This is a “find the line” game. To win the game you move along the line, from start to finish. The line is neither straight nor clear, and discovering how to get from point to point is where the game hides its fun. I have no particular problem withe “find the line” games; in fact, I tend to enjoy them quite a bit! The player can do about a dozen things with the environment, in a few variations each, and chaining those things together in new and interesting ways is what forms the line.
Not everyone likes “find the line”, though. The line is essentially a series of steps, which cannot be skipped nor sped up. There’s not a lot of room for deviation or creativity along the line. Freedom is not an option. If a switch is required at Step X on the line, you must repeat Steps 1 – X-1 at least twice; once to recognize you need the switch, then again after you’ve flipped it. Frequently there are switches required at X+5 and X+14, too.
Where Tomb Raider Anniversary falters is, okay, at it’s heart it is “find the line”. But it also wants to be a 3d action-adventure game — and I’m not sure the two styles mesh. In a 3d game your avatar can move in any of 360 directions and touch any solid object, but in “find the line” you’re only supposed to move in two directions: forwards and backwards. There are lot of instances in Tomb Raider Anniversary where the former style gets in the way of latter, to the detriment of both.
While on the ground, the player can move in whatever direction she likes for as long as there is ground to sustain her. This is pretty standard in modern action games. You can move and jump and dodge while pointed absolutely anywhere your little heart desires, but there’s no real accounting of your actual position while you’re doing this. Not with any real precision, I mean. If you want to jump out of the way of an incoming fireball it doesn’t really matter if your jump is aimed 35 degrees or 38 degrees… as long as you don’t jump at the fireball your action has succeeded. There are some general rules here, of course: you can only jump so high, and you want to avoid backing yourself into a corner, but for the most part it’s just you and your control stick. You’ve played a million games like this.
The problem I kept having, though, was that so little of the game takes place on the ground that I never really appreciated that freedom. You spend maybe nine or ten minutes, total, on the ground avoiding fireballs. Most of your time is spent clinging to walls, dangling from ledges or balancing on posts. You are somewhere on the line, and your task is to find the next step and take it. These actions require precision, and the difference between a 35 degree jump and a 38 degree jump may well be death. Or worse, repeating Steps 1 – X all over again.
Specific examples, then. I never really got the hang of wallrunning. You leap towards a hook on a wall, and latch onto it with your grappling hook. Then, you start running back and forth along the wall, building momentum. You need the control stick to do this, but I could never keep the directions clear in my mind. You’re trying to swing forwards and backwards, see — but which directions do you use to facilitate this movement? Swing the stick back and forth in relation to the wall? To your character? To the screen? As you’re wrestling with it, the camera suddenly pivots around the midpoint and everything’s reversed. Or is it? And of course wallrunning ends with a fantastic leap from the wall — but do you need to jump parallel or perpendicular to it? And which direction do you use then? Relative to what?
The game tries to simplify this, in certain cases. If you’re hanging from a ledge and you want to leap away from a wall, you always hold down on the stick… no matter which actual direction “away” might be in this case. And you know you’re doing it right, too, because the heroine leans away from the wall, as if to say, “Okay, I’m ready to jump now.”
But it’s not consistent. If you leap from a ledge and grab onto a bar, you will begin to swing on the bar — but only if you’re holding the direction you would swing. If you’re still holding the stick down, from your leap, but “down” was really right relative to the screen, you will grab the bar and fail to swing. And thanks to the panning camera, always helpfully trying to get you the best angle, down-but-actually-right might become left-actually-down while you’re in mid-air. If you want to grab the bar and instantly swing away, you need to anticipate it. Otherwise, get used to grabbing the bar and coming to an abrupt halt, then spending five seconds getting your momentum back.
Some of the lines in this game involve wallruning to a ledge, then leaping onto a bar and swinging into another wallrun. Sometimes you have to do this on a timer, or over a pit of lava. Sometimes your weight will causes your bar to sink too low to be useful, so holding on longer than one second means dropping to the ground and starting the line over. (Or, from your last checkpoint, if there was lava underneath you.)
This annoyed me, more and more, until I got so fed up I was screaming at the game. When you’re following the line there is only ever one way you can go. To the next ledge, up onto that rock, across that pit, over to that bar. Every time I jumped from a balancing post and missed my next post by just an inch or two, I cursed out loud and wondered why in the world the game would let me do that. There’s no benefit to 360-degree movement in that case, right? If the game would limit me to, say, eight directions while balancing on a post I would have never missed a single jump off of one.
I suspect the counter-argument is “But that would feel really artificial!” True, but no more artificial than the game already is. There are ledges and Ledges, after all… slopes and Slopes. After you get used to the line you’re no longer seeing the game world as a jungle or a volcano or a dusty tomb, but just a series of blocks. Swing off that, slide down that, grapple onto that. You’re never navigating a space, see, you’re just moving along a line. The design of the game is artificial already, and the only thing the loosey-goosey controls do is serve to offer ways to make you fall off that line.
It sounds like I didn’t like the game, but I did. And it sounds like I’m arguing against using standard double-stick controls for games of this nature, and I’m not. I just wish more care had been taken to insure that once I was on the line I couldn’t fall off. Why can’t I just automatically swing when I grab onto a bar? Why doesn’t the game just “know” I’m trying to jump towards a post, and kinda-sorta guide me towards it in mid-air? Why isn’t the game more liberal with the “Okay, I’m ready to jump now” cues?
The game is rather long for the type of game it is. Even if I hadn’t had any issues with the controls, I still would have been well over the game by the time I reached the third world. There’s a reason this game took me a couple of months to finish. And there were two points where the game irretrievably froze up, necessitating a restart. Remember, kids, that checkpoints aren’t save points. Save your progress manually every time you make major progress through a level, and you won’t have to play that damn pyramid level twice, like I did.