Achievement Whore

Two days ago I finished the freshly rebooted Tomb Raider. Two hours ago I watched Adam Sessler’s review of God of War: Ascension. Four minutes after that I remembered that four days previously I had taken similar issue with one of Tomb Raider’s achievements, only to forget about it five minutes later. Beginning five seconds ago, here are my thoughts on that issue. 

‘Clever Girl’. That’s what it’s called. You get it for, “Purchasing all skills in one category”. I am nothing if not a great consumer. Still, the name: ironic jab? Jurassic Park reference? Possibly. Probably. In either case, when the little guy popped up it left me mildly perturbed, and the reason for that is thus.

Just… come on guys. For anyone who is yet to play Tomb Raider – which, according to my review, you probably should do, maybe – it’s important to understand that its creators have a clear reverence for the character they’re recreating. Yes, it’s the sort of reverence that initially proves itself by beating the ever-loving fuck out of Lara before exclaiming, “look how much she can take!”, but it is reverence nonetheless. Which is what makes such a patronising little pop-up so peculiar. I hesitate to use the words ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynistic’, not because those don’t exist in games or gaming or the gaming industry – as the man-children that inhabit every single gaming site ever will eternally claim – but because ‘Clever Girl’ is such a trivial thing. There’s no malice behind it and it’s not relevant enough to the game proper to consider it some form of ingrained, subconscious sexism either. Indeed, I leapt to the defence of both the game and its developers when the whole ‘sexism’ furor kicked off, when there really was no controversy. And I think that’s why it’s so disappointing, and so jarring, to see them even lean slightly towards that type of attitude now, especially when it’s in such great contention with the rest of the game.

On the one hand, you might point out that the achievement is, quite obviously, intended for us, the players; it has nothing to do with Lara at all. But on the other, that’s not really true. We might be playing her, but we’re also quite literally divorced from her. We’re not playing her in the same way we play Gordon Freeman, because we’re expected to fully assume Gordon’s role. The man’s a cup-holder. Lara is a person, fully-characterised and independent, not in action but motive, of the player. So the achievement really is aimed at Lara as well, which makes the question of ‘Why?’ all the more pressing. When a game is as sober, some might even say humourless, as Tomb Raider is with regards to its leading-lady, there’s little sense in trying to inject any through bloody achievement pop-ups of all things. It’s difficult to take your oh-so-serious treatment of Lara seriously if you then look like you’re mocking your own seriousness, and seem as if you really can’t resist some form of gender-based dig.

‘Clever Girl’ is, as I’ve said, a really very minor misstep presented in a really very trivial manner. The problem, ultimately, is that its effect is several times more distracting and disappointing than it should be because of that very fact. Silly boys.

Anatomically Incorrect: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider makes its two gravest mistakes in the first hour of its lifespan. Mistake the First: it makes a bunch of other mistakes; egregious QTEs, overbearing cutscenes and all that jazz. Mistake the Second: it eventually relents from being A Bit Shit, and forces budding reviewers like myself to rewrite their prematurely snide first paragraphs. CROOOFT! 

Still, what’d the world come to without a little snideness? There are several perfect ways to encapsulate the very essence of Tomb Rebooter, and they’re all snippets of dialogue delivered by the main characters. Lara herself utters, without a mite of referential irony, both, “I have a bad feeling about this”, and, “It’s too quiet…”. Clichéd, silly, whole-heartedly stolen. None of these things really matter, because it’s delivered with such an earnest belief in what’s being said – through the rather alluring vocal-chords of the lovely Camilla Luddington, I might add – and with such an admirably straight-face, that it rather gets away with it. Some games are eternally compared to countless others without anyone ever quite hitting the G-spot. Take DishonoUred. On the list of supposed influences, allusions and downright thefts there is: BioshockMirror’s EdgeThief, Half-Life 2Deus ExAssassin’s CreedHitman, and Army of Two for the mask, obviously. You can certainly see what people are getting at, but what they’re getting at is never quite gotten. On the other hand, Womb Looter is Uncharted smashed together with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Oh, and with every single corpse left over from Mass Effect 3’s Reaper invasion thrown in for good measure.

Of the two, Lara makes a better vigilante than she does Harrison Fordian – although one suspects she’d be the perfect poster-child for a Lovecraftian race of space squids if her final body-count is anything to go by. What’s odd is that the main story rarely relents and permits you a natural pause to go back and do all those Arkhamy things like explore areas for collectibles; and whilst it’s possible to do all that once the game’s ended, it all rather loses its appeal when the hours of gameplay sitting in front of you consist solely of finding meaningless trinkets. Like so many other games, what seems to have been treated as a breather from the plot is what the main game should have focused on: Lara’s supposed to be getting turned on to a life of exploring and adventuring after all this, so bloody well make me adventure!

What’s most perplexing about the Nate-Bat blend is that, well… there’s no real Tomb Raider of old in there. Lara herself is enjoyably recognisable, it must be said. For all the written clichés that are resting up against her, the Lady of the Manor herself is quite a convincing specimen, and there’s little doubt that this is the ‘real life’ edition of the Action Woman of yesteryear. Despite all the killing (and boy, does she kill), it’s always in self defence and there’s a strong sense of reluctance underpinning the necessity. One does wonder, however, why this wasn’t made into more of a stealth game when stealth is already an incorporated, if often briefly-applicable, element of play. The premise begs for an improvisational weapon-system backing up defensive stealth play, but the whole thing ignores that in favour of debilitating faceless dudes with pistol, shotgun and rifle bullets that benefit from a bog-standard upgrade system with an intellectual deficit. The much-vaunted bow adds a rustic element, but it’s not enough.

She’s a real looker. And Lara’s not too bad herself.

But yes, the lack of Tomb Raider. If Lady Croft is the first thing that comes to mind when the words “Tomb Raider” are uttered, then Angel of Darkness is easily the sec-

Ha! Just kidding. No, it’s the tombs, silly. And what Loom Braider seriously lacks is tombs. There are rooms they call ‘tombs’, but these are optional, single-puzzle challenge rooms, and they’re easy as hell. Tomb Raider has always been about spending hours working through one tomb, beginning at the outside and penetrating (hehe) deeper and deeper, until by the end of it you feel as if you’ve swapped digits with the Earth’s core. Your mind’s eye could mentally trace back over two hours of platforming, from the heart of a tomb to its front doors. What this latest entry lacks is depth of a geographical kind. It’s finale looks as if it’s leading into this, but it’s not to be. I’m sure there are justifications and excuses, and they’ll almost certainly be narrative in nature. That’s really no excuse: if the narrative you want to tell is at odds with the very essence of the game, change the damn narrative.

On the decidedly more Uncharted side of things there is some enjoyment to be had from the ‘cinematic’ (get me a bucket), pull-you-by-the-nose approach, but the game is vain beyond reason. Most of the set-pieces set themselves up to be quite the thrilling endeavour, but almost all become cutscene slogs where control is intermittently wrestled away so that you can be shown the next segment, or look at how everything is crumbling about your ears, when you can bloody-well see it from where you are. Ultimately they mostly prove themselves to be an irritant, and they lack even the most basic thrill of launching Lara at a rock-face and burying the climbing-axe into it. Why? Because in those moments you’re actually allowed to play. You make the jump. You put the axe into the rock.

And that simple thrill, along with the endearing new Lara, is what carries this latest Broom Cradler. Hell, that’s what’s carried all her previous adventures as well. The series has never needed combat, and it only needs it here because it’s no longer doing what the series has always done. And this reboot does beg the question of whether or not all of the new-fangled hub-based toing and froing has burnt the real exploration forever. But whilst Tomb Raider has its fare share of crap that both worries and annoys me, I can’t not like it.

Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution

Standing 5 feet and 11 generously-measured inches tall, weighing in at 160 lbs., and having lived on the mean streets of South East London for 2 whole months, I’d like to think that I’m not the most easily frightened person in the world. Of course, I’m not without concerns: spiders, human beings’ natural predators, give me the absolute willies, whilst  the threat of brain aneurisms is a constant concern. But all-in-all, I think I’m pretty well-rounded in the phobia arena. Still, I’m not immune to the fears of lesser men – usually a mild feeling of vertigo. But most recently? Claustrophobia. Only instead of fear, it’s inspired unparalleled levels of irritation inspired, a result of the “efforts” of the latest Hitman outing.

Where previous entries provided maps and disguises to allow inconspicuous and considerable planning, Absolution turns a series of patience and puzzling into a clumsily built stealth-shooter that incessantly tugs 47 along by the nuts. Gone are the satellite maps and effective disguises in the names of narrative and “realism”, butchered is the art of subtlety and freedom at the behest of set-pieces and spectacle. Hits – assuming you’re even give one, and then assuming you’re actually allowed to attempt it yourself instead of watching a cutscene – are no longer planned, but stumbled through blindly. Whilst Absolution may pretend that disguises are still relevant, guards can now almost-immediately see through them if they’re wearing the same thing: as most levels are occupied by only one NPC type, they become absolutely useless. When coupled with an annoyingly tight camera, levels which are mere corridor runs and the omniscient, forever scrutinising AI, the result is an infuriatingly constricting experience punctuated by my own sobs of what could – and ruddy well should – have been.

Absolution’s killing blow is its focus on plot. Fudging mechanics almost perfected by its predecessor over 6 years ago quite so spectacularly as it manages to do is one thing; doing so to give way for one of the single-most turgid, achingly stupid pieces of writing I’ve ever had to sit through and endure is another. Whilst the series has always held a peculiar fascination for its ridiculous clone mythology that’s not entirely dissimilar to that of a young boy’s for his dick, it’s never presented it in such an obnoxious, overbearing and flat-out laughable way. Likewise, where previous entries, Blood Money in particular, have used the hyper-sexualisation of incredibly obnoxious background characters to filter the world through the eyes of a near-enough asexual clone assassin, Absolution has you sit and watch as such pricks are endlessly rammed down your throat. It is suffocating.

Despite being a relentlessly irritating masterclass in laziness and misplaced priorities however, the accompanying, nausea-induced claustrophobia caused by Absolution’s design and narrative ultimately prove themselves to be entirely appropriate. Because if nothing else, playing Absolution is like watching the series choke and ‘bate itself to death in front of your very eyes. An insufferably self-indulgent piece of wank, from beginning to end.