The Dark Steam Hunt Volume 3: Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness
On this harrowing journey of bad games ( a lot of pain, suffering and even anger on my part, which is the most important part of this series.) I concentrated mostly on the indie market. I have waded through slurry that even EA would not consider worthwhile monetising. But it is important to remember the big budget failures. Games that were given a high budget, had some talent behind the development team or were crafted out of misguided love or pure cynicism.
The final try
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness was the final installment of the original series. The final Tomb Raider created by Core Design before the IP was handed over to Crystal Dynamics ( current holder of the IP and creator of the modern Tomb Raiders). Angel of Darkness’s history is marred with failure, missed potential and the complete collapse of its original creator. We will be looking into Angel of Darkness’s history in the story section of this article.
Lara Croft has been trust into a high stakes game of cat and mouse, seeking to avenge the death of a friend, clear her name and uncover the truth involving a number of strange and sinister paintings. The paintings will bring about a horrifying evil into the world. It is up to Lara Croft to prevent the summoning of this evil. Does this plot summery interest you, dear reader? Truth be told, when I heard the summery I was curious at least . Design Core apparently was hoping to make Tomb Raider a lot more dark and serious with some horror elements even.
No scares to be found
If they were so planning to do so then the scary stuff must have ended up on the cutting room floor. In all of my time playing Angel of Darkness, not once does the game attempt to create a threatening atmosphere. Simply referring to a serial killer that everyone is supposedly afraid of does not create the illusion of threat. Mostly because no one emotes like they are afraid.
A problem of voice
Late 1990s and early 2000s voice acting was rarely above decent (Terri Brosius as SHODAN (System Shock 2) was the exception rather then the rule). Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness is no different, the voice acting all round is flat and unexpressive. As if the cast were being rushed through their lines (which might even be the case, I have no proof of that). Regardless of (or due to) the production problem, the world and its characters are never engaging or believable. The lack of animation and facial expression do not help either. Lara Croft and the few humans she does meet are simply emotionally dead blow up dolls telling us how they feel. They are completely uninvolving to the player and contribute to the boring plot.
A cut to die for
There is a problem with editing in the cut scenes (at least the ones I have watched). Namely that it is really confusing. The opening cutscene involves a mysterious gunshot, but from the way it is cut and framed I really had no idea what was going on. I thought Lara had shot her friend for some reason but in fact he had not. I must have missed something the blur of jumbled images, darkened shadows (dark gritty tone remember) and camera angles.
Another cut scene had a very strange habit of long silences between each dialogue. The subtitles did not correspond to the silences. It was very disconcerting for all the wrong reasons. It was very amateurish and awkward for the viewer who is watching a unremarkable story scene unfold , (a sinister cult doing evil cult things). The pauses made it impossible for me to get engaged because I am always being reminded of the broken product running on my PC.
A short history of failure: things removed
Once upon a time Core Design’s publisher (Eidos Interactive) would release Tomb Raider in to the wild (1996). This critically acclaimed landmark in gaming would unfortunately result in Eidos mandating Core Design to put out a Tomb Raider every year. Needless to say, this mandate resulted in dev burnout and decreasing quality in the subsequent sequels. In the year 2000 Core Design was focusing on Tomb Raider Chronicles (the main team at least) so Edios created a new team within Core Design to start working on the Angel of Darkness. This inexperienced team, troubled with having to work with PS1 controls from Tekken 1. This resulted in Tomb Raider missing it’s first deadline because Core Design had to scrap the entire game and redo it (after Chronicles was finished).
Things fall apart
While Design Core were trying to get a game together. Marketing and management would hype the masses by promising things that were debatably possible in the current year. Moral choices, character interaction, stealth sections better then Metal Gear Solid and even RPG elements were all promised. It would also be episodic for some reason all downloadable (in 2003 please think upon that). Edios hoped to split the game into two with Paris and Prague in Angel of Darkness and Germany and Turkey in the proposed Tomb Raider: The Last Dominion. The relentless ambition and the trouble of using the new PS2 hardware resulted in Core Design missing its third year.
The center cannot hold
The second game never happened. All concepts given previously were either watered down or removed entirely. The story became disjointed as a result . When Eidos (now threatening on the verge of bankruptcy) demanded that the game get released for the summer of 2003 (June in fact). Core Design had to rush development; there was no time for bugs to be ironed out. Critics panned the game due to the bugs, story, gameplay. This resulted in Core Design getting blamed for bad reviews and losing the IP to Crystal Dynamics. Core Design would eventually fade into nothing after the terrible Rouge Warrior.
In theory, the gameplay of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness was not that much different from other past Tomb Raiders. You platform your way around various levels until completion happens. Sometimes there is combat in the form of gunplay to interrupt the exploration of lush underground tombs and catacombs. There are some new additions (as mentioned in the short history section) but the formula is not much different. Sadly Core Design failed to deliver in making an enjoyable experience or one that works properly.
Lara Croft controls like her legs are encased in sticky toffee. Even after remapping the controls to something moderately reasonable Lara Croft was deeply unpleasant to control. If you are standing still you cannot move and turn at the same time. Pressing A or D will simply have her shift position until you are facing the right way, then you can press W. In this case Lara controls like she is a tank with a bad steering wheel. This does not get any better once you press W and try to steer. Lara will start walking before increasing to a job, guaranteeing that you will either run into a wall or off a ledge half the time.
( The sprint function does not work by the way).
The platforming is sticky and often unresponsive. The basic jump can be a frustrating experience as if Lara does not get enough speed she will simply drop off the edge. Sometimes she will do it regardless because the game did not register the jump even if you have pressed it. It is deeply disheartening to see Lara plummet to her death through no fault of your own. Maybe the game would not be so unpleasant to control if the camera did not misbehave and trick you into hitting walls or falling off ledges. Maybe if there was a way of navigating without smashing into a wall and then having to steer her into the right direction, like having to stop your high speed car chase to do a careful three point turn. And about as pleasant as having to perform said three point turn.
When climbing up or down a latter or moving along a edge/rope you might want to get off it at some point. This can be harder then expected as the game does not always allow Lara to get off or on said ladder/ledge or rope. This is because the game does not always register the interact control. Sometimes the game will simply force your grip meter to run out become it would not register E (interact key). (I will get to that grip meter soon). Trying to get on a ladder might see you either fall like a chump or summersault into the air before falling like a chump to your death. It is so breathlessly arbitrary and irritating to play.
Oh sweet Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. All is forgiven. I am planning to go back to Prince of Persia and give it another go because Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness’s camera is appalling. There are two types of camera in Angel of Darkness. The 3rd person camera that follows behind Lara and the fixed camera that shows only so much, either of these might not be so bad or even noteworthy if it were not for the awfulness of both. The 3rd person camera follows you sluggishly, like its trapped in the metaphorical toffee that encases Lara. The camera always gets stuck in walls, floors and low hanging ceilings. Navigation is a chore because of this camera.
Battling with the camera
Let me tell you a story dear reader: At a particular point in the game Lara has to leave an underground base. I wondered about for a good five minutes trying to find a leaver. Due to the fixed camera I could not see where the leaver was above me. As I had no control over the camera I had no idea that there was even a platform that I needed. A problem that is further compounded in the level design (which is rubbish by the way). The camera however, makes the entire experience worse.
The fixed camera either hides vital gameplay progressions (platforms and entrances) or disorientating the player. This is done by tearing the camera out of the player’s flimsy control and parking it at fixed angle. The sort of angel where you can’t always see where you are going to or from. What is in the way or a solution to progress. Please see the pictures for examples of this.
The level design
Ideally level design should guide the player towards the goal set out by the development team. This must be done in such a way so that the player is not being held by the hand but also not left confused as to where to go. Naturally this differs depending on the where the game is on the spectrum (Linear on one side and open world sandbox on the other). But the goal is the same: to get the player to do what the developer wants them to do. Angel of Darkness does not lead by the hand, if anything it does the complete opposite, it leaves the player confused and miserable.
That police chase
Early in the game, Lara Croft is being chased by the police for supposedly killing someone (which at that point I was not even sure if she had). In the tutorial there is a window that you can climb into, Lara says something along the lines “I need to catch my breath and look around” however there is nothing important inside the apartment. Just some generic healing items and a locked cupboard that I had no idea how to open.
There was no other way forward or important lesson (like knowing how to access the inventory menu). It might has well have been cut to maintain the tension and pacing. You can only open the cupboard after finding a random crow bar and only after opening a certain door (where Lara gets stronger for some reason), you then I had to go all the way back to open it. In a leisurely game about exploration this might not have been so bad. But in a high speed chase it was stupid and impractical, as about as tension filled as brushing my teeth in the morning.
The flaccid tension continues to be ruined later by the level design. At one point Lara is sliding down some roof tops with a police helicopter in limp pursuit. You can climb down the buildings and work at ground level. Considering that I had no idea what I was supposed to (considering that the last building I could slide to yielded nothing.) I followed the path to a gate, the interact prompt came up. Hope bloomed, 'I was getting somewhere' I thought, happy to progress.
I tried the gate but nothing happened. The helicopter hovering over me, useless. I had no idea what the game meant me to do. Why did the game even a ground area with a useless door that was apparently intractable in some long forgotten dream? Eventually I was able to trigger the cut scene that did not trigger last time (for some reason) I was on the roof.
A theme of failure
This was something a reoccurring theme in Angel of Darkness, corridors that lead to no where. Rooms which have no use despite being built as if they did, drain pipes were climbable expect when they weren’t. A lever, essential for process was hidden in a place that makes no logical sense for its placement. A ‘open world’ that has to load itself every step despite having nothing in it. There is no way to tell what is interactive or what appears interactive but is in reality is not. It not only discourages exploration but makes every level a lesson in irritation and anger. I become more and more fed up at not knowing what I was supposed to do/ go and get punished for seemingly following the path.
And finally climbing and other things
With the terrible controls, camera and level design what else does Angel of Darkness not mess up? Some call the grip mechanic terrible as it was not in the previous entries. I personally don’t think its the worst. At worst it is an irritation and best it does not add much, what happens whenever you grab onto something, a timer starts. Once the bar runs out Lara lets go. The grip meter encourages the player to hurry across the terrain.
Some things that are not annoying
When the controls work then its harmless but pointless, when they don’t it results in a lot of unnecessary deaths. There is a stealth mode, but it’s quite useless, considering that the AI is basic and often unresponsive. There is no punishment for failure. Lara spends most of the time getting ambushed or being spotted instantly (when the AI works). You might as well just shoot your way through everything as the game is barely concerned with stealth.
Graphics and art-style:
(Keep in mind that this is a 2003 game so it will not look like Witcher 3)
Regardless of how well the game has aged visually. A number of assists appear stretched or untextured. It is very easy to see the edge of the map thanks to the camera or jump on platforms in certain areas (such as the churchyard where you can see the end of the city). The lack of any sort defined art style, opting for drab, washed out “realism” makes the game unremarkable at best and ugly at worst. Enemies disappear with an ugly flicker. Complete art assets disappear into and reappear from a hideous untextured black. It’s as distracting as music bellowing from a jackass’s car as it bounces along the road.
The game’s assets glitched and flickered in and out of existence. I fell through the map once. Doors that should have opened did not. Cut scenes that should have triggered for some reason did not. Objects that should be intractable were sometimes not for no good reason. Having to get the game to run was a mission with it crashing from the moment of launch. Guides are needed to get the game running. Even then there is no guarantee that it would work. Even when it was running the game might randomly crash or black screen. Trying to get this game to run is as difficult and unpleasant to actually playing the stupid thing.
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness ended the lives of many people. Lara Croft would only reappear in the Crystal Dynamics’s led Tomb Raider Anniversary in 2007. Four years after Angel of Darkness. Core Design (as said previously) crumbled and wasted away, dignity and their original IP lost forever. Angel of Darkness is a bad game, a tragedy worthy for the Greeks for its death count and failure. I almost feel sorry for the game.
That I should not give it a place in the Hall of Infamy, for its unappealing story and frustrating gameplay. That I should simply put this out and leave it to rot in the darkness. But I cannot just excuse its badness because of its disappointing history. Angel of Darkness is a not an enjoyable game to play. My experience has been one experience in glum irritation at every single aspect of the game. Angel of Darkness is about as fun as filing taxes.
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