"My company has recently turned its focus on the study of ancient artifacts, and I am lead to believe that with the right incentive, you are just the woman to find them for me," she says, addressing one of gaming's most iconic characters, Lara Croft. "I'm afraid you've been mistaken," comes the decorous reply. "I only play for sport." Ah, but Natla's done her research. "Which is precisely why I've come to you Miss Croft. This is a game you've played before..."
Though trusting the words of a noticeably vile video game character is generally not advised, they're true in this case. Tomb Raider: Anniversary is indeed a game you've played before, at least if you had the good sense to play Tomb Raider at some point in your fulfilling life (replace "fulfilling" with "miserable" if you haven't). The reworked puzzles, contemporized controls and modern presentation may set Anniversary apart from the groundbreaking effort by Core Design, but beneath those layers lies the same game with the same ideals. Either Tomb Raider was nearly eleven years ahead of its time, or the games we play just haven't changed all that much.
I really want to describe Anniversary as a game that provides the "Tomb Raider Experience." Unfortunately, said "Tomb Raider Experience" sounds like a terrible theme park ride and isn't particularly enlightening to those who haven't experienced the, uh, "Tomb Raider Experience." (I'm going to stop calling it that now.) It really demands further explanation and further inquiry, which is just as well since this column can't very well end after just four paragraphs.
It's not unusual to question why it is that I and many others enjoy raiding tombs (that is what you do in Tomb Raider, you know), and sadly, it's even less strange to view Lara herself as being the answer. Having a widely recognized and voluptuous virtual vixen associated with your game is good for business, but it becomes a bit of a problem when the woman actually becomes the game. If you weren't better informed, you'd think people were playing Tomb Raider just to see a polygonal posterior swaying from side to side, occasionally manipulating the perspective to have a gander at the other interesting and alarmingly pointy bits. Now, I'm sure there are people just like that (of course there are!), but I don't care to share the affection for the character who essentially stole the spotlight away from the real reason the game was so phenomenal.
Is that... is that supposed to be a coliseum?
Croft creator Toby Gard likely felt the same way after seeing a pouting Lara plastered across everything from magazines to lunchboxes (and magazines about lunchboxes), and left the original design team not too long after the first Tomb Raider became an unstoppable success. The series immediately began to lose focus afterwards and as soon as Lara found herself running around Alaska with a rocket launcher, well, we knew it was over. It wasn't until Eidos took the series away from a fed-up Core Design (who actually attempted to kill Lara in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation) and handed it to Crystal Dynamics that things truly got back on track. Toby Gard even returned and helped the Soul Reaver developer do what truthfully needed to be done -- seal the post-Madonna prima donna in a tomb of her own and make sure she stayed there.
With the Batman Begins of the franchise, Tomb Raider: Legend, a new Lara was introduced, one who was three-dimensional not just in appearance, but also in terms of character. With a proper backstory, a more coherent personality and a real reason for raiding tombs, Croft stopped being an obstructive cardboard cutout and returned to being the central character in Tomb Raider, as opposed to being Tomb Raider itself. That's why, despite the usual concerns about rehashing and a lack of originality in the industry, the 1996 adventure absolutely needed a remake with a remade title character. There are still some interesting ideas in there!
At its core, Tomb Raider is about a creeping sense of isolation. Whereas many modern game focus on furiously flinging enemies at the player, combat in Tomb Raider is rarely more than a brief break in-between scaling extraordinary heights and unlocking ancient mechanisms. In fact, Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the first game in the entire series to actually get the combat right both in terms of quantity and execution. The use of the word "execution" is quite deliberate, as each encounter can now be ended by dodging a charging attacker (usually an aggravated animal) at the opportune moment and firing one fatal shot. It's dramatic, exciting and far more powerful in its understated presence. If there were ten T-Rex encounters in the game, would we still remember them?
Alright, that's definitely a coliseum. See more comparison shots at Tomb Raider Chronicles (the website, not the lousy fifth game in the series).
The real and far more intimidating enemy is the environment itself, though. Fans of the original will likely concur when I say the original game's level design was absolutely remarkable and truly memorable, to the point where seeing the environments return with glorious new lighting and textures feels like being reunited with a long lost friend -- or make that foe. You might not recall the bats and the bears that pestered you occasionally throughout your quest, but you're unlikely to forget the many landmarks you clambered across. Oh yes, the St. Francis's Folly level still greets you with a nightmarish vertical tower that needs to be traversed in order to reach outlying rooms; you'll be just a satisfied to conquer this monster again.
The mention of monsters highlights an interesting parallel between Tomb Raider and the PlayStation 2's Shadow of the Colossus, with the major exception being that the towers you climb in the latter title are usually out for a stroll. Both adventures shy away from direct combat and instead task you with figuring out how to get from point A to point B using nothing more than your character's gravity-defying abilities, creating tension in moments when you momentarily doubt if that outstretched arm will manage to grab hold of something before it's too late.
This is probably how your mind's eye sees the T-Rex scene in the original game. Trust me, it looks nothing like this.
The concept of progress through crumbling environments also goes back to the Prince of Persia series, which certainly seems to have given Tomb Raider some inspiration on multiple occasions. Jordan Mechner's classic platformer, with its myriad of traps and floors of questionable stability is a lot like Lara Croft's initial outing (sans that pesky third dimension), and when Tomb Raider made its comeback, it too drew from the fluid mechanics of the revitalized Ubisoft Prince of Persia trilogy. The last (and criminally underrated) title in that particular franchise, The Two Thrones, also trimmed its combat by implementing instant stealth kills.
While there is and will always be a place for traditional combat in games and indeed, many forms of entertainment, I'll leave you to think of more examples that challenge you with things other than snarling beasts and gun-toting crooks. I enjoy a good fight as much as the next gamer, but occasionally I'd like a break from all that,just so I can catch myself muttering aloud and wondering how the hell I'm going to get all the way up there.
(Hey, that's the Tomb Raider experience!)
TOMB RAIDER: ANNIVERSARY (PS2, PC)
The B[ack]log chronicles Ludwig Kietzmann's fight against that seemingly insurmountable and entirely self-inflicted obstacle, the ever-sprawling backlog of games that are either unfinished, unplayed or unloved. Every week, Ludwig hopes to subtract at least one and ramble on about it for a few paragraphs... if you don't mind.
If you do, let him know: