It was only a year ago that Eidos Interactive released Tomb Raider, a game that had such innovative flare that it defined its publisher as a formidable force in the gaming industry. With its cavernous 3D environments and charismatic protagonist - a hip English jet-setter named Lara Croft - Tomb Raider pioneered new territory in gaming. But can Tomb Raider II, which seldom strays from the original formula, stand up to the new generation of action games on the shelf? Definitely.
Taking its cue from the previous game, Tomb Raider II sees Croft becoming embroiled in a brand new globe-trotting hunt for treasure. Again, levels are lushly appointed with colorful textures, taking you on a visual voyage from the waterways of Venice to eerie subterranean catacombs, this time in search of the Dagger of Xian, a relic that supposedly bestows great power upon its bearer.
Once again, plot has little bearing on the Tomb Raider experience. Most of Lara's activities still consist of finding a key to open a door to find another key, with a lot of puzzle solving in between. For example, in one level a switch is thrown and a door opens in another part of the level. When the door is finally reached, it's shut. Solution: Drive a speedboat up to the door as soon as the switch is thrown. There are also a host of "timed" traps, where Lara will find herself having to charge desperately through a labyrinth of encroaching spikes and collapsing floors when she least expects it. It's the process of finding the key, of getting to that particular door that just opened, that makes Tomb Raider II a truly engaging adventure.
Complaints about the original, such as the tedium of levels and Lara's sometimes erratic control, have definitely been addressed in the sequel. Basic moves such as running leaps and grabs are slightly easier to perform with the new and improved heroine. Most importantly, this helps the levels stay interesting. From the very beginning, each trap or physical obstacle poses an extreme challenge, forcing you to control Lara with the utmost adeptness. More often than not, getting Ms. Croft from one ledge to another requires that two or more specific moves are executed in series. Performing a Hail-Mary leap only to cling successfully to a far-away wall; figuring out how to execute that perfect double-gainer back flip to get around a seemingly impassable trap: These kind of activities become the most rewarding part of playing the game.
Apart from being larger, the levels in Tomb Raider II are also more geographically interesting. Lara is exaggeratedly dwarfed in her surroundings, scaling the enormous walls of a gangster hideout's vestibule during one adventure, swinging from balcony to balcony in a surrealistically proportioned opera house during another. When dropped into these extremely spacious environments, Lara becomes a sort of modern Alice in Wonderland with you ultimately acting as guide. Featuring 18 massive levels, it's probably safe to say that Tomb Raider II represents more of an adventure than Alice ever had.
Tomb Raider was all about looks, and Tomb Raider II continues that trend. When running the game with a 3Dfx card, it's often tempting to simply sit back and take in the view. Combining breathtaking landscapes, fluid, Disney-like character animation, and (most importantly) a nicely balanced procession of obstacles, traps, and puzzles, Tomb Raider II is an excellent continuation to the Lara Croft saga.