Say what you want of Lara, but this first game was an incredible experience.
You have to give it to the guys at Core, regardless of what happened AFTER this game got released, they managed to give us a fantastic action/adventure classic that followed in on the footsteps of Prince of Persia, but gave players chance to play in a fully 3d world. Amazing! From the first moments you ran around jumpin and performing acrobatic stunts while the camera followed you around tilting and panning as you moved you knew you were watching something special. And special it would be indeed! This game pretty much created 3D action-adventure as we know it, and that's no small feat indeed.
As mentioned above, the gameplay basics follow the lead of Prince's, with the addition of some more features to cope with the added 3rd dimension (such as the auto-aiming). You can roll, jump in all directions and control your jumps easily with pre-set jumping distances and a free-look camera mode (I never understood those that said it was hard judging jumps on Tomb Raider, heck they pretty much copied Prince's model to begin with!!). Graphically speaking the game is a beauty to behold, the engine (while prone to clipping problems) handles large massive areas with virtually no problem, as well as providing some nifty effects like when you are underwater. Granted, due to the technology they didn't have any colored lightning or stuff like that to play with, but the high-resolution mode is still fairly decent by today's standards. Another high point for the game was Lara's animations, which were truly a thing of beauty. Watching Lara perform sumersaults, swan dives, and even simple stuff like the handstand or the regular walk was a joy thanks to the fluid, life-like motions. I had literally seen no better character animation at the time and even today Lara still ranks high as one of the most life-like animated characters (heck, I even loved it when you fell down and broke all her limbs from the fall ;))
Add to that some stellar level design that gave us such wondruous experiences as the lost world level (that T-Rex, KICKED ASS!!) and you have in your hands the true heir to Prince's crown.
Well, sound-wise the game was pretty weak. There wasn't any music save for some "ambience" sounds, and Lara's grunts and moans lost it's, uhm... "appeal" and turned annoying quite easily. The action itself in the game is good, but I really got tired of shooting wildlife creatures after the first few levels, luckily they throw some humans and those weird atlantean creatures your way later on, but until you get to them it's open season for wolf/bear/croc/etc.. hunting. Maybe it's me, but I never felt too heroic when taking out a a couple of bats with a shotgun.
Other than that, the only thing you can really pin against Tomb Raider is that for as many good things as it brought to the videogame world, equal amount of crap came with it. Namely the overdose of crate-puzzles, the over comercialization of game characters, etc, etc. But all these aren't faults of Tomb Raider's success, they are the faults of an industry that exploits it's own honest-to-good ideas with as much savagery as a pack of rabid hyenas.
The Bottom Line
Before the main concern for Core in terms of gameplay were the roundness of Lara's breast or her image as an "eXtReMe Girrrrrl", they gave us an honestly good game that managed to shatter all conceptions of what action/adventure should be. Tomb Raider didn't just introduce the 3d 3rd-person perspective viewpoint to the world, it also offered a magnificent gameplay experience that combined action, exploring, puzzle solving and acrobatic stunts. DO NOT be deceived by Lara's current state as a comercial cyber-whore, this first date with her was a roller coaster ride to remember.