In this episode we discuss the crime games of yesteryear, the team's adventures in Red Orchestra 2 and Chris' first faltering steps into Defiance. Also featuring round two of our' ongoing attempt to figure out Tomb Raider and what happens when Graham answers Twitter questions before he's had his milk.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or download the MP3 directly. You can also listen on YouTube. To ask us questions, follow the PC Gamer Twitter account - we'll put out a call in the morning before we record, which is usually a Monday. You can also follow us individually:
Chris - @CThursten Tom Senior - @PCGLudo Graham - @Gonnas Marsh - @marshdavies
Show notes Graham's Red Orchestra 2 review from a while back. Chris' Tomb Raider review. Last time, we promise. First footage of EA's next shooter, 'The Adventures of Captain Gets His Leg Trapped Man'. Current descriptions of Thief 4's plot describe Garrett as returning to The City, so it sounds like the new game isn't quite a straight reboot.
Square Enix's incoming president, Yosuke Matsuda, has started sharpening the axe of financial viability after the "extraordinary loss" of this last financial year. In a Square Enix Holdings briefing session, translated by Siliconera, Matsuda announces plans to review all elements of the business, with a view to focusing its direction on "what makes us successful".
"After having succeeded the important role as the president, I plan on reviewing all Square Enix duties, business and assets on a zero-based budgeting standpoint," Matsuda says. "Due to the radical change of environment, I’d like to fundamentally review what works and what doesn't work for our company, then cast all of our resources towards extending what makes us successful and thoroughly squeezing out what doesn't.
"As far as a concrete plan on what to expect from us, I will further explain it on another briefing session in the near future, so I kindly ask for your patience. Thank you for your support."
While Matsuda isn't due to step into the role until June, Square Enix have already begun to restructure. In a statement to Polygon, senior director of PR Reilly Brennan announced, "We can confirm that Square Enix's Los Angeles office has eliminated a number of positions as part of the corporate restructuring announced last week. This is an unfortunate situation and we are offering assistance and severance packages to any employees affected by this, we want to thank them for their hard work and sincerely wish them well in the future." This is in addition to the LA office lay-offs made back in December.
How SE's development studios will be affected by Matsuda's review is unclear, but sales figures suggest a change may be due. Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution and Sleeping Dogs all failed to meet expectations, despite Tomb Raider experiencing a record launch week for the series.
Square Enix have announced the resignation of their CEO, Yoichi Wada, following an earnings forecast that predicts the company will experience "extraordinary loss" this financial year. According to their consolidated results report, the company had expected to make profits of 3.5 billion yen (approx. £24.5 million) before the end of the financial year, this March 31st. That didn't happen. Instead, Square Enix is now expected to report a loss of 13 billion yen (approx. £91 million).
According to the report, "The Company forecasts that actual business results from its Digital Entertainment Segment substantially fall below its plan primarily due to slow sales of major console game titles in North American and European markets." Detailed sales breakdowns aren't available, but while some of the low earnings will be from the Japanese console-only side of the business, no doubt their Western studios, recently responsible for Hitman: Absolution, Sleeping Dogs and Tomb Raider, have also underperformed.
In addition to Wada's resignation, to be replaced by former company president Yosuke Matsuda, Square Enix are also planning a major restructure in "development policy, organizational structure, some business models, and others." What the means in real terms - especially for upcoming projects like Eidos Montreal's Thief - remains to be seen.
As it typically does for a major game launch, Nvidia has updated its GeForce card drivers to 314.22 for boosts in performance and stability. It claims recent titans BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider both get a significant bump in frames-per-second, with the former increasing by 41 percent and the latter by an astonishing 71 percent.
Nvidia's article provides benchmark results and pretty green graph bars to scrutinize. Though the company's test hardware was an Intel i7-3960X and a GTX 680—a beefy setup most definitely on the high-end of priciness—Nvidia says the improvements apply to most other cards in the GTX family.
Other frame gains include an extra 30 percent for Civilization 5, 22 percent for Sniper Elite V2, and 12 percent for Sleeping Dogs. Smaller boosts are given to Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3, Borderlands 2, Black Ops 2, and Skyrim. Really, if you're playing nearly any graphics-heavy game from the past few years, and you're a GeForce user, pick up the drivers on the official website or through the useful GeForce Experience tool. It's green across the board.
If you've shot all the men, hunted all the animals, and plundered all the tombs in Tomb Raider, you may well have been hoping for a little more. A few extra sepulchres perhaps, or maybe even the odd mausoleum. Your hopes die now, I'm afraid, with the news that all future downloadable content will be focused on the game's multiplayer mode - you know, that multiplayer mode you probably haven't even tried yet. The game's global brand director Karl Stewart revealed as much in a recent Reddit AMA, stating that "All of our DLC is based around the Multiplayer experience for now."
We're still waiting for Tomb Raider's Caves & Cliffs map pack to arrive on PC - OK, so we're not waiting particularly hard - but it's a little disappointing that it won't be joined by additional single-player tombs. It's always a good thing when a game arrives complete, of course, but the tombs we did get were a bit on the small size.
It will also be disappointing - to some of us, I expect - that we won't get to see new Lara in her old outfit. Creative director Noah Hughes explained why in that AMA. "We did try to have a lot of nods to the classics in this reboot, and even her outfit itself is intended to evoke her classic outfit in a way, but is more practical for her situation." They could at least give her a downloadable coat.
Here's a trailer for Caves & Cliffs, featuring caves and cliffs.
Games go through countless changes before the developers settle on a particular style, setting and feature-set - for instance, BioShock was initially a game about a cult deprogrammer, while Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 was originally a knockabout karting game starring Jack Nicklaus and Rory McIlroy and Donkey Kong. The recent Tomb Raider reboot is no exception. In an alternate universe, we're playing a game featuring horse-riding, a child companion, oh and giant colossi that burst out of the Earth. Yep - Tomb Raider was originally Shadow of the Colossus 2, as revealed in the game's Making Of thing.
Other titbits: the game was originally subtitled Tomb Raider: Ascension, before Kratos from God of War sent Crystal Dynamics a very angry cease-and-desist letter attached to a wriggling Gorgon head. Maybe. There were also flamethrowers, more open environments, and a giant untextured carrot lurking menacingly behind a little girl. Here is proof of that awful thing:
You'll find all this and more in the video below, and in this thread over on NeoGAF. As for the Tomb Raider we eventually got, be sure to check out our review.
Chris, Marsh and very special guest Mike Bithell, creator of the BAFTA award-winning Thomas Was Alone, discuss Sim City, Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army, Tomb Raider, the Arma 3 alpha, the morality of Kickstarter and why triangles should just go home.
Also featuring the industrial nightmare of Novathurstengrad, vague caveat-laden descriptions of Mike's next game and an analogy that we might not simply be advanced enough as a species to successfully assemble.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or download the MP3 directly. Follow PC Gamer UK on Twitter to be informed when we're putting the call out for questions. Alternatively, follow us as individuals:
Mike - @mikebithell Marsh - @marshdavies Chris - @cthursten
Our review of Sim City. Our review of Tomb Raider. Somewhere you can buy Thomas Was Alone. Our Let's Reboot series about classic games reimagined for today. Just because we can build something doesn't mean we should use it in an extended metaphor.
Think of this latest Tomb Raider patch as the conditioner for AMD's fancy hair tech TressFX. Owners of Nvidia cards had been experiencing extreme optimisation issues when choosing to let Lara's hair wave free and loose. The update should smooth out those issues, bringing specific stability fixes for Nvidia and Intel cards, as well as "small" improvements to TressFX rendering.
Its success is still up for debate. A post on the Steam forums suggests that the game is now far more stable, but some issues still persist when TressFX is enabled. A Nvidia representative previously apologised for the problems, and said that they were working with Crystal Dynamics on a fix. Hopefully a driver update can finally put an end to this bad hair day. Otherwise, Crystal Dynamics may have to rinse and repeat. (I'm so sorry.)
Full patch notes below. For extended thoughts on the game that aren't solely centred around Lara's follicles, check out our review.
Addressed some stability and startup issues on machines that have both Intel and NVIDIA graphics hardware. Fix for players being unable to progress related to the boat in the beach area. Some fixes for crashes on startup and when selecting Options. Some small improvements to TressFX hair rendering. Fixes for various graphics glitches, including certain effects not being visible in fullscreen mode. Fixed a problem that caused some users to not be able to use exclusive fullscreen. Added support for separate mouse/gamepad inversion for aiming, as well as support for x-axis inversion. Fixes related to the benchmark scene and benchmark mode. Various other small fixes.
Lara's locks are proving a problem for Nvidia customers, whose graphics cards are struggling to handle the AMD-developed hair-rendering technology. Given that Nvidia owns two thirds of the GPU market, that's an awful lot of Tomb Raiders out there suffering from shoddy performance - if they can even get into their game at all.
I’m one of these unlucky folk, the once-proud owner of a GTX 670, and I can’t even get into the options screen, let alone play the game. Of course, loads of games have had dreadful launches, marred by server problems and driver/graphics card issues; even the likes of Half-Life 2 and Diablo III had trouble getting out of the gate. But the current disadvantage experienced by Nvidia customers could go beyond Lara's bounteous bangs. With AMD components sitting in next-gen consoles, this may not be the only time Nvidia's driver team find themselves left behind at a major game launch.
To be fair, some AMD customers have experienced issues too, and - let me ephasise - I don’t for one second think AMD are deliberately aiming to cripple the performance of its competitor’s hardware. But the fact that the game was coded to take advantage of AMD’s graphics hardware first and foremost could cast a shadow on Nvidia over the course of the next generation.
Even Blizzard can mess up a game launch...
It’s all about the next generation of consoles. One of the blessings this coming console generation bestows on developers is the hardware parity between the PS4 and Microsoft's successor to the Xbox. Sony’s specs reveal the PS4 is running on AMD hardware, and it's been heavily rumoured that Microsoft's console will do the same - both consoles essentially being PCs beneath the hood.
If all games are coded for PCs with AMD hardware inside then you are naturally going to get a more consistent experience with AMD tech in your rig than if you’re running on different, competing internal gubbins.
"Nvidia will have to spend a lot more cash to make sure games work well on their hardware." AMD aren’t going to have to lift a finger, or spend a single dollar of their marketing budget, encouraging devs to code for their hardware anymore. Those developers are simply going to have to if they want to code for a next-gen platform. Meanwhile, Nvidia will have to spend a lot more cash, and parachute a lot more engineers into dev studios, to make sure these games are going to work well on their hardware.
They’re going to be stretched. I would bet we see more big titles where final code only reaches Nvidia’s driver team a few days before launch. That could then lead to a greater stratification in PC gaming, with Nvidia card owners having to wait for games to run on their hardware or suffering from titles coded to take advantage of the greater compute power of AMD cards.
Such things may sound familiar to older AMD/ATI card owners...
Being stranded on an island full of violent psychopaths brings out the natural shine in your hair and nourishes your roots.
It's tempting to think that AMD would make the most of their console dominance by pushing the uptake of proprietary technologies - like Lara's TressFX-powered hair - in order to intentionally disadvantage Nvidia hardware. But AMD have categorically and passionately stated this is not the case.
I spoke to Neil Robison, AMD’s Senior Director of Consumer and Graphics Alliances (the guys who sort out the Gaming Evolved shizzle) in San Francisco last Autumn and he was adamant that deliberately sabotaging the performance of games on rival hardware would quickly destroy the PC gaming market.
"AMD are adamant that sabotaging the performance of games on rival hardware would destroy the PC gaming market." “The thing that angers me the most is when I see a request to debilitate a game. I understand winning, I get that, and I understand aggressive companies, I get that. Why would you ever want to introduce a feature on purpose that would make a game not good for half the gaming audience?
"This is something that we just won't do, and it's difficult because that would be the easiest way to go, absolutely the easiest way to go. That's the easiest way to kill the market, the easiest way to destroy the PC gaming audience. The one that we need, the one that we want, and to be honest - we're all gamers - the one that we love. We could quickly destroy the whole market by just getting into that."
But it may not be up to AMD. If devs are coding to their hardware as standard then Nvidia is going to have to work very hard to make sure they don’t get left behind. Nvidia is a canny company though, and they will have considered this. They’re already taking steps to ensure their own proprietary technologies aren’t being left in the next-gen locker.
Nvidia are now allowing PhysX and APEX to run on AMD hardware
This week Nvidia announced that its PhysX and APEX APIs are going to be fully functional in the PlayStation 4 - and by logical extension the Nextbox too. This is the first time we’ll see Nvidia allowing PhysX on hardware other than Nvidia since it disabled the discrete Ageia PhysX cards from working.
"Nvidia won't enjoy playing follow-the-leader." Nvidia is also going to be continuing to develop new graphics hardware, long after the next-gen console’s specs have been completely finalised - and they’ll be able to react to developer trends post next-gen launch.
Even with such commitment, I doubt they'll much enjoy having to play follow-the-leader to AMD architecture. It could be a rocky road, and with AMD’s Roy Taylor calling for a return to the days of the good ol’ graphics wars - actually calling for a fight - in a press briefing just before the GTX Titan launch, things could really heat up in the age old red vs. green battle.
Stranded on the mythical island of Yamatai following a freak storm, 21-year-old Lara Croft's career as a videogame protagonist begins with suffering. In the opening hours of Tomb Raider she is stabbed, burned, drenched, assaulted and almost freezes to death: that's if you're doing well, meeting the demands of every linear climbing section, gunfight, finickety stealth sequence and quick-time event that presents itself. Fail any of these and you'll also watch her be crushed, impaled, strangled, mauled and so on.
"Lara sobs and trembles, and evident effort has been made to slow down and focus on the details of her experience." This early cruelty is the game's most strikingly idiosyncratic feature. Lara sobs and trembles, and evident effort has been made to slow down and focus on the details of her experience. Hunger necessitates finding a bow and hunting deer. Her elbows shake believably when she mantles up onto a ledge. Her first human kill leaves her blood-soaked and distraught. Give it a few months and I suspect these opening hours will be what people will be talking about when they talk about Crystal Dynamics' reboot. It's certainly what they've been talking about until now.
Play on for another few hours, however, and you'll find yourself in a hybrid of third-person shooter and linear platformer, Lara trading the bleak little lethalities of life as a shipwreck survivor for a parade of regulation set-pieces: an escape from a burning building, a helicopter crash, a section where your guns are taken away, a climactic assault on an enemy stronghold.
Moment by moment, the game evolves into something more familiar. During a battle with Yamatai's savage Solarii brotherhood high up in the mountains, the camera crash-zooms onto a set of blast doors which burst open to reveal an armoured islander holding a riot shield. Stop me if you've heard this one before: you beat him by dodging his machete blows and shooting him in the back when he stumbles. Everything about this character - from his introduction to his execution - is lifted from the Big Book of Miniboss Design, Third-Person Shooter Edition (Bleszinski/Mikami, 2005).
Years trapped on Yamatai have warped the populace into an army of videogame henchmen.
Shortly afterwards, Lara hops onto the bottom rung of a ladder leading up a rickety radar tower whose topmost transmitter is her crew's best hope for rescue. Once you're on that bottom rung, the game will only accept one input: forwards. Press forward and Lara climbs: press anything else and Lara stops. There's no way to fail, though a few pre-canned moments will have a rusty rung give way and leave her hanging. There's a point where the game slips into a cutscene but pretends that it hasn't: nothing changes, with the exception that it's no longer accepting your input. Let go and Lara will keep climbing without you. Adventure game sleight-of-hand, as taught at Uncharted's School of Seven Bells - what is being pickpocketed, in this case, is your right as a player to have your agency reflected in the events taking place on-screen.
"It relaxes back into the series' matinee adventure comfort zone." Then, after another calamitous mountainside descent, Lara emerges out onto a familiar landscape - a hub area - from a new vantage point. Your options for traversal have been expanded by the acquisition of rope arrows that allow you to pull down certain doors and affix zip-lines to particular posts. There are letters and relics to find, and secret tombs to plunder for bonus skill points. Tomb Raider becomes about gentle exploration for a while, and there's nothing particularly traumatic about it. It's very, very pretty. You forget about the multiple times you watched Lara's throat be ripped out by a wolf because you kept fumbling a quicktime event. You stop wondering if pressing the buttons to make Lara go through this carnival of horrors is not an act of cruelty in and of itself.
The memory of that first traumatic kill fades as you kneel behind another piece of waist-high cover to ping arrows into the cranii of obliging brotherhood warrior after obliging brotherhood warrior. When the game gives up on being a story about a young woman having an absolutely terrible time, it improves. It relaxes back into the series' matinee adventure comfort zone, and some of its later set-pieces are genuinely spectacular as a result.
Dangle me from the ceiling once, shame on you. Dangle me twice, shame on me.
"Lara herself is the game's standout success, particularly when she stops running." The quality of the writing varies. Conversations between Lara's fellow survivors are believable despite their rote characterisation: nerdy twenty-something male, tough black woman, untrustworthy TV personality, spiritual Maori, and so on. Lara herself is the game's standout success, particularly when she stops running and decides to take direct action: the perceptible change she undergoes is a good example of writing, performance, and animation working together to create a sympathetic and admirable person in place of a fantasy.
The game spits out some real eye-rollers, though - it's honestly a miracle that Lara can find anything to fall off given the amount of scenery the villain manages to chew through in his relatively brief screen-time. Enemy chatter doesn't fare much better. I can think of a number of things I might say if I suddenly found myself with an arrow in my sternum, and "damn, she's a good shot!" isn't high on the list.
The real weakness of Tomb Raider's storytelling, though, is its failure to express its big ideas in the way it plays. Lara receives two pieces of advice repeatedly during the game: 'trust your instincts' and 'keep moving forward'. Both jar with the reality of what Tomb Raider actually wants you to do. 'Trust your instincts' should really be understood as 'trust Lara's instincts': or at least, trust Survival Instinct mode, which highlights objects in the environment you can interact with. Trust that this type of craggy rock will always be climbable, that these barricades will always yield to your rope arrows, that this particular type of scenery will always be flammable - and that you should always do all of these things because that's why they're there.
Lara hasn't lost her knack for blowing up UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Trust your own instincts and you risk throwing the game off its rhythm. In Tomb Raider, acting with initiative carries a payload of risk akin to heckling at a comedy show. You’ll either be punished, or - worse - you’ll puncture some meticulously preconceived bit and cause the whole thing to deflate. There's a combat section midway through where you can either fight through a narrow canyon or sneak past on an elevated route. While shimmying across a beam above a pair of Solarii cultists I made the choice to jump off and attack them, figuring that I had the advantage and that the salvage I would gain from killing them was worth it. I pressed the button to drop and Lara fell stiffly to the ground. The camera moved into the canyon at an angle it wasn't designed for, and, trapped in Lara's picking-herself-up animation, I couldn't respond fast enough to attack before I was gunned down.
"Rather than encourage self-motivation Tomb Raider rewards passive acquiescence." If I'd stuck to the stealth route the game would have continued to animate beautifully: if I'd opted for a gunfight the camera would have known where to be. I made a choice that the designers didn't anticipate and the game could not adapt to support it. 'Keep moving forward', then, is a better piece of advice - but rather than encourage self-motivation Tomb Raider rewards passive acquiescence. As long as you don't forget which button press goes with which bit of the environment, the island will ensure nothing truly terrible happens to you. This obliging design is why Tomb Raider succeeds as a lean-back-and-watch-the-fireworks platformer, but the dissonance is undeniable. You're told that you're seeing a person discovering their strength: what you're shown is someone discovering that the god of zip-line placement loves them very, very much.
A scholar first, Lara opts to take only experience points from the chests at the culmination of each tomb.
You're encouraged to hunt and explore in order to maximise the amount of new skills and equipment upgrades you receive, but neither progression path is rewarding. The power you can gain in this way is carefully prevented from altering the pre-planned flow of the game: there's no way to earn a new traversal skill before its time, for example. In its place are shallow upgrades to the amount of loot Lara receives, or the amount of experience she gets for certain types of kill - and effectively all these do is allow you to level up faster. A few skills do alter the flow of combat, but only in minor ways: headshot indicators are helpful but inessential, ammo capacity upgrades are superfluous in a world where every new body you create can be looted for a fresh clip.
"When the circumstances are right, Tomb Raider becomes a decent if narrow stealth action game." The areas where Tomb Raider comes together are those where you're given more freedom. When the circumstances are right, Tomb Raider becomes a decent if narrow stealth action game, and figuring out how to silently eliminate the maximum number of enemies before being detected is satisfying and says something about the person Lara is becoming. A scattering of optional tombs offer exploration and puzzle challenges that encourage improvisation with the game's robust physics system. Most can be cleared in a couple of minutes, but their solutions feel like they originate from your actions in a way that the rest of the game withholds.
Multiplayer takes the singleplayer's rock climbing and zip-lining and applies them to a competitive team shooter, adding trap-setting and limited environmental destruction for spice. It's host-based, rather than running on dedicated servers, and I had problems with rubberbanding even on a fast connection. When it does work, the majority of the players I encountered found it more effective to strafe around with an assault rifle than make use of any of the more distinctive features. The designers have provided space for set-piece moments - escapes over collapsing bridges, freeing friends from snare traps - but these will only happen if players find them a more effective way of farming for experience and upgrades than simply gunning each other down, and that doesn't seem to be the case. Abandoned matches are also an issue - roughly half of the games I played ended in victory by default.
Ice-pick takedowns yield bonus experience. Sadly, a loud voice does not yell "TROTSKY STRIKE!" when you do this.
The PC version is a good port, for the most part. Fairly comprehensive graphics and control options are available out of the gate, and manual hacks can enable more. It ran perfectly at the highest settings on an Intel i5 system with 8GB of RAM and a Radeon 6970, including the optional 'TressFX' tech that renders Lara's hair as free-flowing, individually modelled strands. I had persistent problems on a comparable system running a GeForce 560 Ti, however, including crashes and unexplained dips to a slideshow framerate that even affected the menus. Players have already found a few workarounds, and a patch is reportedly in the works - but caution is advisable if you're running an Nvidia card.
Tomb Raider is frequently very enjoyable, and there's no denying its production values or the care taken in scripting every inch of its critical path. I had a fine time. My problem with it is that I came in willing to have other, less fine kinds of time - I was willing to feel hounded, frozen and wounded in sympathy with its protagonist. Tomb Raider is never challenging, either emotionally or in what it asks you to do. It gestures at being something deeper, but I don't think you can simply tell the player what to feel. I wanted to participate in Lara's journey, but in the end I just held the button down and tried not to ruin it. A single game can't be held to account for the weaknesses of an entire genre, but they can't be ignored: narrative ambition is fantastic, but execution matters.