Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Back in the mid-90s, a certain Miss Croft rocked our gaming worlds. She burst into a drab machismo-dominated games industry and re-wrote the rules. Not only was she a well endowed female with school girl pony tales, but the games themselves were also pretty stunning. Over the years the franchise grew in popularity and success. But all was not well; the spark that had been so compelling with the early games became jaded and formulaic. The years of sequels ranged from unremarkable to borderline and subsequently Lara's good name took something of a dive.
But although the franchise hasn't faltered in its meteoric rise, after the game's initial success it has had its share of problems. As with any successful series, competition for control can become problematic as many financial, artistic, and technological interests vie for the upper hand. Over time the game became distracted from the purity and character of its Indiana Jones-like environments and the gameplay was lost along the way as the number of weapons and foes increased.
This led to a long break for the series, with no significant releases. Happily, recent years have seen the return of Lara in the form of Tomb Raider Legends, a concerted effort to conjure up the elements that made the original games such a success. Although a little on the light side for the hardcore fans it was well received and definitely recaptured something of the original spark. Hot on the heals of this success they are now looking to deliver again to their core audience.
Tomb Raider: Anniversary is a re-tooling and re-imagining of the original 1996 game. Much like returning to an old building to remodel it for a new phase of life, such has been the extent of the work that very little of the original has been untouched. But it is testament to how well Crystal Dynamics understand their own game that they have not wiped away the genius with this overhaul. Rather, the purity of Core Design's original shines through now stripped-down and streamlined. It shows a touch and confidence similar to the application of Mario 64 to the DS last year. Both teams were not afraid to make changes when faced with such successful and well loved originals. Both resulted in games that seemed to supplant the memory of the original so it seemed that it had always been this way, at least until you go back to the original game and discover its limitations.
If the previous Tomb Raider games have somehow passed you by (maybe you were either too old or too young to catch it the first time around), the game is an over the shoulder third-person exploration where you are confronted with cavernous spaces that you must traverse before proceeding. It is not a million miles away from Zelda's dungeons although the experience is more tactile than intellectual. This is the game that showed the way for Prince of Persia to evolve and can still be seen to take effect on upcoming games like Assassin's Creed.
As we have seen in Tomb Raider: Anniversary on other platforms, much of the changes in this version result from the enhanced controls introduced as the series developed over the previous years. The considered and somewhat paired down repertoire available in Legends is recreated here. The most notable difference from the original is the introduction of the grappling hook. Although at first a welcome novelty, a lack of finesse in its execution means that it never quite seems to fit with the other actions. Other changes that gel better include the abilities to automatically grab onto a ledge when you fall and to recover when you are able to loose your balance. These additions often enable you to escape falling back down a level, and avoid the frustrating replay of what you have already conquered to get back to the problematic sequence. Something that makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable, and means you spend more time on the puzzles you haven't solved rather than resolving the ones you have already figured out.
The move to the PSP (from the PS2) doesn't however come without a price. For one thing, the controls don't feel as precise. The Portable's analogue nub is just nowhere near as accurate as the Dual-Shock 2's sticks. Also, controlling the camera has now moved to the shoulder buttons. Although the game camera does a reasonable job, there are times when you have to resort to wrestling for a good angle, which can make things feel a little bit more claustrophobic and frustrating. Not what you want when you are in the middle of a frantic bit of combat. The combat controls from Legends are implemented again here and are pretty successful. This includes the adrenaline dodge: at specific moments this allows Lara to dodge a charging enemy in slow motion. If you get this right, time slows down to allow Lara to perform a special attack on the enemy and be rewarded with an instant kill. This has been cleverly introduced and never feels gimmicky. The bottom line is that this still feels very much like Tomb Raider combat.
Overall, this is a great retelling of the classic Tomb Raider game. It is a title that is well worth investing both time and money in. If you remember the original then you can visit an old friend. If you missed the boat first time around then here's a rare second chance to get on board. Tomb Raider lives or dies by the quality of its environments and puzzles. Anniversary hits all the right notes in this respect, and, even though you're essentially just going from one tomb to another, there is enough creativity and interest to stop things from ever becoming tired. The scale of the world you inhabit is nothing short of breath-taking. Combine this with the newly tactile Lara and her beautiful new moves and you have a recipe for success. Whilst there are a few frame rate and control niggles, these relate more to hardware limitations that the game itself. More over, none of these issues ever get close to overshadowing the enjoyment to be found in the simple exploration and puzzle solving that made Lara a household name all those years ago.