Review: You'll have to make a few concessions for the 1996 look and feel, but every gamer owes it to themselves to play Tomb Raider at least once.
The year was 1996. And I sound like Casey Kasem. But seriously, 1996, September to be exact, was the beginning of a new era of the video game's evolution. These words probably sound hollow in the year 2003, but seven years ago was a truly spectacular time to be a fan of video games. And it was all due to a trio of new games. Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider.
By now everyone knows the story of Lara Croft. To talk about how Lara Croft has become an iconic character not just in the video game world, but in all of American pop culture is a tad redundant at this point. But Lara Croft also did something else. She helped make 3D games the driving force in games they are today. Super Mario 64 was the better game, but Tomb Raider was "cool" and appealed to the core audience that Sony was building with their year old PlayStation.
The story was simple. Lara Croft, armed only with her twin guns (take that phrase as you will) ventures into hidden tombs of the world searching for lost artifacts. Her first adventure took her deep into the Himalayan mountains and Egyptian temples in search of the mysterious Scion, an item said to have enormous power (ancient relics always do). The rest of the story is played out through CGI cinemas and in game cut scenes that were jaw dropping in their day and are still pretty impressive in 2003.
But for all its fancy CGIs the real draw of the game was it's 3D world. Nothing like it had ever been done before. Lara could move in any direction. She could jump, climb, dive, swim, spin, shoot and it all seemed like second nature. But even then another layer was added to the game. Tomb Raider was at its heart a puzzle game. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was the constant feeling that if you didn't move the idol just so a boulder would fall from the ceiling to crush you (which happened in Tomb Raider more than once). Even such mundane tasks as finding keys and pulling switches were given a new feel when you realized you were on the ground and the item you needed was on top of a cliff hanging from a broken bridge.
But Tomb Raider also featured some action sequences and that's the main part where the game suffered. The control is a little stiff. This is understandable given the game's history as one of the first 3D games and the lack of analog support (of course there was no Dual Shock controller in 1996). But the button combinations required for precision jumping, diving, and walking could use some work. It's very much trial and error and when Tomb Raider was first released, that sort of thing was acceptable, not anymore. The camera also swings in wild directions when fighting making the action difficult to follow, of course there often isn't a lot of fighting to do in Tomb Raider. And without the game's auto-aim feature there might not be six sequels to Tomb Raider today because the game probably wouldn't be much fun.
With all this talk about the adventure aspects, we shouldn't try to fool ourselves; the graphics were a big part of what made Tomb Raider popular. Simply put they were state of the art back then and still hold up pretty well today. Everything was just so detailed. The levels looked like something out of Indiana Jones. A giant sandstone coliseum that stretches deep into the distance. A huge granite statue that is holding a spear that shoots lightning and collapses around you as you try to piece together the puzzle of that room. The golden temples and the way they shined. Water effects that would make gamers today cry with pain, but in 1996 they made us cry with joy. Sure they look a little pixilated as you get close to things, but you have to accept that.
While the graphics might be incredible, the sound is a little on the light side. There's almost no music at all, everything is supposed to be very atmospheric. Footsteps, guns blazing, and animal cries, that's about it. The critical word for this is minimalist. I just think the team at Core was going for a horror movie "jump scare" moment because whenever a group of animals or people enter the screen that you have to shoot the music kicks on. It's a good attempt, but it's just too quiet. However, the voice acting is almost as good as a video game gets. While Capcom was toiling away at trying to make "the master of unlocking" sound formidable, Eidos got it right on the first try.