What a strange long trip it's been for the Tomb Raider series. When Core Design created the original Tomb Raider in 1996, they were setting the template for not only several Tomb Raider games to come, but also for countless 3D action games. Lara's first couple of adventures were solid, ahead of their time games that are still cherished to this day. Yearly updates to the franchise followed, and somewhere along the profit margin and complacency Core lost its way. Lara Croft's adventures soon became something of an industry joke, culminating in 2004's atrocious Angel of Darkness. Core's problem was that they simply didn't advance the series enough, particularly in the controls department, and seemed content putting out rehashes with new levels and little improvements. Lara always controlled like a tank, running around on an invisible grid that made her movements clunky and inaccurate at best. What was forgivable and even ignorable in 1996 became a laughing stock by 2004. Therefore the smartest thing Lara's publisher, Eidos, ever did was the take Core's baby away from them, and grant custody to Legacy of Kain developers Crystal Dynamics.
Crystal Dynamics gave the franchise some serious CPR. They took out everything that was terrible about the Tomb Raider franchise (read: Controls, lousy graphics, puzzles that were way too vague) and kept everything that made it fun in the first place. This effort produced one of 2006's absolute best titles in Tomb Raider Legend. All of sudden, Lara was agile, sexy, dangerous, and most importantly, fun again.
Now, Crystal Dynamics has seen fit to remake the original title using the swanky new Legend engine. Due to limitations in the original design of the game, Anniversary is not quite the phenomenal experience that Legend was, but it is still a damn fine game in its own right.
I missed the original Tomb Raider during its original run in 1996. My experience with the game is limited to a demo disc that came with my PS1 back in the day. Still, my memory of the game and especially its sequel is vivid enough to remember the awkwardly vague solutions to puzzles, the frustrating controls, and the looming and challenging level design. Anniversary dispenses with all of that, and starts fresh, using only the most basic template set forth by the original game in this remake.
The game begins in snowy Tibet, as Lara has been tasked with tracking down a mystical artifact known as the Scion. The Scion is broken up into three pieces that will have you scouring some of the most remote places on earth to find them. Along the way, you'll have to navigate some lethal tombs and environments, in addition to rival Tomb Raiders and a variety of enemies such as dinosaurs, bears, lions, bats, rats, and other enemies that PETA would love to know about Lara slaughtering.
The game consists of four main Tombs that are split up into smaller sections. Don't worry about there only being four, as these tombs are absolutely titanic. Getting from the entrance to the Scion piece in each one will take several hours each. There are some individual rooms within these tombs that will take hours upon themselves to solve. This is definitely not a game for the impatient. Rather, it is a slow paced, pensive game with a focus on exploration and discovery, rather than blasting everything you see.
Exploring the tombs is a snap thanks to the streamlined controls that allow you to do what you want to do ninety percent of the time. Occasionally you'll have trouble lining up a jump and fall to a sickening death, but for the most part, Lara controls every bit as well as she did in Legend. This means that you can leap from ledge to ledge with ease, and the sheer amount of moves that Lara can execute borders on staggering. This is also one of the few three-dimensional games that feature great swimming controls that make it easy and efficient to swim where you want to go. Problems arise when Lara simply doesn't do what she's programmed to do. An example: whenever you run off a ledge, Lara is supposed to grab the ledge and save herself from plunging hundreds of feet to hard concrete. Sometimes, she simply won't grab the ledge, forcing you through the same gauntlet of hazardous jumps to get back to ledge that you can only hope she'll grab this time. It's not a frequent issue, but enough to cause some periodic cursing at the screen.
Make no mistake though; most of your deaths will be a direct result of your own errors in judgment. You're going to die in this game; a lot. The level design is absolutely punishing in some places. There are environmental puzzles that are as deadly as they are intricate, and managing to solve them is a rewarding experience. Solutions to puzzles are occasionally quite obscure, although in retrospect you'll probably slap yourself on the forehead for not figuring out the solution earlier. However, I encountered on at least two occasions that I had the puzzle all figured out, but the solution simply wouldn't register. I therefore wasted upwards of an hour or two running around the tomb looking for another solution to a puzzle that I had actually already solved, but wasn't aware of it. But this also was a rare occurrence. Just remember this while you're playing; If you're certain about a solution of a puzzle, don't be so quick to disregard it simply because it doesn't register. Keep forcing that block onto that stream of water, and eventually it will work.
The game's outstanding physics engine also makes way for some creative and new solutions to certain puzzles. For example, Knocking out wooden planks on one level will cause a pillar in the upper level to collapse, therefore changing around the entire make up of the tomb. Environmental objects such as boulders, water, wooden suspension bridges, ropes, and pendulums all react almost exactly how you would expect them to in the real world. The amount of effort that Crystal Dynamics has put into the physics engine really shines through, and they should be applauded for it.
Of course, Lara Croft wouldn't be Lara if she wasn't wielding her dual pistols, kicking ass and taking names. Unfortunately, combat has issues. Namely, it's too simple and easy. Combat essentially consists of constantly circle strafing, and unloading clip after clip into your enemies. Occasionally your enemies will enter a rage mode that will cause them to charge at you directly. When this happens, if your timing is good, you can dive out of the way in slow motion and cap them with a well placed headshot. The slow-mo dives add a small bit of depth to the combat, but not enough to make it feel like anything more than filler in between environmental puzzles. There's also a few fun Resident Evil 4 style cut-scenes in which you have to press the corresponding button on the screen quickly in time to survive Lara's current situation.
For all the exploring that Lara is doing, she is woefully under equipped. Let's pause for a moment here so I can go over a few key items that I would bring along with me if I was exploring ancient tombs in the world's most desolate place, notably a flashlight, GPS, winter jacket (for the snowy levels), a snorkel, and a partner to watch my back. Of course, Lara doesn't actually take any of these things with her. The omission of a flashlight in particular is incredibly frustrating, as there are several occasions where you are running around in the pitch dark, trying to find your way through. The fact that Lara had a flashlight in Legend makes its omission all the more baffling. Why would the designers bring along her grappling hook from the last game, but neglect to include the flashlight? Instead, you begin the game with two 9mm pistols, a pair of hot pants, and a grappling hook. Good luck with the rest. Then again, I'm not going to complain too loudly about the short shorts. If you're going to be staring at an ass for the fifteen to twenty hours it will take to complete this game, it might as well be Lara Croft's in a tight pair of shorts.
Graphically speaking, Tomb Raider Anniversary is extremely solid. Textures are well defined, and the tombs are riddled with lots of little details throughout the environment. Lara herself is beautifully rendered, and comes with hundreds of different animations, all of which are smooth and convincing. You'll even notice that when you exit a pool of water, beads of water are covering her face, skin, and outfit. It is little touches like this that make Tomb Raider very appealing to look at. Each Tomb also has a distinct look and feel to it, which helps combat the monotony of constant exploration.
The graphics aren't quite perfect though. I played the PS2 version on my 32" Samsung LCD screen, and a lot of the text in the game is blurry and borders on unreadable. Also, you'll find some problems with aliasing in some of the cut-scenes. Still, these small missteps do little diminish what is undeniably a beautiful looking game. The PC version looks even sharper with higher resolution textures and better aliasing.
The audio in the game also plays a big part in creating a solitary atmosphere. There's rarely any music, and Lara's gunshots satisfyingly echo in the large rooms. It also bears mention that the voice actress who portrays Lara has got the character down pat, and does a superb job. It's rare in video games that you can actually detect nuance in the voice acting, but Keeley Hawes gives a confident and convincing performance. Everything else sounds like it should, such as footsteps and crumbling boulders. The game made occasional use of the surround speakers, but since the game is so quiet anyway, it does become a little irrelevant. For the entirety of the game, it's just you and Lara, and the sparse sound effects in large part help to create that solitary atmosphere.
I do have my complaints about this game, but the truth is that most of those are simply forgotten as soon as you start guiding Lara effortlessly around these deadly tombs. Anniversary is a great game that stops just short of excellence due to a few nagging issues. If you have the patience for it, you'll find a superlative gaming experience here. After so many lousy remakes of classic games (NARC, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fight just to name a few), it's refreshing to have a classic game updated with a combination of classical conventions and today's technology. This is how classic games should be remade.