Hype and Reality

(April 22, 2006)

In the last few days and weeks, it was rather hard to escape one »important« news: Tomb Raider: Legend, the seventh installment of the legendary Tomb Raider computer games series, is finally there. All the news media praised the game for its great graphics, story, controls … whatever. Finally there is a worthy successor for the venerable parts 1-5, after Core Design did most of its job wrong in part 6.

I decided to give all this hype a reality check (a playable demo of the first level is available). At first, I was positively surprised by the short loading times, even though the game itself is huge (the full version weighs more than 7 GB). However, I had mixed feelings about the graphics. There are basically only two detail levels: either »Next-Generation Content« is turned off or it’s turned on. Without NGC, the game looks OK and runs very smoothly on my machine (Athlon64 3000+, GeForce 6800). NGC enables special effects like HDR rendering, but the difference isn’t quite as noticeable as it was in Far Cry (there is a difference, but I can’t definately say that it looks better that way). The main effect of NGC mode is the drastically improved geometry detail that really shows. But it comes at a certain price, namely extreme slowness. The frame rates drop to 10-20 fps, the main menu even jerks at a mere 2-3 fps. Deactivating Depth-Of-Field rendering helped a bit, but sensible further options are unavailable. Dear Crystal Dynamics, I don’t need 2048×2048 shadow maps (especially if that high resolution doesn’t show and the shadows still look dull), so I’d like to reduce that to a saner setting. And that was just one example.

So far, so good. I wouldn’t have written this article if everything else had been OK, but there is one point that totally pissed me off so I had to blog about it: Controls. I don’t know what the developers were smoking and I totally don’t understand why the reviews in the media praise the controls. (Maybe it’s because all other dumbass console games are controlled this way.) For my part, I couldn’t use the game. No way. I didn’t even play the first level to the end.

So, what’s wrong with the controls? Let’s see. All the classic Tomb Raider games (i.e. before TR6) showed the scenario from a third-person perspective. The camera was always fixed behind Lara’s back, and the controls were straightforward: Forward and backward made her walk or run in either direction, left and right made her turn. There were three modifier keys, Ctrl, Alt and Shift, and a number of easy-to-find and easy-to-remember function keys (I loved the End key ;). Additionally, one could hold the 0 (zero) key to have a free look. Controlling Lara was easy, the controls were precise, everything was fine.

TRL takes another approach. First off, all function keys were moved to brain-dead positions, most of them on letter keys of the main keyboard.
Second, the camera always stays at a fixed position, showing Lara from the direction she just came from. The camera’s position can be moved with the mouse freely, and that’s what I constantly had to do, because I in most cases, I don’t want to see what’s left or right from Lara, but what’s directly in front of her.
The thing that makes the controls finally unusable is the fact that the cursor keys act relative to the camera position, not to Lara’s position. That is, pressing the Left key makes Lara indeed run to the left, as seen from the current view. This is utterly confusing, to say the very least. In addition, the directions immediately change if the camera crosses a 45-degree angle sector around Lara. One time, I had to use the Forward key to make Lara climb along a ledge, and the next time it was the Left key, just because the camera happened to be in another position relative to Lara’s.
All in all, this not only makes running in a fixed direction almost impossible. Want to jump from one ledge to another? OK, so go about 3 meters away from the ledge (try not to fall down while doing that!), rest there, use the mouse to have the view facing exactly to the edge, and run. There’s no way to do it otherwise, because you’re almost guaranteed to jump into the wrong direction.

It’s very sad to see how Eidos finally kills one of the greatest game series there was. And it’s even more sad to see how all the reviews and even some players(!) pretend that the game is indeed playable. C’mon, you can’t be serious.

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