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.
Stick to the plan
Another thing all long-term Lara fans will be grateful for is that Crystal Dynamics resisted the temptation to shoehorn in all manner of unnecessary extras, such as more combat or extra narrative sequences as some sort of concession to modern trends. In terms of atmosphere, the team has recaptured the hopeless isolation of a lone explorer, carefully exploring its complex innards with wit and athleticism. It's a deliberately lonely game, with only the odd bear, bat, or lion to do battle with, and it's all the better for sticking to the platform puzzling elements for the most part. The best Tomb Raider games always used combat sparingly, and that ebb and flow between painstaking gymnastics and taking out some giant mythical beast gave the game a wonderful quiet-loud-quiet dynamic.
The one major concession to modern Quick Time Event (QTE) trends, unsurprisingly, doesn't really work that well. Every major game under the sun seems to have them, presumably because they allow developers to pull off really dramatic action sequences with crazy camera angles without the need to worry about control nuances. By simply reducing player input to a series of Simon-Says button presses, anything's possible in the world of interactive cut-scenes. The problem with them in Tomb Raider: Anniversary is that not only are they brainlessly easy to follow, they reduce some of the most iconic sequences in gaming history (in particular, the discovery of the T-Rex) to a series of button presses. The action that follows the QTEs often makes up for this tedious approach to framing the action, but we can't be the only people to see them as a negative addition to the series. It is perhaps just as well they represent a tiny fraction of the game, then.
Another modern addition that does work reasonably well are the Rage Attacks. Basically, when enemies get pissed off at Lara shooting at them, they charge at her in earnest - but for a split second the screen blurs and allows you to perform an Adrenaline Dodge by hitting the left stick in any direction and hitting B when prompted. If you pull it off, you go into slow motion, and two targeting reticules appear from opposite sides of the screen. If you time your shot at the point of their convergence, you can pull off a headshot and take off an even bigger chunk of damage than usual. Quite often, these tactics become absolutely essential during boss encounters, and add a palpable degree of skill and tension to these already fairly dramatic sequences. Put it this way, compared to some of the frankly dire 'circle-strafe and fire' boss sections in Legend, the ones in Anniversary are leagues ahead in variety and execution. Evidently someone was listening.
As for the more sedate portions of the game, as we keep saying, Anniversary is generally a hugely absorbing exercise in poking your nose in where it's not wanted...retrieving odds and sods, bits of broken mechanisms, and giving a big switch a big yank when it's all done to open up another big door to another dusty, ornate, deadly tomb. It might well be the least original blockbuster game released all year, but with big, lonely, platform-action adventures now curiously out of fashion, it feels fresh by virtue of being different to almost everything else cluttering up the shelves.
Unfortunately, as with Tomb Raider Legend, the game goes briefly off the boil towards the end - as if playtesting efforts perhaps weren't quite as focused on the climax as they might have been. How else do you explain the patently ludicrous difficulty spike that spoils the penultimate level? Admittedly, a smallish percentage will ever get to that point on level 13 to ever reach the painfully exacting sequence of wall runs and jumps and winged demon fighting that we refer to, but it takes the shine off what is, until that point, one of the most satisfying and enjoyable games of the whole year.
Of course, one added incentive to see the game through on the 360 is the curious added lure of Achievement points. But however much of an achievement it might be to get through some of these fiendish levels, Anniversary is probably the most tight-fisted 360 game since FEAR, and will require a serious investment of time to prize those 1000 points from its cold dead hands. Unlike Legend, you don't just get points for merely finishing levels, but actually have to find all the artefacts in any given level to even qualify. Further punishment is meted out on players by ensuring that extracting the rest relies on hugely taxing 'speed runs' - which is, obviously, the complete opposite approach to scouring for treasure. If you play it normally - i.e. taking your time finding treasure, but probably not being thorough enough, you'll end up with barely any points at all. Replay value or just being mean?
For the price, and for the quality of offer, Tomb Raider: Anniversary is easily one the best games released all year. Blessed with an excellent control system and chock full of masterfully designed levels, as far as puzzle-based action adventures go, there have been none finer for years. Sure, it's only a PC port, and doesn't have the lavish production values of the biggest titles currently out there. But if you can get beyond such trifling gripes, you'll find a game rich with intrigue and as satisfying a set of challenges you could ever wish for. Now, let's have a proper next-gen Lara game, please Eidos.
9 / 10