Admit it. Lara Croft sure is one purty-lookin’ lady.
Tomb Raider may seem like an archaic franchise to younger gamers, but there was a time (mainly the late 1990s) when the image of polygonal Lara Croft defined gaming to the mainstream and created all sorts of debate about sexuality and objectification in games. Lost among that was the fact that Tomb Raider and its sequel were solid platformers (for their time) that integrated shooting and exploration, making it a boobs-and-guns version of Pitfall for the Playstation generation.
Like many media franchises, Tomb Raider got run into the ground via overexposure and a series of bad games. Developer Crystal Dynamics came into the fray with the goal of reviving both the character of Lara Croft and the franchise; the result was a trio of games that added both gameplay and story depth to the series. Today, Crystal Dynamics is on the verge of rebooting Tomb Raider with the ever-popular origin story, but before that happens, they’ve released the Tomb Raider Trilogy for Playstation 3. Comprised of Tomb Raider: Legend (PS2/XBox 360), Tomb Raider: Anniversary (PS2/XBox 360, a remake of the original game), and Tomb Raider: Underworld (PS3/XBox 360). It’s essentially a value package to generate interest in the upcoming release while bringing these games to PS3 owners in HD.
The Crystal Dynamics trilogy was generally well received critically and commercially, though it failed to recapture the mainstream pandemonium of the original games. With the benefit of hindsight, how do these games stand up for a US$39.99 pricetag? Pretty darn good, actually, and it’s not just Lara Croft’s figure we’re talking about.
Despite the hardware generation gap between Legend and Underworld, all three games have the same basic engine except for a few tweaks in controls. To sum it up without a game-by-game breakdown, you’ve got your standard jump/interact/grapple face buttons, move/camera analog sticks, and item/weapon selection on the directional pad. The trigger buttons use an outdated lock-on mechanism, and if you’re used to playing cover-based shooters (who isn’t these days?), then locking on and blasting away will feel like a foreign experience. This does dumb down the combat a little bit compared to the on-your-feet strategy needed to succeed using the modern cover mechanic, and it’s also a little frustrating as you have less control than you should over where Lara is targeting.
Tapping in the right analog stick does bring up a targeting reticule for precise aiming, but this is a killer when it comes to combat as enemies move very fast and Lara can’t aim while moving. In fact, this feature is mostly used for shooting down specific areas in the environment, such as hooks and chains. But so it goes when re-releasing games with a dated mechanic; it’s in there, warts and all.
The good news is that the jumping and platforming controls, for the most part, feel crisp and somewhat forgiving. Underworld adds some Assassin’s Creed-style wall-to-wall hopping, and all three games recognize the need to be a little sticky when it comes to making precise jumps. It’s unfortunate that the camera often defaults to a position that makes jumping difficult. You can use the manual control to give you a better view of things, but it often takes a little bit of orientation to figure out where you are.
Let’s put these games in the proper graphical context: Legend and Anniversary are essentially ports of first-generation XBox 360 games (I’m pretty sure that’s the route they went rather than upscaling the PS2 releases) while Underworld was a 2008 release for PS3/360. With that in mind, Legend and Anniversary look very good for their age, and surpass poorer recent releases such as the previously reviewed James Bond: Blood Stone. Environments are bright and detailed through all games, and all have a visual consistency in the slightly cartoonish way Lara and other people are portrayed. The graphics do actually get better as you progress from game to game, with Underworld having the most detailed environments and lighting. And it had to be said — Lara’s figure changes with each game, too. Legend and Underworld present a more realistic version of Ms. Croft while Anniversary, being a remake of the original game, has a slightly more disproportionate model.
When it comes to sound, Crystal Dynamics did a solid job with the voice acting, giving Lara an appropriate mix of charm and snark. She’s a far cry from the generic British voice that first appeared in the early 1990s, and perhaps this trilogy’s greatest achievement is that it finally gives a meaningful personality to Lara Croft. Yes, she’s more than just boobs and guns, and the vocal performance gives necessary depth to a previously superficial character. Outside of that, musical cues carry over from game to game and give the appropriate atmosphere for exploring the many locales in the Tomb Raider world.
It is impossible to think about Tomb Raider without looking at its modern spiritual successor: the Uncharted franchise. While both share the adventures of a fortune hunter traveling across the world, the actual formula for each series is a little bit different. Uncharted’s gameplay is balanced to be about two-thirds shooter, one-third exploration. However, Tomb Raider presents the inverse of that, with two-thirds of each game based on exploration and environmental puzzles and one-third involving action. You’ll jump, crawl, climb, and run through all sorts of different environments, often without any enemies for minutes on end. In fact, the bulk of Lara’s enemies aren’t mercenaries or pirates or Nazis, but usually the local wildlife. When you do use weapons, you get a small variety throughout the entire series, and Lara’s trusty dual-pistol combo never runs out of ammo.
The bursts of action provide a nice change of pace to the platforming despite being a bit archaic by today’s gaming standards. The outdated gunplay mechanic was covered a bit in the Controls section, but it’s also noteworthy that there are a few variations on this, mostly in the form of Quicktime events and button-triggered bullet-time that leads to a timing-based headshot. The mechanism for this can vary a little bit from game to game, and I found I had the easiest time pulling it off in Anniversary and the most difficult time in Underworld.
Because so much of Tomb Raider involves exploration within enclosed environments such as caves or underwater chambers, it can be difficult to always know where you need to go due to the close camera angles and similar-looking walls. The use of a button to indicate the area’s goal could be considered a bit of simplification, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some mechanism to at least point you in the right direction when everything looks the same. This lack of a clear goal is the one thing that often turns the beauty of exploration into pure frustration.
Outside of exploration and shooting, Legend and Underworld feature their own set pieces to break up the action. This includes reasonably executed driving in Legend and some environment-twisting escape sequences in Underworld. They succeed to varying degrees, but they’re a welcome twist to the pacing and give each game more of its own identity.
There’s been a lot of nitpicking in the past few paragraphs, but the bottom line is that Tomb Raider’s inherent joy is in exploration. There’s a freedom that you get with your environment, and in most cases, you can seamlessly move between areas, searching for bonus treasures or simply trying to find an alternate route up and around an area. Too many of this generation’s games have gone between the two extremes of absolute linearity and complete sandbox gameplay; each of the games in the Tomb Raider Trilogy strikes a balance that is rarely found. It will be interesting to see if Crystal Dynamics maintains this for the upcoming reboot release.
It’s hard to argue with the bang you get for your buck in the Tomb Raider Trilogy. For the price of one discount game, you get three adventures of varying length, each with its own pluses and minuses but overall an attractive and fairly cohesive whole. It’s noteworthy that Underworld is the most buggy of the three, which is a bit odd considering that it’s the most recent and Crystal Dynamics has had time to fix issues like getting stuck in rocks or erratic cameras.
If you’ve played these games on XBox 360, there’s really no point in picking them up. But if you haven’t raided tombs with Lara Croft since the days of the PS1, this is one of the best anthology packages available and a great way to revisit a character that really had more substance (at least in these games) than a lot of people gave her credit for. Well done, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, you’ve got me very interested in the upcoming reboot thanks to this collection.