The last time I saw Lara Croft, she was crumpled in a lifeless heap, at the bottom of some infernal, trap-filled hellhole, from which there was no escape... At least that's the way I ended Tomb Raider 3, an excercise in pure frustration, disguised as a videogame. The designers of that particular chapter were a little too clever in their overuse of the massive environments as little more than deathtraps for the unprepared, and even TR experts had trouble coming to grips with some of the insane moves Lara was supposed to be able to pull off. Needless to say, thanks to a huge advertising budget, more than an actual fun gaming experience, the game sold in droves, but turned a lot of people, including me, off on the series. Now, this year brings us Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, which has been described as a more "back to basics" adventure. It combines the best elements from the first two games like amazing level design, challenging puzzles and the ability to save anywhere, along with a variety of newer features, such as smoother character graphics, in-game cinemas segueing right into gameplay, and the ability to play part of the game as a 16 year old Lara.
That's right- you actually start the game as young Lara, under the tutelage of one Werner Von Croy, a master treasure hunter. It's quite odd at first, not heading off to Lara's Home to learn all her new moves (which leads to a massive and obvious continuity error I'll touch on later), but it's actually the prologue to the events in the game, so you can't skip it! At first I was a bit annoyed by this (you can't skip the level at all!), but after I completed the level, which ends in a deathtrap filled race against Von Croy- i understood the significance of it even more. This is a welcome of sorts to new players, as well as a nod to TR veterans that things won't be so bad this time out...if you remembered to bring along your brain! TR:LR is filled with possibly the most mind-bending puzzles and traps this time out, and is one game to play without the usual strategy guides and hints, to see how long you can survive! Since you can save the game anywhere, it soon becomes a test of the player's skills at deductive thinking, as well as a bit of a dexterity test. Those of you who are just into Tomb Raider because you think Lara is "hot" will be singled out and sent home crying to mommy after the first couple of masterly designed levels. To me, The TR series has always been about the thrill of exploration and adventure, rather than ogling a character that doesn't even exist. It's only a game, kids!
New moves for Ms. Croft include the ability to climb and swing from ropes and crawling into small spaces or turning corners while hanging from certain objects. She also has a couple of nice new animations, and in fact, everything in the game looks quite solid. There are the usual graphic and camera jitters here and there, and there are no real safe spots to practice all the necessary rope swinging in the game-(without full health, you just don't want to get up there sometimes,) but the game makes up for these minor faults with its high level of challenge. The levels are even darker than in TR III, but you have some really handy lighted binoculars as standard issue, if you run low on flares! There's also a crowbar, found in a later level, that can be used to pry certain objects and doors open. And of course, what would a Tomb Raider game be without weapons? This time out, players can combine items to make some really cool new weapons and ammo, such as a crossbow with a laser sight (good for sniping hard to kill mummies!), or some really powerful grenades, which shouldn't be used at all in small spaces, if you're smart! The inventory wheel has been replaced with a more straightforward item system, a great change by the way ( i do miss the old passport icon, though...). The weapon upgrade thing seems like it was "borrowed" from Dino Crisis or Resident Evil 3, but hell, it sure is fun to blast one mummy to pieces as you're jumping past another!
Since the game takes place entirely in one location, the loading times are kept to a minimum, with only the usual static screens with a colored bar at the bottom to let you know that the next level is accessing. The in-game cinemas and cutscenes are remarkable, letting you know, via some really cinematic zooming, where to go next! You're free to explore, of course, but these little touches make the game a bit easier in terms of giving players hints on what to do next. The enemies in the game are fewer than before, but a whole lot smarter- when a sword-toting skeleton follows Lara by jumping over a pit, it may make you jump out of your chair the first time it happens. There are also lots of other scares to be had as you explore the huge areas, and you can really see that the games' designers have gone all out to make sure players really get their money's worth. There are a lot of areas that can only be reached with some deal of backtracking, but this actually adds a comfortable feeling to your travels- you're going to be in this particular tomb for a long time...
Graphically, the game still outdoes just about any other console adventure game, with it's detailed 3D architecture, lighting, and environmental effects. Just watching the demo scenes or some of the in-game segues is breathtaking, and while navigating across a huge room you'll often find that you're pulling out the binoculars to peek into every little corner and crevice. The best thing about TR:LR, is that for the most part, the game moves at the pace of the player, not a good thing for action fans, but closet spelunkers like myself find this just fantastic. Some folks think that the series has run its course, offering nothing new to the genre. But I feel that innovation isn't so necessary if each game is better than the last one. As I said above, Tomb Raider is and should always be about the thrill of adventuring, pure and simple.
Of course, the sound effects and music are great as well, but the accents of the young Lara and Von Croy sound a bit too forced to me. As for the controls, you can choose between digital and analog, and once you get used to them, they're just fine, but a few times I had trouble with backflipping off a wall or ladder. But again, saving before one attempts stuff like this is a good thing... Not saving, or getting so caught up in a particular move sequence that you forget to save is bad, really bad! Speaking of bad, the major fault I have with the game has to do with the first level, in which Von Croy teaches Lara some moves that weren't even used in the first game! It made me think that Eidos should either go back and reprogram the first game (for the PS2) to include these moves, opening up a whole new set of areas within the levels, or chalk up their omission in TR to a bump on the head. Then again, the TR series does have a few awkward story points, if you really look for them...
All in all, this is the best Tomb Raider game yet, and even with a walkthrough or (ugh) codes, you'll be spending quite some time discovering just what The Last Revelation has to offer. The game is a near-perfect blend, with dozens of secrets and puzzles to solve, and a fitting sendoff for Lara Croft on the current Playstation. Hopefully, we'll see her continued presense on the PS2, I for one, just can't wait!
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