Tomb Raider Retrospective Part 2 – Tomb Raider II (1997)

7 02 2008

Platforms: PC, PlayStation

Tomb Raider 2 Logo

Facts

  • It was set in The Great Wall of China, Venice, An Oil Rig, A Ship Wreck, Tibetan Mountains and Monastery, China, and a Surreal Alien Dimension.
  • It was the one with the Dragon in the intro, and the last boss was a Dragon.
  • You got a grenade launcher, M16 and spear-gun.
  • Her breasts were actually breast shaped.
  • She did have an animated ponytail, but it behaved like some sort of epileptic snake ghost.
  • It had a mansion level with a butler, and there was some outside areas.
  • You could climb up walls, and ‘ladders’ which were just walls that looked like ladders.

A mere 12 months after the first game came out, a sequel was already weighing down store shelves. It soon became apparently that Core had decided to go in a different direction with this game, the opposite direction of tombs. Some surmised that this new tomb-less environment may have been a response to the controversy stirred up by having Lara spend a large part of the first game killing poor cute animals. Killing humans is of course far less upsetting for the children than killing dangerous and almost certainly rabid beasts.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first. The game starts off strongly with a level set on the Great Wall of China which contained far more rolling boulders and swinging axe traps than I expected. Lara is there searching for the Dagger of Xian which is a legendary dagger that if stabbed into ones own heart will apparently turn one into a dragon. Actually it does exactly that, turns you into a real bloody dragon. Of course removing the precariously lodged dagger doesn’t turn you back into a human, it turns you into a dead dragon instead. A Venetian mob boss called Bartoli is also searching for the dagger, presumably because he’s an otherkin who wants to live out his fantasy of being a dragon with an obvious weak spot. This time round, the plot really is just an excuse for Lara to traipse around the world, and it actually manages to be substantially weaker than the first game’s plot which is quite an accomplishment. Here, just to fill up some room, is the rough progression through the game…

Oddly detail free Great Wall
No expense was spared recreating the majesty of the Great Wall of China.

From the Great Wall, Lara ends up in a blocky impression of Venice where she gets to pilot an awkward speedboat around some canals for a bit. She blows up Bartoli’s hideout with some bombs, then jumps around a condemned opera house. From there, she catches a sea-plane to an oil rig, and then dives down to the wreck of a cruise ship at the bottom of the sea. After this, she goes to the foothills of Tibet for some more awkward vehicle based hyjinks, this time in a gravity-ignoring snowmobile. After this long frustrating sequence she ends up in a monastery where she meets the first non-hostile humans in the series. After this it’s back via truck to the Great Wall and into some catacombs that some how lead to a surreal alien dimension of floating rocks, and from there to a boss fight with a dragon in a temple that has convenient water filled holes for you to hide in when you are inevitably flambéed. Finally you end up back in her manor where she fights off home-invaders while wearing night-wear.

I feel I glossed over something important in that last paragraph. Did you notice I said she went to an alien dimension of floating rocks? Let’s be clear here, I am all for the wackiness of the first game, and I will admit that this sequel had been largely too mundane for my taste up to this point, but this was by far the oddest plot jump the series ever did. Look, just watch it here. What the christ was this all about? Who even knows? You had better believe that Lara doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid about it though. Most blasé heroine ever.

Floating Islands
No need for concern, it’s just a surreal fantasy world of flying rocks and floating Chinese warriors. No need to even pass comment really.

Much like the first game, playing it is a really long and surprisingly difficult experience. You will find yourself reloading your game a lot, and simultaneously growing to love the bone-crunching sound that happens whenever Lara dashes herself all over rocks for the umpteenth time. The poor PlayStation users had to put up with a terrible Save Crystal system which just went towards making it that little bit less accessible.

The gameplay was spiced up all the way to the max with the addition of wall climbing which was I have no positive or negative opionion on, it was just there. You could also do this 180 degrees roll thing which I always found myself using more than I probably needed to. The biggest new feature was the inclusion of vehicles. For the Venice levels you got a speedboat, but weren’t really given enough room to do much speeding in it. At the end of the level you were supposed to launch yourself up some stairs and over a mine-field which didn’t always work quite how you would expect. You also got a chunky snowmobile in the Tibet area. Back in 1997 physics didn’t exist yet, which is unfortunate as you were required to make a few jumps across pits which would result in the laws of gravity being totally ignored.

The combat is exactly the same as the first game, although some of the enemies have guns now, but you have better guns. The grenade launcher was particularly devastating, and had a bizarre visual effect. Upon being killed by a grenade, enemies split apart into their component triangles in an effect now unlike a vase shattering.

As mentioned earlier, Core had only 12 months to work on this game, and therefore didn’t have time to deliver much more than what is essentially an expansion pack, and most reviewers acknowledged this, although it still managed to get reasonably decent scores. One thing it certainly did do though was make a franchise out of Tomb Raider.

The first hint or perhaps omen of what was to come for the direction of the series was the curious phrase ‘Starring Lara Croft’ on the games’s box. This seemed to me to be the marketers telling you why you should care about the game in no uncertain terms. It’s also a really odd concept. Do game characters really star in games? I’d say probably not unless there is some meta-layer actually present in the game to some degree. I have a feeling that this obsession with promoting Lara Croft as a character external to the games was instrumental in the decline in popularity of the series.

Just to show where this all eventually went, it was this corporatisation of the franchise that would lead to Lara appearing in adverts for Lucozade, finally culminating Lucozade being briefly named Larazade around 2001. Yes Larazade, I swear I am not making this up. What the fuck?

Larazade?
Hey Kids! Do you want to simply play a game with your fists like a nerd, or do you want have a wild and unique branding experience?

Next time on Tomb Raider Retrospective, Lara discovers a hidden lost valley of dinosaurs…again….

Tomb Raider Retrospective
Introduction
Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)
Part 2 – Tomb Raider II (1997)
Part 3 – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998)
Part 4 – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) – coming soon
Part 5 – Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000) – coming soon
Part 6 – Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) – coming soon
Part 7 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) – coming soon
Part 8 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007) – coming soon

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Tomb Raider Retrospective Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)

5 02 2008

Platforms: PC, PlayStation, Saturn and N-Gage

Tomb Raider 1 Title

Facts

  • It was set in Peru, Greece, Egypt and Unnamed Island a short distance away from Egypt.
  • It was the one with the T-Rex that you can probably remember.
  • It had 4 guns: pistols, better pistols, shotgun, and uzis.
  • Her breasts were a sort of triangular wedge.
  • She did not have an animated ponytail, or even an unanimated one.
  • It had a mansion level, but there was no butler, and you couldn’t go outside.

Unusually for the series, the original Tomb Raider was actually focussed on the act of raiding tombs. The game could generously be described as being inspired by the Indian Jones films, in as much as it involved ancient civilisations that were not only capable of but frequently did construct elaborate mechanical traps and door-opening mechanisms involving switches several hundreds of metres away.

The story involved a wealthy and very 90s businesswoman named Jacqueline Natla hiring a bunch of broad stereotypes to collect pieces of the Scion for her. The Scion is an ancient artifact with spooky powers such as being a sort of primitive video-blogging device, and somehow enabling the bearer to rule Atlantis. It had been divided into three pieces and scattered across the world, which I assume is the normal procedure for artifacts of such contrived power. While initially hired by Natla, Lara realises she wants all the bits of the Scion for herself for some reason, and she decides that Natla is a bitch who needs shooting. With that in mind she runs, shoots, falls to her death, and leaps around the world collecting the Scion chunks before Natla’s goons can, and foils both a Texan and a Frenchman on the way.

While the setting starts off reasonably grounded in reality, as you progress through the game it gets gradually more and more ridiculous. For the first part of the game, Lara mainly shoots wolves, bears, panthers, crocodiles, gorillas and other normal endangered animals. But then the dinosaurs show up, then the mummies, and finally the centaurs and the demons. Never once does Lara seem the least bit concerned with all these fantastical creatures showing up to kill her. By the end of the game you are running through surreal flesh-wall tunnels while Atlantean mutants that explode when killed are bursting out of giant stasis egg/pod things. In probably the weirdest sequence in the game, Lara runs into her own fleshless dopplegänger who’s weakness is the rather abstract concept of asymmetry.

It would be very easy to dismiss the plot as just an excuse for Lara to traipse around the world, but oddly that doesn’t seem to be the case. If it were then they probably wouldn’t of spent the time and money needed to produce this baffling sequence. Other than the occasional seemingly unnecessary cutscene like that, the game largely seems to leave you to work out what is going on for yourself. You sort of get the feeling that there was probably a lot more to the plot at one point in development, but it mostly never made it into the game.

Weird Cutscene
Ah, classic Tomb Raider. Wait…. WHAT?

The mechanics of moving Lara around the environment could be described as slow and methodical, but to the untrained eye may seem tedious and frustrating. There’s a sort of tomb raider mathematics associated with these early games that you have to learn if you play them for any period. The levels are essentially constructed out of identically sized cubes, some of which are deformed to create irregular surfaces, but are still in essence cubes. Once learned, you can be one hundred percent sure if Lara will make a jump or not, and what sort of run up she will need to do it (eg. a run-up of two walking-backwards steps are required to make a jump of four cubes, assuming you are grab on). These mechanics stayed in for the first five games and in my opinion were part of what made them good.

The combat was never the strong point of the game as there was virtually no skill involved in it. The one and only strategy involved holding down the fire and jump buttons and leaping around all over the place until whatever it was that was attacking you died. The designers clearly understood this wasn’t very engaging as there were only ever about 20 enemies per level. Of course there were bosses which were a T-Rex which is probably the most enduring memory anyone has of this game, two fireball chucking centaurs, a torso, and a Demon-Businesswoman-Atlantean-Leader who throws yet more fireballs at you.

Tomb Raider 1 - T-Rex
Lara takes the only logical action in response to the discovery of actual dinosaurs living in a forgotten valley, she fills them with bullets.

One of the most unique things about this game at the time was the mansion level. It served a dual purpose; it provided a quick and effective background for the game, specifically that Lara was a woman rich enough to actually own a mansion, and it served as a training level for the game mechanics and general sandbox environment to run around in without wolves jumping out from every which way. The first iteration of the mansion here was strictly internal, and there was no butler following you around. There wasn’t really a whole lot to do, and the engine was so bad it ended up looking a bit rubbish really and unlike anything you would expect a mansion to look like. Lara, ever the apologist, mentions that she is still in the process of unpacking which explains there being loads of crates all over the place and not much else.

Tomb Raider Mansion Screenshot
There is a lot wrong with this shot so rather than pointing it all out I’ll simply say that the engine just wasn’t really built for realistic environments.

All in all this was an excellent game, a classic even, and obviously good enough to begin a franchise, but I can’t help but feel the majority of people didn’t actually play all that much of it. It’s slow pace and unforgiving difficulty probably put a lot of people off getting all that far into it, and so they didn’t witness the totally insane later levels. It was also one of the only entries in the series that manages to live up to the name Tomb Raider.

Meanwhile, the suits over at Eidos had caught the scent of gold, if gold has a scent that is, and commanded more Tomb Raider be made for them. Clearly something about either Lara Croft or Tomb Raider was working, and it was probably the one appearing on the front of magazines. I can’t help but feel that things would of gone a lot better if they had not ignored half of what made the first game good, you know, Tombs. It’s right there in the damn name.

Tomb Raider Retrospective
Introduction
Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)
Part 2 – Tomb Raider II (1997)
Part 3 – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998)
Part 4 – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) – coming soon
Part 5 – Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000) – coming soon
Part 6 – Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) – coming soon
Part 7 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) – coming soon
Part 8 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007) – coming soon





Tomb Raider Retrospective – Introduction

4 02 2008

Tomb Raider Logo

Tomb Raider… does anyone really care about Tomb Raider anymore? To say that Lara Croft has largely dropped out of the public consciousness is a statement that could have been made accurately as long as eight years ago at this point. There was a time when Lara would of probably been recognised by filthy non-gaming yokels as she featured in adverts and two god-awful movies. Those days are over though; while profitable the movies were largely considered terrible, and Lara is having to stick to games for the time being.

But what is the last Tomb Raider game that anyone actually played? Probably the one with Area 51 whichever one that was. The games sort of drifted into obscurity sometime around the turn of the century, but I’ve got good news: the games are still being made! Not only that but they are actually pretty good! I have recently completed the 8th Tomb Raider game, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and am vaguely frustrated that while it is an excellent game, it has been largely ignored and dismissed by the gaming community. It seems that people’s eyes upon seeing anything with the phrase ‘Tomb Raider’ on dismiss it as irrelevant before the information can make it to their brains. For this reason I have decided to write this overly long retrospective of the Tomb Raider series to amuse and inform, or perhaps to annoy.

One phenomenon I have frequently encountered when discussing these games is that they have run together into an indistinct mess in everyone’s memories. I get asked questions like “Is that the one with T-Rex?”, “Is that the one where you she dies at the end?”, and “What the hell is ‘Tomb Raider: Chronicles?’ “. To help combat this I will be listing the things you should probably remember about these games if you have ever played them, and haven’t quite repressed the experience all the way.

Rendering - old vs new
Original rendering of Lara and rendering of Lara for Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Notice how she looks almost like an actual human now.

The year was 1996! The Sony PlayStation was tearing the games industry several new orifices, but had yet to have a real iconic character like Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, or uh Jazz Jackrabbit? Core Design were desperately trying to think of a hook for their Indiana Jones rip-off game, and after noticing that perverted men liked staring at busty women for long periods, the Hispanic grave-robber Laura Cruz was born! Shortly afterwards Laura was scrapped in favour of the decidedly Britisher Lara Croft. Obviously, she took the world by storm with her acrobatics, large breasts, british accent, and willingness to shoot endangered species right in the face.

Six games later, the series had been almost ruined by the increasingly horrible work of Core Design, and Crystal Dynamics were asked by Eidos to clean Core’s mess, and they did so successfully with their new ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider’ franchise. The design of this new Lara was based off a Topshop sales clerk who Eidos are apparently paying to essentially be Lara for some reason. This re-imagined Lara inherited the rather curious title of Countess of Abingdon which is a pretty odd place to be a Countess of. The background story for the new Lara gave her a slightly different tragic past, and a possibly living mother as explored in Legend.

Now, join me on a mostly downhill journey of incremental engine updates, rushed release schedules, ridiculous plots, the word ‘no’ said in a very posh manner, crass commercialism, and the occasional tomb.

Tomb Raider Retrospective
Introduction
Part 1 – Tomb Raider (1996)
Part 2 – Tomb Raider II (1997)
Part 3 – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998)
Part 4 – Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999) – coming soon
Part 5 – Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000) – coming soon
Part 6 – Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) – coming soon
Part 7 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) – coming soon
Part 8 – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007) – coming soon