A plea for Lara Croft

No matter how many times I tell them, none of my friends believe me when I say the more recent Tomb Raider games are actually good. And so I write this blog post in a bid to educate, elucidate, and evangelize the good word of Lara Croft by way of Crystal Dynamics.

Eidos's prized heifer had gone from being a video gaming icon to more or less a laughingstock of the industry, as poorer and poorer games starring Lara Croft were released one after the other, culminating in the dismally-received Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. I'd like to point out that during this time, Lara's look essentially went unchanged. Polygons were added here and there, but she remained essentially the same inhuman-looking breast-and-lip creature. I wasn't exactly a fan of the Core-developed Tomb Raider games, and by and large dismissed the lot of them; time spent trying to figure out how to play Tomb Raider II only resulted in discovering that the camera would zoom in on Lara's swimming posterior if I hit one of the shoulder buttons on my PlayStation. For reference, this was a period of time in which I was willing to send hours to an unfortunate grave playing Square's abysmal Final Fantasy fighting game Ehrgeiz, so it's not like I was the pickiest gamer in the world.

Between the declining quality of Tomb Raider games and the magazine cover with Duke Nukem's hands covering Lara's bare breasts, Croft's public image wasn't doing so well. Eidos, seeing their cash cow being lead to slaughter by Core, suddenly had an outbreak of common sense and handed over the reins to Legacy of Kain developers Crystal Dynamics, leading to the franchise reboot and all-around enjoyable title Tomb Raider: Legend.

I will come out and say that I freaking love the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games. I'm working on Tomb Raider: Underworld right now, but I finished Tomb Raider: Legend a while ago and had a lot of fun with it, which is more than I expected. The demo immersed me in a world that was lush with the beauty of modern graphics, quality voice acting, and a shiny new Lara Croft that actually looked human. She spoke intelligently, she emoted, and she wasn't all T&A anymore. The game's story was definitely interesting enough, and the variety of locales was exciting and refreshing. About the only real problem I had with the game was the quirky camera, but I adjusted, and the gameplay was well worth it. Crystal Dynamics had taken the challenge of reviving Tomb Raider earnestly and produced a game of great quality.

Unfortunately, when you've burned customers with a string of inferior games, they're eventually going to ignore new ones promised to be better.  So, while it's my understanding that Legend still fared pretty well, just looking at my own gaming circle I see faces that are just a little too skeptical to be swayed by my impassioned pleas to give the new games a chance.

The release of Tomb Raider: Anniversary probably didn't help things much.  It's the one game in the Crystal Dynamics-developed trio that I just can't bring myself to get into. While beautiful, to be sure, this proper reworking of the very first Tomb Raider is missing some of the advances and changes that Legend brought to the table, including the slight skewing towards more action-oriented gameplay. Players who went from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to World at War and found less game instead of more will know exactly what I'm talking about.

When Tomb Raider: Underworld finally hit the $20 mark, I ordered it, and I've been invested in it since. The graphics have taken a solid step forward and it's a very beautiful game. The game's presentation has also been bumped up some, and there are some really great changes to the design. I don't think it's of the same caliber as Legend, and the camera actually seems to have gotten a bit worse, but the story is immediately engaging and exciting and I'm constantly anticipating where it will send me next. The freedom Lara has to move in her environment has increased from the previous games, and an excellent replacement for the original's button-press quicktime events manifests here. Instead of hitting the indicated button, the game simply slows down radically and forces you to actually react using the in-game controls. Floor crumbling beneath you? Hit the grapple key to shoot the grappling hook and save yourself. The fundamental principle is the same—press a key to avoid death—but having to interact on the normal game's terms instead of hitting arbitrary keys feels more involving and exciting.

I feel like these recent Tomb Raider games have been at least a little unfairly dismissed.  It's my understanding that Eidos wasn't happy with how Underworld sold, which is a shame, because it's still a fine game. Underworld doesn't quite have that same revitalized sense as Legend did, but it's a more than acceptable sophomore effort.  Care was clearly taken in trying to capitalize on and improve the things that worked the first time around.

Since any of the Crystal Dynamics-developed Tomb Raider games can be had for $20 now, and since demos are available for each one, I highly suggest checking them out. At the very least, Tomb Raider: Legend is worth your time.  Who knows, you may find yourself a believer just like I did.

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