Review by Nightfall

"Tomb Raider 3: the best AND the worst game of the TR series"

The cliche goes, ''the third time is the charm.'' With regards to the Tomb Raider series, something strange did indeed happen the third time around. Whether that was a good or a bad thing is the subject of this review. Some hail Tomb Raider 3 as the crowning achievement of the series; many others claim it is the stinkpot of the bunch, and indeed the series did seem to loose its general favor in the public eye when Tomb Raider 3 was released. It was a radical departure in many respects from the first two games, not in the realm of the gameplay mechanics, which have remained pretty much the same throughout the series, but in the realm of style. Lara was plunged from the brightly lit locales of the first two games into a very dark world where the environments themselves were very often the killer, and unseen death awaited around almost every corner. The difficulty level went through the roof, and many gamers complained the game was just too hard. The mostly linear, straightforward gameplay of the first two games gave way in the third to a series of choices between alternative paths, and your choice usually meant the difference between living and dying, an easier or harder route, or finding/missing out on that secret. Generally speaking, Tomb Raider 3 was a very dark game, both literally and figuratively. I've always thought of it as the game that showcases Lara's dark side. I got the feeling while playing it for the first time that the developer's philosophy had been, ''Okay, we're not fooling around this time. Things are gettin' ugly.'' I admit I didn't like the game much, and after playing it for a while, shelved it for a long time, unfinished. This was unheard of for me, a diehard Tomb Raider fan who had played straight through the first two games. It just had a bad vibe to it. There was a completely different spirit to the game, one that seemed to turn me off, but at the same time had a strange appeal, something that kept calling me back to it. For a long time, I tried to pinpoint exactly why I didn't like the game so much, and what I did like about it. I did eventually finish the game with the help of a strategy guide, and many years after its release, I have finally come to what I think is a definitive statement concerning my experience with Tomb Raider 3. Quite simply it is this: Tomb Raider is the best AND the worst game of the Tomb Raider series, and I will attempt to explain why I think this in the following.

First of all, this review/editorial deals with the Playstation version of the game. The PSX and PC experiences of TR 3 are quite different, with the PSX version being without a doubt more difficult. In the PSX version, saving your game can only be accomplished by acquiring blue Save Crystals, placed VERY sparingly throughout the levels. You put the Crystal in your inventory and use it whenever you want, but you don't find very many of them, so you have to know (or guess, as was the case) where the best places to save are. In The PC version, you have an infinite number of saves at your disposal with several save slots, and the blue Save Crystals of the PSX version have been transformed into green health restoratives with a white cross on them. Sweet heaven. This alone makes the PC version of the game much more enjoyable, because when you are killed by that rolling bolder or falling rock, you know that loading your last save won't put you back much. Also, the PSX version of the game is much darker due to the fact that the PSX does not have a gamma level adjustment. In the PC version, you just crank that gamma level up a few notches and you're sittin' pretty (although the game is still a lot darker than TR 1 or 2). And then there's the matter of the fuzzy PSX graphics which just can't compare to the sharp resolution a PC graphics card and monitor can give you.

It was this Blue Save Crystal saving system that I hated most about TR 3. Given the game's high difficulty level, it was very frustrating not to be able to save as often as I wanted. As I stated above, the game was not generous with the Crystals at all, so you had to save infrequently or you would end up with no Crystals. This was a problem in a game that got you killed so much, because it meant replaying portions of the game over and over again. It got very tedious and frustrating. And regarding the difficulty level itself, this was way over the top. I mean seriously, Core Design just went nuts and decided to make the game as hard as possible. It didn't feel like the Tomb Raider I had come to know and love; it was very daunting. So the first two things I really didn't like about TR 3 were the difficulty level and the save system.

The third thing that really bummed me out about the game was how dark it was. Forget the brightly lit caves and temples of TR 1 or the sun-drenched waterways of Venice in TR 2. TR 3 was like playing a game on a screen with no backlighting (can you say, Gameboy Color?). You got some sunlight in the first couple of levels, but after that it was a journey into darkness. Now keep in mind that the game is being played on a PSX, which offered fuzzy graphics at best. This, combined with the ominous lack of light, was a recipe for headache and frustration. The power ups, too, were often made very difficult to see. In some cases I was standing almost right on top of them before I noticed them, or I found them by accident, because the camera just happened to give me a good angle. A far cry from the glowing power ups of TR 1 which could be seen from a mile away!

So you think in a game as dark as TR 3 was that they would give you plenty of flare burn-time. Not so. The life of Lara's flares was cut in about half from what it was in TR 2, and in many instances in the game, lighting a flare didn't even help much. So what you ended up doing was lighting a flare and then running around like a damn chicken to see everything you possibly could before your flare burned out. Silly and dumb. So you're thinking, ''hey, just light another flare.'' Well that would be fine if you wanted to use them all up.

Item number five that I found very distasteful: the insane precision required in some of the jumps. In many of the jumps in the game there is absolutely ZERO margin for error. This fact, combined with the implementation of triangular polygons in the level design, (meaning even smaller surfaces to line up on), made jumping a huge headache. Add to this that Lara would often get stuck in the corners of the triangles, or would make a right or left turn when she walked to the edge of the triangle instead of just stopping. It was just a perfect recipe for frustration and cheap deaths.

So far we have, I believe, five things that really bugged me about the game: the save crystal system; the difficulty level; how dark the game was; the burn time of the flares, and the inhuman accuracy required in the jumping. Despite these things, there were also some really cool things about TR 3 that made me love the game. Into the cool elements of the game I will now delve.

I have a keen eye for color. I love a game that has a varied color palette; it helps keep the visual side of things interesting. Too many developers nowadays will base the entire color palette of a game on one color. That is, pick a color, produce varying shades of it, and use those colors for everything in the game (Zone of the Enders, Metal Gear Solid 2, Ico). That is boring. That is uninteresting. That does not tickle my eyes. Tomb Raider 3 was one game that was color schemed very well, at least in my opinion. There was no one color that dominated the game (like the horrid orange of TRLR). There was even great color variation within the levels themselves. Blues, greys, oranges, greens, browns, yellows, you name it. It helped make the environments look alive and interesting. I wish Core had stuck to the same plan with TRLR, which was completely done in shades of orange. Yuck.

The second thing I really liked about TR 3 is hard for me to put into words. I'm not really sure what the term would be, but I think the closest approximation to it would be somewhere between level design and the very efficient and effective use of space. Put in other words, TR 3 was a very well constructed game. I got the feeling that nothing was wasted in this game. You don't find places or things that don't have a purpose, as was often the case in TRLR. You could be pretty sure that wherever you went there was some reason for being there, and every part of a level fit very well into the whole. I guess another way to say it would be that I had the sense there was a higher intelligence at work in the seemingly chaotic level structure. Many people complained that all they did in TR 3 was wander around wondering what to do next. Even so, just because you can't figure out what to do next doesn't mean there isn't something very important to do. I just got the sense that a lot of time was spent on TR 3's level design, and I like knowing that my world is so well structured and purposive (I know that sounds corny, but that's what I thought. I had the opposite feeling with TRLR, in which there was kind of an empty, sloppily structured feeling).

Another very cool thing about Tomb Raider 3 was a ''secret'' move that Lara had. This is kind of a minor thing, but I loved it nonetheless, and it actually came in very handy in the final boss battle. Although it was not mentioned in the game manual (or anywhere else that I've seen), one of the things that Lara could do was come to a skidding stop from a sprint, while looking down at her feet. This is not the roll maneuver, which I found pretty much useless. When Lara was in a sprint, hitting the look button and one of the face buttons caused her to skid to a stop on her feet while looking down. This was very useful when you needed to get to an object fast and pick it up, such as in the battle with the final boss at the end. Moves like this helped Lara seem more active and alive in the game, as opposed to robotic. Ironically, this one useful move isn't mentioned in any guide or website I've read, while many useless moves added in the games receive attention and practice time (the running roll maneuver, the tightrope walk).

I also liked the idea of collecting magical artifacts formed from the remains of an ancient meteorite. I mean, what other, cooler thing could Lara be looking for? But the manner in which this story is presented is very disjointed and confusing. Often in the cutscenes of the game, crucial plot elements are eluded to only VERY briefly, and in accents so strong that it is almost impossible to understand what has been said. When I played the game, all I had was a general idea that Lara was after these four artifacts, and so was another guy named Willard. I didn't know why, I didn't understand how they had come to be formed or why they were scattered to all ends of the earth. Some of the tomb raider storylines are actually very interesting when you find out what they are....Core just needs to do a better job of telling them through the gameplay and the cutscenes.

And one thing that cannot be forgotten in any review about the good things of TR 3: the Desert Eagle. Absolutely the coolest weapon Lara has ever come across.
One shot kill for animals, two for humans, and anywhere from three to seven for the larger foes. Highly accurate, long range, fast reload, and can be used while jumping and running around, even while crouching. I dare anyone to argue that Lara has ever had a better weapon.

So that's my attempt to reconcile the yin and yang of TR 3, folks. If there is anyone out there who has by some chance not played the game yet, hopefully this will help you to decide. My ultimate recommendation would be to buy the PC version, if you have a computer. That way, all the good points shine even brighter, and the bad ones aren't near as bad.


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 09/10/02, Updated 09/10/02


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