Review by roadtosalvation

"One of two games that lured me away from the Nintendo 64"

In the world of gaming, opinions vary as much as the food we eat and the drinks we drink. In picking and choosing what we play and experience, we sometimes forget how important contrasting views can be and how even negative ones can be blessings in disguise.

As if the ten out of ten didn't tell you, I love Tomb Raider. Well, I love the original Tomb Raider. The sequels are a different story altogether, and my feelings towards them depend on which one we're talking about, but there was something about Lara's quest to find the three pieces of the Atlantean Scion that simply seized the teenager I was in 1997 and continues to do so today. So why was Tomb Raider so attractive, why did it (and Final Fantasy VII) lure me away from the Nintendo 64? Why was it the right game at the right time?

A lot of it had to do with entering those teenage years. After partaking in what the Super Nintendo had to offer (you know, that console that was supposedly never as "cool" or "edgy" as the Genesis but outlived it) I was unknowingly looking for experiences that felt and looked a little more mature than, say, a Mario game. I'm sure Mario 64 was (and still is) a great game (that I should sit down and play someday) but when looking back at the games I missed by choosing the Playstation, I don't have any regrets. What I do regret is people taking a good game (Final Fantasy VII) and sticking it up on a pedestal because a) they can and b) it's the in thing to do. As aggravating as that can be, it's something the Tomb Raider has never had to deal with. The series has had its fair share of detractors from day one whom, for the most part, offer legitimate points of view. Quite honestly, I thank them for that, for keeping this game tethered to the ground when it comes to perspective. That said, let's take a look Tomb Raider, the good and the bad, and how it easily overcomes most of its problems.

In almost any discussion about involving Tomb Raider, the first thing that comes up is the controls. Seriously, it's almost a forgone conclusion. I'm willing to admit that when things get chaotic (like when battling a small handful of Atlantean Crawlers or mummies that just love to jump anywhere) the rigidness of the control scheme can become a liability, but these moments are the minority and combat is the lesser half of what the game offers. Unlike later games where just about every goon you encounter has a gun (groan) the vast majority of foes in Tomb Raider are creatures with no distance attacks. One-on-one you might be able to gun them down before they close the gap, but in tight spaces or against large numbers, gaining a height advantage can tip the scale in your favor. Some may consider this kind of play cheap since the enemies capable of climbing (Gorillas) are very limited in their ability, but just when the player gets comfortable with such a strategy the final levels throw a well placed curve ball in the form of full-on, projectile based combat.

At this point, jumping back and forth from left to right in quick succession becomes the most effective from of defense/offense. While this also seems like a rather straightforward strategy to implement, a moving target being harder to hit than a stationary one, it also comes with a few perils. Acute knowledge of the surrounding area is extremely important so one doesn't fall prey to a trap (most commonly a slippery slope that leads to a pit) that leads to one's doom. Sometimes there isn't much, or any, time to acquire that knowledge before an enemy attack. This isn't really a case of the camera failing to keep up with the action, although the camera can become an issue when the player ends up slamming their back against a wall - something that's a one-way ticket to suffering some cheap hits. Additionally, this technique requires a bit more finesse than one would initially believe because of the slight pause between jumps. If an enemy fires a shot at the player at this juncture, there's a good chance it will connect, meaning the player needs to adjust their timing (with a slight pause of their own) so future openings don't fall in line with the enemy's attack pattern.

Luckily, while the above works well enough despite not being bulletproof, gunplay is only half of what Tomb Raider has to offer. In general, the controls hold up a bit better when the player is dealing with platforming where they have more time to plan and execute their moves, and is where the perks of the grid based system the game is built on makes up for it's graphical deficiencies. Lining up jumps is a breeze and unlike Tomb Raider Anniversary, where there is that feeling that something can go horribly wrong at any given moment, there is very little to fear once you have the controls down. The concept of a walk button may seem archaic in this day and age, but it works and get the job done. The only time the platforming sections really get into trouble is when obstacles require multiple, consecutive jumps (but these sections tend to occur above water filled areas that safety break any falls) and when the game baits you with an item that requires a specialty jump like a backwards jump and its lower trajectory. Typically, these will result in a few game overs until the player figures it out or just continues on their way.

Along with the running, gunning and platforming comes graphics and level design. As was mentioned before, the grid based system Core implemented does leave some things to be desired. Things like flat scenery, pixilated surfaces and box-like structures are commonplace, but then those things are commonplace in a lot of Playstation games. That said, I have to lump Tomb Raider's level design with that of another prominent title, id Software's Doom. Even with all the limitations, the levels just pop from the screen and it really took a play through Tomb Raider Anniversary for me to realize how impressive even the lesser known and talked about parts of the game really are. Everything Crystal Dynamics set out to replace because it wasn't as "memorable" as the rest actually ended up being better than what they replaced it with. One of the best examples is the Lost Valley where the darkness that defined the level was completely disregarded with a sky and sunlight. In fact, Anniversary ditched a lot of what made the original game work, one of the most important aspects being the cramped and confined hallways.

Another thing the original Tomb Raider got right and the remake got wrong was the music. I'll just come out and say it, Nathan McCree totally hit the nail on the head here, he really did. Many criticize Tomb Raider for using music so sparingly, for its world being so quiet, but in reality it's actually quite brilliant. There may be one of four ambient tracks playing at any given time in a level, which aren't exactly impressive own their own, but it allows sound effects like gunshots and enemy screeches to pierce the silence and make their deafening impact. It's also makes the appearance of one of McCree's full-fledged pieces like "Battle in the Ancient Courtyard," "Ruins of a Lost Civilization," and "Architecture of the Past" so special, especially when the last two are played during moments of reprieve. Unfortunately, while some of these pieces made the transition to Anniversary, Troels B. Folmann drowns them in that over-bombastic orchestral crap that finds its way into many games produced outside of Japan.

Last but not least, we reach the focal point of Lara's quest: the storyline. While Tomb Raider's use of in-game and full motion videos is competent enough in fleshing out what is going on, most will still find it bare-bones, save the world fare. For the most part, they're right. Still, even with all the bad voice acting and one-dimensional foes, it's doesn't take much to realize that Natla is probably the best villain the series has ever seen. I mean who can you compare her to? Tomb Raider II's Bartoli? The best thing is it doesn't even end with Natla; even The Bald Man, Stakeboard Kid, Cowboy, Pierre and Larson beat the tar out of any baddies presented in any of the future games, and they are never really explored as characters. What's ironic is how much went wrong when Crystal Dynamics did explore these characters. I don't really need to know that Kold (the Bald Man) is a murderer; all I need to know is that he has my shotgun and I need it back. I don't need a scene where Lara feels bad for wasting Larson, and I don't want Cowboy nuked out of existence and combined with him. I didn't like it, and I took it personally.

CONCLUSION:

While some will obviously question whether or not my opinion of Tomb Raider teeters on the edge of fanboyism, I honestly feel it's more of a case where a fan is able to except the problems within without letting it taint all that was done right. Ten out of ten may seem generous, but it really doesn't when reflecting on how the game makes me feel when I play it, and when you think about it, isn't that what truly matters? Everyone has a guilty pleasure or two, and while Tomb Raider is guilty of a lot of things, I certainly can't hold it in contempt in my court.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/20/10

Game Release: Tomb Raider (US, 11/15/96)


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