Tomb Raider 3: Adventures Of Lara Croft
Christ, we'd forgotten how annoying the Tomb Raider games are. They're enough to drive you mad. Really. We haven't hurled abuse at the screen with such frequency and ferocity since the last series of Celebrity Ready Steady Cook. Can anyone name a more frustrating series of games? It's a wonder Lara Croft commands the kind of stellar celebrity she does when you consider how much hard cheese you're force-fed at every stage of every level. It doesn't let you down gently, it punches you as hard as it can, smack on the nose. Miss a jump and you don't just have to run back and try it again, you have to sit back and watch as Ms Croft breaks every bone in her body or gets skewered on a huge row of spikes. And then you reload and try again. And again and again. And again. And before long you're swearing out loud each time you mess things up. And grinding your teeth and clenching your fists. The game slowly reduces you to a shivering coil of concentrated rage. And this is popular?
The reward's the thing, of course. When you finally make it - that moment when Lara clears the gorge or dodges the booby trap; makes it to her destination without falling victim to some sudden, hideous misfortune - you feel good. You have achieved. You are the man. Of course, the sad reality away from the screen - that you're fat, spotty, elbow-deep in mouldering pizza boxes, pitied by friends and shunned by neightbours - tends to puncture the bubble of inflated self-esteem within seconds. So you go back for more. You keep playing and playing, like some sick junkie. In real terms, of course, you are achieving absolutely nothing; you're slumped In front of a monitor, pushing buttons like a lab monkey. But somehow you just can't give it up. The damn thing's stolen your concentration. And therein lies the power of the Tomb Raider trilogy.
Yes, trilogy. Lara's notched up her third adventure. Tomb Raider III is here and it's... well, it's like Tomb Raider plus Tomb Raider II, really. Which should please the mathematicians no end. It's several years since the first episode introduced Ms Croft to a slavering, slack-jawed gaming populace, and if truth be told not that much has changed since then. Tomb Raider ms clearly ahead of its time; Tomb Raider III is just as clearly behind its time. Not miles behind, but a fair distance from the likes of Half-Life or the upcoming Galleon. After all, Tomb Raider III has been developed for the PC and PlayStation simultaneously. A couple of years ago the PSX was where it was at: it had smooth and sophisticated 30 that put PCs of the day to shame. Now it's switcheroo.
With outstandingly fast systems on sale at absurdly low prices, the PC games of today rock bells; and they look better than N64 titles. PlayStation games seem increasingly samey, all melding into one technically antiquarian whole, just as Megadrive games did before them.
But if you want to make any money, writing games for the Sony platform is a must. Therefore, the programmers on Tomb Raider III had to ensure that every level, every enemy animation, every AI routine could squeeze inside the PlayStation's limited mind as well as the PC's superior one. Which is why this game isn't state-of-the-art. So it's not going to blow your socks off. Well boo bleedin' hoo. It's still a good game. The other advantage, of course, is that you don't need a PC fresh off the shelf to run it - a P133 with a 3D card should handle things nicely. Which is music to the ears of thousands of low-spec gamers.
Attention To Detail
At its core Tomb Raider III may be an old game, but by piss have they given the surface a polish. Decent lighting effects, weather, a rounder backside for Lara... The whole shebang looks about 30 per cent better than the 3Dfx version of Tomb Raider II. Which is no mean feat.
There are cracks in the fagade (for example, the opening Indian jungle section feels disappointingly boxy and contrived), but on the whole there's far more scope and variety of levels than before. The Nevada desert looks like the Nevada desert (actually it looks more like Utah or Arizona, but let's not fall out over State lines); Antarctica is a pile-up of blizzards and icebergs; and the London Underground section is surprisingly authentic (right down to the ever-present threat of violence). The stages are larger than before too, and are packed with more hidden areas, architectural red herrings and ugly surprises than ever before.
We'll admit this all comes as a bit of a surprise. When we heard Tomb Raider III ms being fashioned by a different team to the people responsible for the first two games, we were... well, doubtful about what the merits of the final release might be. An early visit to Core Design's offices in Derby didn't shed much light on things either - Lara's world was still being 'built', and much of what we saw consisted of our heroine scampering around a world of textureless cubes and triangles. The most significant thing about Tomb Raider III, it seemed, were the new costumes and the way Lara's ponytail swayed in the wind.
But we wuz wrong. The new team have clearly worked their arses off despite a tightening deadline, and have bettered the first two games as a result - an almost superhuman achievement when you consider how cleveriy designed they were. Lara's new team should clip this paragraph out, blow it up to 300 per cent on the office photocopier, pin it on the wall and use it as ammunition when negotiating a pay rise. Or some time off. Or some cake.
Save And Sound
Level design aside, there are other pleasant surprises: the savegame system, for instance. Yes, it's deathly dull on paper, but it makes a big difference to the way the game plays, so it's worth discussion. For a bit.
In Tomb Raider you had to save your position at special 'save points'. This was a pain in the arse because there weren't enough of them; you often found yourself having to go back and cover acres of infuriatingly tricky terrain each time you messed up. In Tomb Raider II, Core relented and let you save the game at absolutely any time. This was also a pain in the arse, because the temptation to save your position after every single jump was too great, and detracted from both the game's difficulty level and your sense of involvement. For Tomb Raider III they've got it just right you collect savegame 'crystals' which can be used at any time during the game, but since they're limited in number you need to ration them carefully. Result: the right balance between tension and playability.
Oh, And There's This Woman In It
Finally, of course, there's Lara herself. She's got new costumes (a different one for each stage this time). She's got new moves (including a vaguely pornographic down-on-all-fours crawling motion). She makes more attractive groaning noises. She drives more vehicles (kayaks and quad bikes). She dies in more hideous ways. And her ponytail sways in the wind.
That makes her a more valid superstar than, say, Sandra Bullock. Lara deserves the box office. We still love her. We're sure we shouldn't, but we do.
Love And Silver Service
The latest in an occasional series of short novellas based on in-game screenshots
"Your tea, ma'am," murmured Jeeves as he shuffled into the bedroom, his eyes fixed upon the silver tray he held before him. His bones were old and his hands were shaky, but as ever Jeeves focused his concentration and the tray remained steady - steady enough to prevent the china teacup from rattling in its saucer and the lid of the metallic teapot from clattering against the rim. Jeeves had been in the service of the Croft family for more than 50 years. Always steady, always silent. Jeeves never smiled nor frowned. He simply performed his duties with solemn grace, reliably invisible and inaudible. The ideal butler, reasoned Jeeves, must glide from task to task like a ghost without ever drawing attention to himself. And this he did.
Today was Jeeves' seventy-fifth birthday. He hadn't mentioned it himself, of course, but Lara knew the date - December the fifteenth. At the turn of the year she had circled it in her travelogue-cum-diary and contemplated a suitable gift. After weeks of fruitless speculation, it came to her Jeeves was a lonely old goat. His wife had died in 1948 and he had never remarried. Perhaps Lara could do something to cheer him up.
"Here, by the fireplace," commanded Lara. Jeeves dutifully floated closer, his eyes fixed on the tray. He didn't notice as Lara slid to her knees. The fire crackled. The room was warm. The lid of the silver teapot began to rattle like rain on a tin roof. "I've found it!" announced Lara happily, as she produced Jeeves' long-lost wedding ring. "Gee, thanks," said Jeeves.