What I Want in the Next Tomb Raider

Posted by on Mar 19, 2013 in Design, Musing, Video Games | 3 Comments

Tomb Raider concept artMore than anything, the new Tomb Raider game makes me enthusiastic for another game in the series that takes the best from this new vision and jettisons the game’s meanest elements. The result might be a step back toward the franchise’s earlier swagger combined with the scale, detail, and humanity of this year’s installment. Call it gritty without being gruesome.

I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for the 2013 Tomb Raider here, but be aware that I’ll be making some direct references to that game as I proceed.

Here, then, is what would go into my Tomb Raider sequel.

Exploration First

Tomb Raider concept artGive me more and larger areas to explore. Give me the jungles at the feet of Meso-American pyramids, give me an Etruscan village once buried in ash, give me the Valley of the Kings. Make up the specific locales, if you need to, but keep them closely tied to real history or folklore.

Tomb Raider uses a series of hubs, linked together, to let players explore the environment between story-driven escapades. I loved that ability to influence the pacing of the experience for myself, to hold off the next frantic narrative experience so I could spend some time scouring a crumbling Japanese village or wreck-strewn beach. I’d like more to do in such areas, especially if those areas can be rich in atmosphere and loaded with background detail.

Something I loved about Tomb Raider: the documents. These aren’t new tech — they’ve been some of my favorite parts of several games for 20 years, now — but they’re strong here. The voice performances are good, the material is varied, and it all contributes to the sensation that the locations in the game exist under or on top of layers of history. The way those documents connect and interact to inform Lara about the truth of the island was skillfully handled. Thus we have exploration not just laterally through space but back into history.

In my sequel, the action would still be focused in one part of the world — whether it’s Mexico, Italy, Egypt, or wherever — but the fast-travel camps would be farther apart, representing journeys by boat, by hoof, or by plane within the story’s central area. (Save the world-wide jaunts between far-removed camps for a later sequel; build to it.) This makes part of the new Tomb Raider dynamic not just travel to exciting locales but digging deeper into them than, say, a roller-coaster adventure romp like Uncharted does.

Each area would contain loads of relics and documents to uncover and the localized errands might sometimes resemble side-quests from games like the Assassin’s Creed titles. Help locals rebuild following an intrusion by villainous looters, maybe. Reassemble antiquities for trade or delivery to local museum teams. Eavesdrop on someone (for a stealth jaunt). Hunt some predatory animals that are mysteriously attacking humans. That sort of thing.

Doing all of that would require new tools and simple mechanics for crafting or building, for example, which could easily be things in Lara’s repertoire now that just don’t come up on every adventure or that she learns to do over the course of this game. These sorts of side quests would help create a richer fictional world by characterizing the NPCs (as was done in Tomb Raider) and contributing to two other things I’d like to see in my sequel: More action than violence and new steps toward mastery.

More Action Than Violence

Tomb Raider is a bloody, violent, sometimes vicious game. I get why that is. I feel it went too far. So let’s change the nature of the violence and the action in the sequel.

The gunplay and melee mechanics can work about the same as they do now, let’s just change how often they come into play. The last two or three combats in Tomb Raider were not a lot of fun for me. I learned eventually to try really hard to take out bad guys using stealth just so I wouldn’t have to slog through longer fights. That’s a fine dynamic, in my opinion, but I could stand to see it come up less.

Replace some of the combats with different kinds of action, be they chases (on foot, on horseback, on motorcycles) through great locales (like bamboo forests or the ruins of Pompeii) or a roster of new survival sequences like those in the current game. I’m also rather a fan of puzzles and traps in these games, so there’s those. The point is, we can have peril and action and adventure without having to leave the kinds of body counts that Lara Croft and Nathan Drake have in previous titles.

Lara at a Base Camp

The Steps to Mastery

One of the challenges of creating a sequel to Tomb Raider must be finding either a new arc for Lara to undertake, so she has things on which to spend skill points. Another must be finding a reason to deny her some of the awesome tools she has at her disposal by the end of the current game (and can presumably afford better versions of for luckier expeditions). Otherwise every hub zone needs to accommodate all of her skills and tools in their puzzle design and, while I imagine that’s possible, it presents a bit of a steep learning curve and makes it trickier to predict and design for the order in which, say, key documents or relics are acquired. It also makes it potentially harder to keep XP as constant and compelling as it was in this game.

Does a Tomb Raider sequel even need XP anymore? Isn’t Lara Croft her accomplished self by the end of Tomb Raider? My Tomb Raider sequel answers “Yes” and “Yes, but.”

Establishing that Lara Croft is going to learn some new skill or set of skills in each Tomb Raider game does two great things, in my opinion. First, it says that her mastery encompasses more than survival and combat. Second, it says that bad-asses never stop learning, which I think is pretty terrific. (You could do that in a totally cheesy way, of course, so what? Learning and knowing stuff is bad-ass.)

So, in my sequel, Lara ventures to a part of the world she doesn’t know quite so much about yet and learns not only some of its history and culture through documents and relics, but she learns how to build things besides guns along the way, from her allies and contacts. Maybe she learns a language or two that help her to decipher documents after they’re recovered and speak to NPCs in more remote locations. (That’s not a bad key-and-gate mechanism, right?) Add these to her survivalist and battle skills, so she can start as an awesome heroine and learn some other lesson(s) this time out.

If we need to keep the salvage mechanics and the weapon-building system, we can strand Lara in some jungle somewhere for part of the game, but I think that system has served its purpose. I’d rather see it used next to repair machinery to travel to the next hub, to assemble relics or antiquities for trade or mystical usage, or for some other purpose. I’ll think on it.

Tombs

One last thing to keep from Tomb Raider, and it’s a brilliant choice that adds so much that I would’ve have expected: optional tombs. Having a supply of optional, puzzle-driven, evocative tomb-environments explorable for XP and bonuses that aren’t technically essential to play was a terrific choice. I don’t know what players would knowingly skip over the tombs in that game, but just knowing that they were optional had two great effects on me:

First, I was so sure that the next tomb I entered would be the one I wasn’t ready for yet — the one that would grind me up with deadly traps and spit out my bones. They became little packages of unknown rewards and challenges, playing with my expectations in interesting ways.

Second, because they were optional, they somehow felt to me more like rarely seen or lost spaces. They’re not, that’s ridiculous, but it was easier to imagine that I had stumbled upon something — something lost or forbidden — with each tomb. Nice touch.

So, in my sequel, I double or triple the number of those that are around and I make some of them a little more dangerous than they might seem. “Don’t go into those woods,” say the NPCs. “They’re haunted.” And a couple of those tombs really are haunted. The achievement you get for finding and completing this or that tomb feels like a treasure itself.

So, Then

Now, having said all that, I have to admit something to you. This is very nearly what I would do with the Uncharted franchise, too, I expect. But Tomb Raider introduced the crafting mechanics and enriched exploration rewards that really makes me want to see them expanded even further, so credit where it’s due.

You’ll notice, though, that I haven’t touched on story here. While I can think of several ways to structure a great Lara Croft story for a sequel that does what I’d want a sequel to do… I’m not going to give those away here. This is, in part, because I’d like to save them for future work. And this is, in part, because I’m channeling some of those ideas into tomorrow’s post about… a game that I hope has a chance at getting made, thanks to the lessons of Tomb Raider and Uncharted and their ilk.

Tune in tomorrow.

3 Comments

  1. Will Hindmarch
    March 19, 2013

    You know, looking at this now, I’m rethinking some of that tomb stuff. I liked it when I was eventually (mostly) certain that tombs would just be puzzles and not dangerous traps — they were fun! Will menace add that much to them that they really require? I’ll keep thinking on it.

    Reply
  2. Zack
    March 19, 2013

    And now I have to buy this game. Damn.

    Reply
  3. Steve
    April 13, 2013

    So far, I mostly agree.

    First, I have to disagree with your ‘quest’ based ideas… you have obviously played a lot of RPG’s, but this is not an RPG, it is an adventure game.

    Given that, I think that running around killing marauding animals or helping villagers rebuild would probably be an out-of-place distraction; besides, there aren’t many villagers running around the ruins that Lara will tend to be hanging out in… NPC’s in general would be a bit strange, and trying to add ‘quest giver’ dialog would really break the series for me.

    So much for the quests, but the rest could have some real meat on its bones.

    Secondly, I have to state clearly one of this game’s greatest failures, which almost no RPG would make: Making a good game involves forcing the player into interesting choices; you cannot master everything.

    The idea that throughout most of the game, without any serious effort, I pretty much had all my weapons improved, in every way possible, and was simply waiting around for another part to drop. Once it did, of course, I already had the parts saved up to maximize the brand new weapon, in the very same sitting that I upgraded it.

    Same issue with the skills. By the time i completed the game, I had mastered every skills… which means that *MY* Lara was exactly like everyone else’s Lara.

    They *could* have made it such that you had more skills than you could ever get points, which would force you to make concessions. Is your Lara more of an assault rifle commando, blasting with grenades to soften them up before spraying like a mad woman? Or is your Lara a hunter, slipping silently through the woods and dispatching foes silently with her bow?

    As the game sits, there is really no point in making that choice, she can do both… which leaves the player uncommitted to either.

    This could even be expanded to reach into level design. You could have multiple ways into a ruin, but one would require you to take out the camp of bad guys on the hill, and the other would require sneaking past their armed watchtowers…

    Again, this requires making a player be very careful about where to spend their skill points or weapons parts, which requires making them comparatively more scarce (or making the options to spend them on more plentiful).

    I would also like to see them expand on this customization in other ways.

    Great, Lara figured out how to build a sniper scope from random loose parts on the island… so why didn’t she build a compass? Or a camping set (to camp wherever *she* decided) or a shovel (that might let her find new clues)… etc.

    She is, after all, an explorer, not a commando.

    I do appreciate the gunplay in the game… I really liked it.

    However, I also remember the original Tomb Raider, I bought it when it was brand new.

    I remember thinking that I was perfectly safe (other than falls, traps, drowning, etc) while I was exploring deep in some buried and forgotten city, only to suddenly be pounced on by a wild bear or tiger.

    This seems silly now, but the first several times that happened, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I loved that. The only way this feeling is possible, however, is to minimize gunplay enough to lull the player into a false sense of security. This also, as a happy side effect, allows more ‘wasted’ time with exploration and puzzles.

    Again, I don’t want to eliminate the gunplay… I would love to see areas that are richly diversified… from having to do a commando style assault on a desert fortress, to spending days exploring the depths of the tomb beneath it in relative peace.

    One more addition I would love?

    Make the survival parts worth a damn.

    Lara ‘needed something to eat’, yet she never eats? So then we slaughter every bird and deer we come across for a little extra xp?

    How does that actually make sense?

    How about actually having a hunger mechanic that would leave her weaker, slower, and perhaps inhibit her ability to jump and platform until she hit camp with some food in her pack. This would give you a good reason to hunt, and would make campsites far more important than just the place to go when you have parts or points to spend… you would go because you needed to rest and eat.

    In addition? Instead of simply walking face first to a boar, and hitting it with your grenade launcher? How about having scarce wildlife that you actually have to track by following its tracks, then sneak up on it in order to get close enough to kill it.

    Same issue with water. If she had a canteen, she could fill it whenever she reached potable water, and then drink it as she was moving through an area. Once it is empty, thirst would increase with effects similar to hunger until she was able to find water again.

    Same issue with heat and cold… she might be able to craft a coat from animal skins in cold, or make some form of sunshade for her campsite in hot areas in order to minimize these effects. Heat could also require her to drink more, and cold could require her to eat more, or suffer effects of the weather.

    Maybe building a camp would require an allotment of dry wood for the fire… which could be hard to come by in a waterlogged area, or in a barren desert or tundra.

    These effects are already built into the current engine, as well. We see the distortion on the screen as she is injured, and in one spot, she limped slowly due to her injuries, and wasn’t able to use her jumping abilities as well. SImilar effects would be able to simulate freezing to death, dehydration, extreme hunger, etc… all without being otherwise game breaking or difficult to manage.

    Speaking of which… injuries. They should be able to happen (outside of the required story time). I know I would think twice about where to step if busting my ankle or injuring my arm were actually possible.

    And again, this would be a reversible effect.. sure, Lara sprained her ankle and can’t make the jump that she needs to make to get out of the canyon… so now we finish grabbing some wood, make a camp, get a bit to eat, and see if we can patch her up a bit (by an improvised splint or wrap, perhaps) so we can move on.

    These might also make Lara think about spending some of those rare skill points on things like ‘cooking’, ‘cold weather survival’, or ‘first aid’… or spending some of the collected junk on things like camping gear, first aid equipment, and cooking utensils… you know; things that a real adventurer might need.

    As for the tombs?

    I agree, I did like having optional areas… it did make it feel far more open.

    However, I would be interested if, instead of simply making more of them, they would make each one far larger and more involved. For the most part, each of these areas was a single puzzle, then your reward.

    Each of them was strictly linear, as were each of the required areas.

    Additionally, while I do appreciate them being optional, keeping them entirely separate from the main areas seemed pretty artificial.

    I would find it far more interesting if, deep in the buried ancient library, there were multiple paths through rather than keeping it strictly linear. Some of these other paths might very well lead to special chambers or areas that might not only contain artifacts or upgrade equipment, but even open up alternative paths, and even possibly optional approaches to the required material or even different cutscenes.

    You are plumbing the depths of the Temple of Amun-Ra, and need to get back into the burial chambers. There is the linear approach, which may be dangerous or long… but you happened to have found the library of the great sage Kanujpen, and this leads to a shortcut into far side of the burial chambers, where you might drop in behind the guards rather than have to do a full frontal assault. Options are unlimited.

    All of the above would make Lara a far more accessible and human character, and would stop begging for comparisons to games like Uncharted.

    Reply

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