Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tomb Raider Anniversary

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Tomb Raider Anniversary is a "re-imagining" of the original Tomb Raider game, with modern graphics and gameplay, in celebration of Lara Croft's 10th Anniversary. Having beaten the game and unlocked most of the secrets (still working on the last few) in the last four days, I can say this was an enjoyable gaming experience. Not surprising, considering the quality of the original, but I can't say that Anniversary could replace the original.

First, the pros. The graphics are light years ahead of the original, and Lara's lookin' better than ever. Some of the additions to the gameplay are quite fun, like the grappling hook and the adrenaline dodge technique (infinitely frustrating before I got the hang of it, but infinitely exciting afterwards) - which revolutionizes the action/combat factor of Tomb Raider, at least compared to the original. The unlockables are quite exciting, too. In addition to art galleries and character profiles and the like, you have unlockable cheats which includes things as useful as infinite breath (for those long underwater passages), as pointless yet cool as equipping Lara with stylish sunglasses, and as bizarrely interesting as textureless mode. Plus, being able to unlock alternate outfits for Lara is brilliant.

Now, for the cons. Most (all?) of the negative aspects of the game exist only in comparison to the original, but considering that it's a remake, such comparisons are par for the course. Anniversary simultaneously feels like a modern Tomb Raider game, while harboring endless nostalgia for the classic environments. Ultimately, though, I feel as though the environments in Anniversary are somehow lacking. They look fantastic, and are far more detailed than in the original game, but the feel, the personality, the atmosphere of the environments isn't the same. Anniversary is brighter, and less claustrophobic, and yet the really big spaces don't feel quite as big.

And the sense of adventure is somewhat compromised - I like the way another reviewer described it. In Anniversary, it's like there's one set path through the levels, with all the ledges and swinging poles and grapple loops marked out, so that you can walk into a room, take a look around, and know exactly how to progress to the next chamber. Ledges that aren't part of that path are largely inaccessible (unless they lead to a secret, in which case they're usually fairly well-hidden).

In the original Tomb Raider, it was more of an effort to figure out how to move from point A to point B, and the various ledges and areas you could access - some that led to secrets, others that led to dead-ends - heightened the feeling of adventure and discovery - the feeling of entering a tomb that hasn't been populated for hundreds, even thousands of years. Though I would recognize a particular area in Anniversary, it wouldn't be as exciting as discovering that area in the original game. Maybe it's partly nostalgia - having explored these areas already has eliminated the excitement - but I still feel like something of the atmosphere of the various chambers is lacking in Anniversary, and it leaves me desiring to go back and play through the original again.

(Read this post for a more in-depth study of what's lacking from the Anniversary version of Tomb Raider).

(I would love it if there was, like, a source port of Tomb Raider, like there is with Doom, or something like that - completely faithful to the look and feel of the original game, with minimal modification. But then, it's not much of a multiplayer game, and I haven't heard of anyone designing custom tombs.)

A note on controls: When I first downloaded the TRA demo (which led me to buy the game), I initially had difficulty with the keyboard/mouse controls. Other people might not have the difficulty I had, but I like to think of myself as primarily a console gamer, and I'm used to using a controller. Keyboard is fine for simple games that don't have a lot of commands, but for a game like TRA, there's just way too many keys to keep track of, and hitting them fast when you're in a jam seems like a crap shoot.

So I plugged my PS2 controller into my computer, and mapped all the most important keys to where they felt right. Having the dual analog sticks was especially helpful for simultaneous manipulation of Lara's movement and the camera view. Jump, Crouch/Roll/Drop, Shoot, and Grapple were on the Circle, Square, X, and Triangle buttons, respectively; I put Aim Lock and Manual Combat Mode on the shoulder buttons, along with the Prev/Next Weapon selection. The only mildly awkward thing was constantly pressing start to Interact with the environment (picking things up, pushing switches, opening doors, making Lara move faster on ledges, etc.), but it just took a little getting used to. Everything else I left on the keyboard; I think Esc for Pause, Tab for Inventory, and the shortcut keys for quick medpack were pretty much the only of those I even used.

If there was anything else, I didn't miss it. Oh, the Walk and Sneak keys. As essential as Walk was in the original Tomb Raider, I hardly even used it in Anniversary, and if I needed to, it was already accounted for by how much I moved the analog sticks ('barely' for Sneak, 'softly' for Walk, full-on for Run). Another thing, I originally had the Prev/Next Weapon selections set to the analog buttons (when you actually press the stick like a button), but I found that in heated battle situations, I ended up unintentionally hitting those buttons while moving around (inconveniently scrolling through weapons while trying to fend off a charging enemy), so I disabled them and put those functions elsewhere.

Recommendations: Obviously recommended to Tomb Raider/Lara Croft fans. I don't know how Anniversary compares to the other recent TR games on the market, but being a dedicated fan of the first three games, this new yet familiar gaming experience felt like a good introduction to modern TR. I can't say that it's a must-play for any and all fans of the original Tomb Raider game, but if you're even a little interested in how TR has changed over the years, or else if you just feel nostalgic for your favorite old tombs and want to rediscover them, give this game a chance. Just don't give up on those boss battles before you've made an effort to learn the adrenaline dodge - it's like riding a bike, and you'll love it after you learn it.

The Bottom Line: Tomb Raider Anniversary is a really fun game, and a heartfelt tribute to the original that started it all, but should not be taken as a substitute for the original.

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