Monday, 23 December 2013

Looking back: Tomb Raider

Remember those first cautious steps into the dark and snowy cave at the beginning of Tomb Raider? Just after witnessing your Sherpa being eaten alive by wolves in the cutscene before? You knew, yes you damn well knew, those wolves were going be back at any given moment. Still you continued forth. Deeper into the dark and scary, yet so intriguing cave. Not even after damaging yourself on mechanical arrows, triggered by your clumsy  steps on a sinking stone switch covered in some ancient pattern. Still you continued inwards.

You encounter bloodsucking bats, viscous wolves and a huge, savage grizzly bear in the first level alone. Yet somehow, Tomb Raider just pulled you further and further in. There's something basic in human nature to explore, something most of us can hold at bay, but only for some time. Tomb Raider hit that fascination so perfectly back in 1996. Room after room, tomb after tomb and dangerous animal after another; the game put life back into your exploration genes.

What is more satisfying than finding a sealed tomb from ancient times, being the first to go down into something built by kingdoms far since fallen, and exploring it for artefacts?

The game brought out your inner Indiana Jones, yet here you couldn't blame some stupid sidekick for pressing the wrong lever or not running fast enough from a boulder. It was about doing Indiana's decisions all by yourself. Alone. This feeling of loneliness helped build an atmosphere and tension almost unsurpassed in the series to this date. Add then the incredible title screen melody and short orchestral snippets throughout the game, only used to heighten tense moments even further. Mostly though, you were simply left with the eerie quietness of abandoned tombs, occasionally interrupted by distant mechanical noises, heavy rumbling or animal sounds. I was scared hopeless at times, but still I wanted to explore every passageway and tomb to the very end.

Luckily you weren't completely alone, you always had with you, what was to become one of the most famous game characters of all time; Lara Croft. Her generous chestsize, dual wielding pistols, tight shorts and iconic turquoise top probably appealed to the many teenage boys that saw the cover of the game at their local game shop. Although Lara was modelled stereotypically, there was something refreshing with a strong, female protagonist though, and it made the game stand out from the competition. Within the time of the sequel, Lara Croft was as famous as any other game character. She was everywhere, from soda bottles to magazine covers. Lara was the new front figure for 3D gaming. Cheap sex appeal maybe, but it helped sell the game to world wide fame. Most people that actually played the games quickly forgot about this appeal and became wowed over by the fantastic game built around Lara.

Can I summarize the Tomb Raider experience? It's a difficult task. I could mention the time where you jumped out of your seat, encountering the T-Rex for the first time. Or the time you stepped into King Midas' hand and turned to gold. Or the claustrophobic feeling of not finding your way underwater after turning a lever. Or the unpredictable, hatching of creepy, human sized eggs. Or the many deadly pitfalls. Not to mention the creepy as hell doppelgänger, which I'll let newcomers to the game find out on their own what is. It's one of those games where the list of memorable and great moments is endless.

These moments weren't only the ones involving certain death but also the moments where you stood in awe at the size the game could render of large rooms, statues, or halls. All covered in old hieroglyphics and wall murals, further heightening the feeling of exploring true history. The developers wanted to make you feel like a world famous explorer and archaeologist, and they succeeded brilliantly.

Tomb Raider looks very dated by today's graphical standards, with it's block based worlds and simple textures, however some of it's showcase features remain. The caves and tombs are still eerie, intriguing and impressively large. The levels are diverse in locations and colours. The water feels somehow "right" when you swim in it, and actually holds up as one of the best games when it comes to the sensation of actually being in water. Tomb Raider one of my first moments were I thought 3D gaming was being used really intelligently, all in realtime 3D and not pre-rendered.

It might be a tricky game to understand for young gamers today, I fear they won't "get" what this game meant 17 years ago. The visuals are very grainy and dated, the gameplay has an unforgiving learning curve and the way the game simply demands that you explore without hints to progress will alienate the more impatient crowd of today. For me it still holds tons of nostalgia, and I will never forget the times I played it back in the mid nineties. Luckily for the younger audience and interested alike; there's a remake of the original released in 2007! The remake, titled TR: Anniversary, is well made and lets you enjoy the experience from 17 years ago in high resolution and much improved graphics!

All hail the queen; Lara Croft and her legendary Tomb Raider!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Thieving automobiles in a grand fashion

Grand Theft Auto V

I felt like I was going to be busy for a while the moment GTAV opened up after the introduction level and let me drive around freely. Busy a long time. That's not a bad thing; GTAV needs to be and most clearly is massive. Overwhelmingly so at first, then gradually ingenious. You most likely have heard the numbers; the most expensive game developed to date, the fastest selling and best selling game ever. Luckily GTAV is a game that really shows why it cost and sold so much.

GTAV's world is full of detail and immerses you completely. There's so much life going on around you. From random people doing funny things on the side-walks to people just driving around getting on with their own little lives in the game's huge city; Los Santos. Everything you see people doing, you can do. You may think you are ambitious and want a faster car than your current, you may want to be funny and ride a bicycle on the beach, but soon you want more to satisfy you. You look to the skies maybe, not just on a small propeller air plane, but maybe a huge passenger jet, or a fighter jet in a high security military base. Or maybe you want to jet ski into the beautiful sunset, or maybe you would like to climb a huge mountain on a motorbike then skydive from it. There is literally nothing that you can't do. You could simply play the game just as a world simulator having fun doing things you normally can't in real life.

Luckily GTAV features a great script and story. This time around the story focuses on three main characters, rather than one single one. They all get connected during the storyline and the game lets you often choose which one to play. There's young Franklin from the ghetto neighbourhood who has special skills for driving. Rich and retired, mid-life crisis, Michael whom has excellent shooting skills and then there's red-neck Trevor. A character, which, when introduced, further into the story, completely shifts your playing field from city life to small town America.

This huge jump from one side of the map to the other really show how diverse the world is and it will impress you. Gone are the skyscrapers, small alleys and buzzing streets with cars and people. Introduced, are vast open fields, pick-up trucks, small villages and huge mountainous areas. Playing Trevor, whose skill is flying and going mental (no, seriously), will feel like playing a completely different game. Yet it's all on the same map!

Technically I can't really believe GTAV is running on the same hardware that we've had since 2005. It doesn't look like a typical sandbox car game, it looks almost as good as a racing game with detailed tracks. The lighting in the game, combined with the excellent rendering of nature and cityscapes, is truly amazing. The sunsets are unbelievably good, and the sheer amount of light sources as you fly over a city in an aircraft or look down at it from a mountain far away is incredible. I haven't seen a so believable world with this amount of freedom before. There are so many small details too; rain slowly make larger and larger puddles, the ocean moves realistically and looks amazing, smoke pours out of damaged cars, fire lights up petrol leakages, headlights light up passing buildings and signs etc. The list is as endless as the sheer attention to detail by the developers!

I was glad to see that the shooting mechanics were improved in this version. I found the GTAIV controls to be frustrating and very dated. I switched the controls i GTAV over from the normal setup to lock-on aiming. It plays more like a proper third person shooter than before. While it's still simple third person mechanics it's at least a clear improvement. I'd love to see the next GTA have a true third person shooter feeling though; there's not much doubt, this feels, looks and plays distinctly like a GTA game. Which brings me to the fantastic driving and flying controls, although they have actually made the car physics slightly simpler for beginners from GTAIV, it's still the method of transportation you'll use the most and it's really superb. Cars have loose suspension, feel weighty and react impressively to crashes and terrain. GTAV has truly nailed it's physics and vehicle gameplay and a far ahead of the competition.

No game does what GTA games do, and GTAV is no exception. Matter of fact it goes not only a few extra yards to outdo it's previous version, it goes the full mile. There is no free roaming sandbox game with this amount of detail, this feeling of a living, breathing city and world. It's a game that resembles and exaggerates, but ultimately hits straight on the target, to resemble american culture and criminality. It's a glimpse into our world today, showing attitude, personalities and problems that are so typical for our time.

Somehow Rockstar manages to make a real life simulator in a way that amuses, embarrasses and shocks us. Mostly, maybe, because we all recognise ourselves in some situation or other throughout the game, but even more so; it brings out something inside us. It lets us as players do what we sometimes think or dream about; living a criminal life for fun. GTAV may be completely political incorrect at times or even disgust us; mostly though, because we know Rockstar have hit a touching spot in us; it puts the finger on the problems of today and criticises it with no inhibition at all. Like it or not, GTA resembles our time and should be played when it's fresh and new.

Everyone that plays through GTAV will, like the previous titles, have to admit it's a really fun and engaging game. Don't believe the hype or be shocked by it's content; believe the quality product instead. GTAV is on of this generations finest games. I warmly recommend it.