I really enjoy agile platformers. By that I mean platform games where the player is particularly skilled and agile. Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider are the the titles that immediately spring to mind in this genre. I enjoy these games enough to dash out and buy them and, at the time of writing am very much looking forward to the XBLA Prince of Persia remake due later today.
Lara fell from grace over the last few years with Core and Eidos driving the licence into the ground. I optimistically purchased Core’s Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and, by god, it was a chore. Very stiff and unhelpful controls. Undeterred, I looked forward to Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider Legend which was bags of fun but far shorter than it should have been – I was just getting into my stride with the credits rolled by!
Tomb Raider Anniversary is the Tomb Raider game I’ve been waiting for.
Firstly, the length – it’s about three times as long as Tomb Raider Legends and feels just about right. I clocked in at about 13 hours which is probably a bit on the slow side. The control of Lara is as good as it was in Legends (which means it’s a hundred times better than any of Core’s efforts). One analogue stick for character control, one for camera, buttons for functions like jumping, rolling, aiming and firing. I recall playing the original Tomb Raider and realise today that I would have gone through that game on the original PS1 controller with just a d-pad and no analogues. Doesn’t really bear thinking about these days!
The controls are detailed to the player as you make your way up a mountain to the entrance of your first tomb. By the time you’ve got the doors open you’ll have familiarised yourself with the basics. If I recall correctly, it’s at this open door that the original game began so it’s clear to see that Crystal Dynamics have taken a bit of creative licence with the original game to make things a more satisfying and sensible experience for today’s gamers. In fact, this re-imagining of Tomb Raider is present throughout the entire game and qualifies as one of the best remakes I’ve played in recent years.
Visually the game stands up very well. I played it on the PS2 but also have the PC demo (higher res, more bloom, depth-of-field effects) and I think the animation, environments and lighting effects are pretty damn good. It’s no Gears of War but Tomb Raider doesn’t need that. Whilst GOW may have set a new standard for all games to be compared against it’s worth appreciating that ultra-hi-fidelity visuals are not entirely necessary (nor appropriate) for all of today’s games. Tomb Raider Anniversary has great lighting effects (a flame-spewing puzzle room is a particular highlight) and the visuals convey a sense of age, scale, action and organic decay more than adequately. The different locales appear distinctive and the game strikes a great balance between eye-pleasing fidelity in everything but holding back enough detail for the crucial gameplay sign-posted areas to stand out. By this I mean special surfaces that Lara can grip, visual clues, floor switches and the like. See – that’s the thing with games – everything has to look high quality but you also need to separate general background visuals from the details that give the player information that’ll help them proceed in the game. Tomb Raider does this well enough to make everything look like it belongs without the sign-posting details getting lost or the typical background visuals looking like they’ve been deliberately toned down. Everything hangs together very well and there’s some superb effects including HDR-like lighting (on a PS2!), great water, waterfall and lava effects – not to mention some suitably archaic aging and dusty effects as ancient temple doors creak open for the first time in centuries.
Tomb Raider Anniversary, as it’s name suggests, is a remake of the original Tomb Raider game. We’re not talking like-for-like remake here. Certainly all the key settings and scenarios (as well as characters and plot) match the original game as do some of the puzzle concepts and ‘feel’ of the rooms and levels. However, Lara is a more capable performer than she was a decade ago with a broader and more diverse skillset which means, for this new game to exploit all Lara has to offer, the challenges that Lara faces in the game and the route she’ll travel to navigate the treacherous tombs is mostly new.
Lara can, for example, leap onto the tops of upright poles, wall-swing and perform some interesting combat moves. The combat has been fleshed out a little more than the original (and recent Legend) game. Lara has a signature combat feature whereby constantly attacking an enemeny will enrage it. You can keep plugging away at it (and possibly beat it) before it rampages towards you or you can make a special ‘adrenaline’ evasive move which triggers a bullet-time effect. As you’re evading in slow-mo two crosshairs converge over your enemy. Pull the trigger at the right moment and you fire the killer shot that will almost certainly take out that foe. Some boss battles use this (or a variation of this) the first being the legendary T-Rex battle. The T-Rex looks great and, like the previous Legends game, also features some simple quick-time-event moments to create exciting and interactive cut-scenes. These QTEs are sprinkled lightly through the game but are rarely all that challenging.
Checkpoints. Checkpoints and savepoints in the original games were an absolute bitch. This was, I’m sure, dictated by the architecture of the orginal console and I distinctly recall Tomb Raider being a pretty tense affair with countless reloads. By contrast, Tomb Raider Anniversary has plentiful checkpoints (which also serve as save markers should you wish to save your game). In fact, it seems that every room, corridor or switch is tagged as a checkpoint in TR:A and threatens the make the game a little too lenient on the player. All in all, I’d say it just about gets away with it. The payoff is that you rarely re-tread too much of the same ground if you screw up and the game has enough challenges to mean you won’t dash through it in a few hours.
All in all, the game is pretty lenient though. Although a variety of weapons become available to you through the course of the game – offering greater firepower for a swifter kill – I managed just fine plugging away using the default twin-pistols and limitless ammo. Ammo appears to be plentiful and can be found easily throughout the game. Large and small health-packs are also dotted the environments and I had no problem beating the game with a stash of unused health and ammo. The game makes it very easy for you to save health – if your health is 50% full and you’re holding 2 health packs and you fall to your death then you’ll start from the last (and, most likely, very close-by) checkpoint with full health and the same number of health packs.
To be honest, I find the contrasting difficulties of the early and later Tomb Raider games to be the most jarring thing about them and it makes me wonder if, with the new games, that this easier setting wasn’t an attempt to make the challenging Tomb Raider games more accessible to a wider audience in an effort to help re-invigorate the franchise. Everything’s a conspiracy!
Audio in itself isn’t anything particularly stunning. Lara huffs and grunts endearingly and many of her actions are accompanied by the sounds of cables and bits of metal jingle-jangling from her belt convincingly. One point worth noting is the music tha plays during enemy encounters – it’s very well implemented and, the moment an encounter is over the music doesn’t fade out or just cut it melodically concludes and, in doing so, sounds perfectly scripted to the particular scene. It’s something that you shouldn’t notice simply because it works really well – rat encounters are definitely elavated thanks to this techinque. Another point worth noting is that much of the music is directly taken from the themes of the original game.
Croft Manor appears as a side-game to the main meat of the game. Other challenges involve acquiring all the relics and artefacts secreted around a level. Spotting them is one thing, getting to where they can be collected is quite a different story. You can track your stats (time, kills, pickups) in an area by pausing and hunting relics will unlock bonus features such as new outfits for Lara, in-game design commentaries and other goodies.
A lot of care and thought has been put into this game and I believe it pays off in abundance. The game is true to it’s source whilst being updated in terms of challenge, aesthetics and accessibility. Overall, Tomb Raider: Anniversary succeeds in reminding gamers, like me, that had forgotten what a great game the original was and how chock-full of inventiveness and memorable moments it was.
Lara, it’s great to have you back.