Much has happened since Lara Croft first showed her face (and other body parts) to the world in 1996. There have been stunning advances in 3D gaming technology, and the third-person action game - a genre that the original Tomb Raider helped to define - is now everywhere. Now Lara is back in Tomb Raider III, and although her persona outside of the game continues to, shall we say, develop, the latest Tomb Raider game shows that the series is falling a bit behind the times.
Tomb Raider III, like its predecessors, is an action game with a healthy dose of adventure and puzzle elements thrown in for good measure. Your job is to guide Lara Croft through a surprisingly varied set of levels, many of which provide an intense sense of immersion. In fact, the size, scope, and atmosphere of the levels are probably the game's strongest point. But these levels, however cavernous, are filled with things you've already seen, and in order to beat the game, you're required to make Lara do things she's already done. Lara runs, Lara swims, Lara shoots, Lara must jump carefully across a canyon. Is it wrong not to be more excited about these activities?
The strength of the original Tomb Raider was the fact that Lara Croft was a free-roaming character in a real 3D world; at the time it was a new experience. Also, the sheer size of the levels was enough to capture many gamers' imaginations. But even on Lara's first outing, the weaknesses of the game's engine manifested themselves in that there wasn't always much to see or do in Lara's world. From the get-go, the concept behind Lara Croft was always more intriguing than the execution.
In the time since Tomb Raider first hit the scene, gamers' expectations have grown exponentially, and more than a few games have offered up environments on par with Lara Croft's romping grounds. The stunning lack of innovation as this series has progressed is beginning to stand out more as the world keeps moving forward.
Take the camera control as an example, as it is a major hindrance to your progress in Tomb Raider III. The designers have provided rudimentary camera controls to let you get a better look at the environment. But no matter what angle you choose, Lara's backside is just plain in the way too much of the time; a true selectable first-person perspective would have been a very welcome addition to orient yourself before making jumps. As other 3D games have hit the scene with improved camera handling (the best probably being the N64 game, Legend of Zelda), Tomb Raider's camera deficiency stands out more than ever.
To be fair, Tomb Raider III does sport some advances. As already mentioned, the levels are bigger than ever before; Lara has acquired a few new moves this time out (the monkey swing being the most fun); and the game's cinematic cutscenes are better. But apart from the improved graphics, it would take a well-trained eye to distinguish Tomb Raider III from the earlier installments.
One last thing: Tomb Raider III is hard. In fact, it would be difficult for most players to finish the game without a strategy guide in hand. If you relish a real challenge, this level of difficulty gives Tomb Raider III a lot of value; if you get frustrated easily, you may want to take some Advil before you settle down to play.
If you loved the first two Tomb Raider installments and can't wait for more, then Tomb Raider III is worth checking out. Likewise, if you've seen Lara Croft on posters but have never played a game in the series, then Tomb Raider III is a perfectly enjoyable game that might just provide you hours of fun. But if you're looking for something new, you'll need to look somewhere else.