Written for Total Control magazine, Rapide Publishing c.1998
Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft
According to ancient texts just discovered under the Sphinx, three wise men came from the east. One brought frankincense, one brought myrrh, and the third brought a game called Tomb Raider from Eidos.
Developer: Core Design
Style: 3D adventure
Disk Space: 1.35MB
3D Accelerator: Supported
Well, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Apart from a few new moves, it’s almost exactly the same as Tomb Raider II. You start off exploring a ruined temple in the Indian jungle, dodging quicksand and shooting a few tigers. The new lighting and smoke effects look nice, but the rest of the graphics appears very much like the previous game.
About this time last year, when I was working on Ultimate PC, I wrote a preview supplement on the forthcoming release of Tomb Raider II: The Dagger of Xian. As part of that assignment, I was fortunate enough to interview Gavin Rummery and Adrian Smith, respectively lead programmer and operations director at Core Design. During the interview, I asked them about their plans for Tomb Raider III. They were of the opinion that they had taken the Tomb Raider engine as far as they could, and if there were to be a third game, it would need to be based on a whole new 3D graphics system.
Well, somewhere along the line I guess that commercial pressures got the better of them, because apart from a few cosmetic tweaks the 3D engine powering the graphics of Tomb Raider III is almost exactly the same as TRII. Yes, it now has triangular horizontal planes, and no, they don’t make that much difference. The world that Lara inhabits is still mostly made up of big square blocks, and no amount of clever texture mapping can hide the fact that the game is starting to show it’s age. The main elements of the graphics engine are over two years old now, which in computer game terms is an eternity.
When the original Tomb Raider made it’s debut, it was a sensation, and justifiably so. There had never been anything like it before. Although the game borrowed elements from earlier 2D platform games, not least from Core’s own Spectrum hit Rick Dangerous, the combination of innovative 3D graphics, a strong storyline, and the nubile Lara Croft proved to be a winning formula.
The sequel provided Core with another storming success, despite complaints from PlayStation owners that the graphics were not significantly better than those in the first game. The game was also criticised for being too linear, and for having too much combat and not enough puzzle solving. Nonetheless, the Tomb Raider II sold by the thousand, and is still in the charts a year after its release, which is quite an achievement by any standard.
Lara Croft has become a media star in her own right, with intensive marketing including branded clothing, comics, mouse mats, action figures, Nell McAndrew doing public appearances as the ‘real’ Lara, and plans for a movie. Every PlayStation and PC computer game magazine (except this one) have put Lara Croft on their cover, and have been running preview articles for several months. Everyone who cares already knows all of the new features that distinguish TRIII from TRII. All that remains is to play the game, and to see if it can possibly live up to it’s own hype.
This time, sadly, no. Admittedly, if you had never seen either of the previous Tomb Raider games, TRIII would perhaps impress, but it is not a sufficient improvement on its immediate predecessor to warrant the kind of scores which that game achieved. There are many improvements, but they are largely superficial. The main change is in the structure of the game, which has been made less linear on two levels. At the menu level, the middle three of the five main sections can be done in any order, which should improve the replay value of the game. At the gameplay level, there are multiple paths through the levels, some routes being harder but with greater rewards, the idea being to encourage you to explore. This seems like a good idea, but in fact it just makes the levels confusing. There are more puzzles this time, but most of these consist of the same old T-shaped switches and moveable blocks as in the previous two games. Open the doors in the right order and you win the game.
The artificial intelligence controlling the enemies has been improved, but by comparison to games such as Half-Life, Thief, and Heretic II they are still pretty dumb. The only interaction you have with the other characters in the game is when you are shooting at them.
One of the most popular elements in Tomb Raider II was the inclusion of drivable vehicles, so it will come as no surprise that there are more of these in the third game. New modes of transport include a quad-bike, a kayak, an underwater propulsion unit and a mine cart. The animations for these are fairly impressive, but are limited by the graphics engine of the game. The limited control available when using these items restricts their usefulness, especially in the case of the kayak. What should be an exciting white-water ride is rendered awkward and disappointing by the limitations of the game engine. Although the vehicles do break up the linearity of the levels, they are really just novelty items.
The same is true of Lara’s new costumes. Eidos claim that they haven’t used Lara Croft’s sex appeal to sell the game, but they’re not fooling anyone. Big double page adverts featuring Lara sunbathing in the nude with a handkerchief covering her bum are about as subtle as a smack in the mouth. There is more textured polygon flesh on show than in the previous games, and this will undoubtedly boost sales of the game to its main target audience of fifteen-year-old boys. If sex appeal doesn’t sell Tomb Raider games, why does Lara have a figure like a photo finish in a Zeppelin race?
Bought the T-shirt
On a more positive note, the balance of the game has been greatly improved over the previous adventure. There are a greater variety of opponents, both human and animal. Some creatures that appear are not actually enemies and won’t attack you unless you threaten them. Some, such as the monkeys on the first level can actually help you by showing you where to go next. Others, such as the piranha fish that now infest most of the water in the game, are not so helpful.
Despite all the T-shaped switches, there are a few quite clever puzzles in the game, which will require a bit of lateral thinking to solve, and some of the traps are fairly fiendish, although most are the same old scything blades and rolling boulders seen in the previous games.
The new moves which Lara can make, crawling and monkey swinging, mean that unlike the previous games it is not always obvious which route you should take. You have to keep your eyes peeled for overhead handholds, but the crawlways are usually easier to spot. The ability to duck behind boxes means that it is now possible to evade enemies rather than fighting them, which makes a refreshing change.
When you do have to fight, you will find that the combat system is unchanged from the original game. Draw a weapon, and Lara will aim at the nearest enemy in sight. All you have to do is keep firing until they are dead, while keeping Lara jumping around to avoid the bullets. The only exceptions are the snakes, which once woken can be dispatched with a couple of blasts from the shotgun. The snakes attack with poison, as do some of the other enemies, and this will rapidly drain Lara’s energy unless you fully heal her.
The new weapons are pretty cool, especially the Desert Eagle pistol and the bazooka. The animations for the weapons are more detailed, with smoke, flames and bouncing cartridge cases, and the addition of some spurting blood from wounded victims makes combat a bit more satisfying. There is still no hand-to-hand combat. Despite all her advanced firearms training, Lara has never learned how to use a knife, or even her fists. Mind you, she never learned how to climb a rope either.
One man, one vote
On the whole, Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft isn’t a bad game. The original Tomb Raider graphics engine was ahead of its time when it was first released, and it has only recently been surpassed. However, with the forthcoming movie and the high media profile of Lara Croft as a character, I would have expected Core Design to put more into this game. Whether it is just a case of the ‘difficult third album’, or commercial pressure forcing the developers to squeeze the last bit of juice out of an ageing product, I don’t know and they probably wouldn’t tell me. There are better games in the same genre coming along in the next couple of months, for example Drakkan from Psygnosis, and Beneath and Heretic II from Activision, so unless Core really pull out all the stops for the next game I’m sorry to say that this could be the end of the road for Lara Croft.
With the built-in marketing value of the title, I have no doubt that the game will sell by the truckload, and I also know that nothing I say will make any difference to that fact, but if Tomb Raider III is still in the charts in a year’s time, I for one will be pretty surprised.
Different shaped bottle
Tomb Raider was about a year ahead of its time when it first appeared at the end of 1996, and it has taken other developers until now to catch up on Core Design’s early lead. Only now are games starting to appear which can compete with Lara for athletic adventuring, if not for sex appeal.
Outcast, a long awaited game from French software giants Infogrames, features a main character called Cutter Slade and a powerful voxel-based graphics system, while Drakkan: Order of the Flame from Psygnosis puts you in control of Rynn, a dragon-riding heroine who could give Lara a run for her money.
However, perhaps the biggest challenge for Core’s favourite heroine could come from a character called Rhama, the swashbuckling star of Galleon, a stunning 3D adventure developed by Toby Gard and Paul Douglas, the team responsible for the first Tomb Raider game. They left Core Design to set up their own company Confounding Factor. Galleon will be published by Interplay sometime early next year.
Tomb Raider III is being released on the PlayStation slightly earlier than the PC version, and will be in the shops in time for Xmas.
None of the previous Tomb Raider games have made it to the N64 so far, and I can’t see this one being any different.
The original Tomb Raider is available on the Sega Saturn, so I wouldn’t be too surprised to see TRIII appearing on the Dreamcast as soon as it is officially released over here.