When Tomb Raider first hit in 1996, it was nothing short of groundbreaking. When the game industry was experiencing a sea change from predominately sprite-based 2D graphics to polygonal 3D graphics, Tomb Raider was a shining example of the sort of immersive atmosphere and exploration-based gameplay that was possible. There simply weren't strong, serious, and highly competent female protagonists like Lara Croft, though in a way, Lara Croft's role as a protagonist was almost outstripped by her roles of cover girl, female role model, and spokesperson for the maturation of video games. While years of sequels that ranged from unremarkable to borderline offensive did a lot to tarnish the Tomb Raider name, developer Crystal Dynamics undid a lot of damage with last year's Tomb Raider: Legend, which focused on the strengths of the series--exotic locales, thoughtful puzzles, and incredible acrobatics--while modernizing the gameplay and streamlining the whole experience. Crystal D continues its good work with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, which effectively goes back to the original Tomb Raider and rebuilds it from scratch. Tomb Raider: Anniversary isn't as groundbreaking as the original Tomb Raider, but it's undeniably more playable.
Like the original, Tomb Raider: Anniversary follows pretty much the same basic tale of Lara's hunt for the Scion of Atlantis as she does battle with conniving businesswoman Jacqueline Natlas and her various henchmen. You'll explore ancient tombs and forgotten cities in Peru, Greece, Egypt, and more, performing plenty of death-defying acrobatics as you work your way through massive, ancient, and often deadly puzzles. The whole experience is highly evocative of the original, and there are certainly plenty of moments that seem specifically designed to create an odd sense of déjà vu; but nothing in Tomb Raider Anniversary has been regurgitated verbatim--everything is bigger and better. The environments are larger and more detailed, and existing puzzles have been elaborated upon, to an incredible degree. The experience just feels bigger, and there's so much new content that it honestly feels less like a remake and more like its own game.
A big part of that feeling comes from how much more talented Lara has become since the original Tomb Raider. Aside from a few, nominal differences, she's basically got the same abilities here as she had in Tomb Raider: Legend, which made her one of the most nimble action adventure heroes this side of the Prince of Persia. Her proficiency around ledges is incredible--she can shimmy across ledges, leap from one ledge to another, and scramble from one ledge to a higher ledge. She can swing from dangling ropes and horizontal bars, perform tumbling maneuvers to avoid projectiles, and climb up, leap from, and balance precariously atop vertical poles. All of these acrobatics feel natural, and not overly difficult to pull off, with the game allowing for just the right amount of margin of error. As good as Lara is, though, she's got her limits, which is a big part of what makes the action feel dangerous. If your timing is off just a little bit when jumping for a ledge, Lara might only catch it with one hand, which will have you furiously mashing a button to help her recover. Miss the ledge completely, though, and Lara's likely to expire, or at least incur a serious amount of damage.
She'll need to exercise each and every one of these abilities to their absolute limit in Tomb Raider: Anniversary, which features no shortage of ridiculous acrobatics. The game is essentially made up of a series of gigantic, unique set-piece puzzles. Sometimes the puzzles are traditional find-the-key, flip-the-switch-type affairs, but more often than not, the real puzzle is figuring out how to use Lara's ability to get from point A to point B. What's more, the puzzles are often nested several layers deep. While your overall goal may be to find four keys to open a door, you'll first have to figure out how to get to the bottom of a gigantic, crumbling tower, after which you'll have to figure out how to access four different doors, after which you'll have to figure out how to actually open those doors--and, of course, behind each of those doors lies a series of tricks and traps that you'll have to traverse before you'll get to the keys. Solving one of these overarching puzzles can be an involved process, with some of them taking well over an hour to complete.
The environments are your biggest adversaries most of the time in Anniversary, though through your exploration you'll regularly run into some antagonistic fauna like rats, bats, wolves, bears, tigers, gorillas, raptors, and the occasional Tyrannosaurus Rex. Combat is limited to gunplay, which operates with a simple lock-on system, and Lara can also tumble and flip through the air while keeping a bead on an enemy. New to Anniversary is the adrenaline dodge, which at specific moments allows Lara to dodge a charging enemy in slow motion. When time slows, a target will also slowly move toward the enemy, and if you fire the weapon right at the moment it locks on, it'll produce an instant kill, usually when the ferocious beast is just inches away from your face. It still feels like Tomb Raider combat, which has always been a minor part of the experience, but the adrenaline dodge is a nice little touch that adds a little more drama to the action. Tomb Raider: Anniversary also makes use of the same type of interactive cutscenes seen in Tomb Raider: Legend, where you'll have to quickly react to an onscreen button cue to keep Lara alive. It allows for some beautifully choreographed action sequences, but they're rarely very challenging.
What keeps Tomb Raider: Anniversary engaging throughout is the strength of the gameplay, as well as the quality of the presentation. Even though you're basically just going from one tomb to another, they feature enough individual detail to make them unique. The environments are also huge, using the occasional curvy hallway to mask load times, and aside from some minor gameplay contrivances, they feel pretty real. Lara looks great and moves with a natural grace that makes her incredible acrobatic feats look feasible instead of ridiculously superhuman, and the various wildlife you confront also moves convincingly. It's the little touches that bring the whole thing together: the way water glistens on Lara's skin when she gets out of the water, the way light refracts differently when she's underwater, or the tangible difference in atmosphere between different locales.
While the PS2 version doesn't look bad by any measure, a heavy layer of aliasing mars the presentation. The game can be played in widescreen, but we found the progressive scan support to have an inconsistent effect. On certain sets it smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges, while on others it made textures look muddy and text unreadable. The PC version fares much better, with support for higher resolutions and a generally crisper, cleaner look. It's also a really great-sounding game. You'll hear plenty of small ambient effects like animal calls and dripping water, and Lara's grunts and yelps as she scales these incredible antiquities will resonate differently depending on the size of the room. Music is generally used sparingly, but it always swells to a flourish at all the right moments.
Tomb Raider: Legend did a lot to make Lara Croft feel relevant again, and Tomb Raider: Anniversary is another step in the right direction. The acrobatic action is consistently exciting and challenging throughout, and despite being a remake, the experience feels new and fresh. This is the best Tomb Raider game in years, and for the first time in a long time, that actually means something.