A lot can be said about Lara Croft.
For more than ten years, Croft has served as something of an unofficial mascot for PC gaming. Developing with the industry (no pun intended), Lara has faced controversy, became a major motion picture, released a slew of sequels on multiple platforms and went from a few dozen to a few thousand polygons. Even in a crowd of casual gamers, she would be every bit as recognizable as Mario or Samus.
And like Mario or Samus, Lara's first adventure has been rebuilt for modern gaming machines. Levels have been significantly modified to take advantage of new abilities, and in-engine cutscenes now have a polished, cinematic atmosphere. The graphics received a serious upgrade, and the hex-based running and jumping of yester-year have been scrapped in lieu of the more robust system used in Tomb Raider: Legend.
Even on Sony's PlayStation Portable, the game looks better, plays easier, and feels more complete than it did on the PC in 1996. That being said, this game is far from perfect.
In Tomb Raider, you play as the shapely Lara Croft, a wealthy heiress who dabbles in the "extreme" variety of archaeology. Croft is approached by renown entrepreneur Jacqueline Natla to retrieve a piece of the Atlantean Scion, a long-lost artifact of the mythical sunken city. Having been an obsession of her father's, Lara jumps at the chance to recover the various pieces - an adventure which takes her to such locations as Peru, Greece and Egypt.
The graphics are admittedly impressive for a portable game. While textures can be bland on occasion, I was quite impressed with the detail of the markings and hieroglyphics on some walls. Even in large areas, the game rarely dips below thirty frames per second. Croft looks great and animates smoothly, with her ponytail swaying about in a realistic manner.
The art direction leaves something to be desired, with most levels looking very similar. Differing levels have unique colour schemes which switch from brown to grey to white and so on. The final few stages use the glow of lava to show off some neat lighting and heat distortion tricks, but this is ultimately be too little too late. Also, the dark palette used meant I had a difficult time deciphering what was going on when playing in a sun-lit area.
The main interface features Lara and nothing else. The health and breath bar will pop up when appropriate, but for the most part, the screen is void of any knick-knacks to distract you. This genuinely helps immersion, and was definitely a good choice.
Gameplay is a mixed bag. Jumps no longer need to be as 'scientific' as in earlier iterations of the franchise, as the game is much more forgiving. Moving around, for the most part, is pretty easy to do, even when jumping from one thin ledge to another. Huge leaps or poorly executed jumps may require you to hit the triangle button for Croft to "recover", which wasn't too bothersome.
Puzzles are cleverly thought out, and much experimentation is needed at certain points. I'm not normally a 'puzzle' sort of person, but had a lot of fun figuring out how to progress in each level. My first play-through felt challenging, but not overly so.
In this game you battle with wolves, bears, panthers, mummies and a terrible camera. The field of view can be adjusted manually using the triangle or shoulder buttons, but this is impractical when fighting enemies or solving time sensitive puzzles. When fighting in close quarters, it is not uncommon for the camera to go a little squirrelly (I can't believe my spellchecker had 'squirrelly'), making it hard to see who you are shooting at. This culminates on the last level, where flying mummies repeatedly bombard you with 'evil gypsy balls', and the targeting system fires at wall targets rather than the creatures hurting you. To make matters worse, these evil balls damage you and knock you over. By the time you rise, the next gypsy ball has landed on you, knocking you over once again. Terribly frustrating is a good description of the experience.
To partially make up for this, co-developers Crystal Dynamics and Buzz Monkey Software have added a "rage meter". As the name implies, the rage meter builds as you fire at the enemy, presumably enraging them. Once this meter fills, the creature attacks head-on, and you get prompted to do a slow-motion "reflex dodge". If you successfully dodge the attack, a target slowly closes around the enemy's head. Provided you're patient enough, the target will lock-on, and shooting would result in an instant kill for most enemies. This is quite satisfying, despite the otherwise uninspired and clumsy combat system.
The sound of the game is adequate. Music is used very sparingly, with ambient noise used instead. The voice acting will not win any Academy Awards, but is very decent, and added to the overall production value of the title.
Loading times are rarely longer than fifteen to twenty seconds on my first generation PSP. This loads a huge section of the level, with other sections being streamed on to the PSP during long hallways, which once again helps immersion. The game creates "checkpoints" with good frequency, and I never had to repeat an overwhelming portion of the level again after dying. In fact, these checkpoints were so often, you may not even need to use first aid kits to restore health. I knew that if I died, it would only take me thirty seconds to get to where I was prior.
This only became annoying when you reached a section where you kept dying, and had to wait twenty seconds for your checkpoint to load each time. I often used such breaks to massage my left palm, which is not innuendo. Movement is done exclusively with the left analog nub, which tends to cramp the hand after extended play sessions.
The game is very linear, and while it has collectables, unlockables, cheats and time trials, there isn't much extra to see after your first play through.
Yes, much could be said about Miss Croft. Yet despite her more annoying qualities, you can't help but love the millionaire archeologist next door. In many ways, this is platforming at its finest, and Lara's fifteen hour adventure is worth picking up if you want Tomb Raider on-the-go. Fans who plan on buying the title for PS2, PC, Wii or Xbox 360 would be hard pressed to find a good reason to pick up the PSP version as well. The game is virtually identical, but with limited graphics and a cramped control system. Still, taken alone, this game is a solid addition to any PSP owner's library.