Fall of the Tomb Raider.
Gearing up to write a retro reflection is a bit like fondly remembering the times spent in your abysmal university house share. You faintly recollect the mould on the walls, the magically disappearing loaves of bread, and the dictator-like rules about the central heating; and yet – thanks to those pesky rose-tinted spectacles and the power of nostalgia – you can’t quite help but fight back a smile when you think of them.
Thankfully, with Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, this simply isn’t the case.
Perhaps one of the most memorable retro reflections I’ve covered to date, Angel of Darkness took bold leaps of faith (pun intended) when it came to a well-established franchise. It must be remembered, however, that ‘bold’ doesn’t always necessarily mean ‘good’ – and leaps of faith don’t always have clean landings.
The Da Vinci Overload
Building on what games like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty proved was possible with the new hardware, Lara’s first foray on PlayStation 2 promised cinematic gameplay, truly emotive cut-scenes, and a daring new thriller style plot. Needless to say, it didn’t quite stand up to the lofty precedent set by Kojima’s masterpiece.
The story kicks off with Lara – presumed dead since the events at the end of Tomb Raider Chronicles – living underground in urban Paris. She quickly finds herself in the midst of a murder plot that could have come from Dan Brown’s “Ideas” journal – filled to the brim with characters like Werner Von Croy and Pieter Van Eckhardt, all of whom sound as though they could be villains in the next Indiana Jones script. Despite its intriguing premise that saw our heroine isolated and on the run, forced to think on her feet, the plot ends up veering into predictable Tomb Raider territory; there’s a bad guy (unsurprisingly European) who wants to resurrect an ancient deity.
Following on from its drastic shift in tone, the game also took liberties with the traditional locations and level design we’d expect from a Tomb Raider title – much to its credit. Instead of the typical crumbling ancient structures adorned with fading murals and filled with more skeletons than Frank Underwood’s closet, Angel of Darkness saw players scrambling across Parisian rooftops, creeping through haunting sanatoriums, and even staging a daring infiltration of The Louvre gallery. In many ways, this provided the refreshing change of pace the franchise so desperately needed; navigating an array of laser trip wires felt like a fitting modernisation for the series. That’s not to say there weren’t any tombs per se; the player did get to do some ‘tomb raiding’ just not until much later on in the narrative.
Not unlike the Lara we’ve seen in recent iterations, the iconic character at the heart of Angel of Darkness also developed over the course of the game, but not quite in the way you’d expect. Performing certain actions increased Lara’s arbitrary attributes; prying open a gate with a crowbar would increase upper body strength, nudging a heavy crate along the floor would allow her to jump further. Admittedly, in theory, there does seem to be some sort of (questionable) logic to this, and finding the right upgrade in the local area functioned loosely like a puzzle, enabling the player to progress onto the next section.
And that’s not the only way in which the next generation Lara had developed. During her prolonged absence, the Tomb Raider learnt some dubious martial arts skills, and gained the ability to sneak about and peer round corners – much to the dismay of the player! In practice, her combat skills proved to be clunkier than a Silent Hill protagonist’s, and the game’s stealth situations quickly descended into consequence-free shootouts. The fact that Lara, a character well-known for her stout moral compass, could haphazardly gun down innocent security guards proved pretty irksome after a while.
Unfortunately, the game’s advances in its most important area – controls and manoeuvrability – weren’t nearly as progressive as they should have been. Early iterations of Tomb Raider were constantly marred by an awkward control system that left the player feeling somewhat removed from the character they were controlling. The notorious “grid structure” gameplay didn’t exactly feel as though you were controlling a lithe, experienced orienteer, but rather manoeuvring a shape that vaguely looked like a human being around an obstacle course.
Although it seemed impossible at the time, the changes made by Angel of Darkness actually made the existing control scheme even worse. The inclusion of a new stamina bar (that, naturally, could be upgraded by jimmying open a few doors) meant that navigating terrain became a hurried – and more often than not fatal – affair. Actions such as jumping, climbing ledges and hanging all depleted Lara’s stamina, and we can all guess what happened when the bar reached zero. Furthermore, the punishing precision that demarcated the earlier games remained – misalign Lara by the slightest degree and she won’t quite make that crucial jump, hang around for too long and Lara will fall to her death.
“If it was a roommate, the game would be the kind to never do their washing up…”
All of these features combine to make navigation less an adventure and more a chore. They prevent the player from enjoying the lovingly crafted environments, from the unconventional urban locales to the more typical tombs in Prague and under the Louvre, which is a real shame since the game came on “leaps and bounds” (yes, I have basically re-used that pun) graphically from its predecessors.
As with any number of well-established, beloved characters, Lara Croft represents the type of icon that will almost certainly be re-envisioned countless times across a variety of platforms; she is – for want of a better term – profitable intellectual property. Needless to say, not all of these re-imaginings are going to be good.
Despite all its flaws, however, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness still holds a soft spot in my heart; if it was a roommate, it would be the kind to never do their washing up, sneak socks into your laundry, and ‘borrow’ food from your section of the fridge. And yet somehow, when you look back on your university years, you still remember living with them fondly. That being said, you probably wouldn’t jump back into another housing contract with them.