BUYING INTO THE CONCEPT

Pre-ordering is a fairly regular practice these days, but that doesn’t disguise its shady nature. Or, at least that’s what a good number of consumers discovered last month with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which bombed harder than a 90’s Manc at a warehouse rave (International readers click here). Reviewers were quick to assault the title with scathing criticism but, alas, it was too late – enough wallets had already been squeezed dry with little promise of refund, leaving many sad, angry and even embarrassed to have been conned into such an abysmal purchase. The trick of the pre-order is that it confirms a sale before release, no matter the quality of content and, very gleefully, playing on the commitment of the fans to their chosen franchise.

There are a few different paths our favourite developers like to take when releasing AAA titles, the most infamous being that of Collector’s Editions. Often promising a lavish array of soundtracks, art books or plastic sculptures, these are probably the most ‘fair’ of the group and can genuinely provide the odd fan with a good bit of extra enjoyment, if only to litter their shelves with a few more video relics. What is not so generous, however, is the popular trend of ‘in-game content’ that has begun to spread across the genres like a digital plague. Obscure perks, such as alternate character costumes and weapons (looking at you, Dead Space 3), are not exactly what I’d consider worth the extra cost, especially since they are being purposefully withheld from the community to earn a few extra coins. Exclusive DLC is certainly a target in this, revealing that more content had actually been created before release, but only for those willing to invest. To put that into layman’s terms, imagine buying a BLT, except you can only redeem the bacon at an additional cost.

Aliens: Colonial Marines – a sandwich without a filling…

Crystal Dynamics’ recent, gritty reboot of Tomb Raider managed to push the pre-ordering boat out into a new area of uncharted waters with uncertain consequence. Implementing a Kickstarter-esque reward system usually reserved for ‘we will produce what we can create’ situations, fans were coerced into investing early to unlock additional perks, which included digital artwork, copies of older games and the aforementioned horror of horrors, exclusive DLC. The question these kinds of systems are beginning to raise is how much content will developers be willing to withhold in future if it guarantees definitive sales? Not only is this bad practice, but our continued flocking to pre-order regardless of this fact only promotes its existence and influence on a title’s marketing – which allows me to segue rather shakily into the discussion of digital benefits and their real worth.

Receiving concept art, or the forever-popular map, is always a welcome treat in the box, but it doesn’t really hold as strong or exciting in .pdf format. In fact, I’d go as far as saying they are ultimately pointless and provide absolutely no incentive to the purchase as far as your printer ink is concerned. I readily challenge any buyer to prove me wrong in the value of this content, because it currently holds as much use as buying your cat decorative headwear (which is a very real thing indeed). But, I cannot be completely negative – sketches and early imaginings of our beloved characters and worlds can be very interesting and a nice addition to any collection, the issue lies more in whether they can be considered justifiable for the extra cost – despite the lack of a physical copy.

Finally, I shall end this rant on the biggest influence of all for digital pre-purchasing: the occasional, enticing offer of a discounted price. In contrast to their partners in crime, recent releases have allowed the consumer to save 10% off the final cost – a practice that has been strongly inspired by Valve’s effective use of Steam sales. “What is wrong with saving some money on a game I would’ve bought anyway?” I hear you cry, brandishing your credit card with experienced ease. Well, let me point you back up to the top of this article and the debacle that was the latest Aliens game. Pre-ordering a title is a huge risk for the consumer with only the shaky promise that it might be a successful purchase in hand, and this should certainly be kept in mind whatever the studio or franchise. Continued conformity to this trend only promotes and fuels the format, as much as we’d like to be the first to get our hands on that next big release. So, please keep in mind that every time you rush online to click that big, green pre-order button, you have logged yourself as yet another statistic in favour of these enticing, yet incredibly devious marketing tactics.

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Retro Rewind: Tomb Raider (1996)

I have always been, and probably always will be, a huge PlayStation gamer. However, my particular weapon of choice is the first and the original PlayStation (or PSX) – the world’s first 32-bit console, released in 1995. The range and depth of legendary games available for the system is unrivalled, in my opinion, and I have kept not only nearly all my games, but two working consoles, and I still source games second hand. Anyway, I digress.

This is the first in a series of reviews of those classic games. My first pick is a game that is dear to my heart – the original Tomb Raider.

Before the other games, the movies, the spin-offs, and the reboots, there was this game. I loved it when it came out and I still love it now. As a then ten-year-old girl, Lara was a likeable and relatable heroine at a time when not many of them were around. There have been many debates regarding Lara’s feminist status versus her sex appeal, but she was a strong and confident female protagonist, who just happened to have big boobs (that were later reduced). And sure, the game’s graphics may be completely laughable by today’s standards – consider the iconic T-Rex battle in the third level, The Lost Valley.

Here’s the original:

 

And here’s the 2008 remake:

But in my mind, the dated visuals don’t detract from the game at all. In fact, it’s part of its charm for me. The game is still completely immersive and sucks me right in. So what if the entire game is comprised of boxes and squares around Lara’s height? So what if the textures are tiled straight onto the grid, including the water? So what if Lara’s famous breasts are triangular and they can’t animate her long plait? It’s just polygons!

The environments are still lovingly detailed and lush. The sound design in this game is second to none – the music is used sparingly and in just the right places. The Jaws-like cellos that start off the action theme still never fail to scare the crap out of me. The effects, ambient sound and creature noises are bang on the money. And of course, there is the hauntingly beautiful main theme – hearing it in the pool rooms of City of Vilcabamba never fails to give me chills. The later games became much more action-focused – Lara gained many new abilities and even friends to help her along the way. I still prefer the puzzle-based gameplay, with hints of action every so often to wake you up. The joy in Tomb Raider for me is exploring the levels, soaking up the ambience, and trying not to break your neck doing a tricky jump. I take immense satisfaction in performing exactly the right series of manoeuvres, manipulating the environment to get where I need to go.

This game also has the best story of the lot: a mystical artefact from the lost continent of Atlantis and a fallen god revived in the modern day wreaking her revenge (spoilers!). Lara’s flashback to the destruction of Atlantis is still chilling to this day. The thing I love in this game is that it is genuinely scary in some parts – not just in an oh-my-god-there’s-a-Trex-kill-it sort of way, but in a shivery, skin-crawling way. The moving fleshy walls of Atlantis and the skinless enemies are truly disconcerting. And you can’t tell me you didn’t get vertigo the first time you saw St Francis’ Folly.

Of course, the game still has its flaws. The Save Crystal system implemented for the PSX is a huge pain in the arse, forcing you to save a limited amount of times in certain locations. Later games introduced more lenient systems. Sometimes the camera angles suck, especially if the game turns Lara’s head to look in a certain direction when you don’t want it to. And some levels are prohibitively dark, which was also solved by the introduction of flares in later games. The only ability that I miss in the first game is being able to roll in mid-air, which is very handy in the midst of combat.

Overall, this game is an absolute gem, and a wonderful introduction to the series. The other games are immensely good too, but this one is still my favourite and in my opinion, the most accessible (the opening levels of TRII and III are quite difficult for a novice – hell, even difficult for me!). The levels are mostly short and sharp, which doesn’t let the game get bogged down, and later levels are just difficult enough to enjoy without (much) frustration. I dig it out every so often for a run around, and it’s time for me to attempt another play-through – once I find my PSX memory card!

 

Tomb Raider is still available second hand for PSX (PS2 compatible), or for download from the PlayStation Network. It is also available for PC download, but you will need a DOS emulator.