I still remember taking a chance on the original Tomb Raider back in 1996. There was nothing else like it then, and traversing through barren and spooky environments brought as many chills as the game delivered thrills.
The gameplay might have been punishing (I have seen no other video game character die as often and as brutally as Lara Croft), but when you finally figured out how to make that jump—well, no other game was as rewarding then.
Tomb Raider was awesome, and the combination of exploration and infrequent bursts of action hooked me. Even once the original developer, Core, began to buckle beneath the pressure of churning out annual adventures (culminating with 2003’s disastrous Angel of Darkness), I remained loyal. I wasn’t exactly sad to see Core go, however, because 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend was a near-perfect reinvention. Lara’s new developer, Crystal Dynamics, removed the archaic grid-based control scheme in favor of far more fluid movements. They also brought back the immensely likable heroine who was swallowed whole in Angel of Darkness, rebooting Lara Croft without sacrificing her edge.
But things did not stay as they should. Yes, Crystal Dynamics delivered a wonderful remake of the original game in Tomb Raider: Anniversary, but their next effort, Tomb Raider: Underworld, was a tragic step back for the series. For the first time Lara was being beaten at her own game, having been completely upstaged by Naughty Dog with the brilliant Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Tomb Raider was beginning to feel tired, like one of the long-forgotten relics Lara might hunt.
This realization seemed to hit everyone at once because Crystal Dynamics instantly plunged the franchise into a five-year stasis (not counting the super fun arcade title Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light). During that time Lara got a considerable makeover. Stripped of her dual pistols, tan shorts, and weary expertise, 2013 gave us the long-awaited franchise reboot. Taking more than a few cues from cinematic blockbusters like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, Lara Croft got her own origin story, and it was an adventure unlike any other.
Tomb Raider was intense and uncompromising for all the hell it forced its protagonist to wander through. This proverbial trial by fire would’ve broken lesser characters, but every moment seemed to make Lara stronger. When she emerges out the other side, she’s been forged in the fires of a forgotten civilization, wiser and stronger than ever before. Not only did Tomb Raider ascend to the top tier of the franchise, but it did something almost unprecedented with its endlessly popular heroine—it made her completely human.
The depiction of a novice explorer plunged into a nightmarish scenario might seem like a drastic departure from the series’ roots, but that’s not exactly the case. The PC/PS1 games offered their own unsettling atmosphere, and it worked well within the confines of those games. Occasionally, I’d be checking over my shoulder during those late night expeditions because the atmosphere was that pervasive. Seventeen years later, Crystal Dynamics raised the bar that was already set by plunging Lara into a harrowing survival horror experience. In order to stay relevant and competitive with modern gaming, Lara’s latest adventure is rife with more violence and gore, but the game never sacrifices the spirit of adventure and mystery that walks hand-in-hand with the series.
Having just completed my second visit to Yamatai, this time on the Xbox One, I’m again left marveling over one of the most exciting and visceral games I’ve ever played. NextGen Lara is a marvel of gaming animation, and I’m clamoring to see where Crystal Dynamics will take her (and the series) next. Because the sequel is “well into development,” it may be too late for my voice to be heard. But consider this a wish list of sorts for what I’d like to see in the much anticipated Tomb Raider sequel:
Open World: A lot of long-time TR fans have bemoaned the lack of exploration in the recent games. The newest one excelled with satisfying combat, and that shouldn’t change, but there’s definitely room to boost the exploration quotient. Don’t skimp on the action, but give us larger areas to explore. In a recent interview Crystal Dynamics cited Skyrim as an analogy for the sequel’s exploration factor—that’d be a great start.
Vehicles: I loved it when the earliest Tomb Raider games let us traverse landscapes in snow mobiles and jeeps, but driving elements never quite gelled into something completely satisfying. For the sequel I’d love to see Lara have the ability to navigate her surroundings using jet skis, motorcycles, and whatever else is handy. The woman has a lot of resources at her disposal and spares no expense when it comes to her expeditions, so let’s ride!
Swimming: We know Lara can swim, so let’s see her ability to dive in order to locate underground tombs and treasures. It would help create a cohesive and immersive experience right alongside the open world environment. Who can forget the first time you slipped beneath the waves and faced Great Whites in Tomb Raider II? I would love to have that experience once again, only brought to terrifying life via NextGen processing and graphics.
Different environments/landscapes: This might be a bit of a contradiction to my first point, but I love globe-hopping adventures—something to give the story an epic sense of scope. To me, Lara Croft has always been equal to Indiana Jones, and while we largely associate them with harsh jungles and uninhabited tombs, there’s something fun about switching the action to urban locales every now and again. One of the franchise’s best moments was Lara’s high-rise raid in Legend, and there’s plenty of opportunity to go bolder.
Lara’s evolution: It was fun to watch Ms. Croft evolve into a hardened survivor throughout Tomb Raider, and like any great character, that should only be the beginning. Now that we’ve got Lara on the path to becoming the character we all know and love, I want to see how she deals with the fame (and backlash) spurred on by Yamatai. Give us a character that keeps evolving instead of plateauing.
Puzzles: If I had to criticize the new game, it’s only that its puzzles are absurdly easy. I think there’s plenty of room to have a few simple starter puzzles, but the older games used to give me genuine anxiety as I’d sit there trying to figure out how to solve some of the sprawling riddles. Lara unearths places that are thousands of years old, and many of them were never intended to be found. Make her (and us) work for it.
Lara’s classic look: I won’t lie; I missed the ability to see Lara in her trademark outfit. Now that she’s going to be exploring on her terms, let’s at least have the option to slip back into those tan shorts with dual pistols strapped to thighs. You can’t fix what isn’t broken.
Isolation: One thing I truly miss about the oldest TR games is the severe isolation. The idea of Lara interacting with recurring characters is perfectly cool, and as I said, having her occasionally visit a city environment would give the series some diversity. But once she’s out in the middle of nowhere, she needs to be on her own. It’s not that atmospheric or frightening when she can be in constant communication with her support team via transmitters.
Weapon selection: I loved Tomb Raider’s combat. The cover system was perfect, and it was incredibly satisfying to go for headshots. But give us more choices and offer an ability to customize Lara’s loadout. Some of us old school players may prefer to go at it with just dual pistols, while others may prefer to take along a better insurance policy. Whatever the case, variety is the spice of life.
No multiplayer: Not every game needs a multiplayer mode. While there’s nothing wrong with Tomb Raider’s, that it exists at all is sort of intrinsic to the gaming industry’s identity crisis. Many publishers seem to be chasing Call of Duty money, and Tomb Raider was never going to attract that audience. Focus instead on creating a larger single player experience. I would’ve loved Tomb Raider to have lasted another five to ten hours because I can’t get enough of the damn game.
There’s very little I would change about Tomb Raider, but these are elements I hope can be threaded through the sequel. Crystal Dynamics succeeded in a big way by bringing Lara Croft into a new era, and she’s here to stay.
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