O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, unto the blog of dankempster. You're just in time for the second part of Dan's 2012 Christmas Mega-Blog. If the first part eluded you, it can now be found here. It also explains the concept of the Christmas Mega-Blog, and the tradition behind it, so I won't get into all that again here. Instead, I'll plough straight on into the meat of this blog:
Part Two - The Festive Tomb Raider Retrospective
As part of last year's Christmas Mega-Blog, I did something I'd been meaning to do for years and finally laid bare my personal opinion of every core game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I'd played. Part Two of this year's Christmas Mega-Blog sees me revisiting and re-evaluating another video game franchise that has long been close to my heart - namely, Tomb Raider.
The end of 2012 feels like an ideal time for me to make this journey through my own personal gaming history, not least because the year itself has been pretty Croft-heavy for me already. Earlier on in the year I replayed all three games in Crystal Dynamics' Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, an enjoyable experience that nonetheless left me a little clueless as to where I actually stand with Lara these days. Another reason I've decided to pursue this idea is due early on next year, in the form of a series reboot - the simply titled Tomb Raider. Hopefully by looking back over the series one game at a time, I'll be able to ascertain exactly why this series held so much sway over my young gamers' mind (even at this early stage in the proceedings, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the breasts), and what aspects of the games I've enjoyed and deplored.
As with last year's Final Fantasy retrospective, I'll only be considering the nine games from the core franchise (and no, I don't mean the CORE franchise). Partly because Lara's handful of spin-off adventures don't really serve to represent the franchise as a whole, but mainly because I've never played any of them. As a consequence, you won't see any Guardian of Light or Curse of the Sword on this list. After racking my brains for some vestige of how fondly (or not-so-fondly) I remember them, I'll try to assign each game a star rating out of five in the true Giant Bomb spirit.
...man, I wish I'd given this a little more careful consideration before leaping in blindly on the strength of the premise alone. Ah well, can't be helped. Let's begin, shall we?
I can still recall the day that Lara Croft entered my life - Christmas Day, 1998. My parents brought a PlayStation into the house that day, accompanied by games including Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and the original Tomb Raider. I wasn't allowed to play it at first, my parents adopting the 'it's got guns in it and therefore probably isn't appropriate' line. I was allowed to sit and watch them play it, though, and marvelled at what I perceived to be huge open environments and fiendishly difficult puzzles. My first taste of the series as a player came when my dad asked me to make a jump that he couldn't, thus kindling a player/character relationship that has lasted almost fifteen years.
I think Tomb Raider won me over at the tender age of eight largely because it represented the partial realisation of a fantasy. I was obsessed with dinosaurs at the time (you can imagine how much of an impact The Lost Valley left on me), and aspired to become a palaeontologist when I grew up, gallivanting to every corner of the world to unearth hidden treasures in the form of fossils. For as long as I held that ambition, the Tomb Raider series managed to at least slightly appease it. Most of the game was centred on well-designed puzzles (to date, the Temple of Midas remains one of my all-time favourite Tomb Raider levels), exploration and discovery, with combat playing only an incidental, auxiliary role in the proceedings. Working out how to navigate the game's myriad rooms and open its numerous locked doors was challenging but immensely rewarding, to the point where the plot, the characters and the settings didn't really matter. Even looking back at it now, I find it easy to forgive the awful draw distance, the rudimentary graphics and the tank-like controls, because the simple act of playing it is enough to make me feel like an adventurer.
Tomb Raider II
My strongest persisting memory of Tomb Raider II is that it was a lot more combat-heavy than its predecessor. This was evident not only in the game's decision to feature larger numbers of mostly human enemies, but also in its much wider arsenal of weaponry - some nine or ten different weapons by my reckoning, compared to the original's humble total of four. This focus on gunfights is ultimately what has pushed Tomb Raider II below the other CORE-developed PlayStation titles in my nostalgic memory, I think. As I said above, combat in CORE's original Tomb Raider engine was simple, and presumably intended to be an auxiliary component of the games' mechanics. By bringing the most shallow facet of Tomb Raider's gameplay to the forefront of the experience, Tomb Raider II's development team stifled the thrill of exploration and discovery that ultimately made the first game so memorable to me. More to the point, fighting enemies that could shoot with pin-point accuracy meant that combat became less about opening fire while dodging the enemy, and more about holding down X and waiting to see whose lifebar dwindled more rapidly. That being said, there's no denying it was kind of fun to launch a grenade into an enemy and watch him gib into his constituent body parts.
In retrospect, the other problem I have with Tomb Raider II is that it was the first game in the series around which Lara Croft was openly treated like a sex-object. Promotional material for the game depicted Lara not only in her traditional aquamarine shirt and brown shorts, but also in revealing evening-wear and even a bikini. The fact that the publishers felt the need to appease the drooling, hormonal teen male demographic from here on out is something I've long found to be more than a little irritating, even if it's no fault of the game itself. I'm not saying Tomb Raider II was completely without merit, though. It expanded on the exploration gameplay in some meaningful ways, most notably by giving Lara the ability to climb on certain surfaces. Drivable vehicles, now a mainstay of the franchise, made their debut in Tomb Raider II. The puzzles I remember to be fairly solid, if not as outright memorable as some of those in the original, and the variety of new locations was pretty cool too. It's just a shame more time wasn't spent bringing those aspects of the game up to the level of its predecessor, instead of filling every single room with umpteen black-coated thugs wielding sub-machine guns.
Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft
I have fond memories of Tomb Raider III, the first game in the series to boast a silly subtitle (seriously, what were the first two Tomb Raider games if not adventures of Lara Croft?). Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that CORE redressed the balance of gameplay somewhat, cutting back a little on the shooting and once more placing emphasis on exploring the game's environments and solving the cryptic riddles of long-lost civilizations. The puzzles didn't always hit the mark from what I can recall, but the outdoor locales are some of my favourites in the series on PS1. From India and Nevada to the South Pacific and Antarctica, there's a very broad variety of environments to explore in Tomb Raider III, and thanks to some iterative improvements to the engine, there's a few new ways to explore them too. Additionally, for the first time in a Tomb Raider game, players were given a choice in which order to tackle them. This illusory premise of player choice doesn't really amount to much - the game starts in India and ends in Antarctica, but between those two bookends players can choose which order to tackle the game's other three scenarios in.
While the outdoor and natural environments in Tomb Raider III are some of my favourites in the series, its indoor and urban environments are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I recall hating the London levels of this game with a raw passion, to the point where I've never actually finished them, and consequently have never completed the game. That may, again, be down to the over-reliance on human enemies in combat for these levels, which is made even more frustrating within enclosed environments and small rooms. Ultimately though, Tomb Raider III was an improvement on Tomb Raider II - an iterative improvement, perhaps, but an improvement nonetheless.
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation
In tough competition with the original Tomb Raider for the title of my favourite game in the series on the original PlayStation, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation represents the closest the series ever came to truly evolving on Sony's old grey box. The engine, controls and gameplay components might all have been the same, but The Last Revelation marked a step forward for the franchise in other, less obvious ways. Taking a leaf out of several adventure games, inventory items could be combined in order to create new items or upgraded weapons, opening up new opportunities for the game's puzzle designers. At certain points, players could move back and forth between some locations at will, again encouraging level designers to stagger puzzles across multiple levels. The graphics were revamped, extending to more detailed characters models, better fire effects, and even moving lips, all making Lara and her surroundings look a little more realistic.
The most important improvement for me though, was the developers' decision to set The Last Revelation entirely within a single locale - specifically Egypt. Having a unified foundation on which to build their game, the developers put together a more focused game, and through drawing on a single subset of mythology managed to deliver the series' strongest story since the first game. The Last Revelation is by no means perfect - the aforementioned freer level and puzzle design make for some confusing puzzles in the game's later stages, and can even result in the player putting themselves in a game-breaking position on the penultimate level. There's also the ever-present issue of Lara's over-sexualisation to appease the male twenty-somethings, this time in the form of a demure, pigtails-sporting teenage Lara in the game's opening tutorial flashback. These issues aside, though, I was very impressed by Lara's fourth outing.
Tomb Raider: Chronicles
I don't have too many memories of Tomb Raider: Chronicles from my childhood, but that's probably because I was never a huge fan of it. Built around the idea of Lara's friends gathering together to share memories of her after her supposed death in Egypt at the end of The Last Revelation, it's split into four isolated 'chapters', each one telling a small story about everyone's favourite video game heroine. There's a fair bit of globe-trotting, some obscure puzzles to be solved, and plenty of treasure to be reclaimed - business as usual for Miss Croft, then. And that's kind of the problem - Chronicles doesn't throw the player any curve balls at all. The whole thing feels just a little too 'safe'.
It's probably a weird comparison to draw, but Tomb Raider: Chronicles reminds me a lot The Black Crowes' By Your Side. Much like that album, Chronicles feels like a piece of work made to fulfil a contractual obligation of some sort - like Eidos wanted another annual Tomb Raider instalment, and this is what they got. But while it's a perfectly serviceable Tomb Raider game, it's missing a lot of the soul and identity that defined the earlier games in the series. There's nothing inspired or forward-thinking about it - it's simply Tomb Raider-by-numbers, both for better and for worse.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness
Oh man. Where do I even begin to dissect the steaming pile that is Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness? I waited three years for the release of this game, a length of time that may not seem unreasonable in these post-Duke Nukem Forever days, but which seemed interminable as a youngster who at this point was used to getting an annual dose of Lara. Not a month went by without reassuring words from the developers at CORE appearing in a copy of Official PlayStation Magazine, assuring eager fans that the delay was simply to ensure Lara's latest outing was polished to a diamond-like sheen. What we got when the game was finally released in the summer of 2003 was a near-unplayable, rushed and likely unfinished mess.
The dark, gritty presentation was unnecessary and unwanted. The gameplay hadn't really evolved beyond the formula established with the PS1 titles. Ideas such as dialogue trees and an economic system lie half-finished, seemingly abandoned in the middle of development. Weird level geometry, frustratingly bad collision detection and an unwieldy camera turned every platforming sequence into a test of the player's patience. If the game has a single redeeming feature, it's in its visuals - I remember the locales of Paris and Prague being strikingly detailed, and the design of some of the dungeon interiors has left a lasting imprint on my memory (the Hall of Seasons in particular). But given a choice in the matter, I don't think I'd be willing to return to Angel of Darkness for another go round, even if you paid me.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend
Here is where I begin to feel like I'm moving into safer critical territory - having played all three Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games earlier this year, I'll be less reliant on nostalgia to guide my writing from here on out. I remember being reluctant to pick up Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend, as after the abomination that was The Angel of Darkness, I wasn't sure that Lara's new developer would be able to restore her to her former glory. Thankfully I couldn't have been more wrong. Legend revitalised the decade-old franchise with slick Prince of Persia-style traversal, improved third-person shooter-style combat, and a wealth of large-scale environmental puzzles to solve. Legend did everything that The Angel of Darkness should have done, and for that I both loved and respected it.
If I had to level any complaints at Legend, the first would be at its length. Clocking in at only seven or eight hours, it's significantly shorter than anything that came before. Crystal Dynamics attempt to make up for this by throwing in a huge number of distractions and unlockables, but therein lies my second complaint with Legend - far too many of those unlockables are there for the sole purpose of over-sexualising Lara. To give an example, the final, most prestigious unlockable, the highest possible reward the player can attain in Legend, is a skimpy bikini outfit for Lara. It goes a long way towards undoing a lot of the effort that Crystal Dynamics went to to make her feel more human - more realistically-proportioned dimensions, a great voice actor in the actress Keeley Hawes, and enough human interaction to portray a personality beyond a wise-cracking Indiana Jones-type. The story is also shockingly terrible, a bastardisation of Arthurian legend homogenised with myths from various long-lost cultures. But if you can look past these flaws, Legend is an absolute joy to play, and is without a doubt one of the best reboots of last generation.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary
This might be strange to hear coming from a big fan of the original Tomb Raider, but when I heard that Crystal Dynamics were planning to celebrate its anniversary with an updated remake, I was instantly excited. The prospect of marrying the revamped gameplay systems introduced in Legend with the story, levels and puzzles of the original piqued my interest as soon as I heard the news, and I ended up buying the aptly-titled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary pretty much immediately on its release. It didn't disappoint. Members of the original's development team were brought on by Crystal Dynamics to help build the remake, an effort that's clearly reflected in just how much a labour of love the resulting game is.
As I've said above, the puzzles of the original are almost certainly my favourites of the series, and I loved the environments too. To see them recreated in Crystal Dynamics' new engine really hit me in the nostalgia-centres of my brain, and gave the feeling that this is the kind of game the original CORE team wanted to make, had technology not put limitations on their vision. It addresses my chief complaint about Legend by clocking in at around twice its length, while still offering just as many unlockables as its predecessor. Admittedly some of those unlockables still fall into the age-old trap of turning Lara into little more than an adventurous pair of tits, but when the overall package is this great, even that's easy to forgive. If you only ever play one Tomb Raider game, make it this one.
Tomb Raider: Underworld
Tomb Raider: Underworld is much to the Crystal Dynamics trilogy what Angel of Darkness was to the CORE-developed titles. That might sound harsh, considering Underworld is ostensibly a much better game, but I think their positions in relation to their peers are comparable. Both games were developed for a new generation of hardware, resulting in games that were far more graphically impressive than their respective predecessors. However, they also both suffered from crippling bugs and a lack of innovation that ultimately disappointed the Tomb Raider fan base. Underworld is at least highly playable, and a great deal of fun when it's working properly. it's a shame, then, that it's further hampered by a terrible story that, in trying to tie together the narratives of Legend and Anniversary, makes the plot of Legend look positively Shakespearean by comparison.
When Underworld is good, it's very good. It features some of the series' greatest, largest and most detailed environments (due in no small part to the extra horsepower of being developed primarily with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in mind). The environmental puzzles are at least equal in quality to those of Legend, even if they don't quite reach the same lofty heights of Anniversary. It's just a shame that those good moments are punctuated by moments of platforming frustration and overly familiar combat. Underworld also reverts to the eight-hour length of Legend, although in this case, that could be considered more a relief than it is a disappointment.
As I wrap up writing this blog, I've checked the Steam Winter Sale and have just noticed that a collection pack comprising all nine of the games above is currently on sale for the very reasonable price of £9.99 (I'm not sure of the American store price - $14.99 maybe?). If you're willing to look past some of the archaic mechanics of the CORE-developed titles (and to overlook Angel of Darkness completely), that bundle at that price is a veritable steal. At the very least, I highly recommend you pick up Anniversary (it's just £1.74 on its own), to experience the series at its very best. I guess all that remains to be done now is to wish all of you at Giant Bomb a very Merry Christmas. I hope it's a fantastic day for you all. Hopefully I'll see you again this time tomorrow for the third and final part of this year's Christmas Mega-Blog - a ponderous look at my irrational obsession with Pro Evolution Soccer's Master League mode. Until then, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)