In the summer of 1998, I borrowed both Tomb Raider 1 and 2 from a friend and was completely engrossed. I beat them both, back to back. They were each completely different experiences to me, but I enjoyed each of them in their own frustrating way. No... not like that, pervs. I meant playing the games.
For their time, they were amazingly original 3D adventures. They did new things no one had really done before at that time. It was fun going through the levels very slowly figuring out how things work, and what you needed to do to get to the end of the level. Pretty simple really when put like that but over time I learned to appreciate them for that. Even with their quirky camera, shoddy aiming and tank-like movement. It took a level of patience I never knew I had before. The full motion video cut scenes helped to make things better though.
They made all the hard work, worth it. Back then, FMV anything was still amazing and Lara Croft was a joy to watch in action. She moved like an acrobat, had great voice acting, and preformed some pretty impressive stunts. Yeah, she was sexy, but above all things, she was an interesting character that wasnít full of herself. She had the right level of cockiness and confidence. She was the female version of Indiana Jones, and it worked.
What? The original games are VERY old 3D graphics. Retro Lara Croft is much easier on the eyes, trust me.
Then I tried the 3rd installment of the series... I choked back the bile in my throat and decided to stop playing the series. It didnít feel like Tomb Raider anymore. It was something else and I had had enough. I was more than okay with that decision after seeing what Core Design did with the series in the following years. The Last Revelation in 1999, Chronicles in 2000 and The Angel of Darkness in 2003, by all opinionated accounts were all sub par games. I figured I wasnít missing much.
Recently however, I heard mixed things about the new Tomb Raider game, Underworld. After reading reviews/comments and hearing random podcast discussions (Destructoid, I love you) about how good/bad it was, my interest in the series was sparked once again.
Where has the series gone since I last left it?
Where the games really good again?
I looked into who was making them these days and was shocked to find that Crystal Dynamics had taken the reigns from Core Design. How did I miss this news?? As a big fan of the Soul Reaver/Legacy of Kain series, I knew there was now potential for worthwhile Tomb Raider games once again. Not only did they do Underworld, they also made the last two games in the series, one of which was a remake of the very first Tomb Raider! Wow! Where the hell have I been? Oh well, itís never too late to play a good game. So I did just that. Tomb Raider Anniversary (slight spoilers, not really)
Tomb Raider Amazing, is what they could have named it. I am blown away by how much difference 10 years can make in a game series. From beginning to end, I felt like this was the absolute perfect Tomb Raider experience.
No longer does Lara Croft move like a robot. She is agile, quick, and easy to control. Everything about her movement, feels very tight. From wall running with the newly added grappling hook to pole swinging acrobats onto moving ledges, everything has a smooth feel with seamless animation that makes for fun, not tedium. I can do so many cool things with relative ease when years before, I could only watch them in cut scenes. Its almost as if the FMVs of the old games are now the gameplay. Well, almost.
The level design in Anniversary has got to be some of the best out of all the Tomb Raider games. There were parts I remembered vaguely from the original game, and it wasnít surprising to find out that Crystal Dynamics purposefully worked memorable sections in to the new designs. They kept the original feel and look of almost all of the levels, and then added so much more with traps and puzzles galore. It became very addicting solving things on my own without a guide. Told you Tomb Raider 1 screens are hard on the eyes, lol. Back then, it was amazing I swear.
Seeing how everything else is fun in this game, it comes as no surprise that fighting enemies is too! Flips, spins, rolls, along with the new dodge mechanic are all a delight to work in combination with the lock on aiming. Boss fights no longer suck the fun out of exploring! They are a welcome and exciting change of pace now. Enemy encounters are still as short and intense as I remember them, only now they have a seemingly cinematic quality to them.
The biggest change from TR1 to TR2 was the addition of human enemies. It always felt like killing people was wrong. Add a flawed aiming system (or lack of) on top of that and you have a recipe for fail. TR1 was full of creatures, monsters and critters. Then, out of no where, Lara Croft found herself in a John Woo movie, complete with motorcycle tricks and all. While it was entertaining to watch, the developers kind of missed the point of their first game. Lara had now become a cold blooded killer with zero explanation as to why. I have no problems killing people, if thatís where the creators want to take the character. They just forgot to lead us there story wise.
Anniversary did something very clever with the writing in that regard. They added an element of character development for Lara, by including the emotions, feelings and events that surrounded her very first kill. I wonít give away the exact details, but it is very cool to witness and once again especially because Lara now has actual facial expressions to show a mixture of emotions. Like everything else in this game, it felt right.
Why are the quick time events awesome in Tomb Raider Anniversary? Because my friends, the action on screen slows down when a button press is about to be present. That way, you can focus both on which button to press, as well as what is happening to the characters on screen before, during, and after a button press. What a novel concept! With most games, QTEs have things moving at an unbelievably fast pace. So fast that you canít enjoy whatís going on, because the second you get absorbed by the action, you miss the button. By slowing things down momentarily and then speeding up again, it gives the player a chance to both be a part of and enjoy the event. Sweet!
Musically, I have no recollection of the original games. None. Not to say they werenít good, but 10 years ago, they really didnít make an impression on me. Anniversary however, is another story.
It took Troels Brun Folmann 5 months to compose the score, and it is outstanding. The title music is wonderful and if you play through the Croft Manor side quest, turn up the volume! It never once got old to me. Subtle changes in track from room to room while keeping the main Croft Manor theme going was a very impressive artistic choice. More games need to do this.
Needless to say, I love this game. I know, I probably should have played Legend first since that is Crystal Dynamicís first attempt at Tomb Raider, but I just couldnít pass up the original Tomb Raider experience of isolation and exploration. I love that feeling, and they recaptured it very well.
From what little I played of Legend just recently, it is easy to see how much extra polish they put on Anniversary. Everything just feels a little bit better. It is also weird to be killing people again, but not nearly as jarring as TR2 was thanks to Anniversaryís story. Iím glad I went back in to the series in this order as things make more sense.
Iím looking forward to completing Legend and then playing through Underworld. By that time, theyíll have screwed up the series again Iím sure. From what I hear, Eidos wants another revamp in gameplay, another re-image for Lara in another sub par game. They just donít know a good thing when they have it, do they? In any case, at least Crystal Dynamics was able to attain near perfection with Anniversary.