One of the most successful video game series of all time returns from a hiatus with Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. This latest adventure starring modern-day adventuress Lara Croft sends her to Paris, Prague, and a number of dangerous, ancient, subterranean catacombs. As before, Lara will need to run, jump, climb, shoot, and think her way through various trials and tribulations, and certain death often lies at the bottom of a long drop that is just one miscalculated step away from where she needs to be. In development for years, this latest Tomb Raider was intended as a reinvention of the series, with a darker edge and all-new gameplay elements. That is indeed the case, but unfortunately, it's easy to tell that Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, despite all the time spent in the making, shipped before it was completely finished. Numerous bugs and glitches, some superficial and some serious, as well as a cumbersome and often frustrating control scheme seriously hurt the game, making it considerably less enjoyable than it could have been. Nevertheless, hard-core Tomb Raider fans and other particularly patient players should be able to overlook these flaws and enjoy this new installment for its engaging storyline, death-defying action sequences, and impressive locations.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness begins in Paris, when a heated argument between Lara Croft and her mentor ends with a deadly twist--the old man is killed, and since Lara is the only one present at the scene, she spends the first part of the game eluding the authorities, who assume she did it. As Lara desperately searches for answers to why her mentor might have been killed, she becomes increasingly aware that a notorious serial killer is apparently shadowing her wherever she goes, leaving you to wonder whether she is indeed to blame for the crime in some way.
Suffice it to say that the plot thickens, and the truth comes out. The story soon involves a secret society, the search for a set of paintings with a hidden secret, and a healthy dose of the occult. Lara will discover the nature of a truly sinister villain, and she'll even cross paths with an adventurer named Kurtis Trent, who seems to have a similar agenda--as well as some surprising powers. The story of The Angel of Darkness unfolds gradually and in different ways, such as when Lara happens upon important documents, during dialogue between Lara and other characters, and in stylish cinematic cutscenes using the game's 3D engine. It's surprising that the game scraped by with a T rating, as the story features some decidedly grisly and violent imagery, the likes of which would land any other game these days an M rating. At any rate, rest assured that this Tomb Raider doesn't pull any punches. In the early part of the game, you hear about the grisly way the serial killer dispatches his victims. Later on, you get to see it firsthand.
The interesting story is probably the biggest motivating factor for you to keep struggling to make progress in the game. The actual gameplay of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness often isn't fun at all, but instead can be frustrating, difficult, and tedious. The controls are the biggest culprit. Though the first few sequences of the game are intended to be a sort of tutorial, cluing you in to Lara's various moves and abilities, the beginning of the game merely makes its problems painfully apparent. Lara, though she's supposed to be agile, controls like a cement truck. There's a very noticeable lag between when you move the left analog stick and when Lara actually begins to run in the direction you've indicated. Just turning in place can be difficult, as sometimes you'll turn accidentally a full 180 degrees, rather than just the few degrees intended to line yourself up parallel to the platform you're standing on. Simply put, you'll undoubtedly struggle for hours getting accustomed to the feel of the game.
The camera is equally at fault. You usually have control of the camera using the right analog stick and can conveniently reset the third-person perspective by pressing down on the stick. However, sometimes the camera will switch on you from scene to scene, and occasionally this will cause the controls to flip. For example, you may be climbing hand over hand across a rope atop a bottomless pit, and suddenly just turn around, or just stop. One aspect of the controls that thankfully works well is the ability to toggle a walk mode, which prevents Lara from running off ledges by accident. The other good news is you will eventually get used to the controls if you stick with the game.
You'll also get used to the fact that approximately half the time you mistime a jump and die--and you'll die very often--the controls will be at least partly to blame. It bears mentioning that the Tomb Raider series has never been known for its responsive control, but rather than buck the bad trend, this latest game seems to control even worse than its predecessors. As a result, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness probably won't be winning over any new fans, though since trial-and-error gameplay has always been a part of the series, existing fans shouldn't feel completely out of their element.
Lara essentially has all the same moves that she had in previous installments in the series. She can jump high and far while standing, jump even farther while running, shimmy across ledges, swim underwater for a while, and automatically lock on to any enemies whenever she draws her weapon. Lara can also crawl on all fours or while prone. The most obvious new gameplay element is a stealth mode, by means of which Lara can creep up on unsuspecting foes. She can also flatten her back against a wall and take a peek around a corner, just like Snake from Metal Gear Solid. Stealth elements are rapidly becoming overused in games, so it's probably for the best that the stealth mechanics are largely irrelevant in Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. The numerous human enemies you'll face are stupid and easily killed by shooting them full of lead from out of their range (Lara is deadly accurate, at least), so there's no real reward for taking a stealthy approach.
It's been a couple of years since the last Tomb Raider game, and apparently Lara's fallen out of shape in the downtime. An important aspect of the gameplay is that she can't climb indefinitely--her ability to hang onto ledges or other objects is governed by a grip meter that begins dwindling as soon as she catches hold. You'll often have just enough grip to make it across a chasm of some sort, and the camera will often cause you to become disoriented and die during these timed sequences. Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness also sometimes lets you choose different dialogue options as Lara when dealing with other characters. This strange nod to traditional adventure and role-playing games has little bearing on the gameplay, but it isn't a bad touch.
Lara also bulks up over the course of the game, in what's probably the most nonsensical new feature. At particular moments when Lara pushes boxes, climbs, makes big jumps, and performs other such physical feats, she'll comment that she's gotten stronger--this will enable her to leap slightly farther, kick open previously locked doors, and more. It's a gameplay contrivance that keeps you on a linear path through each area. One consequence of this is you'll probably never really know exactly how far she can leap. Just when you're starting to get a good sense of the range of her jumps, she'll grow stronger and jump a little farther. All this would have gone over better if the game controlled well, but since it doesn't, it'll just lead to many more untimely demises.
Thankfully, you can save your progress at any point. You'll learn to save often, as when you die, the only options are to exit to the title screen or load a saved game--so if you haven't saved in a while, you'll be in serious trouble. The save feature is buried toward the bottom of the menu that comes up when you push the select button. This isn't a huge problem, but it's the sort of thing that conspires with other such elements to make this game feel tedious at times. You'll find yourself in some situations where you need to hopscotch across small platforms. Mess up even a little and you'll die, and then you'll have to wait 30 seconds or so to load a saved game and try again. You might find yourself dying a dozen times or more in a single area, especially when the path to your goal isn't obvious. At these times, you'll end up watching loading screens more than playing the game.
To be fair, these particularly frustrating sequences aren't necessarily commonplace in Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. They just tend to stick out, because you might find yourself having a good time making progress in the game, only to hit a huge snag of this sort. Some of the jumping and climbing puzzles are actually thrilling, especially since Lara moves as fluidly and realistically as ever, and often just barely manages to get her grip on a faraway, seemingly out-of-reach ledge. The action sequences, meanwhile, are much easier than the jumping, so you'll probably greet them with relief. Just like every other Tomb Raider episode, this one has its fair share of puzzles, and some of them are pretty good. You'll need to carefully observe your environment and maybe even consult your former mentor's notebook to figure them out.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness has a lot of variety to it, which is one of the best things about the game. During the few sequences when you play as Kurtis Trent, the game becomes more like a survival horror game like Resident Evil than a typical Tomb Raider game. Close-quarters battles against surprising foes will keep you on your toes here, but while Trent's sequences seem different from Lara's and he has a few unique animations, he controls exactly like Lara does. At times, the game's levels are filled with enemies and require a lot of shooting. Other times, it's just you against the environment, such as in one memorable sequence when you need to figure out how to activate an ancient and gigantic machine at the heart of a dangerous temple--and then figure out how to get out of it, since its whirling blades and crushing gears aren't healthy for your skin.
Some of the locations are huge, and they give a great sense of their size and scale. Others are tight and claustrophobic. Some locations are modern--in one sequence, you'll break into the famous Louvre museum to steal a dangerous artifact. Earlier in the game, you'll climb to the very top of a run-down dance club. Other locations are classic Tomb Raider--remnants of ancient civilizations, bizarre contraptions, centuries-old architecture, and more.
All this would look great if not for the game's often noticeable graphical problems. The frame rate is usually very smooth but sometimes bogs down horribly, making the whole game run in slow motion. Lara and her enemies will often clip through solid objects, and Lara's shadow can often be seen projected onto thin air, such as when she's hanging from a rope. On the other hand, the detail in the environments and the quality of the textures in the game are certainly impressive. And as mentioned, Lara looks great in motion, with particularly realistic animations for when she's rock climbing. The character models are a little simplistic, and the enemies often look silly when they slump down like contorted rag dolls when killed (and even sillier when the corpses simply blink out of existence). But overall, this latest Tomb Raider does look good, especially if you can forgive a few obvious blemishes.
The audio can also be buggy--the speech will sometimes cut off for mysterious reasons. However, the audio is probably the single best aspect of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, as it features excellent ambient effects, a perfectly suited musical score, and first-rate voice acting. Lara, Kurtis Trent, the main villain of the game, and the other key characters all play their parts very well during the cutscenes, and the music heard throughout the game effectively sets the often-ominous tone of each gameplay sequence. For good measure, the game supports Pro Logic II surround sound for those with the proper setup. It's too bad the music cuts off in the game's menu screen and while loading, which might have helped alleviate some of the tedium of the trial-and-error parts.
In fact, it's too bad that Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness can't be recommended wholeheartedly. It's a lengthy adventure with a good story and some memorable locations and sequences. It's also a highly anticipated installment in a series that was intended to reinvent the franchise in a bold, new way. This latest Tomb Raider can be rewarding for those who can suffer through its cumbersome controls, numerous highly difficult gameplay sequences, and occasional bugs. But we shouldn't have to make so many concessions to enjoy a game that seems like it could and should have turned out much better than it did.