Monday, 17 November 2014

Tomb Raider (MS-DOS) - Part 1

Tomb Raider title screen pc
Today I'm having a look at Core Design's original Tomb Raider. I have to call it that, because Crystal Dynamics decided to go and reuse the name in 2013 for a prequel, demonstrating a fundamental lack of understanding about what names are actually for (hint: they're an identifier to allow people to refer to specific things without ambiguity or confusion).

Here, you can load the surprisingly mellow Tomb Raider theme up in youtube and have it playing it in the background while I humorously note that the game is actually a sort of successor to Core Design's earlier Rick Dangerous series. In fact Core made a fair number of the games I've featured on the site, like Bubba 'n' Stix, Curse of Enchantia and, uh, Blam! Machine Head; but after Tomb Raider caught on they were doomed to crank out sequel after sequel, one a year until the series and developer finally lost everyone's respect entirely.

Tomb Raider was actually released first on the Sega Saturn, with the PC version coming soon after (and the N-Gage version just 7 years after that), but most of my fuzzy semi-fond memories of the game come from when a friend and I rented the PlayStation version. We didn't get anywhere though and he did most of the playing, so I'm not really all that sure what to expect from the game. Very very dated controls mostly.

The intro cutscene begins in Los Alamos, New Mexico, as the detonation of a nuclear bomb opens up a thing and releases something else... I think. It's mid 90s low res CGI with black lines all over it to double the vertical resolution, so I'm struggling to make out what I'm looking at here. In fact I'm going to strip out the interlacing from the next few shots to give you guys a fighting chance.

Meanwhile, in a hotel lobby in present day Calcutta (so apparently the nuke scene took place in the past), a man called Larson comes over to drop a magazine in front of famous adventurer Lara Croft.

Adventurer! Lara Stamps Out Bigfoot!! magazine
Apparently she's recently proved the existence of, and then murdered, Bigfoot, and he's wondering what he has to do to get that kind of attention from her. She assures him that he's on the right track, which I guess counts as a death threat.

It seems harsh to criticise the voice acting in an action game from 1996, but Larson's accent seems pretty bad here. It's 'Tim Curry in Gabriel Knight' bad. It's early PlayStation game bad.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary (PC)
The intro was recreated with a slightly reworked script and new voice actors for the 2007 remake: Tomb Raider: Anniversary (presumably celebrating the game's 11th anniversary), and they've managed to make it sound a lot more natural without really changing anything all that much. Though in this parallel universe 'Adventurer!' has been replaced with 'Tomb Raider' magazine, which has me wondering if ever issue is always about Lara, or whether raiding tombs is a popular hobby in this timeline.

Anyway, Larson's really here to offer Lara a deal. Jacqueline Natla of Natla Technologies would like to hire Lara to recover an age old artefact of mystical power buried in the mountains of Peru. Lara is far too rich to care about any payment she could possibly offer though, so she asks her to do it for fun instead and Lara agrees.

C'mon Lara, you could've taken that disgustingly fat wad of cash they were offering and given it to charity! You're doing the same work either way! It's shit like this that explains why the 1% never get to be action heroes any more.

So now Lara's hiking across the mountains of Peru, with a local guide leading her to the tomb of Qualopec. You might think it's a bit cold for her to be wearing her iconic teal vest and hot-pants here, and she'd likely agree with you as she's actually had the sense to dress appropriately for the trip.

See, she's got a strip of blanket wrapped around her!

Unfortunately she failed to prepare for the possibility that a pack of man-eating wolves would be waiting behind this ancient stone door to dart out at the first unfortunate fool who figured out how to get it open.

We may never solve the mystery of how the wolves got in there in the first place, but my theory is that they were smart enough to solve the riddle of a second, wolf-sized door around the back a few days ago, but dumb enough to get stuck inside.

Lara cuts her rope, whips out two handguns, and demonstrates her feeling in regards to wolves who eat her guide. The hungry wolves each eat a bullet, but she was just a little too late to save her friend. It's a real shame, as the guy had absolutely no lines... making him the most likeable character so far.

Our hero steps through the doorway alone, and the massive doors slam shut behind her, trapping her inside. D'oh.


Aww, there's cute little paw prints all over the snow; these guys sure had to go on a journey to reach the door. Makes me wonder how they got there so fast.

Look at those fantastic blurred textures, only slightly mangled by my screenshot's jpeg compression. I'm playing the Steam version of the DOS version here by the way, which runs in a version of DOSBox that can mimic the early versions of 3dfx 3d accelerator cards.

Whoa, it's been a while since I've seen that logo pop up at the start of a game. The first 3dfx Voodoo card came out at the end of 1996, so I imagine Tomb Raider must have been one of the earliest games to support the things, and man having one in your case made a massive difference. Average everyday PC owners were now able to get equal or better visuals than the latest consoles, and at higher resolutions! It didn't get them Super Mario 64, Gran Tourismo, or GoldenEye 007 though.

Well that ain't fair! You can't give me a Raiders of the Lost Ark style dart trap corridor without putting obvious pressure plates on the floor for me to step around! Hang on, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'... 'Tomb Raider'... you think there might maybe be a connection there perhaps?

Oh by the way, I should inform you that I totally failed to get the brightness looking right with hardware acceleration on, so I 'fixed' the screenshots afterwards manually using software mode as a reference. These shots should be pretty close to how it's supposed to look, but it'll never be 100% right; that may sound like a non-issue maybe, but I have standards dammit! Thank you for your understanding.

Oh, so you want me to go up there do you Tomb Raider? The game's a bit too ancient for proper manual camera steering, but the view has mostly stuck firmly behind me until now. It's also got Resident Evil style tank controls, with Lara rotating on the spot when she turns, but somehow with the camera turning with me it doesn't seem so bad.

Well I would follow the wolf tracks up onto that ledge, but there's another bit of cave in front of me that I need to search first.

Aha, I knew this was going to lead somewhere, but I don't quite know how to get up there yet. I mean I know that Lara can jump up and grab onto ledges like in Prince of Persia, but I haven't quite managed to get enough height yet. I guess I need to climb the sloping rock behind me and jump off as I'm sliding down.

I have played Tomb Raider before, about a decade or two ago, but the real reason that I'm already so educated in the ways of climbing and running jumps is because I took the time to study at Fish University beforehand.

Actually this is Lara's mansion, and I can choose to run around in it from the main menu. The menu doesn't make it overly clear, but this is actually an optional tutorial stage designed to teach players the techniques required to climb up ledges and jump over gaps.

I really needed the practice too, as the jumping in this is a bit weird. You see, if I want to take a running leap I need to press the jump button about two or three steps too early (around the same distance as one step backwards). While I'm walking slowly Lara won't step off a platform, so to cross a large gap I have to walk right up to the edge, take a big step back, then take a running jump from there.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary on the other hand, has modern third person controls and it lets you jump immediately with no need for any of this messing around. Plus it puts all the tutorial messages into the first real level, and fills the mansion with optional puzzles instead.

Hey, it turns out that there's a medikit up here! Well worth all that jumping around in my opinion. Remember: it's always important to keep your ancient sealed tomb well stocked with medical supplies in case of a dart trap accident or wolf attack. There's no regenerating health in this.

Wow it's just occurred to me... Lara doesn't have much of a ponytail going on in this does she? At first I thought her hair might be clipping into her tiny backpack, but I think it really is just that short.

It's funny, Tomb Raider has always been associated with gunfights and Lara's massive pointy chest, and credited for bringing gaming into the more 'mature' PlayStation era (where gaming really hit the mainstream for young (male) adults and you could find game reviews in FHM Magazine)... but the game itself has actually been pretty sedate and quiet so far. There's barely anything around in these caves aside from a couple of bats, and the music only kicks in when it wants to add atmosphere.

Visually it doesn't quite match Quake, at least not when it comes to shadows; but on the other hand Quake's levels are so blocky and angular you could recreate them with a box of Lego bricks. BORING Lego bricks.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary (PC)
Here's what the place looked like when it was reimagined in 2007 though. You can click any of these Anniversary shots to open them up at 1280x960 by the way. If that's something you want to do.

It might not look that incredible these days, after playing Alien: Isolation on your 4k monitors or whatever gamers use in the modern day, but damn that's a huge step up in just 10 years. It's a huge fall as well now though, as they've turned the cave into more of a platforming challenge. Fortunately they've also used clever texturing to make the path obvious, by making all the ledges I can grab onto noticeably brighter than the surrounding wall.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary (PC)
In addition to expanding the level, Anniversary also has new secret collectables hidden in tricky places, which take a bit more effort to find and reach than the average health kit.

I love when the camera pulls around to give me a good view of my jumps like this. It really shows off the scale of the place, and just how far I am above the ground right now. I fell short of the other platform by a mile so it wasn't quite an epic moment of triumph, but it did at least give me a good view of her pulling a Wile E. Coyote on the cave floor below.

This on the other hand is NOT GOOD. Dammit Tomb Raider, don't turn the camera around to give me a dramatic view of the bridge that I'm crossing when I'm in the middle of trying to cross a bloody bridge! It's like it wants me to veer off to the side and fall down amongst the wolves below.

Speaking of wolves, look what I found a few rooms along. I'm not completely sure what I'm meant to be doing yet in fights, so I'm pretty much just somersaulting around, trying to keep my legs up and out of their mouths. Lara is insanely skilled with pistols and automatically aims at an enemy on screen, so I can backflip all I want and still hit the target mid-jump. I suppose the real trick is keeping them on screen while I'm doing this, so I can auto-target the little bastards.

After shooting a few of them dead things get quiet again and it's back to exploring.

Lara Croft and the Third Person Adventure.

Just out of curiosity I decided to look into what kind of 3D third person cave exploration shooters were around during Tomb Raider's day, to see how the game compares to its closest competition, but during my research I ran into a bit of a problem: I couldn't find any.

Alone in the Dark (MS-DOS) - 1992
Sure the concept of a 3D polygon character viewed from a third person perspective wasn't anywhere near new by late 1996 (though texture mapping had only been around for a couple of years).

Resident Evil (PSX) - 1996
But third person action adventures of the time were typically viewed from fixed camera angles, and featured pre-rendered backgrounds. Chris from Resident Evil here may be able to get around in 3D, but you'd never catch him doing backflips or pulling himself up on ledges; that's the kind of moveset you'd find in 2D platformers like Prince of Persia or Flashback.

Fade to Black (PSX) - 1996
Flashback actually did get a third person sequel with a fully 3D game world called Fade to Black that pre-dates Tomb Raider... but you can't climb or jump in that either. You can barely do anything in it, it's pretty terrible. If anything Tomb Raider more closely resembles...

Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64) - Also 1996
...Super Mario 64, released a few months earlier in Japan. Not really the same kind of thing though is it?

Tomb Raider was conceived as being a little like Ultima Underworld, except with you playing as a 3D character like from Virtua Fighter, and I can kind of see that. Because what hasn't Ultima Underworld secretly influenced? The Elder Scrolls series, the BioShock franchise, Half-Life 2, the Deus Ex games... so many big titles have apparently taken some inspiration from that game. Mostly first person games with RPG elements though, now that I think about.

So in conclusion, Tomb Raider was the best game of its genre on release, because (unless I'm missing something really obvious) it basically invented it.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary (PC)
Well there's the way out of level 1, but it's sealed shut with two locks and there's a gauntlet of deadly dart launchers between me and the door. In fact they're doubly deadly as I only have half a hit point remaining, and I'm too stingy to use a health kit.

Sucks to be you, 2007 Lara, because in the PlayStation game I can just walk around the traps! Though this version did pull the 'medikit in an empty room' trick on me, luring me in and then sending a wolf out when I got close. The game is actually pretty decent though when it comes to enemies, as the things always howl or squeak before getting too close, giving me chance to be ready for them.

Oh here's another thing they changed for Anniversary:

They've pulled a Doom 3: BFG Edition, and changed the symbol on the health kits. The red cross logo isn't in public domain, and the organisation doesn't much appreciate it when video games borrow it as the universal symbol for first aid supplies.

And that's pretty much the end of level 1. I just pulled a lever on the wall up here, then dropped down and left through the door. Not much of a cliffhanger to end the first part of the article on really. Sorry about that.

Will the next level successfully finish loading? Find out in part two!

Semi-Random Game Box