Tomb Raider: Anniversary
All too often nostalgia can be deceiving, the rose tinted glasses can hide a multitude of sins that an older, more discerning eye, will spot in an instant. For example, I've grown increasingly convinced that the children's TV of my youth was far superior to the Americanised E number fuelled rubbish that seems to be the baby sitter of choice for the current generation of future voters. However, it only takes a forwarded YouTube link or two to slap me round the face and remind me that dodgy sets, am-dram acting and flicker book quality animation was a lot easier to forgive when I was ten.
The general rule when it comes to remembering much loved entertainment from your past would appear to be 'never go back' because things are rarely as good as you remember them being. While there are of course exceptions to every rule (Battle of the Planets and The Magic Roundabout are STILL great), I'd wager this applies to gaming more than any other medium. While I tend to avoid 'retro gaming' for this very reason, a recent return to the world of Speedball 2 via Xbox Live Arcade reminded me that however fond the memories there's really not a lot of fun to be had once the initial warm glow of nostalgia has passed. So, to get this review on topic at last, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I picked up Tomb Raider: Anniversary when it landed on my in-tray.
Anniversary is probably best described as a remake of Lara's original 1996 adventure. It takes basically the same engine as last year's Tomb Raider Legend and uses it to lovingly remake the first game, tweaking a few things here and there when needed while adding in a few extra surprises to keep hardcore fans on their toes.
Right from the outset the most obvious change, aside from the obligatory visual improvements the Legend engine brings to things, comes in the way Lara feels to control. While huge 3D environments were all new and exciting back in the day the harsh reality was that the original's inflexible grid based movement was painfully fiddly at times, requiring pixel perfect alignment for jumps making progress often slow and laborious as you were forced to repeated tricky sections time and time again till you got it spot on. Thankfully these problems have been solved thanks to the far more modern game engine used in Anniversary. Crucially the game now plays how your rose tinted memory remembers it playing, rather than how it really did. Lara seems to instinctively know what you're trying to get her to do, always doing her best to hit the marks you're aiming for, helpfully grabbing onto any ledges you've just missed with the tips of her fingers. That's not to say the game is now boringly easy, simply that its less frustrating and when you fail it's because you messed up, not because the game is being unfairly fussy about things.
The original levels and puzzles have been tweaked here or there to ensure the abilities Lara's learnt over the last eleven years are seamlessly integrated into things. It's worth remembering, as you play through Anniversary, that even seemingly basic skills like swinging from horizontal bars and jumping onto poles weren't possible when the original game launched yet now make their way into its reworked levels with well disguised ease. The grapple hook, which debuted in Legend, also makes it into Anniversary allowing the designers to include a number of swinging and wall-run sections into the mix. Unfortunately the hook is probably the least fluid of Lara's moves and can be a bit fiddly at times which is a shame as the rest of the controls flow perfectly.
Anyone who's only Tomb Raiding to date has come via some of Lara's later adventures may find the lack of much real action in Anniversary disappointing. For the rest of us it's a welcome return to what made the series stand out in the first place. The original Tomb Raider was always more of a platforming puzzle game than a guns out action-fest and playing through Anniversary serves as a timely reminder of how well it achieved that simple goal. Exploring the large scale environments and solving the puzzles you find along the way is still just as much fun as it's always been, in fact the game is at its worst (as it always was) once you're forced to pull your weapons out.
The combat in Tomb Raider, however minimal, was never very well thought out. The auto lock on that got confused when you changed direction and the weak animal AI made fighting the wild beasts you came across more of a battle with the camera controls than anything else and unfortunately none of that has changed in Anniversary. The one thing that is different is the introduction of rage attacks. Once your foe is suitably angry (quite why it takes more than one bullet to sufficiently annoy anything is beyond me) he'll charge at you causing more damage than normal if his attack connects. However, on the flip side, if you manage to dodge it using the new context sensitive adrenalin dodge you'll get a chance to perform a perfect headshot as the beast rushes by. This kind of bullet-time dodge is a fairly modern idea in video game terms and one that seems a little out of place in an experience as pure as Tomb Raider. The already un-involving combat rendered even less interesting by the shoot-dodge-kill cycle this new system allows.
It's worth noting that any achievement whores out there hoping that their knowledge of the original will help them pile on the points are likely to be frustrated. Anniversary is pretty mean about distributing achievements only paying out at the end of every level if all the relics and artefacts have been found or you've beaten all the time trial target times. The fact that by their very nature these two goals require you to play through each level twice to get both seems a little unfair, to me at least.
Ultimately there's very little to moan about here aside from the still weak combat, it may not be cutting edge (to be fair, it was never meant to be) but it's far more enjoyable than a lot of other completely new games out there. The fact that everything, from the level design to the gameplay concept, in Anniversary is now over a decade old and yet remains so captivating speaks volumes about the almost flawless design of the original.
If you've jumped on the TR bandwagon at some point since the release of the first game or are new to the series completely then there's every reason to go back and discover where the phenomenon began. Anniversary more than holds its own in 2007 even without the nostalgia value. However, it's the urge to revisit the memory of a truly ground breaking game that will tempt the largest number of gamers to this remake. Pleasingly, Anniversary's subtle improvements on the original manage to make this trip down memory lane just as enjoyable as your first visit. This is retro gaming as it should be, other developers please take note!