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SummaryConquering the 3D world for cinematic platformers
The GoodWhen 3D graphics entered the gaming scene they were mostly restricted to first-person games. Sure, there were groundbreaking games like Alone in the Dark that used polygonal characters, but the backgrounds were still images with fixed camera angles. Fade to Black was among the earliest 3D third-person games, but it was a shooter that lacked all those cool platforming elements of its predecessor Flashback. Tomb Raider was the first game that took cinematic platforming according to the Prince of Persia recipe and converted it into full 3D.
This alone would guarantee Tomb Raider a venerable position in the annals of video gaming. But the game's true genius is revealed when we realize how much more it turned out to be than just a daring experiment. Unlike so many games that attempt something new but fail to combine the novelty with good gameplay, Tomb Raider does pretty much everything right on the first try. The guys at Core Design went all the way with this one: Tomb Raider is not just a revolution, it is a gorgeously-looking, superbly entertaining game that made the visual transition as smoothly and flawlessly as it was only possible, without letting it take away from the gameplay and even enhancing it in ways unseen before.
Tomb Raider is, undeniably, one of the best-looking games in history. The rich, expansive 3D environments are stunning, but by that time we have already seen first-person shooters that accomplished similar feats. The visual star of the game is Lara herself, and believe me that I'm not referring to those stupid insinuations sex-starved teenagers were so fond of at the time. The game has beautiful animation that gracefully recreates the athletic appeal of 2D cinematic platformers. It is hard to fathom that years after Tomb Raider they were still producing games with clunkily moving protagonists that took all the fun out of them. I don't quite understand all those complaints about non-responsive controls - it takes just a bit of practicing to navigate Lara with ease, and there are clearly defined rules for every move she can make. Sure, the game can get difficult and frustrating when you keep missing jumps, but that is part of the genre's conventions and was also the case with Prince of Persia and its immediate followers. Considering the fact Tomb Raider had no predecessors or established methods in the field, the accomplishment of translating everything that made cinematic platformers cool into 3D with minimal loss is simply astounding.
The game also has well-animated, fearsome polygonal enemies. The famous T-Rex comes to mind, featured in one of the most awe-inspiring scenes in the history of video games. But even regular enemies may give you a good scare with their constant motion and visual credibility. The stages themselves contain some very impressive vertical architecture, defining the standards for level design in 3D platformers. Dangerous leaps on suspended platforms, acrophobic sights, deep water, rooms on top of each other, well-hidden secret areas - all the ingredients are there. You'll visit an abandoned ancient Peruvian village, immerse yourself in Greek and Egyptian myths, and explore strange and mysterious Atlantean structures. Tomb Raider is one of those games where just being in it fills you with joyous excitement regardless of its actual gameplay value.
The gameplay, however, is consistently excellent. Tomb Raider is a fantastic example of a game where exploration, action and puzzle-solving come just in the right doses and where you are never boggled down by an excess of either of them. To me personally, though, it was and forever remains primarily a game of exploration. So many later 3D platformers failed to convey the simple, yet essential joy of discovery. Tomb Raider never holds your hand and always expects you to explore first and proceed to tackle its challenges later. Even its smallest levels are always branching, and whenever you arrive in a new area you must get to know it before you begin to understand what needs to be done. This is the kind of gameplay approach I always highly regarded, since the necessity to figure out stuff by yourself is, for me, one of the major reasons for enjoyment derived from playing games in general. Of course, many game fell to the other extreme and became confusing and poorly-planned, but Tomb Raider avoids both dead ends and gives us a perfectly measured, delightfully balanced experience. Each level contains optional areas and items, and the game keeps tracks of them and tells you what you may have missed, greatly adding to the replayability its genre was not known for.
Tomb Raider is also a game with great atmosphere. The almost total absence of music clears the way for ambient sounds and impeccably placed effects to convey a foreboding sense of loneliness and danger. Tomb Raider is similar to Super Metroid in this respect, creating ominous solitude that intensifies the experience. It can also be compared to survival horror games, since its enemies aren't there for any gameplay-related purpose and serve to increase tension and emphasize the environment's hostility to the heroine. In fact, some of my playing sessions were genuinely scary: not only the famed T-Rex, but even the first bear I met made me send Lara on a series of frantic manoeuvres until I realized the situation had to be dealt with calmly. The game has just the right degree of challenge and maintains an equilibrium of suspense and occasional relaxation that make advancement seamless.
You should definitely play the game on the PC and enjoy saving your progress wherever and whenever you want to. Games should not be reduced to frustrating exercises and pointless re-runs of already conquered challenges, especially not a game of exploration such as Tomb Raider. I wish to thank whoever insisted on the save-anywhere feature in the PC version for making that reasonable decision.
Lastly, the whole over-sexualization of Lara, a sad phenomenon the series have unfortunately become known for outside of the game community, has no traces in this game. Lara is an overwhelmingly positive character, strong both mentally and physically, and her gender adds grace and aesthetic appeal to the game without in the least deteriorating into cheap sexism. If anything, her design should have contributed to a more advanced and respectful depiction of women in video games.
The BadEven though the game's locations are varied and appealing in different ways, the gameplay cannot quite catch up with them in diversity. Unlike modern games that tend to feed the player new abilities and challenges dynamically, Tomb Raider is pretty much set in stone from the onset. Sure, you gain new weapons, but battles, acrobatics and puzzles remain the same, they just get harder. You'll be running through square indoor locations, flipping switches, somersaulting to the sides, and shooting animals throughout the entire game. This, and the perpetual absence of human contact or any different area types, can render the game somewhat tiresome, particularly when coupled with old 3D graphics that may give you a headache if you don't mentally teleport to the year of its release.
Combat system is basic, but I was more disappointed by the enemies themselves. The vast majority of them are common animals, with only later levels adding interesting Atlantean creatures and alike. You gain absolutely nothing from vanquishing all those wolves and lions, and I wish the game would realize that and throw in some human enemies that may at least give you items or ammo. The fact combat is by and large pointless, but rarely avoidable, negatively affects your desire to keep exploring. Of course, as I said above, it also contributes to the game's quasi-horror aspect, but perhaps there was a way to preserve that and yet make combat somewhat more meaningful from the point of view of gameplay.