Incremental updates are the name of the game this time around. Well, no, I tell a lie (and we all know that RDZ tells no lies) — the name of the game is Tomb Raider II. It stars Lara Croft, apparently. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?
As soon as I finished Tomb Raider, I made my move to immediately continue through the series…
Tomb Raider II
The first notable change is that a lot of levels take place outside. They’ve added a skybox, with the training mission in Lara’s mansion now comprising a large assault course (and that’s some much-needed direction compared to wandering around the rooms) and an optional exploration of the rest of the grounds. There’s a door under the stairs you can unlock from a switch in the gardens, but it’s timed and I could never get back fast enough — sadly, this sets the tone for most of the game, where all the time-limited puzzles leave absolutely no margin of error. No false pretenses here, at any rate.
Graphically, apart from the skybox, not a lot has changed. Lara’s face has a little more definition, and she now has the full ponytail swinging delightfully at all times (if you stop and stand there, you can watch the segments rotating of their own volition). Oh, yes, how could I forget — her breasts have exponentially more detail than the rest of her (including her bum, which you spend far more time staring at). While the arms and legs are still obviously barely pentagonal, the breast area has been subdivided to within an inch of its life to replace the classic triangular shelf with a perfectly-rounded pair. It would be fine if the entire body got a make-over, but the fact that it’s just the face and breasts is just a little bit hilarious. The human villains that abound have even less detail, with unashamedly brick-shaped faces and even blockier shoes. Consistency, children — it is key.
The overall theme of the game has also taken a dramatic change of pace. The first level might well be along the Great Wall of China, but once you’ve found the door at the end locked you’ll be tearing around the
streets canals of Venice, including while riding a boat. While the intro cinematic does show a legendary artefact being sealed away, the actual game start doesn’t care to mention why Lara is suddenly hunting for it. Even so, in-game cinematics are much more often on the cards, as are human opponents — the element of story has been considerably ramped up for this outing, but instead of filling ancient levels with character it seems to have come at the cost of… well, the tombs.
The meat of the game itself is little different, however. Whether it’s clambering up ruined walls or the balconies of a decaying opera house, it’s still the same old navigational puzzles — . While the addition of a lot better lighting, and guttering flares to help you see in the darkest corners, mean you don’t miss entrances half as much, some of the layouts remain on the obtuse side. Climbable walls add another layer of mobility, meaning that not only do you have to look out for concealed entrances, but for sometimes rather subtle textural clues that suggest vertical expanses can be traversed.
Combat takes a considerable leap to the forefront too, with earlier access to the big guns (automatic pistols, shotgun and the uzis) and a few additions (grenade launcher, M16 and harpoon (which can be used underwater)). Unfortunately combat is still overly difficult and generally awkward (especially underwater) — human enemies are death-dealing bullet-sponges that can clamber up onto crates to get you, while rats and spiders sneak along the floors and nibble away where you can’t get aim-lock on them. Enemies seemed mostly superfluous in the original, though; I can’t help but wonder what the game would have been like with no combat at all.
Theme and combat pain aside, the environments are still expertly realised. The decaying grandeur of a sunken cruise ship is expertly carved out of ragged voxel prefabs and the coral-crusted caves around it are eerily beautiful. It’s just a shame that this environmental highlight is marred by the brutal masochism of its tiered layout, including one painful requirement for you to suffer a huge drop that will take three quarters of your health in an area already swarming with bad guys who’ve steadily eaten away at your medipacks. To be honest, this one really hit rock bottom and I ended up cheating through it.
I guess the main problem is still a lack of exposition. There is only so far that the general desire to progress can carry you, especially against the constant escalation of masochism in the level design. There are, as mentioned before, more in-game cinematics than last time, but it’s still not enough reward for surviving yet another endless maze of backtracking and painful combat. Three levels down the line for a one-minute clip is better than five for a two-second clip, but after the second of those giant levels you still begin to forget why you’re even bothering.
So, let’s summarise: less tombs, more obtuse navigational puzzles, more backtracking, slightly more plot… I guess it’s longer, and more content is usually better, but at the end of the day it just stops being any fun.
Though I do wonder how much these criticisms say about me, and my attention span, rather than the game itself. Should I meekly accept that the game is, like real life, just supposed to be that way and keep on going? Even so, this is the closest I have come to just point-blank giving up on
a game anything for a very long time. It just punishes and punishes, with things as small as missing a jump requiring an infinity of glacial climbing only to be missed again. Save scumming is not a luxury here, it’s a vicious necessity.
Basically… I think they took the series in the wrong direction.