While it may be hard to imagine Tomb Raider's heroine Lara Croft as a "mascot" for the Sony PlayStation, there's no doubt that the series has become inextricably linked with the platform. The original game proved that huge 3D environments were not the exclusive domain of the Nintendo 64, which is fairly ironic when considering that it was developed first with the Saturn in mind.
The gameplay, as the title suggests, revolves around raiding large trap-laden 3D tombs for their treasures. Anyone who's watched the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark knows what to expect: There are rolling boulders, spike-filled pits, walls and ceilings that slowly close in, and a lot of running, jumping, and lever pulling required to keep from meeting up with all of them. In this, Tomb Raider III is much like the first two games in the line, which is to say that there's nothing new thematically, although there are a few improvements to this edition.
The game's visuals are where the main enhancements lie. While it may not look that different at first, comparing it side by side with the earlier titles shows that its face-lift is fairly major. The lighting and water effects are very impressive, and the textures are much better looking and more widely varied. The latter translates into a better gameplay experience, as it's now much easier to identify ledges and jump-off points. Make no mistake, it's still an evilly difficult game in which a strategy guide is almost a prerequisite and save points are like candy (the crystals are back, but you can use them to save anywhere), but the blame for continually getting your character killed now lies a little more squarely at your own feet than at those of the developers. Also to that same end, the camera perspectives, though not quite ideal, are more refined so that lining up jumps isn't as hard.
New elements such as the character's ability to sprint, crawl, monkey-swing, and use new vehicles (such as a quad bike and kayak) add some variety to the game, and the emphasis on stealth in some of the levels and improved AI of the enemies helps as well. The lack of linearity in being able to use different routes within many of the levels, as well as being able to choose one of three paths after wrapping up the India stage, is nice too. And it must be said that the game is absolutely huge, with over 15 levels that can each take up to a few hours to complete.
One complaint often made against the series is that there aren't enough enemies to fight. Though there are more foes in Tomb Raider III than in the last game, there aren't many - but that's not really a bad thing. It doesn't seem to be a particularly valid criticism to lodge against the title, since it simply isn't that type of game. For those who are looking to shoot or carve through tons of foes in a 3D environment, there are games like GT Interactive's Duke Nukem: Time to Kill and Activision's Tenchu, but the Tomb Raider line remains more about puzzles than combat.
This all isn't to say that the game is perfect, since there are in fact a few elements introduced in the very similar 3D adventure Duke Nukem: Time to Kill that could have helped Tomb Raider III. For instance, any time in Duke Nukem when the player character gets in the way of the perspective - whether during the look function or otherwise - he becomes transparent. It's an innovation for the genre that you'll find yourself wishing for here every time you end up staring at the back of Lara's neck and hoping you're properly aimed for the next platform jump. Also, adding a target to TRIII's look function and the ability to shoot during its use rather than simply letting the game auto-aim for you would probably make the parts where shooting enemies is required more fun.
At the end of the day though (and putting all the hype, creepy marketing campaigns, and strange celebrity worship surrounding the series aside), there's no denying that Tomb Raider III is a solid game, worth the time of anyone who enjoys a good puzzle/adventure title. Those who lost interest in the series with Tomb Raider II may want to give it another look with the third.