Tomb Raider: Anniversary
In recent years, remaking games has become something of a fad. We’ve had the likes of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, Resident Evil, Doom 3, Dead or Alive Ultimate, as well as the forthcoming likes of Speedball 2 and Chronicles of Riddick. However you feel about these remakes, it’s probably fair to say that in most cases the gameplay, presentation and technological enhancements make for an overall better game.
Tomb Raider: Anniversary (or Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary to grant it the full title, but honestly, who really refers to it as this?!) is the latest game to jump on this bandwagon. Rather a directly-influenced reinterpretation than a straight remake (similarly, like most of those mentioned above), it takes elements from the original Tomb Raider and jazzes them up with up-to-date controls, cutting-edge PS2 graphics, fully re-written and re-recorded sound and script as well as reworked level design.
The first game’s greatest success - and ironically, the major element that was lacking from probably any of the sequels - was its outstanding ability to place you in huge, desolate, isolated environments and make you feel like you were intruding where no human had been in thousands of years. Praise be, then, that with Anniversary developer Crystal Dynamics have recreated this ambience and loneliness perfectly; there are no human goons here to shoot, Lara (thankfully) has no outside support and it takes place almost exclusively in underground tombs, caves or ancient temples. In terms of atmosphere, seclusion and grand environs this is one of the foremost games available.
Graphically, Anniversary continues the late-in-a-console’s-lifecycle trend of being stunningly pretty. In particular, the Lara character model is incredibly detailed, with excellent dynamic lighting effects and superb animation almost without exception. Environments are home to some lovely lighting effects, Lara stays dripping and glistening when she gets wet (careful now) and there is an excellent heat haze effect. The locations have a very organic, abandoned feel to them, there are lots of attractive incidental details and some of the scenery is truly awesome (in the traditional sense; not in the surfer style), such as some of the vast stone monuments in Egypt or the huge flooded ‘cistern’ rooms in St. Francis’ Folly. The overall art style is very commendable and there is an abundance of attractive special effects, none of which are exactly new, but still impressive nonetheless. It may not be quite the very most attractive game on the PS2, but it’s hard to think of more than a very small number of games which would beat it to that accolade.
You have to wonder why Lara chose this vocation. I mean, sure it’s exciting, but then so is Ten-Pin Bowling, and the key advantage there is that your life is rarely in danger, unlike with Lara’s current career path. With her agility and acrobatics the Lady Croft could have easily joined a circus, or been an extra in a Jackie Chan movie, or something (maybe this was a bit – y’know – below her?). Anyway, thanks to this wonderful nimbleness negotiating the vast levels and vertigo-inducing surroundings is generally a pleasure, helped by her wide selection of moves which include all types of swinging, leaping, somersaults, etc, plus new entries Wall-Running (with the aid of her grapple) and Perch. While many of the moves and much of the general platforming feels very similar to a certain Middle-Eastern monarch, Crystal Dynamics have still produced probably the most appealing, playable and satisfying action-adventure-come-platformer since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
The camera is generally an exceptionally strong aspect, although it does have a tendency to seize up in very small spaces. You can move the camera around with the right analogue stick which is useful for surveying the environment, and Lara can also go into manual aim mode with a depress of R3, which, despite being fairly useless in combat (things move too quickly to use this, and she has a perfectly adequate auto-aim anyway) it also comes in handy for scouting out hidden treasures and concealed routes. The camera is also pretty savvy when Lara is hoicking herself around tiny ledges or jumping between columns forty feet in the air, as it helpfully swings back to show what (if anything) is around her, and whether you’re about to leap into thin air or not - which is obviously pretty useful. There’s also a handy centre-camera button at the touch of L2, although generally the camera is good enough that you shouldn’t really need this. The only problem with things is that the viewpoint goes a bit erratic in small spaces and becomes momentarily useless, but there are literally only a few places in the game where this happens.
In another nod back to the design ethos of the original, the combat now very much takes a back seat to the superb and abundant (and often difficult) puzzling. Encounters with enemies are relatively infrequent, often startling and tense. This is helped by an assortment of fearsome enemies which includes bears, crocodiles, lions, gorillas, Velociraptors, not to mention the return of the first game’s much-revered T-Rex (which now takes the form of a hugely enjoyable boss battle). Enemies are swift and powerful and are more than capable of killing Lara in a very short space of time, so you will have to take advantage of her remarkable agility and dexterity to avoid and defeat foes. Also, this being an action-adventure in the 21st Century, Anniversary also includes the obligatory Bullet Time-esque slow motion. Enemies sometimes get angered and charge at Lara in a ‘Rage’ attack, and when this happens the nubile Ms. Croft can leap sideways with an ‘Adrenaline Dodge’ where she gets a small window in which she can perform a one shot kill. Although hugely clichéd, it actually works really well and the fact it’s not over-used definitely works in the game’s favour. This also becomes essential during the boss battles, where you can use their momentum and anger to your advantage and inflict critical damage. There are only a handful of boss battles, but they’re consistently good, requiring a mixture of acrobatics, gunplay and cerebral exertion, plus they generally take place in attractive and memorable set-piece locations and their design is imaginative (even if they are essentially derived from ideas introduced in the original TR). That said, it is a bit of a shame that three of the boss battles from near the end of the original have here been reduced to context-driven interactive cutscenes.
Given the rather nonlinear nature of the levels and the relatively occasional combat, it’s fortunate that the level design and puzzles are excellent almost without exception. Make sure you have the grey matter well and truly engaged, particularly in the latter stages where some of the puzzles are frequently tricky and will probably keep many people stumped for at least ten or fifteen minutes. The puzzles tend to take the form of either cunning level design or perhaps a deviously tricky switch mechanism (or sometimes both) and can be difficult almost to the point of frustration. Usually the key to progression lies somewhere in the environment be it a hidden switch, a clue in the form of a mosaic or a well-disguised grapple point. While none of it is especially original, it’s all implemented to excellent effect and both the logical and environmental puzzling is again probably the best since The Sands of Time.
With all the platforming and dizzying level negotiation Lara must perform, things would pretty much fall apart if this wasn’t married to competent and gratifying controls – thankfully, this is not at all the case here. Controls are sensibly laid-out (excepting the ‘grab’ button if you choose to do this manually – at R2 it doesn’t feel terribly comfortable) and generally very responsive. The only real problem here is that to do certain moves you have to press one button then another immediately (like X then square to latch her grapple onto something), which definitely takes some getting used to and doesn’t always work due to the instantaneous timing required (which - particularly in the case of the grapple - can result in some annoying accidental deaths). Regardless, this is an intermittent criticism in a wonderfully fluent and enjoyable game.
Unlike some of Lara’s previous outings, her inventory and equipment here is stripped down to the basics, as it was in her first adventure. That means things are kept simple with only four types of gun (pistol, shotgun, Uzi and heavy handgun), medkits and the grapple taking up room in Lara’s backpack (along with a couple of items you can only use in specific circumstances; like keys for example). Lara also has a journal where she makes notes on her journey or specifically on her surroundings, which is sometimes useful to get hints on how to progress. You can choose between guns with left or right on the D-pad, and large or small medkits with a press of up or down respectively. Things are kept easy and simple and this is very much to the game’s credit.
Staying true to most elements of this re-imagining, the music, story & script have been re-worked and given a slick 2007 facelift. The music is an excellent operatic score replete with harmonious choirs, which features several different tunes depending on the situation or confrontation. Each of the enemies has their own dramatic tune, which really helps heighten the tension and get the pulse racing. One of the best aspects of the score is that it’s so understated; outside of confrontations the adventure is rarely disturbed by music, and the exploration is generally silent, with the only sounds being those of Lara herself or the general atmospheric and ambient noises. It helps build on the prevalent sense of isolation, and creates a very strong atmosphere. The story remains the same – Lara is hired to retrieve the Scion of Atlantis, and before long finds out she is but part of a bigger, potentially cataclysmic plot. Things are a little more developed than before, with more excellently-produced cutscenes and a slightly more in-depth look at Lara’s compassion (or perhaps lack thereof), and the legend of her late father, the explorer Lord Richard Henshingly Croft.
Technically things are pretty impressive. Aside from the lovely graphics, the animation on Lara is exceptional; whether she is somersaulting, diving or leaping between ledges, she always looks excellent. One of the game’s strongest aspects is that the whole adventure is almost unbroken – in each of the four major areas the game takes place in there are no intrusive loading screens, which really lends a consistent, continuous feel to the adventure. There are loading screens (plus a bit of plot development to move things along) between each level, but considering that this means there’s about one loading screen every three hours or so and it’s a pretty impressive technical feat. Elsewhere the frame rate is rock steady with no slowdown, there is frequent checkpointing and you can save at any time (which restarts you at the last cleared checkpoint), environments are vast and glitch free and Lara now has rag-doll so when those death-defying leaps don’t turn out so death-defying after all, we get to see these physics at their wince-inducing best.
It’s not as though this is a game without flaws, but it’s so well produced that they really are few and far between. The level design can occasionally frustrate, due to the actual lack of direction – you know where you need to get to, but how to actually get there can be vague and confusing. That said, this is the sort of thing which should not happen more than about once every two or three hours and some people will welcome the idea of puzzles which will keep them stumped for half an hour upwards, so it depends on personal preference. Some of the level design in the last section of the game can get annoying, too. The thing is, due to the nature of the level design throughout the game a lot of it is trial and error is required, but in the latter areas there are a lot of extended sections where if you fall or mis-time jumps you will meet an instant death in a nice pool of magma. Having to replay the same 30 seconds of level over and over is not fun, and it makes you realise just how useful the time rewind ability was in the recent Prince of Persia games.
Anniversary comes with plenty of extras to keep you interested after you’ve completed the 12-15 hour main quest. Principal of these is the returning Croft Manor, which has received a facelift and reworking since last year’s Legend. Essentially it’s like an extra level, with lots of item collection and to-ing and fro-ing to unlock the secrets of the Croft Estate, and is a worthy accompaniment to the main game. Additionally to that, there are other extras and unlockables such as level commentary (very interesting if you want to know more on the concepts, design and ideas behind the areas), extra costumes for Lara, character biographies for everyone in the game, a cutscene theatre and time trials for when you replay levels. What’s more, you can pick up a three-disc special edition which has the game on the first disc, all sorts of short features and documentaries on the series’ history (the main part of which being a 40-minute documentary) on the second disc and the soundtrack from both Anniversary and Legend on the third. It’s all presented in a chunky cardboard case, and if you are a big fan of the series or the game this version is definitely worth paying a little more to obtain.
In conclusion, Anniversary delivers everything the first game did eleven years ago – backed up with 2007 technology – to wonderful effect. On almost every level it sets out to achieve, Anniversary is a resounding success. Whether it’s actually better than the original is totally subjective and obviously wide open to personal opinion (the tinted spectacles of nostalgia have a way of twisting memories of classic games…), but it is unarguably a faithful and satisfying adaptation which treads the line between the fresh and the familiar, the expected and the inspired, the new and the old almost to perfection. If you like a good old rollicking adventure, you need Tomb Raider: Anniversary. It’s as simple as that.
Nine out of ten