Version tested: PlayStation 3
The team at Crystal Dynamics got a lot right with Tomb Raider before players had even tried out a line of their code; before they'd contemplated their first ledge jump, fired off their first grapple hook, or investigated their first crumbling temple wedged deep behind the shimmering folds of a hidden waterfall.
The team got the voice right. Keeley Hawes finally gave Lara Croft a wry, charming, light sense of personality, wiping away years in which Eidos' heroine sounded like a local radio continuity announcer juggling six children, a failing marriage and a heavy migraine. Hawes brought a little warmth and wit to the pencil-thin construction, and fleshed out the character in a way that the – guess what? – tragic back-story never could.
Now I sound like a weirdo. Luckily, casting isn't the only thing the new developer worked wonders with, because the games themselves aren't half bad, either. Tomb Raider Trilogy gives you a chance to look at the full sweep of them. While Crystal Dynamics readies its latest reboot – this one will shove Croft back into her early twenties and tip her out onto a mysterious island filled with complex nut-jobs – PlayStation 3 types get to see Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld all on one disk.
It's an opportunity to chart the fortunes of a developer wrestling with an inherited video game classic as the team leads the adventurer through reinvention, reimagining, and finally a mild reworking for current-gen consoles. Far beyond the shimmery facelift that marks this out as an HD updating, then, it's a fascinating trip.
Let's get the HD part out of the way first. While Underworld's been available on the PlayStation 3 since its release in 2008, it's the first time out for Legend and Anniversary. Both games are present here in versions very similar to their HD upscalings for the Xbox 360.
They run at 720p, according to a weird pop-up in the corner of my television that I haven't been able to turn off yet, and although there might be minute differences, my fairly unscientific comparison of loading the PS3 and 360 games up, switching back and forth dead fast and squinting suggests they're pretty much identical. The only major difference I can detect is that Croft's skin appears to be – and look away, I'm about to use a technical term here – a little shinier on the PS3 version of Anniversary. Perhaps it's hotter inside a PlayStation.
Beneath all that, however, both games have held up very well anyway. The upscaling hasn't been kind to the jagged edges of shadows, but the overall art style has aged nicely, and the animation is still dazzlingly elegant as Croft swings from bars, leaps from tiny spars of rock, and falls, flailingly, to a series of entirely avoidable bone-crunching deaths.
More importantly, they've held up as adventures, too. Legend still feels like the sympathetic departure that it was so clearly meant to be, with its physics puzzles, shorter, snappier levels and fondness for modern settings, while Anniversary updates a fan-favourite itinerary with prettier environments and smarter traps.
Legend certainly seems the most interesting game. The storyline careers from one exotic hot spot to the next, while Tokyo, with its opportunities for clambering over advertising hoardings and zipping around under huge, neon skyboxes, makes for some of my very favourite Croft moments of all time.
Aside from that, the developer invented the magnetic grapple, for which we should all be thankful, and even tried to do something interesting with the series' horrible gunplay through the addition of fancy slow-motion moves and environmental assists.
Overall, it's bizarre to see Tomb Raider redesigned with things like speed-running in mind – there are unlocks and now Trophies available for landing good times through each level – and although the approach wasn't to everyone's tastes, it definitely shook the series out of its creaky middle age. It's lovely Sunday afternoon stuff, too.
If it wasn't what you were after, Crystal Dynamics tried something a little more traditional with the follow-up, returning to the very first Tomb Raider game – and, more importantly, returning to that lonely, lengthy exploration that the series was known for.
With no new friends chatting away in an earpiece, and miles of pendulum blades, misty caverns and block-shifting separating Croft from the beginning and end of each level, Anniversary's a chance to see the series' new custodians acting almost like a cover band – albeit one that's intent on putting its own spin on the classics.
It was up to Underworld to blend both opposing approaches to Tomb Raider – and to conclude the Trilogy's likeably melodramatic plotline. Aside from a slightly rushed ending and an occasionally iffy camera, the game does a pretty good job of it, offering standout set-pieces like a topsy-turvy race out of a sinking sea tanker, and plenty of moments where you're deep underground, lost to the rest of humanity, pulling switches and then listening for that familiar distant rumbling of ancient clockwork.
A handy new gadget allows Croft to move huge pieces of scenery around while the orchestral score swoops and sighs with an insistent reverence, and there are sticky bombs to tack onto sharks and an upgraded grapple to play with, alongside gymnastic animation that flows effortlessly from one wall-spring into the next.
The two DLC episodes that landed on the 360 are missing from the Trilogy compilation – a shame, as there's a puzzle in the first one that's so good it should have its own chat show - but it's still a brisk chunk of adventuring without them, even if somebody in the design team thought it was a good idea to blow up Croft Manor.
Outside of the main games, the Trilogy offers outfits for Home, a – non-dynamic – theme, and developer diaries for all three titles and two trailers for the Guardian of Light. There's also Trophy support and – a welcome addition after The Sly Trilogy – the option to quit back to the launcher from each adventure rather than exiting directly to the PS3 menu.
It's a nice collection of knick-knacks, but the games remain the real attraction. With the frantic, all-action fire-fights of Guardian of Light still burning brightly on download services, and Croft's grimier, nastier new adventure taking shape over in San Francisco, it's the perfect moment to say goodbye – for the time being, at least – to this epic, Technicolor, Saturday matinee approach to the character, and the perfect time to gauge how well the team at Crystal Dynamics fared with their first take on Tomb Raider.
And, for my money, they fared brilliantly.
9 / 10