Version tested: Xbox 360
Whatever the ins and outs are of Tomb Raider: Anniversary's protracted passage to the Xbox 360 [where's my house, Eidos?], there's plenty to celebrate about this tardy conversion. First up, Eidos has been smart enough to release the game at mid-price, with most UK retailers pricing it at just GBP 24.99 for the boxed version. Interestingly, owners of last year's Tomb Raider Legend also have the option of downloading the game in four separate 'episodes', each priced at 600 points. The latter option, in particular, offers superb value for the kind of gamers who never get beyond the first few levels - but forcing Eidos to restrict sales of the downloadable version to owners of Legend seems like another of those illogical Xbox Live rules that ought to be shot in the head. Like a bear.
Apart from being able to get it on the cheap, there's another good reason for Tomb Raider fans to feel upbeat about waiting five months for a 360 version - Buzz Monkey has pulled off a solid conversion which manages to feel right at home on the format, despite the game's humble PS2 origins. No one who played the surprisingly excellent PC version should be too shocked by that fact, though, and it's this sumptuous-looking version that serves as the template for the 360 release.
Visually, it seems that the developers stopped short of providing us with the ultimate version, with a few of the graphical bells and whistles apparent on the PC version (like Lara's glistening skin as she emerges from water) shorn from this version. There's also a sense that the game doesn't really take full advantage of the 360's high definition capabilities - instead upscaling rather less ambitious resolutions, perhaps to ensure the game runs flawlessly. That the conversion team hasn't even rendered the game's front-end font in high resolution perhaps tells its own story, but fortunately, once you dive into the game itself, there's really nothing to get hung up about for more than five seconds. Tomb Raider: Anniversary might not be pushing the boundaries of visual excellence on the 360 (nor did Legend, thinking about it), but it's still a great looking game - mainly because the peerless level design throughout conjures such an eerily evocative atmosphere.
Death of a party
If you've joined the party late and are wondering why we're gibbering on about conversion quality and just want to know whether the game's any good in general, read on. Essentially, after mucking about with the series for years and ending up the frankly disastrous Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, Eidos knew it had to take the series back to basics and recapture what people liked about Lara games in the first place. The first step towards that was 2006's Tomb Raider Legend - a game with terrible combat, dreadful boss monsters, cringeworthy motorbike sections, but enough action adventure excitement overall to remind people what the fuss was about. But if Legend was the hand that saved the series from the abyss, Anniversary hauls Lara Croft back into the fray in some style.
But for all the acclaim lavished upon Anniversary this year, isn't it just a remake of the 1996 original with Legend's game engine and control system? Yes, but it's an update that just happens to work fantastically well - due in no small part to incredible level design which has barely dated in 11 years that have elapsed. Even if you played the game back when it came out, it's a game that you might enjoy even more now than you did then. Although it uses largely the exact same geometry as you might dimly recall, the way the levels play out make it feel like an entirely new game. Whatever solutions worked then, the fact that Lara's now blessed with a grapple gun changes the way you approach the puzzle fundamentals completely. No longer is Lara just pulling switches, pushing boxes and making leaps of faith, now you'll supplement those basics by swinging across gaps, running along walls, hopping daintily from pole to pole and pulling loose scenery down.
Underpinning all of this is one of the most finely honed control systems we've ever come across in an action adventure. Right from the beginning, it's a game that just feelsright, thanks, in no small part to the 360 pad itself. Even the most punishing-looking feats of athleticism are handled with aplomb by a set of simple control rules that govern the entire game - such as auto grab when you fall off a ledge, or the ability to recover easily from a slightly mis-timed jump or ledge grab. Being able to string together complex manoeuvres with confidence is part of what makes the game like this fun, and in that department, we cannot stress how much the control system has been improved since the old days. Back then, Core's tile-based approach to jumps tended to punish the player for minor slip-ups, and lining yourself up just so would invariably take multiple attempts to get right, whereas now the game gives you far more leeway, evidently reading your intentions far more intelligently. Rather than fighting against the controls and camera angle, Anniversary just lets you get on with adventuring - for the most part, but more of the niggles later.