They say the third time's a charm in most cases. With each of the first three Tomb Raider episodes, released one year after another, there were incremental improvements (some would call them innovations) added to entice gamers to come back. But who's kidding who? The reason most gamers came back, aside from a secret, archaeological desire to spelunk, was to lead buxom Lara through a never-ending series of catacombs and labyrinths. That's not to detract from the often near-genius level design, displayed in abundance in the seminal "part two." Unfortunately, Eidos is all too well aware of its greatest asset, but now that we've progressed beyond the difficult part one, the deviously designed part two, and the more-of-the-same-but-look-at-Lara's-two-new-moves part three, what exactly is there to bring us back to the unofficial part four, The Last Revelation?
At the start, things look rather grim. Via an aggravatingly mandatory tutorial, offered by Professor Werner Von Croy, you must navigate an adolescent jailbait Lara through a series of condescendingly trite exercises designed to introduce you to the controls. Core seems to assume there will be a bunch of gamers who have never touched a Tomb Raider game before, as you cannot skip past this seemingly endless ritual that will have experienced Tomb Raiders dribbling on the action button. At least in past games, Lara's gymnasium offered a secluded space to try out the controls at your convenience. Not so, here. At one point in the opening, which also sets the storyline, Von Croy challenges you to a race, half-designed to show you he's not the old fart you think he is, and also to set into practice your "newly learned" moves in an actual gaming environment. Unfortunately, Von Croy isn't hampered by the leaden control, crappy camera angles, and pixilated graphics that you must contend with. Thankfully, this "race" is merely an excuse to get you to the next cutscene, in which Von Croy introduces Lara not to the ways of Indiana Jones, but of Pitfall Harry! Yes, in Tomb Raider: the Last Revelation, Lara can now swing from ropes! In your first encounter with a rope situation, the game's faults immediately reveal themselves. Upon reaching said rope, Lara must jump to it, pump a few times for momentum's sake, then vault across to the opposite platform. While most gamers have at some point taken the rope-swinging plunge in one 2D platform game or another, doing the deed in 3D is an altogether different story. From the very first moment she tries a rope swing she is impeded by a sideways camera angle, which doesn't let you see the edge of the platform, let alone the rope; the funky problem of trying to align herself with the rope, which results in an off-angle plummet into the pool below; and a lag from when you press the jump button to when Lara actually jumps. All these problems come to light within the first, frustrating hour after turning the game on. After a short CG sequence that sets in motion the reason for being here at all (this year's adventure is in Egypt!), it's back to the future for Lara, and the actual start of the game proper. While the game is actually better than the introduction indicates, it's still not great. The worst part about this particular adventure is that it feels as if you have done it all before. Back in its day, Charlie's Angels was a pretty fun TV show to watch, but after a while, even thirteen-year-old boys got tired of watching Farrah Fawcett go through the same-old, same-old motions. So too does Lara Croft and her tomb raiding become an exercise of been-there, done-that. Although lengthy, and designed to be more action-adventurey than mind-bendingly clever, Last Revelation still puts you through your paces in a series of find-the-chain-and-pull-it, put-the-item-in-the-slot-and-open-the-door mechanics. There are some devilish situations that will require clearheadedness and a thoughtful mind, but in spite of the odd and oddly frustrating rope-swinging sequences, anyone who has played any of the first three episodes has played Last Revelation.
The graphics are grainy as hell, showing the age of the PlayStation and the Tomb Raider game engine all in one go. But given the game's huge environments, the frame rate problems and grainy textures are forgivable. Usually up for debate is whether Lara's breasts have been enlarged, reduced, or whether her ass has more polygons for a smoother, all-natural look. Quite honestly, who cares? As time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to look at a 32-bit Lara. More-powerful hardware awaits, and as a result, each new Tomb Raider game ceases to amaze, despite its pixilated waterfalls and neato lighting effects. The game's frame rate veers wildly from acceptable (in closed corridors) to staggeringly bad (usually when Lara comes out of said corridors into wide-open areas). Coupled with the iffy frame rates are the occasionally obnoxious camera angles, which, when combined with the pivot-and-then-go gameplay, can cause much frustration in a game centered around various platform elements. The most the game has to offer are some unnaturally angular environments designed to alert the gamer that "yes, you can go here," or "no, you cannot." While the ambience certainly offers a realistic setting, the game can often revert to that overwhelming feeling of solitude found in the first Tomb Raider. While the opening moments of the game put a torch-lighting lackey in your service, he is nothing more than an AI drone designed to trudge onward as you tackle puzzles and pull switches. For gamers who prefer a little more company in their adventures, there is occasionally a scorpion or wolf that will try to bite you. Perhaps the one element that can withstand any criticism is the sound, music, and voice-acting. Perhaps there is something about the voice actors in the Tomb Raider series, but they are usually much better than those found in any Resident Evil game. While they are not as excellent as Eidos' own Soul Reaver, you won't have to stifle a laugh while listening to Tomb Raider's cinematics. The soundtrack is, once again, expertly composed: It offers timely orchestral strikes when the situation calls for it, and then it recesses gracefully when you need to concentrate. Sound effects are well done, giving the gamer aural clues as to when someone or something is approaching, and letting the echoing drippy-water ambiance work for itself in nonaction moments. Flickering torches, hungry wolves, the crack of a gunshot, and even the crunchy landing of Lara are all well represented here. Unfortunately, it takes more than a nice soundtrack and some good sound effects to make a game.
With the Last Revelation, you cannot escape the sensation that Eidos is simply milking the bottom line. It has yet to understand that there is value in the adage "Less is more." You don't see Nintendo busting out a new Zelda every year come holiday season, and how many times have you seen Sonic pop up in 3D form? In fact, has Lara's role model and inspiration, Indiana Jones, chimed in with an annual whoop-de-doo, as she has? No, he has not. These legendary characters only show up when they're damn ready to, and with good reason. Someone once said, "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all." In this instance, the Tomb Raider series has nothing good to say, and it shows. While it isn't exactly bad, Last Revelation has added nothing more compelling to play it than, say, the latest iteration of Madden-whatever. It is an acceptable game based on its own merits, but, set against its own legacy, it is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from those that have come before it. It reeks of a ready-to-go game engine and of a level designer going through the motions, with someone else coming up with a new move for Lara all the while. The series has become comparable to Phil Collins' sound-alike albums, and Eidos and Core can simply not afford to make this same-old game again. Teetering on the brink, its premier franchise is one step away from being bludgeoned into mediocrity. Time to shake up the status quo.