With the Tomb Raider series’ second reboot only a few weeks away, I thought it would be a good time to trace the series back to its origins. You see, I was but a young man when the demo for the original Tomb Raider captured my imagination. Playing the games now reveals some rather dated combat and painfully slow platforming. When I was 9 however, even moving a character through a 3D environment with a steady frame-rate was utterly astonishing. Of course the convoluted plot flew right over my head and I had to consult guides from the AOL game zone, but even when I go back to Lara’s earliest adventures, there’s a sense of discovery that’s often missing from newer titles. So if you’re willing to take a journey back to gaming’s yesteryear, I present to you this guide to everything good in the Tomb Raider series.
Right out of the door this game shows its age. Models of passports and CD players orbit an invisible axis and rotate themselves when selected as if to say “You’re goddamn right this is fully 3D. Welcome to the fucking future!” While it’s hardly impressive to our jaded eyes, this was an astonishing level of presentation at the time and the rest of the game follows suit. The first few levels are very detailed in their own mid-90s kind of way. Everything from the wolf tracks leading to the level’s opening, to the excellent transition from caves to ancient ruins gives the sense that for the developers, this was their “next-gen” project.
When you strip away the nostalgia goggles though, it’s hard to go back to this entry in the series. Tomb Raider’s mechanics are just too basic by today’s standards. Combat is hindered by the game’s clunky movement. The environments, while varied and of typical adventure serial stock (Inca ruins, Greek catacombs, Egyptian temples, and finally Atlantis), suffer from a constricted palette that gives the whole game a muted and sickly tone. The story is unremarkable and makes the classic mistake of trying to tie the adventure genre to modern science. Essentially an ancient Atlantian queen becomes the head of a technology corporation and has tricked Lara into retrieving piece of the Scion, an artifact of great and vague power. There’s very little driving the plot forward (until the last few chapters) save for Lara’s own desire for the Scion. Of course that’s what this entire series really should have been about in the first place. Combat, plot, and linearity are all secondary to the game’s main strength and theme: exploration and adventure.
Still, I would only recommend this game for truly dedicated fans. The remake from the last trilogy (Anniversary) is a far more rewarding experience. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Tomb Raider II
Now here we go! Every game developer should take note because this is how you make a sequel. With the outlandish tone already established in the first game, Tomb Raider II takes the series to pornographic levels of adventure. The levels are even more massive, there are new weapons, actual working vehicles, two new movement mechanics (doesn’t sound that impressive but it made the game far smoother), and a story that stays in the same ridiculous vein of the original but actually manages to be engaging. The opening cinematic says it all. There’s an ancient Chinese dagger that transforms people into dragons and Lara’s British imperialist instincts have convinced her that it’s now her property. What follows is the only full plot synopsis I’ll provide in this article and I’m only doing so to highlight the shear insanity of the game’s narrative.
So off we go to the Great Wall of China to slaughter the local wildlife (you seriously kill a lot of tigers and crows in this game) and find this ancient relic. After fighting your way through a pair of Tyrannosaurs, you find that the door leading to the dagger is locked. Following the clues left by a fellow explorer, you make your way to Venice. You fight the mob, kill a bunch of dogs and discover that a man named Marco Bartoli is searching for the dagger. You attempt to ambush him at an opera house but get taken hostage and flown to an offshore rig. After escaping and following the words of a tortured Tibetan monk, you descend to the bottom of the sea to fight sharks and do some great platforming on a sunken luxury liner to get an ancient key. You’d probably think that this key would open the door in China, but you’re a few hundred miles off (same country though). The key opens a door in a monastery in Tibet which leads to an underground city filled with yeti. At the very bottom of this city you do battle with an eagle-headed gorilla and finally attain the key to dagger’s chamber. Back we go to the Great Wall of China and just when the dagger is in view, Lara triggers a trap door and falls to the very bottom of the greatest Tomb Raider level ever made. It’s a series of catacombs so massive that the eagles you encounter could feasibly hunt and survive within it’s larger spaces. After ascending for what could easily be hours, you finally get back to the dagger’s chamber only to find that your Italian nemesis has already performed the ritual and impaled himself with it. Time for a boss fight? Hardly! First you have to go through a portal to a ancient Chinese dimension of floating islands and black skyboxes. And since the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an seems to be the only thing the public will ever know about Chinese archaeology, you fight animated versions of them until you finally reach the dragon’s chamber. After emptying endless clips into him and removing the dagger, you make your daring escape while blowing up a piece of Chinese history. Then, in one of the most endearing denouements in all of gaming, the mob attacks Lara’s home. She’s forced to defend herself wearing only a bathrobe and armed with a shotgun.
If you can’t tell already, Tomb Raider 2 was a very formative experience for me as a gamer. The environments are well realized in their low-poly charm and every locale has some great level design. With the movement mechanics taking a decided leap forward (you’ll still spend most of your time lining up jumps), this is a great way to experience the charm of the original Tomb Raider series without the awkwardness of the first game’s controls.
Tomb Raider III
Tomb Raider III continues in the vein of its predecessor by further enhancing Lara’s movement. In fact, the mechanics remain roughly the same for the next two titles in the series. The addition of crouching, sprinting, monkey swinging, and environment specific actions may seem like a logical step for a game about exploration, but they actually change the mechanics of the game in some pretty important ways. With crouching and swinging, the player’s path is no longer obvious and this is compounded by the fact this is the first title in the series to feature branching level design. Sprinting finally gives a sense of urgency to game’s occasional chase sequences. It’s refreshing because there’s something about running away from a boulder at a relaxing jog that takes away from the adventure serial atmosphere.
The levels, while still maintaining the great design of Tomb Raider II, are inconsistent in tone. Though the game starts off in the series’ first attempt at an outdoor jungle environment, the game features many levels in urban or man-made environments. The puzzles and platforming are still very engaging but the push to take tomb raiding out of Tomb Raider has been a bane of the series since. Unlike previous entries, Tomb Raider III begins with a prologue in India (where your killing of tigers is not only fun, but incredibly illegal) but afterwards proceeds Bioware style by letting the player choose the order they play three sets of levels before arriving at the final act. The Pacific island levels are tried and true Tomb Raider with dinosaurs, old temples, and angry natives. The levels in the U.S. begin with some very rewarding platforming in the Nevada desert but go downhill fast once yet get to Area 51. The same could be said for the portion of the game set in London. Modern settings in Tomb Raider work best as a palette cleanser, not the primary focus. The traps, puzzles, and tailored levels fit perfectly in a musty old tomb but when you bring them Thames Wharf, all plausibility goes out the window.
The game ultimately brings you to a meteorite cavern in Antarctica where Lara must face someone creating mutants for the second time in her career. The plot is pretty bare-bones as usual but as I’ve already said, that’s never truly been the focus of Tomb Raider. Yeah there’s some loose premise around keeping an artifact out of the wrong hands but we’re all just here for the scenery. While I would highly recommend the second installment, Tomb Raider III is hit and miss. There are a lot of great features and some great environments, but the game doesn’t have the sense of over-the-top adventure that the series does best.