I should, first of all, make it entirely clear that I did not play any of the "old-school" Tomb Raider games. Since the series' debute on the PlayStation back in 1996, I basically ignored the entire franchise until just recently, when Tomb Raider: Legend released last year. There were a few reasons I didn't play the original few games, including the fact that I didn't own a PlayStation. Also, I kept hearing that the series just got worse and worse as time marched forward. So when I read a Game Informer review of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, in which said game was essentially blown through an elephant's digestive tract (read: it sucked), I was merely unsurprised. But then an amazing thing happened. Crystal Dynamics, most famous for its Legacy of Kain series, snatched up the license from Core and rebuilt the game. I followed, with some interest, the previews and cover stories that followed the development process of Tomb Raider: Legend, which promised to rebuild the franchise from the ground up. When awesome-looking screenshots and a very attractive female lead began springing up on the interweb, I became more inclined to try the game out.*
*I'm a sucker for an attractive female lead.
So anyway, I was at GameStop last year around the time Tomb Raider: Legend hit shelves when I was selling some games for credit. I almost left without getting anything, but I remembered seeing a review of Legend that said it was a great game. At just $20 (used), I couldn't really say no. I played Legend for ten days straight, found all the items and unlocked all the costumes and art galleries. I loved it. What made it so great was the physics-based gameplay. The puzzles and exploration were all based on real-world physics. Lara Croft wasn't superhuman--she was just extremely nimble. But if you screwed up, Lara generally died.
So I liked Legend. There were a few spots that could've used some cleaning up, but overall it was a great game. So I was basically first in line to buy Tomb Raider: Anniversary when it came out last month. What made me excited about the title (moreso than simply getting to play more Legend gameplay) was that Anniversary is a remake of the original 1996 game, which I of course missed out on the first time. Anniversary is a much longer game than Legend was, and features a lot more puzzles and varied environments. Sure, in Legend, you trekked through a good variety of places. But none of them were especially connected. In Anniversary, you go through several "stages" at a time, without pausing in between. The four stages in the Peru level, for example, later make up levels on their own during Time Trial mode.
The gameplay is essentially similar, but everything is on such a grand scale this time around. In one gigantic stage, for instance, you must traverse a giant vertical shaft while trying to figure out how to get into four neighboring doors on an ascending wall, each of which leads to a perilous trail wrought with puzzles and monstrosities, in order to obtain four keys to unlock the big door at the bottom of the pillar. And that's not even the most complex stage in the game.
The combat could use a tweak or two, sure, but it doesn't break the game. You basically lock on and shoot, although if your opponent becomes enrages, you can dodge (at the right time) and shoot their skull (at the right time) to initiate a one-hit kill. That's kind of cool, and it's an essential part of boss fights, but overall the combat is not what keeps you playing. Instead, it's the constant sense of "how the heck do I get up there?" And to help her get around, Lara has a few new tricks up her sleeve including a wall run with the help of her magnetic grapple.
There are a few places where the game stumbles, however. In Egypt in particular, the physics engine is actually your worst enemy. Wall-running is great, but there is a certain section you've got to be lighting fast with your button presses because Lara's falling, and there's a grapple point, and you'd better hit that Square button right now or else you'll die. Or...worse. Worse? What could be worse? There are other times where you'll fall down to a lower level of a puzzle room from a higher level and, in doing so, activate a checkpoint. So if you die, you don't start up top, but down below. There were a few times where I wanted to kill somebody because I kept falling down and having to do the same darn room over again. And then there are some just unfair parts of the game, like having to activate a timed route but also having to fight off flying, overpowered mutant demons.
The unlockables make it all worth it, though. There are tons of art galleries, music tracks, lots of costumes from (apparently) previous Tomb Raider games, a fun "Croft Manor" bonus level that's basically one big puzzle (find this to unlock this which opens this which leads to this...you get the idea). But, in my mind, the best unlockable is the commentary for various stages. The original Tomb Raider creator and the director of Anniversary gab about the remake and how the game has changed since its original conception. I'm a huge fan of commentary tracks, so to see one in a video game is awesome.
So if you're in the market for a good PS2 game (in the system's last days) or Windows Vista game (which has cleaner character models), this is a great platformer. It's a thinking man's platformer, dammit, and that's why I like it. Next up: Odin Sphere!