March 2013 Archive

Tomb Raider

This was really, really good. In ways that video games often are, but also in ways they often aren’t.

I remember the first Tomb Raider coming out in – Wikipedia says 1996, would you believe – with an unprecedented marketing drive, game-changing graphics, and exploration of detailed 3d worlds like never before. Lara Croft became the definitive badass video game heroine for quite some time, I guess. But I think it’s fair to say the franchise lost freshness over many sequels and became … kinda stodgy. Uncharted then picked up the archaeological adventure baton and added snappy gameplay, cheeky characters, and stunning cinematic sequences. With this reboot Tomb Raider has snaffled that baton back, not quite getting Uncharted’s lightness of touch on the characters, but delivering big on drama and thrills, the cinematic sequences and then some, and adding a bit more exploration back into the mix. But, bottom line, it just tells a great story, and delivers a kind of emotional involvement in the action you just don’t get much in video games.

In outline it’s one of them reboot origin story prequel type-o-things we keep getting these days.  With a young and naive Lara shipwrecked with some sidekicks-r-us on a mysterious island that puts one strongly in mind of both the first Uncharted and Lost.  We then follow her progression from crapping her pants archaeology graduate to hard ass survivor as she tackles the sadistic cult that’s grown up on the island, plus older, darker powers, with thrills aplenty along the way.

To quickly cover the basics, gameplay is solid – action pretty good, climbing about and exploring pretty good, enough to find if not too much, puzzles perhaps a little on the straightforward side, but generally the whole thing works nicely with good sound and atmosphere, lots of cracking cinematic sequences and a lot of variety in the movement of the character, making her feel very real.  It’s an object lesson in pacing, with more open, explore-y sequences that reward the grey matter and give some spectacular settings alternating with more scripted, cinematic sections that really get the heart going.  Far Cry 3, say, didn’t seem to be able to marry its plot and its free-form stuff very well, but Tomb raider keeps a narrative coherence, it all feels part of the same story, with cut scenes doing what they need to without intruding. And it keeps on delivering new thrills, new ideas and new content, with plenty of skills to learn and weapons to modify.  There’s a real sense of building up to crescendoes then settling back, then back to crescendoes again. I can’t remember a game that seemed so truly cinematic. Longer than expected, as well, and with a great ending. Interest doesn’t peak early then start to wane as it often can.

There’s a bit of work to do on the secondary characters, I’d say – they pretty much all turned out to be exactly what you thought they’d be from the first moment they appeared, and the dialogue, relationships and voice-acting were nowhere near as free wheeling and appealing as in Uncharted, nor the cut scenes quite so lavish in their lighting and detail, but Lara herself was great.  I mean, she weren’t ugly, and she was extremely attached to that hardest working vest in video games, but she was reassuringly unsexified.  A solid female lead, not played for fan service, at least from where I was sitting.

It was connection with the character where it really shone. Just a great and very cunningly calibrated central narrative, as Lara goes from helpless innocent to hardened survivor. Initially she’s stumbling about coughing, shivering, horrified.  When she first gets her hands on a gun it trembles as she aims.  But steadily her skills and yours improve.  And the stakes feel high.  The action is crunching, visceral, unforgiving.  At times there’s a resident-evil like nastiness and threat about it.  Lara’s hung upside down among corpses, impales herself on spikes escaping, slides down mountains, falls out of wrecked planes, is beaten up, and gets progressively more scratched, torn, battered, bandaged and dirty.  You never fear for Nathan Drake, and though you might be wowed by the cinematics in Uncharted, I don’t know if you’re ever emotionally affected in the way you are by Tomb Raider.  You really find yourself rooting for Lara, and that sense of immersion just ups the ante on everything. When you make a long jump over a dizzying void and she just clings on by her fingertips – you feel it. When she dodges a goon’s machete and rock-axes him in the head – you feel it. When she parachutes down a mountainside and impales herself on a tree because you were too busy watching the landscape swoop past – you feel that too.

And that connection meant nothing in it really came across as cheap or schlocky.  There was a real emotional weight to the violence, a real sense of danger, pain, and impact, that stands very much at odds with the sawdust-chewing action of something like Max Payne 3.  I’ll let someone who speaks from more experience talk on that score.

So in sum, a good game, which isn’t all that rare, but an excellent piece of storytelling, which is. Very promising for the future, not just of Lara Croft, but of video games in general…

Now to Bioshock Infinite…

Read more | 24 comments | Posted in games

Why so Cynical?

Back to the Inquisition, and I’m working my way gradually through the many questions would-be Inquisitors have left there.  So without further ado, Pierre Colinot wanted to ask: “why you chose the ultra-cynical angle to write your books. Is it because you think it makes for better stories, is it because it is coherent with […]

Read more | 53 comments | Posted in opinion, The Inquisition

Heroes Limited Interiors

It just so happens that I’m currently signing a stack of signature pages which will later be bound into Subterranean Press’ limited edition of The Heroes, and I thought I’d share with you the first of five (count ’em, five) black and white interior illustrations from the incomparable Raymond Swanland: I’ve so far seen one […]

Read more | 11 comments | Posted in artwork, news

Gritty Washback

My post on the value of grit surely did sweep the intertubes, provoking many and varied(ish) responses.  Some of the pick: A lengthy, wide-ranging and frequently interesting discussion ensued at Chronicles Network. Fellow purveyor of grit both fantastic and science-fictional Richard Morgan is amused and bemused. Foz Meadows has some great points to make about […]

Read more | 55 comments | Posted in opinion

On Twitter

God help me, I have resisted, but the dykes have finally broken under the burgeoning pressure of interconnected social media platforms, and I now have a twitter account.  For the time being, while I struggle heroically with the interface in a way that reminds me horrifyingly of my dad struggling with our BBC Model B […]

Read more | 19 comments | Posted in announcements, news

When is it Good Enough?

Judging from the response to the job advertisement for his Majesty’s Inquisition, there is some interest in putting me to the question, and I see several inquiries that already have my brain a-stewing.  Probably it’ll take me some time to get to them, but before I do, let us begin this interrogation with the question […]

Read more | 18 comments | Posted in advice, process, The Inquisition

The Inquisition

I started blogging way back in August 2007, would you believe.  That’s nearly 6 years.  There have been times when I’ve blogged more, times when I’ve blogged less, but by and large I’ve stuck to 1-3 posts a week, every week.  That’s a lot of posts.  Early in your blogging career you’ve a lot to […]

Read more | 156 comments | Posted in The Inquisition

Bargain Electronic Blades!

I fully expect that many regular readers of this blog will already have enjoyed the mind-expanding pleasure that is the act of reading The Blade Itself.  But if any of you are still considering a purchase, or perhaps are interested in supplementing your well-thumbed dead-tree editions with one of these new techno e-thingies what everyone’s […]

Read more | 15 comments | Posted in news

Highland Park 18 vs Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Semi-final time on whisky death-match, people, and we begin with the salty side of the draw, pitting subtle island genius Highland Park 18 against brilliant Islay madman Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and this is going to be a very tough one to call.  Highland Park overcame tough talking sea-tar Talisker 18 and brushed aside style over substance […]

Read more | 38 comments | Posted in whisky deathmatch

Sons of Anarchy 2, 3 and 4

God bless LoveFilm instant.  As someone who vaguely remembers the appearance of home VHS recorders, the fact that I can now through the medium of my playstation get thousands of hours of quality (and not so quality) recent TV at the touch of the button for nothing (well, the price of a membership, but we […]

Read more | 36 comments | Posted in film and tv