Tomb Raider: Underwhatthef**k?

On December 26, 2008, in Design, Games, Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

I’m playing Tomb Raider Underworld. I’m really trying to enjoy it. I mean i unexpectedly loved the prequel – Tomb Raider Legend – so why does Underworld fail so utterly when it comes to my enjoyment?

First of all, i’ve mentioned here that Underworld is very unforgiving. If you die, you are put back to a usually very reasonable checkpoint. But if you fall and survive, you have to get back up all the way. And that sometimes means spending a significant amount of time repeating the steps just to get back to where you were. Plus in any of these steps you may fail, just like the first time you tried to get up there, and you’ll have to start over – again! This sucks. I don’t remember exactly if Legend had this or to what degree but i certainly can’t remember such frustrating experiences.

Second, the 3rd person camera just sucks. If you move even the slightest bit, it will auto-rotate so you keep looking at Lara’s back. So you’ll spend a lot of time re-adjusting the camera to where you WANT to look at. Also the game and especially the Level Design forces you to look around, which makes matters worse. Often you’re in a small enclosed space and you need to find the ledge you can jump up to, so you’ll have to look up. And as soon as you move, the camera moves back to level with the floor. But it gets worse … since you’re passing a lot of enclosed spaces, and even if it’s just two pillars in an otherwise open area, the camera will adjust so you can always see Lara. Often times that means the camera will just snap close to Lara so you’ll get an mind-boggling look at her enormous breasts but you’ll see nothing else. But who wants to, right? The whole point of the game is to find corners and ledges that’ll give you the best cleavage and butt views. At least that’s what i’ve come to believe after playing it for two levels and probably 3-4 hours. Unfortunately, the camera sucks so bad, i’m also getting sick as mentioned here after playing it for about 60 to 90 minutes.

Then there are those minor nuisances. Lara’s headlight keeps getting switched off each time i’ve died or after each cutscene. Combat against wildlife animals is also highly frustrating. You’ll walk around with LT pressed to keep a lock and just keep firing. The camera will just snap back and forth whenever your lock switches targets. There’s nothing really tactical about it and at least for the wild jungle cats it’s close to impossible to avoid their attacks. And when you’re swarmed or cornered by two or more of them you’ll end up getting hit, falling to the floor, getting back up, shooting once or twice, getting hit again, repeat, over and over. Argh!

There are also issues with the game’s design as well. In Legend it was clearly visible where Lara could drop, hang, jump or climb. In Underworld the whole game elements melt together with the visual elements of the world so it’s often very hard to tell wether a certain ledge is something Lara can get a hold of, or will stumble upon, fall and die. Or worse: survive. This is especially bad for ledges that Lara can’t walk over and grab it while falling, because while running up to such a ledge you’ll just walk over it and die. You only get prior notice if you approach the ledge slowly, and that means approaching ALL ledges slowy. Underworld is unforgiving.

And some game events are very disturbing as well. Spoiler alert!!! I will give out the solution to a very frustrating situation here, so don’t read on if you want to be frustrated. In the Thailand temple, there’s a situation where you have a platform suspended on ropes that is obviously intended as a lift. A lift that traverses diagonally downwards and seems to be perfect to get Lara to the ground level beneath here. So after you’ve figured out how to remove the mandatory blockage of the ropes, you’ll flip the switch and die. Seriously, you die! You will be dead. It all happens so fast, after a few tries you’ll be looking around for something you might have missed. Maybe the whole thing is just a decoy and you’re supposed to find a completely different route? Nope. It turns out that as soon as you hit the switch, you’ll have to press X to grapple-hook onto a ring and then safely climb down. The main problem here is that it is counter-intuitive on so many levels. First of all, you’ve solved the riddle of the blocked ropes and you expect to be rewarded by a safe ride down. Not so here, you’re being punished for solving the puzzle. There’s just no way anyone could survive this fall on the very first try, it’s just way too surprising – even though the chain is clearly about to break you still don’t expect it to break right away. Second, whenever you CAN grapple-hook you’ll get a blue (X) icon on the screen – not this time. Add to this the fact that the camera is suddenly zoomed very far out it seems as if it is simply a non-interactive sequence. So you’ll have to get over this misconception as well and realize that you can control Lara while she’s falling.

After all this i’m not sure if i can get myself back to playing Underworld again. Even though it’s visually brilliant the gameplay is about as entertaining as the city portrayed in Mirror’s Edge is colorful.

Oh no! What’s this?

On December 18, 2008, in Good Advice, Programming, by Steffen Itterheim

iso.png

It’s …. it’s …. so retro!

I’m working on an isometric tile engine during my leave. Mainly for doing something on my own, digging deeper into XNA 3.0. I’ve never worked on an isometric engine and to my surprise it was fairly easy to draw the tiles correctly. All the data structures and most algorithms still work as if it were a flat tile engine. It’s actually a very clever approach. Imagine that if you take a regular rectangular 2D tilemap and rotate it about 60 degrees. You still render the tiles in order, starting from 0,0 and drawing them row by row – the only real difference is that you draw each tile of a row not just a little to the right but also a bit down. That’s basically it. You get the overdraw effect for free! That means your actors can actually stand behind walls and they will be partially concealed by the wall in front of them.

If you want to learn more about Isometric engines, check these links:

Gamedev.net – Isometric and Tile-based Games

Isometric Projection (reload the page a few times if you, like me, are having trouble getting all the images displayed)

Lingo Workshop – Isometric Game: Part 1 Part 2

YoYo Games – Isometric Game Programming

Isometric Coordinate Calculation (last time i checked the site was down)

And if you want to know where i got these cool tiles from … look here. Most of these tiles were created by David E. Gervais (additional ISO tiles by Henk Brouwer) and are free for non commercial use as far as i understand it. If you want to get more of these tiles, check out the Rogue-style games like Angband, Silmar, TOME, etc. (notice there are often several versions of each, try them all). Don’t be afraid to download them and browse their assets for tile graphics. These are great for getting your tile-based game an initial cool look. Wether you can actually keep these tiles once you publish the game depends on who owns the copyright to these files, so better check with the creator before publishing your game with them.

Of course, once you get the pictures in your engine you’ll probably notice that these tiles are like 32×32 pixels and don’t really scale up on modern 1920×1200 displays. But there’s a solution for that, too. I can recommend the following tools for scaling pixel art up – they were specially created to keep the retro pixel-look without blurring the image but making it look as if it were pixeled in a higher resolution to begin with.

I’ve found that Scale2X gives the best results:

But hq2x also gives nice results:

There are more algorithms but these are the two i found the most practical – simply because they come with a precompiled Windows binary (that is an EXE file for all you non-programmers). You might want to check the Wikipedia page on scaling pixel art for more algorithms and some background. You should also know that these algorithms are made to primarily scale images up by a factor of two or four. So don’t expect these tools to scale your pixel art to widescreen 16:10 format or something like that.

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“Are we doomed yet?”

On December 4, 2008, in Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

You know these types. We all know them. We even fall pray to them at times. Until you realize: there’s no point! I have been wanting to say this for years. Even for as long as i can remember working for a company.

Just say NO to naysayers!

First of all – why analyze a situation that you have no control of, and even more so you have ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING CLUE about, period! Yes, i needed to use such strong words here. And yes, i AM exaggerating! But so are they! They being people i know who actually believe they know more (or “know it better”) than those who are actually involved in a decision making process. You don’t. Unless you’re directly involved, you really don’t! This is like watching a soccer match, saying “I would have scored from there!”. Maybe you would, but you probably wouldn’t have – and most of all: does it matter? You are not in charge. Deal with it!

Secondly … why does such gossip have to be negative and pessimistic all the time? So, you don’t know the outcome of some management or corporate decision. Big deal. Or you don’t agree with a certain strategy or priorities. Deal with it. But people regularly talk about the “behind the scenes” stuff as if all input into the decision is terrible anyway – from the start – so they figure the outcome can only be worse. Is that how you approach your life? Then i might actually feel sorry for you. By as much as the blink of an eye lasts.

Third, overanalyzing killed the cat.

Fourth, what is the point in speculating? Wait and see. Don’t make assumptions. You know: it makes an ASS (of) U (and) ME. Don’t talk about the things that you think might happen. Be ready to accept the consequences and while doing so, keep the rest to yourself.

The worst thing is … if some speculation might actually turn out to be true, like – you know – once every ten years: some people only seem to be living for exactly this moment, when their worst fears are being validated, and if that happens they’ll gloat all over it.

“I knew it all along!”

Hey, that’s such great news for you! Can we move on now?

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