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Before the franchise, before the films, before the outfits and before Angelina Jolie there was a game with a simple desire to deliver a dungeon exploration experience. It was different to all that had gone before because it freed the likes of Prince of Persia and Flashback from their two dimensions. Suddenly, flat and limited areas open up into enormous explore-able caverns. The player is stretched by both the amount of real estate and the greater complexity of the puzzles enabled by this larger space.
The rest, as they say, is history so that Lara now stands tall among pretty much any heroine with her own particular crown recorded in the Guinness Book or Records as the 'Most Successful Human Videogame Heroine'.
But although the franchise hasn't faltered in its meteoric rise, after the games initial success it has had its share of problems. As with any successful series, competition for control can become problematic as many financial, artistic, and technological interests vie for the upper hand. Over time the game became distracted from the purity and character of its Indiana Jones like environments and the gameplay was lost along the way as the number of weapons and foes increased.
Anniversary obviously exists in a different era to the original; now at the mature end of the PS2 console, as opposed to the youthful exuberance that was the beginning of the PS1, the graphics have moved on substantially.
This led to a ten year hiatus with no significant release for the series. But recently the team returned to the table with Legends, a concerted effort to conjure up the elements that made the original games such a success. Although a little on the light side for the hardcore fans it was well received and definitely recaptured something of the original spark. Hot on the heals of this success they are now looking to deliver again to their core audience.
Tomb Raider Anniversary is a re-tooling and re-imagining of the original 1996 game. Much like returning to an old building to remodel it for a new phase of life, such has been the extent of the work that very little of the original has been untouched. But it is testament to how well Crystal Dynamics understand their own game that they have not wiped away the genius with this overhaul. Rather, the genius of the original shines through now striped down and streamlined. It shows a touch and confidence similar to the application of Mario 64 to the DS last year. Both teams were not afraid to make changes when faced with such successful and well loved originals. Both resulted in games that seemed to supplant the memory of the original so it seems that it had always been this way, at least until you go back to the original game and discover its limitations.
If you have somehow missed Tomb Raider by being either too old or too young to catch it the first time around, the game is an over the shoulder third person exploration where you are confronted with caverns spaces that you must traverse before proceeding. It is not a million miles away from Zelda's dungeons although the experience is more tactile than intellectual. This is the game that showed the way for Prince of Persia to evolve and can still be seen to take effect on upcoming games like Assassin's Creed 360.
Much of the change in this version of the game results from the enhanced controls introduced as the series developed over the previous years. The considered and somewhat paired down repertoire available in Legends is recreated here. The most notable difference from the original is the introduction of the grappling hook. Although at first a welcome novelty, a lack of finesse in its execution means that it never quite seems to fit with the other actions. Other changes that gel better are the abilities to automatically grab onto a ledge when you fall and to recover when you are able to loose your balance. These additions often enable you to escape falling back down a level, and avoid the frustrating replay of what you have already conquered to get back to the problematic sequence. Something that makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable, and means you spend more time on the puzzles you haven't solved rather than resolving the ones you have already figured out.
Anniversary obviously exists in a different era to the original; now at the mature end of the PS2 console, as opposed to the youthful exuberance that was the beginning of the PS1, the graphics have moved on substantially. The engine that provided so well for Legends is again put to good use here. Lara is rendered in much greater detail and with smoother and more realistic movement to boot. Widescreen support progressive scan are now added if you have a nice shiny TV, although you'd need to have gone for the PC version of the game to get a real high definition experience. This new technology also means that the cut scenes, which were pre-rendered in the original, can now be handled by the in game engine and gives the whole story a much more coherent feel. This also means that the in game Lara reacts and responds like the Lara of the narrated sections. One nice graphical touch for those of us who remember the old Lara is that she remains in her original outfit, and to her original proportions. Perhaps this is a knowing nod to the fact that it was this desire to fiddle with what they had created that led to Crystal Dynamics loosing her essence somewhere along the way. Maybe a few too many nips and tucks, to both heroine and gameplay.
Along with their desire to remain true to their original game's ethos is the perpetuation of the infamous 'dumb' foes. It's not that the artificial intelligence is lacking, rather that it just isn't there. This simply reflects the fact that the enemies were there simply as another aspect of the tomb. They were a moveable puzzle to be traversed rather than a real creature with which you would interact. Because of this many of the enemies can be escaped much as you would a Dalek (before they twigged they could fly); as long as you get up some steps then you should be pretty safe.
Alongside these tameable foes you encounter a fare few dramatic spikes in difficulty. I spent considerable amount of time repeating the same sequence over and over just trying to land the right series of jumps or rolls. This may well mirror the original, but for today's wider audience this may prove a step too far. There is a difficulty setting that can be adjusted but as far as I could tell this didn't adequately deal with some of the more difficult sections.
Overall this is a great revisiting of what was a classic game. To that end it was never intended as a ground breaking release, rather a reminder of what it was that made Lara into the star she is today. This all comes down to one thing; ingenious explore-able environments. It could be argued that it is the tombs rather than the raider that sparked our love and imagination. Let's hope this serves as an appropriate appetiser of a series that is discovering again what made it so popular.
This is a game well worth investing both time and money in. If you remember the original then you can visit an old friend. If you missed the boat first time around then here's a rare second chance to get on board. If it's not too much of a tease, the only thing to consider before shelling out is whether you would get better value from the high spec PC version, or even waiting until the Wii-mote slinging antics of the forthcoming Wii version.
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