Review by roadtosalvation

Reviewed: 01/06/11

A Letter to Tomb Raider III: Lara Croft and the Search for Fun

Dear Tomb Raider III,

I’ve been waiting for this day. While you were a no-brainer of a purchase for those that enjoyed Tomb Raider I and II, you and I have not been the best of friends. I mean really, how else could you explain the ten plus years between my initial play through when you debuted and the one I partook of for this review? I can easily take pleasure in what your predecessors have to offer, but when it comes to you I hesitate. It shouldn’t take two days of ceaseless mulling to get a game into my PlayStation. So why, why do I cringe at the mere thought of playing you? How did you turn me away from your future successors? Alas, it’s a long story, but a story that needs to be told.

Things weren’t always this complicated. In the early going, you touted your slightly crisper graphics and touched up effects (like rain, water ripples, gun smoke, footprints, blood and fire) in an attempt to dress up and look sharp for your friends, as well as changing in-game secrets back to their former glory (ammo and health pickups) once again. Such points aside, it’s somewhat hard to pinpoint where it all went astray, so let’s start out small. Why is it when I pick up some goodies, you no longer feel the need show me what I just picked up? Why so greedy with the info all of a sudden? Often times it’s hard to determine what I just added to my inventory because your treasures are so dark and dingy – and small. Let’s not forget small. What’s up with these new, anorexic medi-packs? Where they too noticeable before or something? And what’s up with the game’s first key? Talk about lack of defining contrast! Combine this with your constant need to manipulate light and shadow and you can see how you’re not exactly the most forthcoming game on the face of the planet.

Your phobia of being pilfered by big breasted, item raiding adventurers brings us to your weapon selection. Despite the lack of variety, things were great during your original incarnation: from the punch of the Magnums to the chatter of the Uzis, you provided great guns that complemented Lara’s great mobility. Unfortunately, things started to go a bit south with the M16 and Harpoon Gun in Tomb Raider II. With an increase in gun wielding enemies, a gun that pretty much glued the player’s feet the floor was a rather ill-conceived addition. Still, the M16 - and its newer counterpart the MP5 - look great when compared to the harpoon gun. Who in their right mind is going to engage enemies underwater when gaining the high ground is so much more effective? And let’s not forget that piranhas, the greatest underwater threat in the game, can’t be killed.

Okay, so it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be. The Desert Eagle is a fun little toy that doesn’t feel as desperate as the Rocket Launcher, but when discussing your somewhat haphazard collection of firearms, let’s not forget how important dual wielded weapons are to Lara. Even the vast majority of artwork Ms. Croft has posed for depicts her with the Pistols (the classic mainstay) or the Uzis. Sure, there are others like the one with the Harpoon Gun (laughs), the M16 and Automatic Pistol (which is part of a set) but unlike past adventures, it takes an incredibility long time for majority of your arms to prove their worth, if they ever do at all. That snazzy new shotgun is a great example, the orphan of the group that is never really allowed to come into its own. Such shortfalls are mainly due in part to the “mandatory loss of weaponry” segment that’s a part of every Tomb Raider experience. First of all, this was clever the first two times it happened. Now that we’ve reached part three, it’s no longer clever. Second, why do you feel the need to flitch all my ammunition and medi-packs? Like any wise spelunker, I spent most of my time in India conserving my supplies for long haul ahead only to be reminded you can be quite the kleptomaniac when you want to be. What if Nevada was the last area I explored before Antarctica? Thankfully it wasn’t, but what about players who aren’t so lucky and wind up at the end of the game with a depleted inventory? In all honesty, just admit that the “select adventure” feature is a bust and does nothing to enhance the game or make it non-linear.

Another illusion masquerading under the guise of freedom is the Save Crystal system. While most of the discontent in this area is more-or-less born out of your indecisiveness throughout the years - three different titles with three different save systems – it’s not hard to see how the portable save crystals were viewed as a novel idea. But with every new idea comes (unintended) consequences. With you throwing everything from A to Z at the player, it’s not long before life and death paranoia sets in and questions like “how much longer can I press my luck before I screw up and die?” start weighing on the players mind. It rarely takes long to cross that line and when the greatest judge of what’s been accomplished (you, the game) fails to gauge the player’s progress a certain amount of liberty is lost.

Speaking of liberty, let’s get to these massive playgrounds called levels. If the tone of this letter has been any kind of indication thus far, it shouldn’t be any surprise that trouble rears its ugly head here as well. Your frills are quickly gunned down by India’s flaccid jungles, rigorous waters and lifeless ruins. Now, you may just at the idea of ruins having any kind of life to them given the definition of the term, but there is a difference between creating something that is lifeless and “employing” lifelessness to create an abstract type of energy or intangible pulse that drives an experience forward. There are small glimpses of this to be seen every once in a while, but it’s often derailed by things like redundant backtracks, half-baked vehicle segments, blind jumps, questionable settings (Area 51?!) and contrived boss fights. Unfortunately, this body of problems only fosters the disappointment one faces once they realize the variety presented by your locals is a facade. The London levels may come awfully close to forging their own identity but they eventually fall into the realm of interesting and interesting does not always mean good.

The final hurdle you seem to have trouble clearing is narrative. While none of the Tomb Raider games have had a story built for the ages, there’s another concept (similar to the one we talked about when talking about level design) that seems to be lost on you. That concept? Presenting something cliche doesn’t necessarily have to feel cliche. In fact, one of the most impressive things one can do is take something that’s been done a million and a half times and make it feel like new. Tomb Raider’s Natla and Atlanteans did this despite their obvious “been there, done that” vibe. Your own angle, the old “scientist obsessed with evolution becomes a big, grotesque monster bent on making his ultimate dream a reality with angry, poison spewing sea otters” never becomes anything, not even a tongue-in-cheek parody of itself. Adding further insult to injury is the fact Lara seems incapable of learning from past mistakes; working for other people never seems to work out too well for her or the world, does it?

So what does all of this mean? Well, to answer that question, we need to examine what you want people to notice about you. Since we’ve shot down the majority of additions already, we’re left with what these additions were attempting to implement: an increase in challenge. It’s a respectable goal given the relative ease of your predecessors, but it’s how you get there – by trying to fire on all cylinders at once – that shows us just how ugly Tomb Raider can be. And while Tomb Raider has always had its share of problems, I don’t think anyone thinks this is the solution. Fun is not perpendicular to challenge here and you can’t underestimate how important that is to a video game. This isn’t to say that a challenging game can’t be fun, but it’s a slippery slope and the elements you surround it with can’t provide enough traction to prevent a fall.

With everything you have to offer now laid bare, I can safely say my time with you was neither in vain nor wasted. This isn’t to say it was a particularly good use of my time, or that every minute of it was enjoyable, but you know the old adage “it could be worse.” And, quite honestly, it could be. There is little comfort in such words, but perhaps we’ll run into each other again some day. Not too soon I hope; maybe in another ten to twelve years? Until then, you’ll be leaving the light on for me, won’t you?

Umm… er… Best Regards?,

A PS1 junkie who (perhaps foolishly) values other elements over challenge

Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Product Release: Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (US, 11/21/98)

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