Tomb Raider: A Franchise in Three Parts
I like knowing that I can admit that, when it comes to games, the things I don't like might outweigh those that I do. Of course, I know full well that hardcore JRPGs like the Persona series, ultra-realistic racing sims like Gran Turismo, and tactical squad-based shooters like Ghost Recon have their multitudes of fans. The fact that I'd rather play a middling platformer just means that I should be reviewing the Knacks of the gaming world, and leave efforts from NIS America and Koei Tecmo to their respective audiences.
The Tomb Raider series has always had plenty of qualities that would surely have made it one of my all time favorites, and yet I never actually played an entry from the franchise for a very long time, due to various reasons. As a huge fan of Indiana Jones and Uncharted, not to mention the same blend of action-adventure that the series has typically been known for, gaming’s original treasure-hunting badass seemed like an obsession waiting to happen when I first picked up one of the infamous Playstation outings a few years ago.
So what happened? The controls were beyond my comprehension. The classic “tank” control layout had often proved stifling for me when playing games such as the older Resident Evil titles, but those were a much different type of game. With jumping and climbing and other platformer tropes added into the mix, I was overwhelmed. However, the level design and gunplay, not to mention the remarkable legacy of the series, kept me interested.
However, a franchise that has been around as long as Tomb Raider is sure to have seen its fair share of retooling and evolution, and even a piece focused on the early years of Lara Croft, in particular, would be remiss if it did not at least mention her more recent exploits. In 2006, three years after the divisive PS2 outing, The Angel of Darkness, the franchise received its first major retooling with Tomb Raider: Legend, which, along with some really gorgeous graphics, brought with it a much more modernized sense of control. Looking back at it, it plays like a pure platformer, more like Jak and Daxter, and gave the series a great run over the next few years by followed up with Tomb Raider: Anniversary (a remake of the 1997 original) and Tomb Raider: Underworld.
The 2013 hard reboot of the series, published by Square Enix, has brought us to where we are now, as the franchise has essentially come full circle and appears, in many ways, to be following in the mighty footsteps of Naughty Dog’s unprecedented success with the Uncharted series. This iteration of Lara Croft shows how, like many other high-level franchises, Tomb Raider has adopted a cinema-like presentation which gives a greater impact during its most memorable sequences. Quick-time events and pre-scripted set pieces aside, the combat has also been retooled for this reboot, making for a game that plays like many other cover-based action/shooters of modern gaming. This, however, is juxtaposed with classic puzzle-solving and platforming that has continued to evolve over the series’s lifespan.
Having just finished the Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider for the Playstation 4, the first title in the franchise I had ever played through to the end, I can vouch for the new approach to the series as a dazzling and exciting spectacle of modern gaming. Yet that is its biggest real problem -- standing on its own, Tomb Raider (2013) is a high-paced and thrilling action adventure that rivals somewhat similar titles like the Arkham series or, yes, even Uncharted in many ways.
However, it’s done this by going out of its way to being like other AAA titles, rather than like previous Tomb Raider games. The gunplay is the outstanding example of this, not just by being surgically transplanted from other cover-based shooters, but by becoming the focus of the entire game. Between combat, puzzles, and platforming, combat often seems to take precedent which is mildly unfortunate since it isn't that unique in its implementation.
Looking at all three periods of the franchise, then, it seems fair to look to the middle period of Tomb Raider as its best years. Tomb Raider has always had critical and commercial success, but with its long and notable history as pure adventure, even the unheralded success of its newest iteration must be put aside for a moment to consider the franchise’s roots. Entries like Legend and Anniversary maintain the feel of the series, with the same unique approach to gunplay and platforming that established the originals as hits, but at the same time, they lack any of the shortcomings.
These shortcomings, such as awkward controls, may discourage some who try to start at the franchise’s roots back on the PS1. The middle period is special because its only real goal was to make Tomb Raider more accessible, more refined. In other words, fixing anything and everything that can be fixed without throughly compromising what gave them the unique Tomb Raider feel.
Whether you’re a longtime fan or interested in getting into the franchise, I think that a sampling of Tomb Raider games -- the original, Tomb Raider Anniversary, and Tomb Raider (2013) -- will prove that for all the glamor of the modern reboot, the original spirit of the franchise prevails. The two newest Tomb Raider titles might be the most accessible and spectacular that the series has ever seen, but that does not make them the best representations of the franchise's roots and storied history.