Core Design, maker of the Tomb Raider series, has proven to be a prolific developer. Without even counting the "gold editions," Tomb Raider: Chronicles is the fifth Tomb Raider game in as many years - a feat that deserves some sort of recognition. Not many games make it to a fifth chapter, let alone in such a short time span. But while Core and publisher Eidos Interactive should be commended for their commitment to avoiding the long development cycles that plague so many games, they can also be criticized for squandering what began as an imaginative and interesting series. Tomb Raider: Chronicles features good level designs and a bit of variation on the tried-and-tried-again Tomb Raider formula, but there's too little in the way of innovation to make it seem like anything more than just another trip to the cash cow.
At the outset of Chronicles, Lara Croft is presumed dead and several of her colleagues and friends are holding a memorial service in her honor. This service leads to a sort of vigil, where the gathered recall some of Lara's past exploits. These stories make up the adventures, and there are four unrelated episodes. Each of these finds Lara searching for some mythical artifact in some mystical land, usually against some European adversary. Descriptions of the episodes sound like variations on Clue solutions: You have the Frenchman with the Philosopher's Stone in the Roman Colosseum and the German with the Spear of Destiny in the Russian submarine. Lara will also have to hunt demons in an Irish moor and find an Egyptian artifact in a high-security skyscraper.
The first three of these episodes follows the Tomb Raider formula to the letter, though veterans of the series will note that Chronicles is an easier game than its predecessors. But the basic gameplay remains the same. The first puzzle in the very first Tomb Raider involved finding some gears to open a new area. And almost every puzzle in every Tomb Raider game since has been exactly the same, though the gears have been replaced by seals, medallions, or what have you. Between these door-opening puzzles is a series of jumping puzzles. You must simply find the right area to jump or climb to and then execute the proper moves. Lara has some new moves in Chronicles, including tightrope walking and hand-over-hand swinging, but these are little more than slight variations on the theme.
The problem with Tomb Raider's jumping puzzles is that they are so clinical. In most platform games, such as the excellent Rayman 2, learning the pattern required to complete an area is a test of reflexes. This is not the case in Tomb Raider. Instead, you only need to jump within a certain window of time, and Lara will jump at precisely the right time for you. Once you learn to execute the moves, and you will do so very early on, the puzzles are just a matter of trial and error. This takes away much of the surprise and suspense needed to make a game like this fun, and the high-action settings that Lara explores are made somewhat dull as a result of gameplay that all but does away with the element of surprise. There are a few areas that require you to perform a series of actions in precisely the right order, but these are the exception.
The jumping puzzles are interrupted by the occasional gunplay sequence, but these aren't much better. Lara aims automatically, and most combat is simply a matter of mashing the fire button while frantically trying to avoid being pinned into a corner by your opponent. This can be harder than it sounds, especially considering that the camera angles seem to conspire against you to make seeing your opponent impossible until he (or she or it) is upon you. Luckily, there is little combat in Chronicles.
One of the new additions in Chronicles (dubbed "a hand-to-hand stealth attack" on the box) requires you to sneak up on an opponent and knock him out from behind. This new move only makes one appearance in the first three episodes, and it seems illogical. Here is a woman who can do a standing long jump of over 15 feet, can jump 10 feet in the air without breaking a sweat, and yet she is absolutely useless when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. At one point, Lara has been captured and her weapons have been taken away. Crawling through the air ducts of a submarine, she comes across the kitchen. If she doesn't sneak up on the chef and knock him out, she is helpless against him. Bear in mind that she once took down a Tyrannosaurus with a handgun, and yet she is powerless against a fat cook with a knife.
Stealth becomes a bigger issue in the final episode, which combines ideas from pioneering games such as Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project with the standard Tomb Raider gameplay. You must sneak through a building, using chloroform to knock out guards. It's a welcome variation on the formulaic action of the first three episodes (and the previous four games, for that matter), though the interface and camera angles occasionally make it seem like a less-than-perfect match of styles. Still, it gives hope that future installments of the series will break even further from the formula.
Chronicles looks better than previous installments and features smoother characters that look almost like cartoons. The rocks and platforms are still noticeably angular, but the environments are colorful and varied. Rome looks especially nice, as does the colorful and haunting island Lara visits in the third episode.
The sound does not fare as well. The music is suited to each environment, and it provides some well-timed cues that danger is around the corner. Unfortunately, the voice acting is almost universally terrible, with young Lara being one of the worst culprits. The hammy readings mar the well-written dialogue; you'll get the feeling not only that the developers themselves are reading the dialogue, but that they were only given one take to get it right.
The game also has some noticeable technical problems. Debugging errors crashed the game occasionally, graphics clipping abounds, and there were some slight problems with movie sequences that didn't play properly.
Tomb Raider: Chronicles is better than Tomb Raider II or III, though it lacks the coherent story that made The Last Revelation the best since the original. The main problem is that the Tomb Raider series hasn't grown with the times. The artificial difficulty on some levels (such as giving you no weapons and yet still populating the area with enemies) is just frustrating, and ideas from other action games haven't been implemented as well as they could have been. There's no autosave feature, the environments still seem vast and empty, and you never feel like you're in an interesting, fully realized world that you want to explore. Instead, you feel like you're playing a game from five years ago. And, if you really want to be honest, it's because you are.