I never played Tomb Raider before this week. I've still only now played Legend and (half) of Underworld (more on that later...). I've got the trilogy from gamefly, so I'll check out Anniversary next.
Crystal Dynamics' take on the series is the only part I'm interested in playing. I'm sure the old grid-based gameplay and puzzle design was interesting and cool, but I like me some fluid animation and choice in movement.
So, without further ado, what I like about Tomb Raider, what I don't like about it, and the fascinating way this interacts with Uncharted in my mind
Tomb Raider is cool
1. Lara Croft as a character, at least as Crystal-D has written her, is a multifaceted, funny, clever, sympathetic woman. She's deeply knowledgable like an uber Indiana Jones (can you sight-read ancient Celtic? I thought not) and feels genuinely excited about learning and exploration. As a formerly spoiled English heiress whose parents died doing this stuff, her motivations are pleasantly muddled. Now, her rack is oversized and the dress-up meta game of how skimpy can we make her is sexist and unsubtle, but beneath that bikini is a well-written human being.
2. The puzzles are fun and hard (usually in a good way). The grapple mechanic and ability to move stuff basically make up all the puzzles in these games, but the elaborate, multi-part nature of them feels epic and engaging. Slowly killing a blind Kraken or smashing your way into King Arthur's tomb with a forklift, they are often creative and usually fun.
3. Cool meta-mythology. The history and mythology in the trilogy can get silly, but for the sake of exploring, especially in Underworld, Mayan, Norse, and Hindu tombs, it's all quite exciting. Inspired turns like the King Arthur theme park in Legend and the entrance to Xibalba in Underworld cannot be missed.
Tomb Raider is Silly and Broken
1. The gunplay. God is it awful. In Legend, it's just lock-on and shoot. In Underworld, for who knows why, it's far, far worse. The slow-down mechanic is interesting but repetitive. I liked that Legend had its enemies talk to each other to give some variety, but Underworld killed that, too. With no cover mechanic and dirt-simple melee, Underworld especially feels like a chore.
2. The story contradicts its poignancy with monsters and unreality. Really emotional stuff happens in here. Lara becomes scary angry. I felt something at times. But then it's back to shooting endangered species and fighting an evil Atlantean bat lady. Oh, you liked wielding Excalibur? How about Thor's Hammer? Here's fifty thousand frost giants to kill. Man, that character death sure was chilling... GOTH DOPPELGANGER.
3. Camera and glitches. Damn it. Legend is actually pretty good. It's still PS2 era so it's more gamey and solid. I can't play Underworld anymore without replaying 6 hours. When I load my save, Lara dies. She spawns in death-liquid. At other times in that game, I got stuck in a walking animation or (multiple times) spawned further along than where I died. Blind leaps of faith and random rearrangement of the camera angle so now you're dead! are common. It makes the pretty feel really ugly.
Blasphemous as it may be, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was my entry into the tomb raiding game. Action adventure roots fall more into Prince of Persia. Uncharted owed a huge debt of gratitude to Tomb Raider. Just in these two TR games I played, I saw:
1. Same or similar locations (Nepal, Scuttled ship, burning house, mediterranean jungle, train)
2. Shoot dudes, set piece, puzzle structure
3. Mythical macguffin=story.
4. Wise-cracking protagonist
But I also found myself missing Uncharted. Deeply.
Uncharted is in the same genre as Tomb Raider, but it comes from a different philosophy. Uncharted wants you to succeed, wants you to believe in what you are doing, and wants to wow you at every turn.
Some puzzle rooms in Tomb Raider require guides because they are illogical and obtuse. Uncharted can be too brainless (the "puzzle" in Drake's Fortune was "read journal, do what it says), but it always makes sense. Similarly, the combat in Uncharted feels fair. You can find cover and pick away at enemies or run up and punch them out. Bats and spiders do not randomly accost you just to add playtime (Spiders in Uncharted 3 are actually a very cool gameplay mechanic). Tomb Raider consistently showed me jumps I knew I could make and rejected that notion as Lara's body slid fruitlessly against the ledge and into death. Drake can feel too guided at times, but, damn it, it's not fun to jump toward a ledge and fail because I was just slightly off. All I learn is to hate that ledge, not become better at the game.
I believe in what I'm doing in Uncharted. Say what you will about painting ledges red, but Uncharted never has a bunch of conspicuous poles poking out of the ice. The environment feels real, even if it is ultimately a construction to lead you onward. All the shit that breaks under Drake makes it feel tenuous and exciting rather than monotonous and predictable. And the monsters that do crop up are explained and matter. Best of all, in each city, in each area, the meticulous attention to cultural detail is astounding. The bazaars of Yemen, the bunk beds in Tibet, the incredible stone work in London--the verisimillitude is to die for. Oh, and the women are treated as people, relationships really matter, and any sexing up is character driven rather than odd (really, Lara, you're wetsuit shows butt cheek? Why exactly?).
Finally, those wow moments. The reason the train, the cruise ship, the jungle vistas, the chateau, the hotel, the reason all those matter is that they make you drop your jaw that you are playing this. Every wow moment in Tomb Raider is in a cutscene. The giant puzzles very quickly become tedious in tomb raider as each one revolves around putting shit in other shit with jumping in between. I can't express how great the puzzles in Uncharted 3 are. From spatial reasoning to fun with shadows, I felt invigorated while solving them. At some point, Tomb Raider just becomes a thankful to be done with it.
Uncharted 3's puzzles bring that game into a comparable place with the ingenious contraptions of Tomb Raider. The new Tomb Raider looks interesting, if a bit too perilous for its own good. I'm glad these series are forging their own paths. And, now that I know Lara better, it'll be nice to see a new origin for her. I'm happy to have played these games, despite the frustrations and the comparisons. I don't want Tomb Raider to become Uncharted. I want all games to learn from Uncharted's player-appreciation, believable locations and characters, and grandeur.