Tomb Raider: Anniversary
I Can Clearly remember the first time I ever set eyes on Tomb Raider. It was at E3 1996, and sometime ZONER Paul Mallinson and myself were doing the rounds. Craning our necks at a Sega Saturn demo, we watched intently as a long-haired wasp-waisted woman swam underwater with her boots on. Not really comprehending what I was witnessing, I looked on inanely while Mallo assured the attendant PR person that the game seemed promising. Something of an understatement, that hirsute beauty was of course Lara Croft, now one of the most recognisable game characters of all time.
Fast-forward a decade and I'm in luxury suite in a Covent Garden hotel to see the same cocking game! As well as a crushing reminder of the futility of my existence, it's arguably a chilling portent of the future of the medium. If we're turning round remakes in the space of ten years, then we might as well all go home now. One man who doesn't share this view is Tomb Raider Anniversary executive designer, Dax Ginn (who sounds like a game character himself). Part of the team that rescued the Tomb Raider franchise from ignominy following the Angel Of Darkness debacle, he's now involved in this timely 're-imagining' of the original game.
"The idea of doing an anniversary edition of Tomb Raider came up when we were just putting the finishing touches to Tomb Raider: Legend," says Ginn. "We were thinking about what to do next and where to go, and Eidos had received literally thousands and thousands of requests from fans throughout the years to look back at the original Tomb Raider game and see what we could do with it in terms of bringing it up to date and re-releasing it as a new game. We took those requests very seriously and started to think about how to approach an anniversary version of Tomb Raider."
Ten Years After
The obvious thing to do would be to add a few fancy graphics to the original game and get it into the hands of those hapless punters as quickly as possible. But Crystal Dynamics didn't want to do that, wary that gameplay mechanics that were acceptable ten years ago simply don't cut it these days (try playing the original Tomb Raider now).
As Ginn says: "The challenge for us was 'what the hell do you do with it'? How do we create a game which leverages all of the amazing character and level design, along with the atmosphere of the original game without it feeling just like a remake? We looked at how Capcom handled Resident Evil 4 on the GameCube and we didn't want to be that literal about it. There weren't many analogies in the games sphere for us to take inspiration from." With game remakes proving largely uncharted territory, inspiration arrived from the film industry, in the shape of a hairyfaced man from New Zealand.
"At that time, Peter Jackson was doing loads of interviews for his King Kong film," explains Ginn. "That was a real turning point in the way that we now understand our creative process for this game. Jackson talked about how he was looking at the key moments from the original King Kong film, the things that people remember, like the T-Rex versus King Kong fight from the original film, which is also an iconic moment in Anniversary with Lara and T-Rex. He took those key moments and made sure that he paid due respect in terms of people's nostalgia, recollections and memories. "However, then all the bits in between that no-one remembers, that's where you exercise a lot of creative license. So that's the way we attacked the design: making sure that we identify the things that people really recall from the original game, things like atmosphere and the way the game made you feel really isolated.
While Ginn has been speaking, Lara has been impatiently waiting onscreen, an idle animation seeing her shift from foot to foot almost as if to counter the weight of those gargantuan breasts, squeezed once more into the famous skin-tight aqua-marine top. It's time to unleash her. As in the original, you follow the escapades of Lara as she decimates the wildlife in Peru, Greece, Egypt and finally. The Lost City. However, as Ginn says: "In terms of the level-design philosophy, we understood that we couldn't just take carbon copies of the original game and redeliver them. It would feel cheap and would be very cynical. People's expectations of level design have evolved so much that the long, dull corridors that you found yourself running through a lot in the original Tomb Raider game just wouldn't wash." Today we're privy to a brief section from the first chapter in Peru, following Lara's progress from the waterfall room through to the famous encounter with the T-Rex. Beginning with a recreation of the cog puzzle, it essentially involves sticking three missing cogs into an antiquated water-driven mechanism in order to make it work.
Naturally, it looks a lot more impressive than the ten-year-old original, but there's more to the action than a mere facelift. Everything is far more integrated; the water actually appears to be driving the mechanism, and while the spirit is the same, the execution is more contemporary.
But first there's the execution of a brace of feral wolves to deal with. Emerging from the darkness, they make a beeline for Lara's legs; she pulls out the famous dual pistols and swiftly despatches them like she's never been away (which she hasn't). As was the case in the original, the enemies in Anniversary are predominantly animals, something that changes the combat hugely from the human-based gunplay of Legend.
Whereas a human with a gun running directly at you would look stupid, with dumb beasts armed only with teeth and claws it makes perfect sense (and is an ideal excuse for rudimentary Al). As such, much of the combat focuses on evasion, enabling Lara to showcase her dives, rolls and jumps.
Back to those pesky cogs, Lara slots the first one into place with aplomb and part of the mechanism creaks into life. Instead of simply watching what in the original was effectively a cut-scene, Lara actively participates in the action by climbing up the cog and riding it as it turns. To place the second cog, she could jump back into the water and let the current take her to the right place, or she could climb across the front of the mechanism. In the event she finds an ingenious third way, shooting down a bridge to reveal a grapple point With an adroitly timed swing on her grapple rope, she uses the felled bridge as a ladder and crawls through a secret tunnel.
Purists may baulk at the inclusion of the grapple hook - which only made a fleeting appearance in the original game as part of an FMV sequence - but this is a perfect example of Crystal Dynamics' commitment to player-created paths. It also highlights the 'swiss cheese' approach to level design, with secret entrances scattered liberally around the scenery, offering an array of routes through the game.
As Ginn says: When you've got choices and options, that's when you feel like you're exploring, and that's when you start to feel like Lara Croft"
Even from the short sequence we saw, it's clear that Lara's far more organically involved in the action than the switchpressing, block-sliding drone of yesteryear. For instance, in one scene she drops on to a platform, and the vibration causes a bridge to conveniently drop down in front of her.
What's more, as well as the entire moveset of Legend, she celebrates her anniversary with an all-new move. Known as the 'perch move,' it involves landing on fine pieces of geometry - such as the top of a pole - and tottering precariously before leaping to the next one. The idea is that each move should generate an emotive response: when you're on a ledge you're fairly safe, swinging on a rope is a bit more hairy, and by the time you're balancing atop a wobbly pole your arse should be going like a trumpeter's lips.
In the space of half an hour, we've seen Lara shoot bears, bats and wolves, but what we really want to see is the showpiece T-Rex. As Lara decimates a selection of raptors, it must be close, and I grip my glass of expensive water in anticipation. Suddenly the raptors scatter, with an unlucky one reappearing above head height to be shattered on the rock face. The Big Momma is at hand, and when the screen starts vibrating like Jurassic Park on acid, we can practically smell its breath. Lara turns, her eyes narrow, a look of horror on her face, and... "That's the end of the demo for today." What a waste of ten years.
Download Tomb Raider: Anniversary
With Tomb Raider: Legend, Crystal Dynamics rescued the nation's most cash-pregnant franchise from the spiked pit of naff. With Anniversary, it whipped its manhood out and declared the entire series its own, with a stream of hot, straw-coloured playability.
Although a lot of the niggles with Legend weren't fixed, they were never game-killing faults, just a feeling of relative ease and being slightly patronised by obvious flagging. On the other hand, the move to mouse and keyboard is thoughtfully done - the T-Rex fight and the Sword of Damocles room stand out as arcanely faffy moments, but the rest feels perfectly tailored for PC.
In truth, the game's finest moments come from revisiting the places you loved the first time around, and enjoying the new, massive cogs. But even if you joined in the series with Legend, this will be more-of-the-same fun, only with a dinosaur and a couple of centaurs.
Wow. Crystal Dynamics isn't messing around with this whole Tomb Raider thing. Anniversary is an excellent reimagining of the original game, with some gorgeous settings, clever level design, and even a fair share of reasonably challenging puzzles. Like Legend before it, it feels almost as much like an homage to Prince of Persia as to the original Tomb Raider, but that's a good thing; Lara was always meant to be as acrobatic as we see her here. In fact, Anniversary feels like the game Tomb Raider was supposed to be all along. An occasionally squirrelly camera and infrequent control issues mar the overall package...but the problem is, by the end of the game, when things start getting really ridiculously difficult, the camera and unreliable controls become fairly significant. Overall, though, Anniversary's a fine showing, an excellent service to fans, and proof that the series is back on the right track for real.
I'll go Joe one further: Anniversary sets the standard for remaking classic games. Reliving the signature moments here delivers the same thrills as a decade ago, not because the developers exactingly re-created the original, but because they used the new engine to create a vision that lives up to my fond memories. The PS2 manages the requisite natural lighting and lush details--if only the broader vistas didn't cause the game to sputter. I'll accept the technological limitations and handle the camera, though, to get to the game's feeling of isolation, exploration, and wonder.
Checking out Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider today is like looking at the yearbook photo of your acid-washed, feathered-haired high school sweetheart and thinking, "I thought she was hot?" But playing the bargain-priced Anniversary is like finding out that ex-girlfriend is now a runway model. This game is beautiful--and it respects your nostalgia with clever reimaginings of famous encounters (like the '-Rex) and puzzles (such as the Sword of Damocles). Control feels loose--off-kilter leaps killed me more than anything--but I'll take it over the original's rigid grid-based system any day.