[10 July 2007]
It’s rather satisfying when a game developer actually listens to its fans.
When Tomb Raider: Legend was released last year with the goal of revolutionizing the faltering franchise, it was received with almost unanimous praise—from the critics that is, who lauded everything but its too-brief playing time. The hardcore Raiders, however, had a few understandable beefs. Despite gorgeous new globetrotting environments and a surprisingly engaging storyline taking Lara from Peru to Kazakhstan and to King Arthur’s Tomb to track down a long lost friend she thought was dead, many players felt it missed three crucial aspects of the original Tomb Raider experience:
1. The overwhelmingly lonely sense of isolation in the vast worlds was diminished by the steady—albeit very witty—chit-chatter with Lara’s headset techies.
2. The awe of discovering lost worlds of immense ruin was belittled by the linear, hand-holding level design.
3. Sure, the fluid new Lara controlled like a dream and the inclusion of real-world puzzles added an injection of next-gen realism, but purists wanted more ball-busting.
Fans will be delighted to know that Crystal Dynamics’ remake of the original Tomb Raider is absolutely triumphant, and it’s quite the swan song for the PS2. Everything you enjoyed about the legendary PlayStation title returns with all the Legend trimmings we fell in love with last year. Let it be clear that I don’t rescind my glowing praise of that particular title (as a standalone game, it’s one of 2006’s best), but I also understand that CD still had to prove to the sticklers it really understood the franchise before truly moving into the next-generation. Perhaps this is why Anniversary is debuting only as a PS2 / PC title—okay, maybe guaranteeing a profit (by producing on a cheaper system) probably helped make that decision as well. Still, when Tomb Raider finally debuts on the PS3, gamers can have full confidence Crystal Dynamics will unleash something truly spectacular. Let’s just hope the relatively mundane combat gets the makeover treatment for Lara’s next outing.
Tomb Raider: Anniversary retains the basic level concepts and plot of the original release. While the former acts as only a blueprint for the sometimes gargantuan vistas you’ll encounter here, the latter remains largely unchanged. This is a bit of a shame, because, if you remember the Lara’s first adventure, there wasn’t actually much of a plot. Ms. Croft is hired by the duplicitous Jacqueline Natla to track down the Atlantean Scion—one piece of which Natla has sourced to the Peruvian city of Vilcabamba—to be predictably betrayed by her employer once she finds it. Even Lara seems to suspect this (first rule of tomb raiding: never trust your secretive sponsors), but gives into her itching curiosity, nonetheless; her late father Lord Croft had desired to track down the artifact, too.
Needless to say, the plot simply exists to segue between the gigantic worlds, of which there are four. Peru, Greece and Egypt each contain a piece of the Scion, which, when combined, will ideally provide access to Atlantis. Within these worlds, mini-levels abridge individual tombs, but as they are connected in real-time, you can often backtrack, giving the structure an organic feel.
Lara wants no part of whatever did…that.
Though Peru’s Mountain Caves, City of Vilcabamba, Lost Valley and Tomb of Qualopec are relatively short and straight forward, they’re designed to prepare you for the challenges to come. Adventure fans disappointed by The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess’ simplistic dungeons will be thrilled to know Anniversary is loaded with brain teasing layouts. Physics puzzles abound, but you’ll be stumped more by the confusing course-plotting of the vast structures themselves. In the vast openness of the Tomb of Tihocan, for example, you’ll have to navigate the crumbling archways, slimy brick-face and manage massive water level changes to find a pair of crates and use them on switches at the bottom of the cistern. The challenge has less to do with what the player does with these blocks, but rather how to get them to their destination.
It wouldn’t be Tomb Raider without the love-to-hate-them instant-death traps. Expect mighty stone balls straight out of an Indiana Jones movie and complicated poison dart snares to cripple otherwise perfect jumps. You’ll have timed sequences involving rotating pillars, moving blocks and long plummets to beds of deadly spikes if you make one misstep. It’s a shame though, that, with all the scorching by flames, electrocution by lightning and impaling by the swords of Damocles, the game couldn’t have animated more disturbing death scenes, a la Resident Evil 4. I guess the everyone-can-play-it, everyone-can-buy-it Teen rating sealed that deal.
Combat is still the weakest link to the Tomb Raiding experience, but it’s still fun popping off bears, rats and cougars—and do keep in mind this isn’t God of War. These unique games are about unadulterated exploration, except for those occasionally adulterating beasties. Encounters were rare Lara’s first time out, and only challenging because the heroine controlled like a rusty tank. With cleaner control and swift acrobatics at Ms. Croft’s disposal, you should have no difficulty climbing a nearby pillar before sending nature’s endangered species to the extinct list. It’s a bit frustrating when a ferocious baboon is smart enough to chuck rocky debris at you but then shows off devolved climbing instincts. That said, most beasties are planned for their desolate shock value—like when you plummet into a safe pool of water to be munched on by crocodiles—complete with a sudden action flick score! And the souped-up boss fights (with iconic terrors like the T-rex & Demon Centaurs) are a testing treat, requiring heavy use of Lara’s fancy new slow-mo dodging move. Next time though, I hope we see grappling critters that can climb and perhaps steal Lara’s pistols. Then again, I’m almost afraid of what could happen if Crystal Dynamics engineered revolutionary fisticuffs mechanics for TR’s next-gen engine. We all remember what Ubisoft did to the Prince of Persia sequels…
While next-gen gamers are becoming used to photorealistic textures and cinematic animation, Tomb Raider: Anniversary still manages to pop eyes with its immense vistas. It’s crazy to peer down the plunging chasm below St. Francis Folly (populated with nightmarish puzzle chambers themed to the Greek gods) or up into the derelict rafters of the gigantic Coliseum and realize you will get to explore it all; nearly every nook and cranny. Unlike its linear predecessor, which featured many straightforward outdoor levels, Anniversary manages an absurd scale inside, with subterranean cities, booby-trapped pyramids and dank sewers.
The detailed textures give aged reality to these monuments, while glistening puddles, wavering flame-heat and dust particles galore let it breathe. Lara looks more fabulous than ever, particularly when those 7000+ pixels are drying off after a cool swim. She also sports a few new moves, like the ability to balance on tiny poles and use her Legend grappling hook to wall-run (à la Prince of Persia) and pull blocks. This latter move requires methodical aiming, and graspable objects no longer glisten. Overall, the moves are fun, if infrequently used, but they do make Lara feel more like the Olympian gymnast she clearly is (check out the floor routine by button-mashing the ‘duck’ button).
Tomb Raider fans don’t need convincing this latest romp is a winner. They already preordered the game when it was first announced in ‘06. It’s the large chunk of the gaming populace who tired of Ms. Croft after her first PS2 turd and still writes her off like Pamela Anderson does her breast implants. There is no excuse as to why the hordes of adventure gluttons who devoured the latest Zelda game shouldn’t be basking in the glory of Anniversary‘s sumptuous tombs. One of the primary reasons we play videogames (particularly adventure ones) is to discover virtual worlds of untapped beauty; this remake features some of the industry’s grandest.