Tomb Raider is now entering it’s 25th year in our lives, yes Miss Lara Croft has been with us for almost a quarter of a century (25th October is the 25th Anniversary if you want to mark it in your calendars), I have friends that weren’t even alive when the first Tomb Raider released! In that time the series has undergone several changes from high difficulty methodical platforming adventure games of the original PlayStation, to a dark methodical platforming adventure game so broken it almost killed the franchise, to a smooth Prince of Persia style platforming adventure game with shite combat, to a Rambo style killing spree with light puzzling adventure game. The metamorphosis has been stark and the current iteration of Tomb Raider barely resembles the one’s released prior, though I would argue this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the franchise has evolved to keep itself relevant in the tough AAA gaming machine and has largely retained it’s success and identity despite the changes.
To me – and this might be a controversial statement – there hasn’t been a Tomb Raider game yet that has actually fulfilled it’s full potential. It’s a difficult series to truly define what “Tomb Raider” actually is: it depends on who you ask in the Tomb Raider fandom, everyone has very different ideas on what makes a Tomb Raider game. The hardcore fanbase are so fixated on the original games, they barely see the modern reboot games as Tomb Raider at all, they see the Core Design games as the only ones worth playing. I recently conducted a poll in 2 separate Tomb Raider fan pages asking the question “If Tomb Raider was to release a AAA game soon, what would you want it to be?”, the overwhelming winner of this poll in both forums was to have a Tomb Raider 2 remake, I also voted for this – but the issue is what do people want to see in a Tomb Raider 2 remake? – some would like to see a return of the methodical tank control platforming – basically everything lifted from the original game but with better and more modern graphics, others want a want a return to the Tomb Raider Legend style gameplay and some of us would like new and fresh platforming mixed with the 3rd person combat of the recent games, with the emphasis on puzzles firmly back in place – basically a Resident Evil 2 Remake wherein the identity of the game is still very much there but fully modernised to hold up to modern day gaming standards. But when I asked this same question on a non-Tomb Raider gaming forum the overwhelming majority wanted a sequel to Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Which to me just seems like Tomb Raider is stuck between trying to appease old fans that dedicate their time to keeping the franchise active Vs the more casual players that are actually the vast majority of current Tomb Raider players that are keeping the series alive. Tomb Raider is in a lose-lose situation with itself, it’s become too many things to too many audiences and may never appease all of them, but that’s not to say there hasn’t been some incredible games along the way.
I have a great fondness and love for the original Tomb Raider games, but I’m not blind to the games shortcomings unlike some of the games more ardent fans. I go back and play Tomb Raider 1 and 2 every couple of years and I absolutely love them, many of the games design choices I find frustrating I can put down to the age of the games. But even thinking to back when I first played them, they had some shortcomings. The original Tomb Raider managed to deftly balance it’s gameplay with excellent level design to create a truly ground-breaking piece of gaming history, it had a lonely and foreboding atmosphere that I feel was never full replicated in the later games. The game was incredibly challenging and often frustrating, mostly due to the ridiculous 1-use save crystals. Combat also required little to no skill – Lara will lock-on automatically to enemies as they do rounds of charging at you and retreating whilst you hold the action button and leap from side to side. Lets be honest here the combat really wasn’t good nor was it the focus, there are occasional adrenaline rushes like the T-Rex fight and it could be a welcome break from getting lost in the giant areas or the long stretches of platforming – but the late game combat could often be an exercise in frustration. Tomb Raider 2 I felt had a better story (though a worse antagonist, I love me some Natla) and the mixture of tombs and cities was a refreshing and dynamic change (the canals of Venice is still my all-time favourite level), but the combat against human enemies increased exponentially and the problem here was the gun-toting human enemies would auto-aim at you and never miss, meaning you’d always take damage if an enemy spotted you, even if you were miles away creating some cheap deaths and unnecessary difficulty . But what elevates these two games above the others in the original series is they were much more cohesive and well balanced and for the most part both told simple and fun stories. By the time Tomb Raider 3 came around the series was starting to run low on ideas and it showed, the stories started to get more silly and the difficulty spiked to extreme levels, by the time the Last Revelation came out it traded in the globe trotting adventuring for just one location and though it told one of the stronger stories in the series, the obtuse puzzle solving and lack of variety hurt the game somewhat and never quite reached the heights of the first two games. The poor combat and clunky controls make the original games difficult to recommend for modern gamers if they aren’t well versed in the series history, but I would argue Tomb Raider 1 and 2 were the closest the original series ever came to knocking out the park.
Core Design’s final game Angel of Darkness sadly had rushed schedule that ultimately killed the game, but here is where I think Tomb Raider could have had its true masterpiece. For the time Angel of Darkness was a seriously ambitious product, building off the massively successful formula of the previous 5 games (though the less said about Chronicles the better) but added new and interesting elements such as stealth, dialogue trees and puzzles that required proper investigation. It also had a pretty stellar story and intriguing premise and one of the most beautiful scores of any game in the series, it was just massively let down by clunky controls and game-breaking bugs, not to mention it’s massively cut down run time that felt like it was missing massive chunks. Now we are stuck with this black sheep of a game, however it’s half baked ideas could have been a truly new experience had it had the time to be finished – again Tomb Raider had an opportunity to create a serious masterpiece, but instead had wasted potential.
Crystal Dynamics first 3 Tomb Raider games certainly modernised Tomb Raider where it needed it, controls were now fluid and Lara moved like the gymnast she was portrayed to be, the platforming was fun to execute and their first game Tomb Raider Legend told a tightly written story – it was just all over a bit quickly. In fact the game only just started to get going before it ended. Another issue I had with Legend, Anniversary and Underworld was just how linear and easy the games were, where the original games never held your hand and gave very few hints as to how to conquer it’s genius but evil levels these games basically held your hand. Anniversary avoided this better than the other 2 by being a remake of the original game, but one can’t help but feel like the game was still streamlined and any navigation and exploratory elements of the original game were mostly eradicated. Though these were still excellent games, they certainly didn’t hit anywhere near the highs of the original games and were all guilty of being far too easy with practically the same tired combat system the games had featured for 10 years. Add in the eras overuse of Quick Time Events and we we’re left with a game trilogy that was high quality but still sadly lacking many areas.
Then reboot Lara came along and completely changed everything. The 2013 Tomb Raider sought to modernise everything about the series, from the gameplay, the look, the feel, the combat and even Lara herself. By and large I would say the three games in the reboot trilogy combine to make an excellent game series in their own right, but they are bogged down by the sheer fact that the much improved combat took centre stage (especially in the first game), which was often to the detriment of the other game elements that make Tomb Raider what it is. Puzzle solving in the 2013 and it’s sequel Rise were almost non-existent barring some genius side tombs and though Shadow rectified this somewhat it was such a poorly written story with a Lara so devoid of any fun or personality it really bought down the entire game. In terms of level design, story and navigation I believe the 2013 game is the best of the bunch, but I believe Rise balanced it’s gameplay far better with an excellent mix of exploration, mythos, combat and platforming with a still serviceable story, only to be capped off disappointingly with Shadow.
To me, none of these 12 mainline games fully nailed it, each game has an aspect that the other ones need to truly be the ultimate Tomb Raider game. My personal wish list would be to have a globe trotting adventure similar to Tomb Raider 2, with aspects of loneliness and isolation from the original Tomb Raider, a fun strong and care-free Lara Croft similar to the one seen in Tomb Raider Legend, large open areas with plenty of secrets and dead ends like the original games, a well-written and cohesive story suitable for a modern game, platforming that’s interesting, fluid and difficult and combat similar to that of the reboot games. This is what I think, but maybe the makers of Tomb Raider can fulfil the series potential by doing something completely new and dynamic with the series, crazier things have happened. As mentioned prior, it will be difficult for whoever makes the next Tomb Raider to please everyone, as opinions about Tomb Raider are too wide ranging – but I think the series can still make something special that will appease most fans of the series, while taking the series forward.
In a way it’s a good thing the Tomb Raider has never reached it’s full potential, it means that the best is still yet to come. Though no game can ever be perfect, Lara deserves to take her place back among the 90 Metacritic scores of her forebears and become the must play games that they were in the 90’s. Whatever the future for Lara may hold it’s been one hell of a 25 years and I await the next instalment with much excitement. Just for the love of God give Lara her dual pistols!