Lara’s over 10 years old now, but can she still walk the walk?
Crystal Dynamics have had two goes at re-building Lara Croft’s status as the gaming world’s most iconic figure since Eidos took the Tomb Raider franchise from its creators Core in an attempt to halt the series’ decline. They have made all the right noises since taking the helm, and early progress has been promising, but after Legend, which was polished and entertaining enough, if not overly linear and too easy for a true Tomb Raider game, and Anniversary, which was a splendid update and re-imagining of the original, are the boys (and girls) at Crystal ready to reclaim Lara’s crown as the queen of game heroines? Or will they repeat the mistakes that cost Core (and Lara) so dearly?
Before I get going with the bulk of the review, I have a confession to make: I love Tomb Raider. I hold the original up there with Super Mario World, Halo and Final Fantasy VII as one of my all-time favourites, but before you stop reading, I am not immune to the flaws of the series. In fact, a bad Tomb Raider game hurts me in a way Star Wars fans understand having experienced Episode 1. The trashing of a beloved franchise or character is an upsetting process, but I am glad to say that having played Tomb Raider: Underworld, Crystal Dynamics are still on my Christmas card list.
The San Francisco-based developers’ first effort with Ms Croft made a statement about their views on where the series should be heading. Possibly with one eye on the Prince of
Lara can now aim at two enemies simultaneously when holding dual weapons
Persia remake, they made controlling Lara smoother, added more combat, and tried to signpost paths through levels so that the player could appreciate the new, more cinematic style. Although Legend is by no means a bad game (in fact, I quite enjoyed it), the game is somewhat unsatisfying, with the player never really challenged or given license to roam. Luckily, the level designers made some notes while they were re-making the original and have well and truly passed this year’s test. This collection of tombs includes some of the best yet, and they are positively dripping with atmosphere and their own identities. From the bright colours of Thailand to the murky depths of the opening level, each tomb feels like it was here before you turned up and will be here after you’ve gone. In addition to the overarching quality of the level design, more than once you emerge from a constricted area into a truly stunning vista that makes you wish that your controller had a screenshot function. Detail levels are also high, and the closed nature of the environments means that immersion shattering problems like pop-in and short re-draw distances are not a problem.
Unfortunately, the character design and graphics aren’t quite up to the high standard set by the environments. Although none of them look bad as such, or are poorly designed, there is a distinct lack of imagination throughout the cast of enemy combatants and you won’t see anything here that you haven’t seen somewhere else. The exceptions to this are the set-piece ‘bosses’, but the enemies here are as much as part of the tombs as anything else. Lara herself looks better than ever, as you would expect on the current generation of hardware, and watching her get dirty and wet (easy lads…) as the environment makes its mark on her is very impressive indeed and really ties Lara into the world around her.
Problems persist on confrontation with these enemies, as combat is unfocused, unsophisticated, and consists of little more than jumping and holding down the fire button. Lara can now aim at two enemies simultaneously when holding dual weapons, which could have been used to set up situations where Lara is surrounded by one- or two-shot kill enemies, but this is rarely used, with a thin stream of weak bats or spiders preferred instead. Although combat has always been Lara’s weak suit, the quality of combat in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune means that it is all the more obvious this time around.
Luckily (or perhaps because of this), combat is used sparingly throughout the game, and it never becomes overbearing or intrudes on the exploration side of the game. There are enough confrontations to keep the player on their toes, but not enough so as to make their arrivals obvious or predictable. In fact, the strength of the game as a whole is its ability to keep you interested and vary the challenge enough for it keep you interested from beginning to end. Although many of the areas boil down to traditional ‘collect x amount of items’ or ‘pull x amount of levers’ to progress mechanics, the situations are varied enough and the game is so well paced that even if you realise this, you don’t really mind.
Because of the open nature of many of the levels, much of the responsibility for the pacing falls with the score and Troels Folmann has put together a soundtrack that is not only cinematic and well arranged, but is matched brilliantly to the action. Whilst it seems to be activated by trigger points rather than a more dynamic system, it always feels natural and never distracts from the gameplay. In addition to the music, the audio is of a high standard throughout, and the ambient sounds are always hinting at a living, breathing world without ever intruding on the foreground scene. The high production values continue into the voice acting, a weak point in many games but here handled well, along with cut scenes and story. Whilst not groundbreaking in any way, it is told clearly and concisely and is cleverly structured to make the game a sequel to both Legend and the original/ Anniversary without it ever feeling forced or cobbled together.
The only other criticism that I can level at the game is regarding the famous Tomb Raider camera. Although response to manual control is generally good and there are some breathtaking wide shots and panned movements, the camera is prone to getting caught against scenery or not quite showing you what you need to see. It seems to be an improvement on previous games and is almost certainly made all the more difficult by the heavily populated nature of Tomb Raider environments, but given the work done by games like Gears of War and even Super Mario Galaxy on this front, it is still disappointing.
All in all, Crystal Dynamics have produced a game that feels like a true sequel to the original trilogy. It is refreshing to finally play a Tomb Raider game since the third instalment where you feel like you are exploring a tomb, rather than just following a developer’s pre-described route, even if it is only clever level design that obscures this fact. However, even after resurrecting all of the highs of the series, they are still to fix the lows, namely the clumsy combat and camera system, and it is only these flaws that prevent Underworld from being a great game rather than just brilliant. Although it doesn’t have the same impact as the original in this ‘next-gen’ climate, this is probably the best Tomb Raider experience to date, and if the developers can get their hands on a decent camera system, then Lara could once again take her place on the throne of video game icons.