this is the developer’s fault.

If you were curious about the “laser sauna” rant in the Diecast, below is what I was talking about. Warning! Shamus gets angry and swear-y:

Laser Sauna Rant

A bunch of dudes are holding a room. They’ve filled the room with red smoke. The floor is ice, and there are a few holes in the ice where you can pop up. There are a few crates around the room, if you can get out of the water long enough to hide behind one of them.

The first problem is that the stealth mechanics are backwards. Usually stealth means you can see better than your foes, so you can sneak up on them without being seen. In this case, you’re blind while under the ice, and can’t tell where the dudes are until you poke your head up. And if someone happens to be looking in that direction, you get shot. There’s no way to actually see if the coast is clear before you emerge. Also, the smoke makes it very hard for the player to see, but your foes don’t seem to have that problem. Often I found myself getting shot from an opaque (to me) cloud. Note the screenshot above. You can see which way the guns are pointing thanks to the lasers, but you can’t actually see the dudes. Do they have their back to the hole, or are they facing it?

The second problem is that the AI is a stupid broken cheating asshole. Guys were always homing in on me, even when they didn’t know where I was. In fact, they did so even when they didn’t yet realize Lara had entered the room. You can see their laser-sights pass through walls (derp) and the lasers seem to track you as you move around or swim under the opaque ice.

Third, the game gives you bad and wrong advice. Lara whispers something like, “Be patient. Let them come to you.” Doing so will get you killed. If you tread water in a hole, they will see you long before they’re close enough for you to ambush them. If you hide under the surface, they will walk over to the hole, see you anyway, and shoot you.

And let’s not even get into the break in tone: This series has been all about this desperate struggle to survive cold, injury, and hunger, and now suddenly Lara is swimming in freezing water with no ill effects.

I died many, many times because I was trying to properly stealth the room, and the game will not let you do that. There are too many guys milling around, you have no sense of geography or enemy movement, and it’s not clear how visibility works in this section. And when you kill a dude, a replacement instantly drops in from hammerspace somewhere above the smoke. I’d shank a dude, and his replacement dropped in just as the kill animation ended and before anyone knew he was dead.

I also had guys see me over cover. Sure, that’s realistic that a grown woman can’t hide behind a knee-high box, but that’s not the logic the game has been using up until now.

When I play stealth it’s because I want to ghost an area. I want to kill all the dudes without ever being seen. This is not that. In the end I basically beat it by acting in the most immersion-breaking and contrived videogame-ish way possible: You swim up to a hole, and if a guy is nearby you mash Y for Lara to pop up and shank him. Guys will see you and you’ll get shot a bunch of times because you can’t abort the procedure mid-shanking, but you can jump back in the water and let health regen fix you up.

If there was some trick you could use to do this right, I don’t care. The game put you in an unfair and nonsensical situation, changed the rules, and then gave you bad advice. Fie.

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From the Archives:

  1. lethal_guitar says:

    I never even considered trying to stealth that section. I popped out of the water at the far end of the room, spammed assault rifle grenades in the general direction of the dudes, then ran for cover. A few more grenades, then finish off the last 1 or 2 guys, and done.

    So I guess you could call that a “trick” to that section, but the explosives are quite overpowered in general in this game :)

    • Benjamin Hilton says:

      While I’m sure that works fine, it doesn’t change the fact that the game is heavily impying that you should be stealthy only to make that untenable.

  2. Jamas Enright says:

    Hmm… and higher levels mean no regen in the middle of combat, so I’m sure that makes it even more fun!

  3. Interestingly enough, this mimics a lot of the complaints I had about Kung Fu Panda 3. I really loved the first one–it was very minimalist, with a tight, brilliantly-structured plot, lots of developed characterization . . . it was a great movie.

    The 2 sequels are also decent movies, but it’s clear that the writers were basically told “TURN IT UP TO 11”. They’re frenetic and CRAMMED with just too much stuff. It’s cute stuff, but it’s racing at you so fast that it barely sets anything up before it’s on to the next thing! The gags and plot points and character arcs all fall short because they don’t mature, it’s just bing bang boom here it is on a plate. So you never get the feeling like the movie is cashing in on a buildup, because there is no buildup. It’s absolutely frantic in pace.

  4. Athanasius says:

    The second problem is that the AI is a stupid broken cheating asshole. Guys were always homing in on me, even when they didn’t know where I was.

    I enjoyed ROTTR overall, but I heartily agree with this. If I run away and around a corner, and double-back, and hide in a bush, the AI shouldn’t damned well know where I am to hone in on me!

  5. Supah Ewok says:

    I think your cutscene dilemma has it’s roots in the modern Final Fantasy games. It’s probably Square Enix’s biggest franchise, and ever since FF7, has featured extensive cutscenes that folks have lauded over (At least until FF13 when there started being some push-back, but that didn’t stop the sales). Probably a story of yet another business man making decisions about video games where if something works in one circumstance, it must surely be universally good, and should be applied everywhere.

    • Syal says:

      Final Fantasy has been cutscene heavy as far back as FF2 on the NES.

      If The Spirits Within didn’t stop them from trying to make movies, nothing will.

      • Supah Ewok says:

        Eh, it’s FF7 I think that started moving towards an extreme, and FFX that completed it. FF6 was the most cinematic of the old school FF’s and I don’t think I’d consider it any more than average in cutscene frequency or length.

        • Felblood says:

          Wasn’t there an entire opera in the middle of that one?

        • Decus says:

          FF has always had an even/odd pattern going in terms of “like a movie” and “like a game” and that definitely applies as far back as FF2: A New Star Wars. FFXII: Return of the Star Wars sort of combo-breaker’d them and flipped the pattern from evens are movies to odds are movies. FFXIV continued that by being the MMO with FFXV as the movie.

          Even if FFVII had FMVs, I will always stand by it being less of a movie than FF2, FF4 or FF6. Its plot just isn’t delivered that way most of the time; in order to get most of the plot you’re finding and reading stuff off the beaten path and most of the scenes are kind of short or involve mini-games.

  6. boz says:

    In brawler tree there is a skill called “adrenaline” which would give you damage reduction after a stealth kill. You could kill one person and climb up the hole then proceed to hide behind a cover and heal yourself.

    • Joe Informatico says:

      Yeah, I found the laser sauna kind of annoying because of the enemy AI zeroing in, but not really hard, but I’d also done a lot of the collecting and tomb-raiding before I got there. My skills/perks probably made it fairly trivial (I had most of the damage reduction ones at the time, IIRC).

  7. Volvagia says:

    Eh, I think the problem runs even deeper than that. The most interesting facet of the first game was tonal, not mechanical, and, on that level, Tomb Raider 2013 felt like Indiana Jones meets The Descent. The “snow” version of it, then, should have felt like Indiana Jones meets, to toss out a shockingly appropriate modern example, The Revenant and it just does not actually dish out NEARLY enough non-optional physical pain (Lara’s stomach getting pierced by a nail in the original is a more interesting and effective moment than anything the mechanics in either title can express) on Lara to feel anywhere close to that. Ice could have actually sliced into her back, stalactites could have actually pierced through her feet, the bear could have actually gotten a few hard and non-optional licks in that show permanent character model damage. Also, without stuff on that extreme level, the level of gore they’re still committed to for hitting enemies just feels incongruous, a clear and uncomfortable holdover from a much meaner original game.

    • Zekiel says:

      As a moderate fan of the original, I always found the tone a bit odd, probably because a don’t think “The Descent meets Indiana Jones” really works very well. You had a game that was doing the usual thing of giving you a power fantasy (gradually becoming better and better at beating mooks in both stealth and shooting) which was then also undermined by containing horror-movie levels of nastiness, generally aimed at its main character. It felt odd, and I personally found the level of gore unpleasant (especially if I ever failed a QTE and Lara got killed in a horrible, horrible manner).

      So I’m quite glad if this game tones down the nastiness it aims at its protagonist.

      • Volvagia says:

        But that at least meant it had a distinct tonal identity. Rise of the Tomb Raider backpedals on that and, combined with the weird addition of a useless “second origin” hook, the result is extraordinarily…bland.

      • Ventus says:

        Yeah the amount of gore and brutality in that game turned off me and two of my good friends. And they’re both super big Tomb Raider fans.

        • Volvagia says:

          I saw a pitch a long time ago in a gaming magazine of someone pitching an M rated Tomb Raider, but aiming to exaggerate what was already there rather than make it a gritty survival story. I can absolutely understand why some might be alienated by Tomb Raider 2013’s direction, but let me be clear: They have only suppressed their most interesting aspect. They have not changed their direction and, because of that, Rise of the Tomb Raider only wound up making me feel empty and bored.

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      I feel like a lot of the death animations feature that brutality you’re talking about. Having your throat torn out by a wolf or having the helicopter machine gun riddle Lara with bullets when you miss a jump was a bit shocking after getting in the groove of things.

  8. Wide And Nerdy says:

    I know this doesn’t solve the problem with the game (since it urges you to keep going.) But if you can turn back and go revisit those tombs you’re now able to get into but weren’t before, the cutscene pacing improves.

    I’m not sure because I went back from what I suspect is near the end of the game, but I’ll bet if every time you get a new door opener, you go back and do all the tombs that device will get you into, you’d have the pacing you wanted. They just should have found a better way to steer you back towards that stuff.

    I’d save it till after the game myself but I learned last time that once I finish the story, I stop caring.

    EDIT: And you make that point about optional tombs and pacing later in the article. Sorry. It seems you have taught me well Master Young. In my defense, I’m always afraid I’m going to forget the points I want to make before I finish.

  9. Wide And Nerdy says:

    I found it a little wearying in the beginning but a lot of Triple-As front load their game with cutscenes which is actually something of an improvement over how they did it before. That is, rather than starting with a long ass cutscene, they’ll do a quick one, give you a little tutorial action, then another quick one and some more tutorial and the cutscenes will space out as you grasp the mechanics and the gameplay becomes sustainably fun.

    But here it keeps going. It got frustrating to me right about the point where they rehashed the motivations of the villain again. There’s a cutscene in there solely to remind you that the villain is after the artifact to cure her fatal condition.

    I’ve also completely lost the thread on the story of the Prophet. And I’m not confident I’ve got the story of the miners they strike and escape to the Valley and become the guardians of the relic? But there were some other guys who were here before them maybe?

    • Joe Informatico says:

      The basic story of the Prophet as I understand it–i.e., the backstory of the main plot–is, he was a charismatic religious preacher in the Byzantine Empire, he and his followers were considered heretics and driven eastward kind of like the Nestorian Christians, and founded the hidden city of Kitezh. At some point (I wasn’t quite clear when), he gains the Divine Source and becomes immortal. Trinity is an order of religious knights (who eventually become the conspiracy of mercenary thugs you kill for 75% of the game) ostensibly hunting down the Prophet for his heresy like the Teutonic Knights’ Eastern Crusade, but they’re really after the Divine Source. At some point, to defend his people, the Prophet Jacob uses the Divine Source to make some of his followers immortal. They become the crazy Undying you fight in the late stages of the game. At some point due to these conflicts the Prophet’s followers abandon Kitezh but continue to guard it and the Divine Source from their villages scattered throughout the valley.

  10. SharpeRifle says:

    Ok probably a stupid question but you mean “ducking back below the surface of the water” and not “jump back in the water” you are not getting out of the water when you shank them right?

  11. Cat Skyfire says:

    One issue I have with cutscenes is that they also annoy the crap out of me when I’m replaying things. The first time, maybe I need to hear the story. But later? Nope. Oh, and this is an unskippable cutscene? Oh, joy…

    When I restart Skyrim, I select my character, then set the controller down to do other things while I wait for the cutscene to end.

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