Monday, April 03, 2006

Return To Splendor

Tomb Raider; mention it to almost any Playstation2 or PC owner and they'll tell you of 'the good old days' of Tomb Raider 1 on the Playstation1, and they'll tell you all about the abortion that was 'Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness'.

They'll tell you about the countless hours back in 1997 spent in Lara's company in TR1, thrilling to the story, scratching their head over the vexing (for the time) puzzles, staring slack jawed at the 'lifelike' 3D environment, and standing on their tongue as they angled the in-game camera to just that right position to truly study Lara's curves in all of their polygonal glory.

They'll also remember the outstanding soundtrack, and the incredibly ambient sound effects.

That is, in between diving off cliffs 100's of feet tall just to get the sensation of falling, and between mates sessions of 'Lara Aerobics' where a bunch of guys could entertain themselves for disturbingly long periods of time merely getting Lara to do the 'split leverage up' move that was only discovered by accident.

A true marvel of the time. Although, looking at it now, you'd be forgiven for wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. You just had to be there. =)

And then came Angel Of Darkness.

The team at Eidos and Core really screwed her up, and ended up breaking the franchise all together. (In fact, Core lost the rights to Lara as a result, with Eidos handing over development of any future titles to Crystal Dynamics.)
Released in June 2003, it was a shocking and embarrassing blow to all of Lara Croft's fans, rating a global average score of only 5.4 out of 10, effectively pouring cold water upon the lustful desires (for adventure, of course) of many male gamers.
Lara had become somewhat of an icon for the (male and female) gaming community, and indeed had been responsible for bringing many newbie gamers across to the dark side, dragging them in from the great outdoors and fixing them firmly in front of the warm and friendly phosphorous glow of their TV screen. Lara had become someone they felt they 'knew', and most certainly fantasised about; whether those daydreams be adventurous or purely of the flesh.

Given that this was the 'big one' (Tomb Raider on the new Playstation2!) anticipation and hype were at a fever pitch, to say the very least.

Sure enough the graphics looked awful pretty:

..but sadly the gameplay seemed to have regressed from the days of old. Countless tales of horror litter the internet about the terrible controls, the frustratingly pixel-imperfect physics, the crazy save system, and the terrible storyline and voice acting.

It seemed that Lara's fans had been dealt a blow of Mayan proportions. Not only was it simply awful to (attempt) to play, but where were the tombs? What on earth was Tomb Raider without temples and Indiana Jones environments? 'Warehouse Raider' was a more appropriate title for the game, and no sooner than Eidos had released it, did they realise that a large part of the magic for players was to be held investigating artifacts and ancient cities.

We all wanted to be an archaeologist when we grew up, remember?

And so, for the past three years, we've all been patiently waiting.
Yes, the movies did their bit to maintain the character (and I'm a huge fan of Angelina Jolie being cast in the role; she was born to be Lara in my opinion..) although there was even speculation about those as well, with Core Design blaming poor box-office takings of the movie for patchy sales of the AOD game.

(Guys, if you release a title that strays from the original formula too far, has bugs and glitches, and is delayed due to creative conflicts with the original designer for over six months, bad sales can't really be pinned on the movie, yeh?)

Yep - three years. Waiting, patiently. Until.. now:

I was wandering around town on the weekend, and I remembered that I needed to go into my local EB to put down a pre-order deposit on the upcoming release of Tomb Raider: Legend.
I've been following it for months, reading everything I can on the net, watching anything closely resembling a trailer, and trying not to get my hopes up at the same time.

Just as the woman behind the counter had taken my money, she passed a DVD to me, and said "I presume you'd like a copy of the Playstation2 demo of the game?"

Pardon moi? There's a demo??

I raced out of there with more anticipation for getting home than I care to remember. Could this be happening? Did I really have a demo of the game in my hot little hands?

You bet.

All the way home my mind was churning over the possibilities; what was it going to be like? Will this be the return to splendour of Lara, at last? Will the developers have listened to all the criticism of the previous title? Will they do due diligence to the themes and mechanics that made us all fans in the first place? Or will this be another cash-in, driven by the execs, who have absolutely no idea what a 'great' game is all about?

Straight inside, shove the disc into the PS2, and fire her up!!

The first thing that struck me, was the amazing soundtrack - even in the menu's. Extremely well done, with even a motif paying homage to the original Tomb Raider theme music. Excellent start!

Next, the graphics:

Well.. erm.. 'everything' seems to be in place? *cough*

And what's this..? OMG - actual TOMBS and AZTEC BITS! Yay!!

Things are looking up! Sure, there are some pics out there which depict Lara in non-cavernous, ancient, unexplored environs:

..but the outfit more than makes up for it. *ahem

And finally, the gameplay. Surely, this is where I will be let down with a resounding thump.

I enter the demo level and immediately get presented with a typically 'Lara' cutscene of her rock climbing without a harness. Much 'MI:2' action abounds, afterwhich I eventually get plonked at the top of the mountain, with Lara under my grimy control. (muhahahahaaa!!)

I am pleased to report that, based on the 30mins I spent finishing the demo level, everything is in place.
The controls are solid and reliable. You can walk, run and crawl with accuracy. The control layout is extremely logical and easy to pick up. She does all of her wonderful moves, just like the old days. The aiming system is fantastic - there's an over the shoulder 1st person view, plus the old skool 3rd person lockon view, plus the strafing view for dodging oncoming attacks.

All of her climbing and shuffling skills are back with gusto - navigating around cliffs and ledges feels entirely natural, and pulling yourself up and letting yourself down is absolutely perfect, a far cry from Angel Of Darkness' infuriating mistakes.

And, ALL THE PUZZLES RETURN! Levers, switches, ropes, vines, boulders, pressure plates, fulcrums - you name it! I haven't had so much fun progressing through a level in a LONG time. I simply couldn't put it (her) down. Good Lara. =)

Given also, that this is only on a PS2, you can absolutely colour me impressed.

They've done it - it feels exactly like a Tomb Raider should.

So, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Lara's back with a vengeance, and I'm excited.
Perhaps excited just a little too much for a normal, healthy mind of my age, but I don't care. Bring on the winter so Lara and I can raid tombs together, me with my ass glued to the couch, and me with my eyes glued to her ass.

Hey - I am a male afterall! Sheesh!

Thing is, it doesn't end there: Yes, it looks utterly fantastic on the humble 'ol PS2, but my pre-order money is slapped down on the Xbox 360 version of the game. And let me tell you, from the screenshots that are out there, I'll simply be in non-pixelated heaven.
Take a look for yourself: (make sure you click on the pics below to see them in their full glory..)

I can't wait. Apparently it's out in 10 days time.. don't bother trying to call me after that.

Meantime, hop on over to the official website (which is done really well) and take a look around at the screenies and information there. You can download a 'desktop Lara' animated alert thingy, plus all the wallpapers, screensavers, and trailers, and listen to the musical score as you browse. A downloadable demo for the PC is available there also.

Interesting fact: Tomb Raider was recently nominated as one of the top 25 British designs by the BBC2 Culture Show and the Design Museum. Unfortunately, she didn't win, but you can view the esteemed company she shared in the competition here.

And so, without further adieu, I must return to Lara. I think I left her at the top of a waterfall; here's hoping she got bored and decided to take a swim..

"..I'm commiiinnnggg!" "..Sorry about that, I had to write about you.." "Oh! You are taking a swim?!" "..No, no, I'm not looking.. I swear..."


At 6:34 am, April 04, 2006, Anonymous Bart said...

"Bring on the winter so Lara and I can raid tombs together, me with my ass glued to the couch, and me with my eyes glued to her ass."

Now that's a sentence! Great blog post Steve. You have just made my day :) I wish I could cram a few hours of Lara into it, but I'm afraid there are still 5000 more words waiting to be written on the topic of collision detection. Ah well, there's no 360 demo anyway.

At 9:52 am, April 05, 2006, Blogger sambo_nz said...

hehe cheers bart. always nice to put a smile on somebody's face.
good luck with the essay! =)

At 4:32 pm, April 05, 2006, Blogger sambo_nz said...

With thanks to Simon (gamertag: billynotsilly), here's news of an Xbox 360 version of the Tomb Raider Legend demo!!
Hopefully appearing on Marketplace tonite..

Click here for article.

At 9:51 am, April 06, 2006, Blogger sambo_nz said...

The Tomb Raider Legends demo is up on Marketplace for all regions now. Yay!

PS: I've found this great site for keeping up with the Marketplace content globally. The guy's a Microsoft employee so he's obviously close to the action..


At 11:12 am, April 06, 2006, Blogger sambo_nz said...

Some more great news re downloadable content for PGR3 and PDZ (yay! bots in DarkOps at last!):

New MGS Marketplace content on its way
Not Metal Gear Solid unfortunately but Microsoft Game Studios. We reported earlier that Microsoft-published games (PGR3, PDZ and Kameo) were getting downloadable content soon and reader Rossko UK sent us part of an e-mail he received from Microsoft.

Project Gotham Racing® 3 Download
Now you can get your hands on more speed and style for Project Gotham Racing 3. Download the new PGR 3 Package A and Cadillac packs exclusively on Xbox Live. Coming Soon.

Perfect Dark Zero™ Download
Your mission: infiltrate the Xbox Live Marketplace and download the PDZ Map Pack to obtain extra multiplayer maps and enable new features like Dark-Ops bots. Coming Soon.

At 4:44 pm, April 15, 2006, Blogger Guru G said...

WOW!!! her boobs get bigger with every game that comes out!


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