Tomb Raider II
You may have drooled over the recent pictures of fleshed-out Lara Croft, Rhona Mitra in FHM and Maxim, but me, I prefer the real thing. Yes, a mere year after the original Tomb Raider shook the video games world (well, didn’t the earth move for you?), its superstar heroine Lara is back, bigger and better than ever.
It seems the silicon surgeons at Core Design have been working overtime to slice away the few imperfections and pump up the best bits. It would have been so easy to ride on the megababe Lara hype and churn out a standard sequel, but what we have here outdoes the original in every department.
Even Lara herself has gone under the ‘knife’. Not only is her body animation smoother, but she now has a more rounded figure – yes, it seems she’s finally thrown out that Jean-Paul Gaultier bra! Another neat touch is the way her long pony tail swishes about realistically as she frolics around the world.
Fans of the first game will know how agile this girl is, jumping sideways, swimming, shimmying along ledges, and rolling on the ground (ahem), but she’s got even more moves to play with this time. A midair roll comes in very handy during combat, and she can also roll 180° while underwater – a welcome inclusion as it could get a bit tricky manoeuvring through tight tunnels in the original. Most impressive, and important to the gameplay, is her ability to climb ladders and rock-face handholds – and in any direction; up, down, sideways.
The one glaring omission is that there’s no analogue joypad support – which anyone who’s played Super Mario 64 will know can be supremely instinctive. Nevertheless, Lara’s control system is easy enough to learn and largely unchanged from her first outing. Before the game proper begins, you can practice the controls in the comfort of Lara’s home with its army-style assault course in the garden and spoken directions from Lara to help you master every move. Naturally, you can go inside her beautiful house and – surely the dream of a million Lara fans – even get into her bedroom!
When you’ve calmed down a bit, it’s time for the real adventuring to begin. Somehow, as in Bond films, the plot doesn’t seem to matter very much, but if you’re interested, this time Lara (the world’s sexiest archaeologist) is searching for the Daggers of Xian, which she believes are hidden in an emperor’s palace in the Great Wall of China. Naturally they aren’t, otherwise it’d be a pretty quick game, which leads her on another trek through various scenic locations all around the world – she must do a hell of a lot of shopping on her Am- Ex card to rack up all those free air miles!
TO THE WALL
Dropped off by a chopper at the Great Wall, Lara slides down the rocks into a cavern which looks pretty similar to something from the first game, but this déjà vu is soon dispelled. Splashing into a water pool, you notice she can now wade through shallow water, as well as swimming in deeper pools. Climb up a few ledges and leap a few gaps – using the old ‘safe walk’ feature to ensure she can’t fall off the edge – and she emerges on the Great Wall itself to admire the spectacular view. Using an enhanced level editor, Core have been able to produce stunning exterior landscapes in addition to the usual rectangular rooms and tunnels.
Another thing you’ll soon notice is how challenging this first level is, including being chased by boulders, avoiding twin sets of sliding spikes, running past crumbling blocks and scything blades, not to mention tackling a fair few tigers and a roaring T-Rex! Yet this is just a taster for things to come. Core admit the game is far tougher than its predecessor, but then if you managed to complete that without cheating, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the new challenge. Games-playing novices may find it all a bit too much, though – and I’d advise them to cut their teeth on the original game first (but then who hasn’t by now?).
Ah, but where are those lovely purple crystals where I can save my position you ask? Horror of horrors, they are nowhere to be seen, but fear not, because you can now save your position to a memory card at any point during play. This excellent feature means an end to the frustration of having to repeat the same section over and over again after dying. It also puts to shame some other recent releases which have cut right down on the number of restart points – The Lost World, for one – in order to make things more difficult. Tomb Raider II doesn’t need to resort to such artificial methods: its substantial challenge is created by the clever puzzles, thrilling combat, daring platform jumping, and an incredible amount of exploration.
For the latter, Lara’s new moves really do come into play, in particular her vastly improved climbing. Add to this the ability to smash through windows to reach new areas – not to mention driving the odd vehicle, such as speedboats and skidoos – and the possibilities are near endless. Her limited movements in the original meant that you could pretty much see where it was and wasn’t possible to go, but things are a lot less signposted now – also aided by the lack of those purple save crystals which indicated you were on the right track.
There’s certainly some sort of exploring to do. As far as Lara’s concerned, size does matter: some of the 18 levels are immense. For instance, if you thought the multi-layered St Francis’ Folly was amazing in the first game, the sequel’s fourth-level Italian opera house will surely leave your jaw embedded in the floor. Ornately decorated from domed roof down through three storeys to the stage itself, the only thing missing is Pavarotti warbling away. As on other levels, what really will have you gasping in disbelief is the sheer scale and complexity. Just when you think you’ve explored every area, yet another secret passage turns up to take you into a whole new section. The areas are cleverly interlinked in three dimensions, so you often eventually emerge through a hidden door into a previous location.
Finding your way around such immense and convoluted levels can prove a headache, never mind searching for secrets. This time there are three secret statues to collect on every level, but they’re often hidden in the most inaccessible, darkest nooks and crannies. That’s another new aspect: some areas range from poorly lit to pitch black. This is where Lara’s flares come in handy; often essential. She can even chuck one forwards, if she needs her hands free for combat etc, and pick it up again later. Trouble is, her supply is strictly limited, so more need to be collected along the way. This is perhaps the only potential for frustration in the game: if you run out of flares, you could easily find yourself trapped in a dark tunnel – and even with Lara for company, that’s not a happy prospect.
Gunning down a few enemies will soon relieve any pent-up aggression, however. Lara’s aristocratic propensity for exterminating endangered species continues with a cull of the local wildlife, including tigers and golden eagles. One of the criticisms of the first game was the scarcity of the enemies, particularly on the later levels. This seems to have been addressed with plenty of animals and, in particular, lots more gun-toting humans to shoot at.
Lara starts her adventure with pistols and shotgun. Ammunition and more potent weapons can be collected throughout the game, often from dead humans, so it’s always worth searching them. New weapons include an M16, grenade launcher, and harpoon gun – for tackling underwater enemies such as sharks.
As before, however, it’s not the visceral thrill of combat which dominates, but the cerebral challenge of the puzzles and traps. Fans will be familiar with the standard lever pulling and block pushing, but it’s less formulaic, with switches to move items which you might have thought were merely decorative, such as chandeliers, paintings, and curtains. Such subtlety adds to the enjoyment and you always get a big buzz from solving a tricky conundrum.
BETTER THAN EVER
So there you have it. Tomb Raider II is an enthralling giant of a game, packed with countless delights (not forgetting the superb dramatic music) and a mammoth challenge to keep you playing for weeks on end, at the least. Some may note the lack of real innovations, apart from a few new moves and the inclusion of vehicles, but that would surely be nit-picking. Yes, it may lack the sheer impact that the original had on us and be noticeably similar, but then that’s the bane of every sequel to a milestone product. Once you’re immersed in the gameplay, you’ll realise that Core has managed to improve considerably on one of the greatest PlayStation games ever made – no mean feat. There’s no doubt that this is video-gaming at its very finest.