Aaaaa… yes. Nothing quite like starting a brand new blog with some new ideas to pen out. A fantastic place to get some new rambling off your chest! Its the same feeling of anticipation as sneaking back into the movie theatre after finally relieving your beach ball sized bladder: You wanted to show the extent of your endurance to the new girl you brought along, yet that large coke just couldn’t wait…aaah memories… Anyway! What better way to kick things off than with the most iconic set of breasts that has ever graced our computer monitors and TV screens. I am talking, of course, about Lara Croft from her unmistakable Tomb Raider legacy and considering that Rise of Tomb Raider has just been released to rather positive reception, I think this is the perfect place to start.
I got into gaming, sadly, at a comparatively late age and therefore never got the opportunity to play the original Tomb Raider (or Tomb Raider I as it is now affectionately known to fans) when it first came out. So while I was biking, playing soccer with friends and, you know, wasting my time with pointless things like ‘exercise,’ the whole world was seeing a video game unfold before their eyes that would have ripple effects throughout the entire industry. Particularly for modern platformers. I therefore made haste to secure a copy of Tomb Raider Anniversary back in 2007 after I heard that it was intended to be a remake of 1996 original.
Now if you want a really detailed historical overview of the franchise as a whole, I couldn’t justifiably summarise IGN’s ‘History of Tomb Raider’ article in a short space. Moreover, if you need to get in touch with the TR community and consult some astoundingly detailed walkthroughs (which all TR players do eventually), look no further than independent blogger Stellaluna’s website, tombraiders.net. She was actually credited after Anniversary for her stunning work with keeping the Tomb Raider spirit alive and well over the years. Nonetheless, before we move onto Anniversary, we can at least make allowance for two tiny bits of Lara’s history. One is an inaccuracy.
Firstly, the Tomb Raider IP (intellectual property for our new friends) was, at one point, headed for the same fate as a bottle of fresh milk in a Cairo meat market… in summer. Without a lid. The original developers based in Britain, Core Design, handed over the game franchise over to the American developer Crystal Dynamics after finishing what was to be the sixth official title in the TR series, Angel of Darkness (2003). Go look up any list of something akin to “top 10 games that nearly ruined the franchise” and you will see Angel of Darkness sitting there somewhere on the list. Usually next to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and Devil May Cry 2. Yet Angel of Darkness was the symptom, not the disease. Since the 1997 sequel Tomb Raider II, fan and critical reception had grown slowly but steadily worse as the sequels began to deviate more and more from what made the first title so unforgettable.
By the time Angel of Darkness was prematurely booted out of the door like a hobo at a pub, Lara was mostly breaking into mansions and not, uhm… raiding tombs funnily enough. It makes sense then that Eidos felt a renewed urgency to breathe life into one of their most beloved characters by handing her franchise over to a new developer. Under the care of Crystal Dynamics then came the well-received Legend in 2006 (watch this space!). Anniversary is their second game, and if you are willing to brave the herculean task of acquiring some relics and collectibles, you can actually listen to some commentary in which representatives from two different studios (Core Design and Crystal Dynamics) discuss the changes that have transpired between the original TR and Anniversary. Solid gold.
Secondly, it is a total fallacy that Lara’s boobies had ‘accidentally’ been enlarged to the physically impossible shape that finally made it into the first game and its much drooled over artwork. Puh-lease Mr. Toby Gard. Who do you think you’re kidding? We’ve all played Sims. We know what happens when you give a dude control of features on the feminine anatomy whose design ought not to be left to men!
I suppose it good custom to take a brief detour into sexism and misogyny in video games at this point, but I am just having way to much fun playing the game than staring at Lara’s curves. I’ll just pass thank you. For now, just know that Lara, like Super Mario, became recognisable even to people who never played the games because it was with Lara that we discovered how a female video game character can front a successful platformer (in which the camera actually followed YOU around) while simultaneously being recognized as an iconic modern sex symbol. So what has the TR IP learnt thus far down the road in Anniversary? After all, the franchise has had, what, ten years?
In one line (and as is the story in the original), you play Lara Croft – explorer, genetic lottery winner and daughter of famous British explorer and nobleman Richard Croft – who once again sets off to find a lost artefact going mostly on her father’s clues he left behind. The artefact here is the Scion of Atlantis, but I must confess that I still don’t know WHY she is looking for it. For the thrill? Something to do with Jacqueline Natla?… but since when has a Tomb Raider plot REALLY mattered anyway?
I must say that the level design in this game is rather engaging, and the reason why I believe this can be seen in one of the levels of Greece in which you scale and climb down an enormous central column flicking a series of switches to open a door – can you believe it – at the bottom. Not the top. My point is that Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job at breaking the feeling of linearity without having to rely on cheap tricks, such as making you backtrack through an entire level, or introducing some plot device in which you’re told “The evil warlock has cast a spell on you and now the whole world looks all wobbly and twisty so replay this bit again, but now you are only allowed to touch the green squares” sort of thing. I often found myself smiling when I jumped/swam/tumbled out of a vent/hole/portcullis only to discover that it was a point in the level I visited ages ago, and the whole point of my death defying vertical traversal was to open one measly door that I completely forgot about.
But a warning here. It was often mentioned in reviews of Anniversary that the game is buggy since Lara often refused to grab a ledge or would move in the wrong direction when jumping. I used to think the same thing until I realised that the game is actually just deadly accurate. Lara jumps and grabs in EXACTLY the direction you are pointing at unlike, for example, the Prince from Prince of Persia or Monkey in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West who thinks “well a jump to the place you are actually pointing me to might make my kneecaps come out my eye sockets, but let me jump here instead cause I figure that’s probably where you want me to go right?” This, on the other hand, is platforming precision, which results in the death of a VERY sexy English heiress if you are lax or inaccurate. And it will. Oh it will.
I won’t deny that a game play style where you have to be more careful in how you move a character through a level with surgical precision would cause some eye-twitching in even the most patient gamers. This is especially true if the check point is at the bottom of a tricky set of ravines that you are climbing for the hundredth time because you failed, again, to hold down the frikkin’ jump button long enough.
This doesn’t, however, ever devolve to the point that will leave you with a fist-shaped hole in your TV or monitor. It is a gameplay mechanic with which you can become intimate once you put in some practice. Besides, if I crave smooth, seamless platforming with more flow and less challenge, I play Prince of Persia. If I want something a bit more precise that places more emphasis on exploration, I guide Lara through an abandoned pyramid in Peru.
So blending Lara’s parkour lite with some truly elaborate levels and a dash of indescribably satisfying bullet time is a slightly improved version of the same game engine that powered Legend. It is the Crystal Engine, built from the ground up especially for Lara whose games simultaneously emphasise character representation as much as big open levels. Being the big fan of well-optimised and beautiful game engines that I am, I really liked what it did for the game. Not only did Nvidia control panel tell me that it was happily running my two GPU’s in SLI, it comes with a sophisticated set of lighting techniques, character animation and the capacity for large level design that many engines during its time could not handle with the same ease.
It just sort of looks like all Eidos games that were released in the 2000’s. Like Thief: Deadly Shadows and the Hitman games. I am not sure if it is the textures they used or just the way Eidos wanted its developer teams to render their games, but they had a distinctive aesthetic to them as if there was an imperative to make games look like they were making the most of their resources and texture quotas. After that being said, try NOT to play the PlayStation 2 version as it does not quite do this game’s visual potential justice. (Just a note, this game doesn’t seem to allow Lara’s shadow and anti-aliasing simultaneously on modern systems so you are best advised to leave the in-game AA off and drive it through your GPU control panel instead.)
So let us close off with what I think is the most imprudent but nagging question: Is this better than the original? I honestly have no clue. As I mentioned, I never played the original. Matter of fact, this was the first ever piece of Tomb Raider IP that I sunk my teeth into (rather late than never ey). But judging from the game play videos I have watched of what Anniversary was meant to perpetuate from Lara’s first appearance in the early nineties, I get the sense that the developers really went through the effort to go beyond the new coat of paint and carry through some of the game’s most central pillars that made it so famous a decade ago. The game excels at demanding some unique problem solving skills, and has a distinct Tomb Raider ‘look’ and ‘feel’ which is visible from the little bounce that Lara has in her jog, to the eeriness and isolation that the levels instil in your mind. Even Lara’s silhouettes look the same!
This, to me, is one very good approach to how one does a proper remake. It is that sweet balance between maintaining the most fundamental game play elements from an original while making room for a few enhancements that modern entertainment systems are able to offer. So if you are on the fence about getting into a franchise that left a permanent mark on video gaming, you could do a lot worse than this title.