Tomb Raider feels just like Tomb Raider should

Friday, 1 March 2013 08:37 GMT By Brenna Hillier

With decent combat and super-slick visuals, Tomb Raider is almost unrecognisable as the much-loved, dated franchise Brenna grew up with – but something just feels right.

Tomb Raider: Then

The first Tomb Raider released in 1996 on PC, Saturn and PlayStation. It was one of the first non-shooters to use the then-new technology of polygons to craft sprawling explorable 3D environments. The bold choice of a female protagonist was inspired by an emphasis on puzzles over action – brains over brawn. Her original trademark ridiculous chest came about thanks to an error, but unfortunately stuck, diluting Core Design’s intent.

Core Design churned out a sequel every year for four years, thoroughly exhausting itself. The formula barely changed but the novelty wore off, and by 2000’s Tomb Raider: Chronicles, sales had died off significantly. Core attempted to revive the franchise with a jump to PlayStation 2, introducing a new character and many new gameplay systems in 2003’s Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. Development was more than troubled and the result was appalling. EDGE has an excellent post-mortem. Eidos moved the series to Crystal Dynamics, then best know for its successful Legacy of Kain games, especially Soul Reaver. Core was later sold to Rebellion, which absorbed the remainder of its team and assets.

Tomb Raider has had a couple of composers in its time but the early music by Nathan McCree has stuck with me the most strongly, because the sound team did a great job leveraging the limited storage space at its disposal in reusing a small number of tracks. Especially in the first two games, Core Design was clever in its atmospheric use of audio; when Lara entered a grand new chamber, encountered a stunning vista, or uncovered some ancient secret, a little bit of music reminded you just how awesome it was to be raiding tombs. I call these “monk moments” in tribute the chanting which was used in Tomb Raider II.

One of the ways Tomb Raider really lives up to its famous forebears is by packing in plenty of monk moments. Some of these are really obvious; when you reach an elevated point and a view opens before you and when you break through tunnels into a ruin, a bit of clever camera work, music and perhaps even a comment from Lara helps communicate what your eyes should already have informed you – you’ve just come across something amazing.

This feels very true to that old Tomb Raider vibe, but what the new game adds to that is an emphasis on small moments, too. The signal-to-noise ratio is astonishing, with something charming to look at or think about in every area. In the very first chamber Lara reaches after escaping captivity at the beginning of the game, the camera swings around to display some sort of baffling, ghastly altar. Many of us, unfortunately, can’t be trusted to look at the environment and pick up story cues, so usually in this sort of situation you’d either miss out on a great bit of design or have to watch a cutscene in which the protagonist babbled a list of moronic questions so that the idiot (me) holding the control pad would definitely have some idea of the narrative drive moving them forwards.

Crystal Dynamics has opted to be gentler; the camera swings so subtly and so clinically that your eyes naturally follow the shift; it almost feels as if you really walked into a room and stopped short, clapping your eyes on this thing. Lara turns her head, too, and exclaims. And that’s it. No more exposition or handholding. You are Lara, in this unfamiliar place, and you’re both looking at something disgusting, wondering what the fuck it is, and deciding not to hang around and find out. Lara’s desire to GTFO is mirrored by the player’s desire to get on with playing the game. There’s no dissonance.

There are dozens of examples like this, short moments of shock, awe or curiosity – some dramatic and others quiet – as Lara moves through the world, examining it. Her education outmatches the player so that she acts as a kind of guide – she’ll tell you when a statue is ancient, or unusual – but her intuitions never leap ahead of the player’s.

In fact, if you go looking for the several kinds of collectible available to achievement hunters and power gamers, you’ll probably beat her to the conclusion. Since Crystal Dynamics can’t assume you’ve been listening to Lara’s journal, reading diary fragments, and generally being observant, Lara’s intellectual journey has to progress a little more slowly than you may. “No shit, Lara,” I commented on several occasions as our hero put the pieces together.

Tomb Raider: Now

Crystal Dynamics produced three games in the “second generation” of Tomb Raider, introducing a greater emphasis on climbing, fluid platforming, and improved combat. Those who feel the new game bears too strong a resemblance to Uncharted should probably revisit Legend, Anniversary and Underworld, the first of which released before Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and remember that Amy Hennig and other members of Crystal Dynamics’ Soul Reaver team made the jump to Naughty Dog.

The last game of the second generation, Tomb Raider: Underworld, did not meet sales expectations. Square Enix has acquired publisher Eidos in the interim, and made the risky but rewarding decision to greenlight a second complete reboot of the franchise. Crystal Dynamics spent five years on the no doubt massively-expensive project, with square Enix approving a couple of delays on the way. No expense spared to return Lara to the forefront of gaming she once occupied.

Nevertheless, it’s really worth chasing those extra materials down, not just for the backstory but for the pleasure of finding them. Spotting an apparently inaccessible area off the main path and then figuring out how to get there is rewarding in and of itself. The Relics you find are like a surprise toy in a delicious box of cereal. Crystal Dynamics has lovingly created a wide variety of ancient and modern items that Lara finds in small, sometimes fiendishly well-hidden boxes around the environment.

Once Lara opens the box, displaying a delightful little frisson of intellectual avarice in expression, animation and voice, she’ll give you a very quick explanation of what the object is. You can turn it over and look at its meticulous re-creation, and doing so will occasionally reward you with further comments.

Finding all these Relics will help you level up faster but otherwise contributes nothing to gameplay, and yet for me it was one of the most enjoyable aspects of Tomb Raider. By the time I’d found a few I started to get interested in these things and what they were, and in putting together the twisted history of the island. I felt the same kind of things Lara would feel, I think – an interest in the people that came before, and how they lived. It was like Crystal Dynamics had leveraged my very mundane min-maxing tendencies to inspire a connection between me and the character I was controlling.

Tomb Raider isn’t a sequel to those early games, or even the newer ones which followed the franchise’s first reboot. It’s an origin story for a new canon, one built to be forward-looking, so Lara can enjoy adventures for many years to come. It probably had to be done, and where Crystal Dynamics deserves mega credit is how it kept alive so much of the pleasure and original spirit of Tomb Raider while building such a thoroughly modern and satisfying action game. Yes, the combat’s no longer shoddy in the extreme, and yes, Lara’s not going to be getting into Mensa for her puzzle-solving this time. But that general feeling of seeing strange places and finding things nobody has understood in thousands of years – that’s alive and well.

So many small things go into creating this system – the cinematic action; the monk moments; the collectible system; the incredible environmental design; and the way these things are carefully pieced together. These are meticulously designed aspects, each one polished to such a gleam that it is indistinguishable from the gem of overall gameplay, and as such, are probably not going to get enough appreciation. Be like Lara; spend a few moments picking over the treasures, observing and appreciating the craftsmanship that produced them, wondering about the people who produced them, and why.

Tomb Raider releases on March 5 for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.