Tomb Raider III
Lara's back for more: and she certainly gets it in her biggest, toughest assignment yet. In fact, this latest instalment is really five separate adventures in one. Once she’s completed the first Indian expedition, Lara can attempt the next three adventures in any order (London, Nevada, South Pacific) before finally flying out to snowy Antarctica. Each adventure consists of three large levels and, apart from Nevada, an extra stage for a showdown with the boss. It’s apparently something to do with collecting four magical artefact's nicked from Antarctica by some sailors on Darwin’s ship – we never even knew he went there. Oh well.
Silly plot aside, the varied locations show off the subtly improved graphics. New multi-coloured lighting effects SHE MOVES ME It seems Lara gets more agile with every game. She is now analogue and Dual Shock compatible: the left stick managing movement, while the right is used for looking around. It actually has no advantage over the standard digital controls, but at least they have put it in this time.
Naturally, Lara also has a few new tricks up her sleeve. In addition to her usual wall climbing and shimmying, she can now monkey-swing across some ceilings – often the only way to safely cross hazards and chasms. Lara could give Linford Christie a run for his money with her new dash move, enabling a temporary speed burst to avoid the usual spike traps and rolling boulders (where would we be without them).
Perhaps most useful of all is Lara’s new penchant for going down on all fours (ahem). Her ability to duck not only lets her crawl through vents and tight tunnels, but also enables her to sneak past some of the guards – essential when she loses all her weapons in one level.
As ever, Lara get dive into water and swim under it – remembering to come up for air every so often. We didn’t spot any sharks this time, but you might want to watch out for hungry crocs, shoals of piranha, and strong water currents washing Lara downstream. And the icy waters of Antarctica will freeze her far faster than she can drown.
Other new hazards include poisonous snakes, reptiles, and darts – if you get hit, you’ll need to use a medipack to stop the poison that continually drains your energy. Sometimes it’s better to avoid enemies rather than stand and fight, as they boast improved artificial intelligence. Laser-sighted guards can shoot Lara from afar if they spot her (using line of sight rules), while others will run off and raise alarms (mainly in the Nevada military complex) to summon reinforcements or switch on security laser beams. Even the animals are more intelligent, including cheeky monkeys who will happily make off with one of your medipacks. However, it’s not always best to shoot them (well, straight away anyway) as they can lead you to switches or secret areas. And if you come upon a T-Rex, it won’t spot you if you have the nerve to stand perfectly still (someone’s been watching Jurassic Park then) – alternatively you can throw a flare to send it off in another direction while you leg it.
As well as this more thoughtful approach to the action, there are the usual array of complex puzzles to bend your brain (and have you tearing your hair out). It’s mainly the standard Tomb Raider fare of switch flicking, door unlocking, and block pushing, but solving them still gives you a great sense of achievement. Although you’ll often get completely stuck, the solution is nearly always logical – apart from the odd well-hidden key or exit.
There’s also a greater emphasis on exploration. Most levels contain more than one possible route to follow – the harder ones leading to more pick-ups and secrets. The latter are a return to the secret areas of the first game, rather than those silly coloured statues in TR2. An added incentive for finding them is that if you collect every secret in the game, you apparently gain access to a whole hidden level. incentive or what?
Of course, there are many times when you just need to blast away for England. Helping Lara to bag tigers and other endangered/extinct species are some new weapons. The most useful (once you’ve found it) is the chunky Desert Eagle pistol, which kills the majority of enemies with a single shot. Later on, Lara gets hold of an MP5 machine gun (why didn’t they stick with the more impressive M16?) and a mighty Rocket Launcher. Oh yes! Talking of new kit, Lara changes hers for every location, including a fetching bikini top in the South Pacific and sleek black catsuit for London.
Every adventure also features a particular mode of vehicular transport. Zipping around on the quad bike is great fun – you can even practise riding it on Lara’s racetrack outside her mansion. As you’d expect, it’s great for those giant ramp jumps, for which you can rev it up and release the handbrake for a turbo start. Best fun of all is using it to run over those pesky monkeys – squish! Next favourite ‘vehicle’ has to be the kayak. Paddling down white water rapids in a South Pacific gorge is exhilarating fun and almost a separate sub-game as you battle against the currents to avoid hazards and trigger rope switches – shame they only used it for one level really. Lara also enjoys brief rides in a dinghy and some mine carts – ducking girders, speeding up to jump gaps, and flicking track switches with a spanner. And in one episode she gets to grips with a Bond-style, harpoon-firing underwater propulsion unit.
This is definitely one tough cookie of a game – noticeably harder than its predecessors. There are countless deadly traps to fall into and Lara regularly ends up impaled, crushed, eaten, and roasted. Some great set-piece action sequences include a massive drill chasing you down a long shaft – and jumping.
To make things even harder, Tomb Raider II’s option to save your position freely has been scrapped in favour of collectable Save Crystals – although unlike the first game, you can use them whenever you want. Combined with the more complex, multi-route levels and even deadlier enemies and traps, it all adds up to a massive challenge. Technically, it’s not that dramatic an improvement over the last game, but if you go back to playing the very first Tomb Raider, it seems a world apart. Ironically, it harks back to that first classic adventure in some of the ancient locations used (as well as save crystals and secret areas) with the ruined temples and the like creating a spookier atmosphere than the rather too bright (for some critics) second game. Even Antarctica is pretty chilling (well, obviously) thanks to some inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing. As ever, the atmosphere is enhanced by some excellent spooky sound FX and dramatic orchestral music.
ALL THE SAME
Despite a host of subtle improvements, there are no dramatic alterations to the classic gameplay formula. Although obviously inspired by the likes of Metal Gear Solid, the improved enemy AI isn’t quite as sophisticated or prevalent as we’d been led to expect – only occasionally do guards run off to summon help etc. But maybe it’s just as well: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Tomb Raider III may essentially be more of the same apart from a few new bells and whistles, but with gameplay as engrossing as this, perhaps that’s no bad thing. It still walks all over pretenders like ODT.
This is a worthwhile and highly enjoyable sequel that no self-respecting Tomb Raider fan should be without it.