It's hard to believe that Tomb Raider is more than a decade old. Tomb Raider not only introduced the world to video game icon Lara Croft, but it also featured excellent third-person gameplay as you guided the acrobatic, nimble protagonist through ancient ruins and devious puzzles. Tomb Raider was one of the very first PC games that was worth buying an expensive 3D accelerator for, and in many ways it helped to usher in the 3D graphics revolution. Now Eidos and developer Crystal Dynamics, which has basically inherited the series from now-shuttered original creator Core Design, are working on a retelling of Lara's very first adventure.
Tomb Raider: Anniversary isn't merely the original game with an overhauled graphics engine. Much like a Hollywood remake of a classic movie, Crystal Dynamics has instead "reimagined" the original game, expanding on the themes, settings, and story while adding new puzzles and elements to the game. So even if you played Tomb Raider repeatedly, there's going to be something new here for you, too.
Like the original Tomb Raider, Anniversary starts off with Lara being commissioned to recover ancient artifacts from around the world, including Peru, Greece, and the chapter that we got to play in a work-in-progress version of the game, Egypt. What is different from the original is that there's a larger emphasis on story and narrative.
Since it's the third (and largest) chapter in the game, the puzzles in the Egypt level are particularly challenging. There's a timing element in many of the puzzles that requires you to execute tasks perfectly. For instance, as soon as you land on certain platforms they begin to recede into the wall, giving you only a few seconds to cross. Or, pulling a switch extends platforms temporarily so you can cross, but as you do so, they begin to recede from whence they came. Then there are insanely huge chasms that you somehow have to cross, as well as almost vertical levels that you must ascend. Using the grapple hook to swing across chasms or to wall-walk is important, but you will also use your grapple to manipulate the environment. Doors can be hooked and lowered, or giant pillars pulled down with a little help from the grapple.
The enemies in this level range from animal to supernatural. There are panthers and crocodiles, as well as lightning-quick mummies that can cast spells at you. As always, Lara is armed with her trusty pistols. Though underpowered, they do have the luxury of having almost unlimited ammunition. To put down some of the tougher enemies, you can rely on .50 caliber pistols or a shotgun, though those have finite amounts of ammo. Thankfully, like in most action games, ammo is inexplicably distributed throughout a level, as are health packs, which can patch up any damage to the plucky heroine.
You will die a lot; it's just the nature of the game. Like the PlayStation 2 version, Anniversary uses a checkpoint save system, so when you do die, you revert to the previous checkpoint. These checkpoints are spaced out pretty regularly and usually come before each big puzzle or navigational hazard, so it's not too frustrating. And while you can save the whole game, you basically just have to save the last checkpoint.
The controls are fairly intuitive, involving just the mouse and keyboard. The mouse controls the camera as it rotates around Lara, while the keyboard is used for moving, jumping, grapple throwing, and more. Combat is easy; the left mouse button fires, while holding down the right mouse button locks onto a target. If you jump around while locked onto an enemy, Lara can execute a dodge move to leap out of the way of a charging opponent. Of course, you could always plug in a regular PC gamepad and that should work fine, too, but the game felt pretty natural with the keyboard and mouse.
If you played the original Tomb Raider with a 3dfx Voodoo card a decade ago, you were most likely blown away by how good and smooth it looked, though obviously it looks primitive today. Well, Anniversary looks quite good--more like a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 game--though the only other versions of Anniversary are for the PlayStation 2 and the Wii. In fact, Anniversary looks as sharp as last year's Tomb Raider: Legend. The animations that power Lara are smooth and fluid, and it's almost believable as you watch her navigate over almost impassable terrain by leaping across chasms and clutching onto the narrowest of ledges. At the same time, there's almost a retro feel to the game, thanks to Lara's original outfit.
Playing through the Anniversary reminds us of why Tomb Raider became such a successful franchise. The gameplay is challenging but never frustrating, and Lara makes death-defying leaps and acrobatic moves look easy. More important, there's a rewarding feeling to having navigated through almost impassable environments. Tomb Raider: Anniversary will ship next month.