Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness Review

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Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Core Design

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

She's back, and so are her friends. Oh, you know what we're talking about, you saucy lad. Lara runs, jumps and shoots her graphically-enhanced way through her latest adventure. What else do you need to know?

Carrie Gouskos

The Tomb Raider franchise debuted in 1996 as a pioneer of the 3rd person action/adventure genre, and has since relied on the popularity of one Miss Lara Croft to propel the series into the mainstream. Today, you may be more familiar with the Lara Croft models, Angelina Jolie's portrayal of the character in the movies, or any of Lara Croft's other (ahem) assets than any of the more recent games. Truthfully, no Tomb Raider game can even be considered recent anymore, as three years have passed since the last installment. But here we are with a brand spanking new title – is it worth the wait?

It's difficult to gauge popular opinion of the entire Tomb Raider series, but most people are willing to concede the merits of the first two games. I personally have a love/love/hate/hate/hate relationship, respectively, with the five preexisting Raiders. The first game in the series was a fresh, novel adventure game that suffered from awkward controls and an unfulfilled Indiana Jones complex. The second was much more intricate, leaving behind the (wo)man-versus-nature feel of the first but keeping the eccentric control scheme. The last three were a blur. The story went for a loop – from an ambiguous Laracide to childhood flashbacks. The controls were still bad. I have to stoop to saying the opportunity for creative camera angles was the most marked improvement.

The people at Core made a lot of promises for Angel of Darkness, promises that, if fulfilled, would have helped justify their rather creative timetable. Most notably, Core assured Croftists that the controls would finally undergo a complete overhaul. They also wanted to update the series with increasingly popular game features like stealth mode, multiple characters, and modern environments. Lara herself would take on the darker, more gritty aspects that Angelina Jolie portrays in the movies. While they succeeded in changing the mood and scenery of the Tomb Raider series, the controls and gameplay remain frightening spectres of past excavations. The finished product is a game with all the awkwardness of a typical Tomb Raider title, yet none of the familiarity.

As the game begins, Lara Croft is having it out with her old mentor Werner Von Croy. Shots ring out, Croy falls, and Lara, appearing the obvious culprit, must run from the enclosing police, find proof of her innocence, and avenge Croy's murder. The hotly pursued Lara leaps and bounds through a series of alleys, eventually finding herself face to face with a machine-gunning helicopter. This dramatic opening sequence showcases the interesting new developments in Lara's psyche and physical character. The former good-girl archaeologist is now a perceived bad-girl with a questionable recent history, and the result sets the foundation for an interesting story. The opening is also our first hint that the game will be set in a completely different environment than prior adventures. Gone are the familiar tombs, which begs the question (for some more than others), what will she be raiding? This is answered soon enough as the storyline evolves comfortably into a tale of stolen artifacts and a secret cult that must be stopped from enacting an ancient ritual. If this were not enough, it begins in Paris, currently a hotbed of surly thugs and stalking ground of a gruesome serial killer. All in all, the storyline is engaging enough to keep a level of interest that would otherwise be dissolved by the game itself. Frequent cutscenes allow the story to unfold quickly and give the game a cinematic feel. Newly introduced in most dialogues is the ability to select Lara's response, directly effecting her relationship with the person she's speaking to. The wrong answer often has serious consequences, so save your game often before striking up a conversation.

The first taste of actual gameplay demonstrates some major flaws. Primarily, any changes to the control system are unnoticeable (remember that solemn promise?). Traversing over high-altitude areas will lead to numerous deaths if you're not careful, or breathe on the controller, or try to cancel out of another screen, or look at the game funny. And while it's the same blocky turning and rigid platforming that we know and "love," the control system no longer embraces it. Pulling off the simplest maneuvers requires significant premeditation, preparation, and preservation, the latter in the form of saving, lots and lots of saving. Fortunately, of all the controllable aspects of the game, Core provides an intuitive camera system via the right analog stick that can be manipulated in first- or third-person. Some of the sudden switches of perspective are disorienting, but until video games are seamless three-dimensional virtual reality, cameras will always be much easier to get wrong than to get right. Here, it's right.

Despite the numerous delays, the three year hiatus, and the fact that work wasn't done on major elements like the controls, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness was still released too early. It's full of bugs, and not just simple graphics glitches – the game is destined to crash at least once during an extended sitting (two hours or so). The framerate hovers somewhere between slideshow and so-few-I-can-count-them when in large areas or around weather effects. The controller reconfiguraton option mentioned in the manual didn't even make it into the game!

The gameplay feels similarly rushed and unfinished. In one instance, Lara drops from a railing into a secret area. Apparently she wasn't intended to go that way, because she dies from the fall. That'd be fair, except that she can survive an "intended" fall from much higher! Holding the walk button to ensure you don't fall off a ledge is not foolproof – but it's supposed to be. Which of your actions unlock which doors and levers can be a guessing game, if you can actually pinpoint the actions themselves, though that might be a nice way of saying that whether you can interact with an object or not often seems completely random, including the presence or absence of the "interact" icon. My best advice: take nothing that any similar game has done for you for granted.

If only it ended there. While Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness is sloppy even for a Tomb Raider game, it also lacks many features that have become industry standards by now. Most apparent of these is that when Lara Croft finally gets into a gunfight and dispatches the enemy, he falls to the ground... now wait a few seconds... his body begins blinking... and then disappears. Like in Double Dragon. For the original NES. With the advent of 128-bit game systems, one should never have to see a flashing corpse ever again. Even basic things such as an interactive or destructible environment are seldom to be found. Despite the enormous levels, there is no sense of reality or freedom – just stiff environments that match the stiff controls and character response. While getting shot at, there is little to indicate what is going on except that Lara Croft convulses on the screen and soon crumples into a heap. Enemies run into walls as well as each other and appear or disappear at will.

Some of the newly introduced elements partially rescue Angel of Darkness from its shortcomings, but not enough to resuscitate it. The stealth aspect could have provided an interesting contrast to standard adventuring, but is not developed enough to even merit its use, let alone putting it on par with any of the recent stealth-based games. The additional character, Kurtis Trent, offers a more complete gameplay experience, but doesn't match the depth of the multiple character systems in Resident Evil Zero or Primal. The most interesting new feature requires Lara to do a certain amount of strenuous activities in order to build up enough strength or durability to accomplish certain tasks. For example, pushing certain boxes will increase leg strength enough to kick down a door revealing secret powerups. Lara's arm and grip strength can also be built up.

So it seems that the long wait was for naught. Core has yet to oil their squeaky wheels, and it's now painfully clear that they're only further discrediting the Tomb Raider license with each new addition. While in the past we loyal few have stuck by the series, clinging to what originally made it innovative and fun, there is little to hold onto after what is now four poor sequels. If curiosity gets the better of you, give this game a rental, but don't cancel any plans to make time for Angel of Darkness, one of the poorer games to come out this year.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 15, 2003 4:58 PM.

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