As 1996 drew to a close, the first significant raft of 3D releases were beginning to emerge, with Tomb Raider being among the first of that wave.
Mario 64 had been released only a few months previously, taking the strong level design and imaginative puzzles the 2D Mario’s had been known for, and converting it into a gloriously colourful and endlessly playful 3D World. Before anyone could become accustomed to the new perspective, Core Design released an entirely different game in Mario 64’s wake.
Taking inspiration from Indiana Jones and Egyptian architecture, Tomb Raider used a traditional puzzle template but encased it in a beautiful and atmospheric 3D world. Eschewing action or significant gun combat, Core Design played to the limitations of the hardware by allowing the environment to overshadow all areas of the game. Rather than becoming a detriment, the limited draw distance and lack of furniture became a great asset to the atmosphere. From the very outset in Peru as the doors closed behind Lara, the ancient and barren world is foreboding unlike any other game of the 32bit era. The vacant passageways and dimly lit caverns evoking strong feelings of loneliness and history throughout the adventure.
With this intentional design focus on the world, encounters with enemies retained a sense of dread that is absent from the majority of games before or since. As the tombs are so empty and haunting, the far away cry of a Wolf or Bear is frightening, with the natural response to draw your guns from their holsters, and frantically get to higher ground to gain a vantage point. When the animal runs into sight, the combat is quick and tense, with none of the circle strafing and precise aiming of an action game. As the majority of enemies were animals, the simple artificial intelligence of your attackers were suitably animalistic in their nature, with the creatures taking you unawares and running head on.
Lara was incredibly dexterous at the time, and retains a sense of weight and precision, but the most defining element of the control was the cube based construction of the world. Every square metre of the underground catacombs and cliff faces were built in cubes and the control allowed for precise navigation around these vast mazes. Although many criticised moments that required a leap of faith, all that was required was some patience and carful exploration of the area. With Lara not able to fall off a cliff whilst walking, and all jumps being clearly defined in distance by blocks, it is a joy to revisit the world and take your time in lining up a jump or swan diving into water.
From the opening arrival in the snow-capped mountains of Peru to the search for the remaining piece of the Scion in Egypt, the game is full of wondrous moments. The terrifying reveal of the T-Rex in the valley, the hand of Midas room, the quiet sense of danger that is prevalent throughout, surfacing through a underground cistern and discovering a treasure, an incidental piece of music that plays after minutes of silence, the exploration of the desolate remains of a monastery in Greece, to the endless white knuckled jumps. Words can’t do justice to the sheer detail and atmosphere that Tomb Raider paints its world in.
As time passes on and the memories fade into history like the Egyptian hieroglyphics that adorn its walls, Core Designs masterpiece deserves to be revisited, just to be reminded how brilliant Tomb Raider is.