|Developed by:||Core Design|
Much like Resident Evil 2, when I first started retro game reviews, this is the sort of title I had in mind.
As with Capcom’s fright-fest, I purchased Tomb Raider II on release. I had played the original Tomb Raider with Uni friends and enjoyed it immensely and so the sequel seemed like one of those games I simply should buy. But in keeping with many games from that period, I played no more than the first couple of levels before abandoning it to gather dust, turning instead back to Football Manager.
Whilst this was a common pattern in those days, the case of TR2 was a particular one. Having enjoyed the first game so much it seemed only natural that I would enjoy the sequel however I quickly became disillusioned. Whilst the game started off underground, the open Venice setting of the second level was jarring and not what I was expecting from a Tomb Raider game. Combined with an increased difficulty, I soon gave up.
And so here we are, almost 20 years later, back for another go. This time around Lara is after a fabled dagger that imbues the holder with the power of a dragon, or some other such nonsense. To be honest I didn’t have a clue what was happening from the intro movie but it all seemed like reason enough to pack my bags and go for a spot of exploring.
OMG YOU CAN SAVE ANYWHERE!!!
Er sorry, just needed to get that out of my system. Although to Tomb Raider veterans it really is a big deal. But more on that later.
Graphically TR2 is an evolution, rather than a revolution. Contours are smoother, scenery is sharper, Lara’s braid swings when she runs (a half serious aside but it does reflect a general improvement to the underlying physics). These cosmetic touches apart, it is very much as you were.
The game is still set out in a grid-like fashion, levels effectively constructed of blocks of pixels, like a great big Lego playground. Lara remains subject to the same tank-like controls and whilst you can of course sprint, jump and roll with the best of them, progress will often boil down to precise movements, carefully lined up jumps and surreptitious use of block pushing.
For all the echoes of the first game though, there are some fairly major changes in play. Whilst levels once again involve complex puzzling and platforming, this is altogether shootier. The first TR was a decidedly lonesome affair, Lara accompanied by little more than the occasional roaming beast for most of the adventure with human interaction when it did occur often feeling jarring. This time around, the world is more densely populated from the off.
The first level is classic Tomb Raider as you venture under the Great Wall of China and find yourself facing a pit of fiendish traps that require quick reflexes and lithe movements. It is a baptism of fire for series newcomers and sets the tone for a more action-centric experience. Indeed it’s not long before you come face-to-face with your first goon. Don’t stand on ceremony hoping for a deep and meaningful, give him a dose of hot lead in the belly to take home to grandma. The potential for armed threat (and snapping dog) seems to lurk round every corner and it has a definable impact on the playing experience. Luckily Lara once again comes well tooled, her trusty limitless pistols accompanied by an uzi, shotgun, machine gun and more.
The game world itself has undergone quite the transformation. Gone are the dank, dark underground tombs of TR1, replaced by the watery vistas of Venice, the snowy mountains of Tibet and the sights and smells of China amongst others. Lara comes equipped with some new moves to traverse these landscapes, including the ability to climb ladders. These more open plains see the introduction of vehicles too, the canals of Venice passing by in a blur from the cockpit of your speedboat, the vehicle injected into the solution of the puzzle to exit the level.
Combined with the additional populace, the game feels more open but initially loses something in atmosphere. The first game felt like an old fashioned treasure hunt that morphed into something more as you went. Each location helped to give you the sense of truly discovering a long forgotten ancient treasure, a tangible feeling of exploration and discovery. Second time round, the plot is vaguely outlined in the opening video but unless you have the inclination to go out of your way to read more, you don’t start out with a great sense of what you are doing and why. As a result, locations feel disconnected, at least in the opening few levels, just a series of arenas conveniently shaped for exploration, populated by faceless, forgettable foes. Take for example the early Venice levels. Tasked with tracking down the villain’s hideout, you clamber, smash and shoot your way inside only to discover a set of complicated traps and platforms. Why? This is some dude’s house, not an ancient booby trapped treasure trove. It is still fun but it seems forced, the environment tacked on to a set of cleverly designed traps rather than feeling like a natural extension of the environment. The pattern repeats in later levels. The Tibet levels are fantastic but as you make your way through the monastery, weaving past boulders, dodging traps and uncovering hidden something or others to unlock the door, you can’t help but wonder how these chaps manage to get any monking done around all these pitfalls. Although the residents do appear to be divinely impervious. Hmmm…
But this feeling soon passes as the adventure opens up, with the quality of level design coming to the fore. The underwater levels in the middle section of the game are standouts. Having found yourself at the bottom the sea through a series of inexplicable events, the next few levels play out around the exploration of a shipwreck. It is a huge area, audacious in its scope and packed with some of the trickiest and most satisfying puzzles of the game. Extra threats emerge from the ocean too as both snappy fishies and harpoon-wielding divers look to halt your progress. These open levels soon give way to the tighter confines of the aforementioned Tibetan landscape, the more restrictive space not compromising the ingenuity and complexity of the puzzles, not to mention chucking in the odd yeti, tiger and all together stranger beasts attempting to block your path.
Spending significant time recently with Uncharted brings into sharp focus how fiddly and rigid Lara is to control against her more contemporary peers. In Uncharted (and the likes of Prince of Persia for that matter) you become accustomed to sprinting round the levels, leaping across chasms, testing the boundaries of the platform with reckless abandon, safe in the knowledge that a tumble will be saved by a last gasp stretch of the finger tips to hang on. Lara receives rather less forgiving treatment. Jumps must be lined up perfectly; grabbing and pulling blocks requires you to be facing flat against the object otherwise she won’t take hold; and sprinting across platforms sees you dicing with death, drifting beyond the edge resulting in you plummeting to the ground below, Lara only clinging on if you use the more meticulous, deliberate backwards drop. The AI won’t save your bacon here, progress is down to precision, skill and reflexes.
This lack of fluidity extends to the combat. For a game so gun-ho, fireplay remains poorly implemented. Lara’s weapons will offer some assistance by snapping on to their target but there is no evolution of the system from the first game. Forget cover shooting or sniping, instead you jump up, down and around whilst holding the fire button down, occasionally running and rolling to avoid incoming fire, or just standing toe to toe until one of you runs out of bullets or health. It is clumsy and disappointingly implemented.
As with the first outing, your enjoyment of the game may rest on how satisfying you find the underlying concept. This isn’t a quick hit, each level will take you an hour or more to play through. There are action aspects to your adventure but predominantly this is a puzzle game with each level effectively a ring fenced variation on the Crystal Maze. Climb, roll, swim, push, pull and unlock your way through to the exit. There are times when you just want to get going but you know that every door must be unlocked and multiple paths explored before you can progress. As such, starting out on each new level can occasionally feel like a slog; when you look around and see five closed doors you know full well that you won’t be moving on until you have opened every single one of them. In these moments, reaching the end of the game becomes as much an exercise in grim determination to finish as it does enjoyment derived from the experience.
Whilst these are all valid criticisms, it is important not to lose sight of their context. Each is a niggle but they fall away compared to the grandstanding majesty of the adventure that unfolds before you. Convoluted they may be but the puzzles are terrific fun to work out, levels expertly designed to draw a balance between fetch and carry, exploration and action. There is a real sense of satisfaction when you finally find the key that unlocks the door that has been blocking your path, or when you figure out the sequence required to get past a particularly fiendish trap. The puzzles themselves are well pitched, usually involving logic and timing. These are not esoteric, obscure mind benders. I must confess to having dipped into an online guide here and there when my lateral thinking skills betrayed me, only to kick myself when reading the solution and realising that the answer was right in front of me the whole time. And whilst levels can occasionally feel overwhelming when you begin, the design rewards exploration, burying secrets and pick ups in hard to reach alcoves or craftily concealed passages.
There is one other element of the game that should be acknowledged and it is one that can be so easily missed. Despite the huge game world and complexity of the puzzles, throughout the entire adventure I never once found myself in an area that I couldn’t emerge from. If you find yourself stuck it’s because you haven’t figured out the solution yet. There is always a ledge to grab, a switch to pull, a block to push or an alcove to explore to find the way forward and it is a testament to the quality and consistency of the level design.
But back save system. Gone are the god forsaken save crystals of the first game whereby you could only save your progress at prescribed times meaning that you might meticulously pick your way through a tricky section only to accidentally tumble off a platform to your death and lose all your hard work. TR2 implements a ‘save anywhere’ feature which serves to remove this frustration. Given the more combat heavy nature of this sequel and the general upward tweak of difficulty, it is a welcome, almost game changing addition.
One aspect that is, thankfully, largely unchanged is the music. One of the highlights of the first game was the moment when you stumble across some hidden relic or secret area and a haunting flute melody would kick in, underlining the sense of wonder. The setting may have changed but the majesty of the soundtrack remains very much present and correct throughout and elevates the game in that subtle, almost intangible way that only a truly great score can.
- Great big levels to explore, packed with puzzles and traps
- Wider variety of locations
- Lara’s extra moveset
- The unmatched sense of awe and discovery, backed by a subtle, hauntingly beautiful soundtrack
- Being able to save anywhere!
- The return of the rigid, tank controls
- Unforgiving platforming
- Clunky combat
- Gurning cut scenes
- Slow motion climbing
Bigger, tougher and shootier, it takes everything the original did and simply does it better. More locations, more moves, more variety plus more of all the things you loved about the first game. Truly a worthy sequel to one of the defining games of its generation.
Simply put, Tomb Raider II is just great fun and I can’t think of any higher recommendation than that.
For walkthroughs, strategies, videos, guides and general background information, I heartily recommend Stella’s Tomb Raider Site, a superb, invaluable resource covering the whole Tomb Raider series.