Tomb Raider Anniversary

Tomb Raider: Legend did for Lara’s career in gaming what Batman Begins did for the Dark Knight’s career in movies by resurrecting her with a slew of dramatic and welcome changes that felt, in many ways, to be a reboot of the franchise. To celebrate Lara’s ten years of cyber stardom, Crystal Dynamics and Eidos have reworked the game that had begun her journey into the annals of pop culture history with the tools that had returned her to fame in Tomb Raider Anniversary. But while it may seem like a remake on the surface, the changes and the kind of game that has emerged can feel as if it were the next official chapter to the series.

Reliving the Past

Anniversary’s remake of the first Tomb Raider dresses every set piece up with subtle effects such as the hazy heat rising from the sand covered floor of a secret Egyptian temple or the distant vista of jungle choked refuge for a dead civilization. Everything from the original title has been given a grand makeover. Light filters down through the dust of ages from holes in cavern ceilings, walls are covered in ancient carvings and painted figures, and the puzzles just as difficult as veterans may remember them. Lara’s classic look has also been given a makeover, reflecting the changes that she had gone through with Legend in making her a lot more believable as an adventurer than as a blow up doll with plenty of attention given over to the moves that you will use to jump, spin, and narrowly duck beneath the deadly dangers ahead.

Spikes…Why did it have to be spikes

Behind all of the new glitz is the story that veterans of the series will quickly recognize and which newcomers will be able to follow from one surprise to the next. But while much of the narrative can feel familiar to players like myself that had gone through the first chapter on the Saturn or the PS1, Crystal Dynamics have tightened it up and have added in plenty of new detail that polishes it into a tale worthy of a new chapter to the series.

For those who haven’t had a chance to go through it, the story follows Lara on an adventure to recover the pieces of the Scion, an ancient relic of legendary power said to have been from Atlantis itself. Natla, head of a powerful corporate empire, has asked for Lara to begin her search for the pieces of the Scion by giving her the location of one of the ruins where part of it may be found. For Lara Croft, this is an especially personal request. Her father had been searching for the Scion before he had died. Lara takes the job as a personal challenge, but deep within her she hopes to fulfill the work that her father had started. The adventure will take her from one end of the world to the next in a race to unlock the secrets of the past as she discovers that there is far more at stake than in simply raiding another tomb.

The locales that Lara will be going through are filled with plenty of deadly detail since the ancients were keen on privacy. Wild animals, devious traps, and room sized puzzles filled with precarious falls and leaps of faith are everywhere and fit in with the ancient ruins inspired by the civilizations that had left them behind. Classical Greek architecture fills secret caves deep beneath an abandoned monastery, the last refuge of the Incan Empire lies hidden within a snow capped peak, and the painted walls and imposing monuments from Egypt’s storied past provide the playgrounds that you will encounter as you unravel their challenges with every step.

Mountains

Tools of the Trade

Lara’s moves have also been updated, using the gameplay mechanics from Legend that throw away the dump truck controls and square-by-square movement of the past for the kind of freedom that allows you to swing across on bars, leap from column to column, duck beneath spinning blades, and shimmy across and fling Lara to the next broken section of ruined wall hanging several stories above a cracked and broken floor waiting for you to screw up. Lara’s acrobatics are also demonstrated with a grapple that she can use to swing on rings allowing her to run across walls like the Prince from Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia, or in her uncanny agility as she jumps and balances herself atop poles and narrow columns. When she narrowly catches herself, you have only a few seconds to hit a button to get her to balance herself before she loses her grip, but you’ll be thankful that she’s got plenty of moves to get to where she needs to go.

Just another jump

In addition to her personal skills, her famous dual pistols return with an infinite number of bullets to defend herself with. Additional weapons will eventually make themselves available, with limited ammo reserves, and combat is easy to manage as you can lock onto enemies and blast away. There’s also a twist to the fighting when the monsters you fight go into ‘rage’ mode when they’ve taken enough damage. When they attack Lara while in this mode, you’ll get an opportunity to perform a slow motion dive to avoid their charge while two sights come up and focus on the attacker’s head for what could be a killing shot or a disabling one that could buy you precious time for another attack. It’s a neat trick that is all but wasted on the bits of combat that you’ll only occasionally come into contact with for most the game. But with the boss battles, it becomes an indispensible tool to gain the upper hand. There will also be moments when the title will take you into an in-game cinematic where you will need to follow on-screen arrows by pushing in the appropriate direction as you guide Lara’s actions. Screwing up here will get Lara killed, but the game will let you start over and the sequences aren’t all that difficult to get through.

One thing that I should mention is that the game lends itself to the 360 control pad if you have one, with every button and move automatically mapped to it. While you can play the title with the mouse and keyboard, the control pad can make some of the more difficult stunts in the game easier to manage if you’re used to using one. Lara’s mansion, a side area apart from the main game, is a special location that has its own secrets to explore and practice some of her moves with either control scheme which will be tested especially in the later stages of the game.

Exploring is also rewarded. Although there’s one way through most of the challenges ahead, curious adventurers will find small artifacts, extra health, and ammo for her other weapons hidden away in less than obvious places throughout the game. Relics are particularly hard to find, but are unique souvenirs for each of the locales that they are found in. Taking the time to collect artifacts and relics can unlock bonuses in the form of art, music, character biographies, and even a few extra costumes for exploring her mansion with if you want to take a break from the main story.

Compared to the original, there are plenty of in-game checkpoints where you will start from if you save and then reload if Lara happens to meet her maker. Reloads only took a few seconds to return you to where Lara has another chance to perform another impossible jump. It’s also quite generous when it comes to restoring you at a checkpoint as it refills your health and there are plenty of health packs to be found for when you need bandages in a pinch. There’s also a very good reason for this kindness, of course.

Anniversary is hard. Compared to the challenge in Legend, the later tricks and traps that you have to navigate around make Lara’s last outing feel like a warmup session. While not impossible, the game offers plenty of frustrating gems in the later stages especially towards the end. Difficulty significantly ramps as you get further into the game. When you finally reach Egypt, the ruins there easily hold onto their reputation for chewing up adventurers en masse and leaving their bones to bleach in the sun for the jackals. And when it couldn’t get any worse, just wait until later when you begin hearing the clicking noises of each designer whipping out their pixel measuring tapes to build in plenty of old school inspired precision jumping…the kind that gave me nightmares during my Ninja Gaiden days on the NES. Did I also mention that many of the traps will also be timed? Players that have had experience with Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia will feel that the gameplay may feel very familiar, only without any neat time slowing powers or wall running tricks to grant themselves a little mercy.

Steps

Sand In Your Eyes

But as much may have changed, there are still a few things that remain the same…such as the series’ infamous camera. While it works well in keeping you focused on what lies ahead, there are plenty of situations where it simply feels as if it is getting in the way. For one thing, you can’t pan the camera back to get a better view of a scene in many instances where Lara is dangling from a rope, clinging to a ceiling, or trying to shimmy her way across a ledge. Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia allowed players to “scale back” the camera for an overview of the area that they would have to jump, shimmy, and swing their way through, allowing them to plan ahead to avoid getting killed.

Anniversary occasionally sticks blinders on your perspective when you least want it to, leaving it to you to guess whether or not there might be a ledge just off of the edge of the screen to jump backwards off to from the wall that Lara is clinging to. To make things worse, the camera’s perspective can occasionally screw with your controls as you suddenly find yourself turning the other way on a pole or rope as the view swings for that cinematic touch. This isn’t something to worry about until later in the game when the areas get more devious and the jumping through danger becomes second nature causing the camera to pan and zoom as it tries to keep up with you.

There are also a few technical issues, fortunately none of which are game breaking, but which some players will notice. The wavy water reflection effect tends to blur the edges of Lara’s body if she stands near any of the wet stuff, something that can also effect a few set pieces and other objects in the scene as well. There’s also the matter of her ability to simply walk off some ledges only to watch her get stuck in some kind of falling animation when the collision detection doesn’t actually let her drop off until you nudge it just right. This last issue was also a slight problem with Legend and it was surprising to see it here.

The combat in the game also feels a lot like an afterthought, especially thanks to the bounty of healing aids scattered everywhere and the generous number of checkpoints from which you can continue, but the boss battles do help mix it up if only to rest your brain. The puzzles are the real stars of the game and exploration is its own reward for much of what Anniversary has to offer.

The Adventure Continues…

Anniversary takes players back to the chapter that started it all, but instead of retelling the story that veterans know all too well and which a new generation of players may know nothing about, it manages to retool itself into a complete adventure that feels fresh for both perspectives. In much the same way that Square-Enix has done for their re-releases of Final Fantasy classics, Anniversary redefines the bar for remakes with a game that is packed with feels to be twice of what was found in Legend. By the time I made it to the end, I had spent nearly twice as much time in slinging myself through one death defying stunt after another in Anniversary. Lara’s return in Legend thanks to revamped mechanics and polished gameplay was a welcome reboot to the franchise making Anniversary’s celebration of the first title that put her on the map a reminder that Crystal Dynamics continues to do their homework.

If you’ve never had a chance to experience the first title, now is a better time than any to experience the potential that the series has resurrected. Veterans looking to see what Lara’s first adventure looks like today will be pleasantly surprised and frequently frustrated as they avoid getting shocked, burned, stabbed, crushed, and eaten in their walk through locales that are familiar but as every bit as deadly as they might remember.

- World 1-1

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