Who would have guessed when we met her that Lara Croft - assertive, independent, self-assured, and a phenomenal shot - would prove to be such a tease? Having virtually defined a new genre of third-person action-adventure in 1996, the Tomb Raider franchise lures us back each holiday season much like an old relationship trying to rekindle itself with promises that "it has grown" and that "things will be different and even better this time around." However, with the last two games, developer Core and publisher Eidos have disappointed even some of Lara's most devoted fans. The series refuses to evolve beyond the basic yet beguiling formula: leap around ancient tombs, shoot foes (animal, human, and superhuman), and unravel the elaborate puzzles and traps that guard these premodern mysteries. Lara does have some new moves in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, but in the end, none of them takes her far enough in any new direction.
Nevertheless, The Last Revelation is far and away the best of the sequels, mainly because Core has finally added some coherence to all aspects of the game. There's actually a story this time: Lara mistakenly unleashes the Egyptian god Set after eons of imprisonment. Before the evil spirit wreaks destruction on the planet, Lara must put this gnarly genie back in the bottle. Frequent prerendered and in-game cutscenes punctuate the action, as Lara's cliched German enemy Dr. Von Croy challenges her at every turn. At least we do see Lara having actual conversations, especially with her mentor Jean-Pierre, who adds to the plot by getting kidnapped later in the tale. And in the final leg, The Last Revelation takes a Hitchcockian turn, thrusting Lara into some of the world's most familiar landmarks, the Sphinx and Great Pyramid.
While its story is not as interesting as LucasArts' recent Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, the plot in The Last Revelation succeeds in keeping Lara in one part of the world, Middle East ruins, rather than trying to ensure the game has the requisite variety by sending her trotting across the globe. These levels now blend more seamlessly, and in many instances, Lara must move back and forth among several different areas to gather the artifacts or throw the levers that advance her onward. While it makes for a more cohesive game experience, shuffling back and forth as well as enduring repeated loading times can be frustrating. In the Alexandria section midway through the game, you start from a coastal ruins area and veer off into almost a dozen smaller side journeys that lead back to the ruins in the end. As your inventory swells with the various pieces of several unfinished puzzles, some of them well hidden, just keeping track of the immediate task at hand becomes a major challenge. Nevertheless, the payoff is a greater sense of narrative structure. From the opening Tomb of Set to the finale in the Great Pyramid and Temple of Horus, The Last Revelation keeps an overall purpose in view, and this is something Lara always needed.
The more fluid story and coherent setting have positive effects on puzzle design as well. Make no mistake, The Last Revelation is the most cerebral of the series. Very few manic boss villains, or even timed sprinting challenges, force Lara to leap and shoot with split-second accuracy. Most foes are dispatched easily, but only when you realize their weakness. This strategic aspect to firefights is more in keeping with the game's adventure and puzzle theme. Generally, Core has returned to the widget-hunting, block-pushing, lever-grabbing gameplay for which the original Tomb Raider is known. While some of the puzzles are tough in The Last Revelation, they are more sensible and well integrated with the story than in the previous sequels. In the Great Hypostyle Hall, for instance, Lara must open up a new exit by making artful use of her guns and a teetering boulder. In another hall, a celestial map is both a puzzle to be solved and an expressive artifact of Egyptian mythology. Clearly, Core has taken greater care in the construction of Lara's obstacles. Of course, if you take a step back, it seems preposterous that a spelunking heroine meets logic puzzles at every turn. But within the suspended disbelief of the Tomb Raider fiction, these obstacles feel more sensible and more naturally a part of Lara's adventure.There is action in The Last Revelation. It's just not as hair-raising and daunting as in the second and third Tomb Raider games. One especially good sequence is a very-well-done train chase, in which Lara fights off ninjas and pursues Von Croy across boxcar after boxcar. Lara also gets an infrared laser sight that combines with her revolver or bow for long-range or precise targeting, which is fortunate because a few of your otherworldly foes require some very sharp shooting to take down. Binoculars also come in later in the game for spotting far-off puzzle clues. Of course, Lara learned to drive years ago, so the jeep and motorcycle (with sidecar) rides are nothing new, though they make for refreshing bits of action. Rope swinging is new, though timing Lara's swings and leaps from rope to rope is probably more exasperating than it's worth. And the retooled inventory system now lets you combine objects, though it is used too little.
In fact, none of the new Tomb Raider features, from the stronger adventure motif to the slightly upgraded graphics engine, is made especially overt. The game itself is very enjoyable - it's challenging and absorbing, if no longer very surprising. Visually, the game gets somewhat better texture detail, and Lara now has a one-piece wraparound skin, which lends her a more detailed, expressive face and lifelike look. The PR department has made a lot out of letting us play a teenaged Lara early in the game, which is nice but really amounts to just a cute way of integrating the tutorial into the game. However, Core and Eidos continue to shy away from pressing any of these mild innovations into what the Tomb Raider series has needed for so long, which is a substantial evolution of the gameplay itself. Why not engage the adventure element more wholeheartedly and give us a Lara with some depth and character and a plot really worth fighting for? Not all puzzles must involve pushing blocks and pulling levers in the right sequence.
It's also worth noting that all of those halfhearted attempts to rationalize the alluring Lara as a positive model of feminine power and mastery are getting harder to accept as her chest takes on the dimensions of the Astrodome. Poor Lara now looks like she's shoplifting watermelons in Cairo.
However, despite how frustrated we are with her creators, Lara keeps sucking us in every year because, like that old lover, she still has all the right moves. The basic engine is still unrivaled. Knockoffs and competitors continue to miss the real magic of the Tomb Raider engine - artful exaggeration. Lara still has her extremely graceful, almost superhuman movements that let us glide luxuriously through these worlds. Her running leaps are as implausible as they are fluid, and that's why she is uniquely captivating, even when the basic tasks at hand get old.
Ultimately, Tomb Raider IV would have made a brilliant Tomb Raider II. The changes are great, but should have been made years ago. They are less impressive now that the basic play mechanics are so familiar. Fans who want one more spelunking adventure will be pleased that this is far and away the best of the sequels. Those of us who hoped our favorite gaming girlfriend would evolve into something better will be disappointed again, only less so this year than in the past. Core has breathed just enough new life into the old girl to make it worth one more go. But, we're warning you, Lara: We're not going to fall for this little game of yours again. All of us need to move on. This is it. Last time. We mean it this time. No kidding.