Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tomb Raider (1996)

Developed by Core Design
Published by Eidos Interactive

      I'm a pretty big Tomb Raider fan, but only a recent one. I've surely committed one of the fandom sins by only coming in with Legend. While I played the originals a little when I was younger, I didn't get them and quickly became disinterested. Playing the original Tomb Raider now, it's easy to see why young me didn't enjoy it: it's slow, methodical, and precise. And that's why it's so much fun to finally play it.
     The plot is there, but not exactly meaningful: Lara gets hired by Natla to retrieve an artifact for her. The little advancement that happens is through clunky FMVs between the acts. It's there for one reason: to provide an excuse for Lara's globetrotting adventure. Taking you from Peru to Greece to Egypt, the environments stand out as a high-point in the game. They feel unique, with the snowy cave of Peru opening into a hidden jungle, and Greece going from a temple to a giant coliseum. The game is limited by only having interior environments, but only “limited” in the sense that you're never outdoors. The levels are huge, sprawling, and atmospheric. There's no witty quips from Lara or cuts to cinematics. It's just you, all sorts of animals trying to kill you (a good alternate game title would be Lara Croft: Endangered Species Killer) and plenty of exploration along the way to the next level.
      The controls can feel odd at first. You don't run and press the jump button right as you hit the edge. You'll just fall if you do that. Lara won't hang on to ledges unless you tell her to. And she'll freely run off ledges unless you're holding down the walk button. It is very easy, especially early on, to find the muscle memory of modern platformers killing you left and right. But then it clicks and suddenly it's perfect. The basic rules of the game never change, meaning that it's easy enough to figure out “Oh, as long as I press jump and then forward, I'll do this kind of jump”, and that will get you through many situations. And once the game starts throwing traps at you, you've gotten the feel for things enough that the traps are tough, but fair. Oh, you'll die plenty, but there's only a few times when you'll die to platforming because the game didn't work right.
     And I want to emphasize “to platforming”, because while the controls have aged well in this charming, clunky way, the combat is awful. Trying to run around enough to avoid enemies while dealing with the tank controls is near impossible. At some point, the strategy is either “stand on a ledge and shoot” or “shoot and keep jumping backwards”, because otherwise you either die quickly or spend plenty of time shooting at walls. In the quiet immersion of most of the game, combat is almost always just a frustration.

     Tomb Raider may show the flaws that a game nearing 20 years old is going to show, but it also shows the big dreams of the time: environments as packed with puzzles and platforming as with action, a heroine able to take down almost any foe who comes her way, and an around-the-world trip without having to leave your computer. For someone who only knows the newer games, it's a lot of fun to see how things were when everything began.

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