Substance and style...at first.
Released just as Nintendo's Super Mario 64 was showing gamers just how well true 3D could be done, Tomb Raider was the first true-3D, free-roaming action game for both the PlayStation and the Saturn.
The game put you in the short shorts of Lara Croft, a female Indiana Jones with a debutante background and a shady employer. Her mission is to locate the Scion, a legendary artifact of great power.
The graphics are better than you'd expect from a second-generation title, a bit blocky and crude in some respects, but the environments and levels themselves are HUGE, obviously pushing the limits of the PlayStation's RAM. (the Colosseum comes to mind). Water and other effects are done surprisingly well. And they all take great advantage of being in true 3D, with multi-tiered halls and high architecture. Core Design created an engine that was about two years ahead of its time, and while it has some rough edges, it definitely provided the most epic settings on the PSX at the time.
Sound is dead-on as far as effects go; the first time you are surprised by a bear from behind you WILL jump thirty feet in the air and rip your controller out. TR also approaches music fairly uniquely. Most of the game takes place in silence, with 45-60 seconds stings of dramatic orchestral music occurring when you enter a climactic battle sequence, or mysterious music when you enter a section of the tomb vital to the level.
Of course, what made Tomb Raider famous (and as I will explain later, infamous) is it's control and gameplay. Overall, the control for TR is fairly intuitive. Lara defaults to running with the D-pad, but you can make her walk with a shoulder button, and while walking she will stop at ledges and not fall off. The rest of the buttons are fairly mundane, draw weapons, jump, action (for grabbing onto ledges and picking up items) and sidesteps. Also unique is the quick roll, where Lara collapses onto the ground and quickly gets up again facing the opposite direction. Doesn't seem very useful on paper, but after about the third time you narrowly escape an Indiana-Jones sized boulder, you'll be glad it's there. When underwater, Lara controls almost like a flight simulator. Camera work is fairly stable, with a fixed above-behind perspective except during action sequences or when you order Lara to "look" around (you cannot move in first-person mode, however).
The gameplay generally follows the conventions of old-school dungeon crawlers, where you go through the level finding keys in hard-to-reach places that open doors to the next area. Also, you will often pull switches that open doors, alter some level area to make it passable, or occasionally trigger a booby trap.
Combat is a little odd in this game. Your basic weapon is a set of twin pistols with unlimited ammo, and along the way you will pick up a bad-ass shotgun and two Uzis that you wield John-Woo style. These must be fed with ammo, conveniently found strewn carelessly all over the old tombs and caverns. When you draw your guns, Lara becomes unable to grab ledges or pick things up, and automatically aims at the nearest enemy. You dodge around and shoot until the enemy is dead, then Lara will target the next one. Combat is rather hectic and haphazard, especially when fighting large groups of wolves and such, but serves as a welcome diversion from the otherwise slow pace of the game.
While Lara herself and the environments in the game are beautifully rendered, the various animals and human enemies are very primitive and minimalist. The bear in particular looks like...sh*t. The aliens in the last few levels look like deformed humans turned inside-out. It would be scary if they were as meticulously modeled, as in say, Silent Hill, but that is not the case.
The game also has some scattered issues with positioning of Lara when she tries to manipulate switches or pick things up, which has to be done perfectly for the game to detect you want to open this door and kick in with the corresponding animation. This shouldn't be a big deal, were it not for the many "flip this switch, and run like hell to flip the other one before you die" challenges, where a pixel's worth of misalignment will result in an ugly death.
Also, the physics are a bit out of whack. Enemies will collapse through walls when shot, and if you shoot an alligator or rat and then drain the water, they will remain there, levitating Copperfield style in the air.
The Bottom Line
Rather than post seperate reviews for all the TR games, I'll give it to ya right here. All the other TR games in the series are basically the same as this, the only differences being varied, improved environments, and a new move or weapon here and there. If you've played one Tomb Raider game, you've pretty much played 'em all. So while the original game was a groundbreaker, and the second and third were decent sequels, the series as a whole has gotten very stale and over-marketed. So buy and play one Tomb Raider game (looking at them objectively, TR4: Last Revelation is probably the best), and maybe another if you like them. Then stop.