This review first appeared in E40, December 1996.
It is perhaps unfortunate that Tomb Raider has appeared now, several months after Super Mario 64. Even though the two games were created thousands of miles apart, Core Design has managed to create an experience more than slightly akin to – and featuring many features of – what many see as the best game of all time. If SM64 was still six months away, Tomb Raider would be justifiably hailed as one of the finest videogame experiences ever. But, while it may not be seen as redefining the videogame per se, it will certainly be seen to be pushing the 3D platformer towards a new level of excellence.
One of the reasons for its impact is the engrossing scenario and ambitious environments that appear in the game. The story centres around the adventures of Lara Croft, an upper-class lass whose plane crashes during her return from a skiing trip, forcing her to survive in the wilderness for several weeks. Upon returning to civilisation she has great trouble re-integrating with society so, making use of her newly acquired survival abilities, she embarks upon a life dedicated to uncovering ancient civilisations and writing travel guides based on her adventures.
As she travels through the 15 chapters of the game, the story is filled in using entirely appropriate prerendered scenes which are not only magnificently cinematic, but also serve to build the atmosphere considerably. Instead of casually flipping through each cut-scene, as is so commonly the case, each sequence will have the player watching avidly.
Surprisingly, the most impressive version of Tomb Raider actually runs on the PC – that is, one equipped with the new 3Dfx card (see page 59). This version includes runs in glorious SVGA at a constant 30fps. Looking at the finished PlayStation version by comparison now, the difference is certainly a marked one, but it’s difficult not to appreciate what a stunning job Core has done with the graphics on Sony’s machine. What the console version lacks in definition it makes up for in technical sophistication – movement is smooth, speed is more than adequate, animation is spectacular, and, most importantly, in certain areas – when Lara swims being the best example – some very intelligent use of colour and lighting effects make the experience visually startling.
Tomb Raider’s structure is fairly simplistic but this is by no means a criticism. As in many of the finest games, a limited number of clearly defined elements are repeatedly used to create a number of diverse environments and challenges which are at once surprising and consistently playable. Ignoring the specific layout of a level, each one is made up of a location, a number of simple puzzles (the cracking of which often being anything but simple) and a selection of enemy encounters.
The game’s locations are incredibly well modelled, with internal areas being particularly impressive, with vast structures of hallways, stairwells, claustrophobic chambers and massive, dramatic halls. The layout of these is expansive but never confusing; however large a building, it’s always logically mapped out with rooms having only a limited number of exits. The feeling is that each part of a level has a very logical relationship with its surroundings, and as you play through it you learn how each room and passageway interconnects.
Within these highly realistic levels are the puzzles. Again they are very intelligently placed and well thought out: stimulating, certainly, but rarely frustrating. Typically, a puzzle will present an obvious exit which appears inaccessible. A number of elements will come into play such as switches and moving platforms and it is then up to the player to observe changes and tinker with level elements until it’s clear exactly how they need to be manipulated.
Then there are the enemy encounters, which always crop up when least expected, adding excitement to sections which would otherwise be plain, and heightening the feeling of tension and urgency.
With all this so slickly implemented it would’ve been no surprise if a flawed control system spoiled the party, yet even this aspect of the game is soundly designed. Lara is the perfect heroine. Her acrobatic moves – jumps, long jumps, side steps, flips and wall-crawling abilities – are excellently animated and easily implemented using straighforward joypad combinations. They’re also very accurately integrated into the game’s environment so everything seems very realistic: you can tell when you’ll be able to grab something or jump somewhere instinctively rather than just randomly trying things and hoping that they’re what the game’s designers intended you to do.
Tomb Raider’s aural content enhances the experience, too. Silence governs for the most part with only the sound of Lara’s footfalls and faint panting to be heard, but enter a new area or approach a hazard and one of many eerily beautiful pieces of music begin to issue forth. When the danger is over, or you re-enter familiar territory, the music fades back out and the player can once again ease back into the chair.
Criticisms of Tomb Raider are few yet worth noting. Graphically, it isn’t without problems. Because of the clever camera system, which follows Lara at all times and attempts to always provide the optimum view, there are bound to be times when. like Mario 64, its performance falters. This most often occurs when Lara is in a confined space and the camera simply can’t get a grip on where to look. Also, you often have to attempt a run-up to a jump with the camera facing Lara from the side because it can’t get behind her to look ahead. It’s slightly annoying when it happens, but it’s fairly swiftly accepted as a necessary evil. And, had the levels been simplified to iron out this sort of thing, the overall experience might have been bland indeed.
Analogue control would have benefitted the game immensely, too, as Lara’s slightly sluggish, motion-captured movements lack immediacy and subtlety of Mario in his 64bit incarnation.
And the final gripe is pace. Those who only get off on fast, action-packed thrills may be disappointed that the game doesn’t continually throw hordes of enemies at you, and that the puzzles are fairly sprawling in nature. This leads to a lot of wandering around and the covering of old ground as Lara tramps back and forth collecting keys and so on. Initially this aspect feels as though it could grate as the game progresses, yet it never does – generous allowance of save points alleviates it to some extent, but more importantly, the individual game sections are never so dull for it to be a major problem. An injection of more enemy encounters would have been welcome, but even so, there are only really minor lulls in the gameplay – it never actually drops into the doldrums.
Given its 15 gigantic levels and sheer richness and variety of gameplay, Tomb Raider is an exceptional game, and one that is better than anything Core has ever released by a large margin. Take out a few graphical glitches and add a touch more action and it would be a nigh-on perfect creation, but as an epic-scale adventure in its own right it is never anything less than totally captivating.