Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness

Year: 2003
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Core Design
Genre: Action/adventure
Review Date: 8/9/03
Rating: ***

After a steady stream of diminishing sales and waning popularity, Lara Croft finally makes her debut on PlayStation 2, as Core Design's last desperate attempt to revitalize their flagship franchise. Unfortunately, the project was too large and ambitious for Core to handle, so Eidos decided to cut their losses, rush the incomplete and already late game to market, fire the head and founder of Core, and move Ms. Croft to American soil under the guidance of a completely different development team. This could bring either glory or doom to the once mighty "Tomb Raider" pantheon. Having Core lose their baby like this leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth, and I can only hope that Ms. Croft is treated with more dignity and respect in her new home.

The game opens with a grisly murder, as Lara Croft is arguing with her old friend and mentor Werner Von Croy (who abandoned her in Egypt at the end of "The Last Revelation"). Confused and disoriented from the crime, she hurriedly exits the scene and becomes a prime suspect. She also loses her magic backpack to a couple of police dogs, but luckily the French police are too dumb to figure out who it belongs to. Did she actually kill Von Croy? She must find out, as well as investigate the job that he was working on. Her quest leads her through the Parisian underworld, an archeological excavation at the Louvre, and an ancient stronghold in Prague. She also stumbles across a sinister plot to revive an ancient race of angelic half-breeds known as the Nephilim, and finds an uncomfortable alliance with a telekinetic guy named Kurtis Trent. Lara finally learns the truth behind Von Croy's death, but will she ever be able to clear her name?

The game looks and sounds great, and easily has the best production values of any game in the series. The levels are large, colorful, highly detailed, and simply beautiful to look at. Ms. Croft has also been completely overhauled and she looks absolutely stunning. Her outfits are very cute and sexy, and her motion is very fluid and realistic. Jonell Elliot's voice work at first sounds inappropriate and too young, but you quickly get used to it and begin to appreciate the personality and emotional depth of her delivery. The sound is also superb, and the game features a very moving and epic music score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Wonderful stuff.

In terms of gameplay, the biggest difference is the brand new navigation system, which ditches the grid-based character perspective movement model of the previous games in favor of a more contemporary camera perspective analog control scheme (like "Primal" (2003) or "Eternal Darkness" (2002) for instance). The controls are very cooperative for the most part, but rotating can be cumbersome and shifting camera angles can cause confusion and frustration. And for PlayStation owners, the best new feature is the ability to save your game at anytime, anywhere, and as often as you want. The previous PSX entries in the series were nearly unplayable because of the crippled save feature. Other noteable differences in the gameplay include:

    · Lara can enter stealth mode for sneaking up on unwary characters
    · Lara has punching and kicking melee attacks
    · Lara no longer uses her trademark double pistols with infinite ammo
    · The Croft Mansion is nowhere to be found (I miss that)
    · Climbing and shimmying has a time limit
    · Body upgrade system is used to unlock certain areas and objectives
    · NO FREAKIN' DINOSAURS (thank god)
    · No poison attacks
    · No vehicles to drive
    · No flares or flashlights
    · Lara's somewhat downsized chest incorporates new jiggle physics

The game has the look and feel of an unfinished masterpiece, and past the initial gloss you discover a sizeable collection of logic holes, continuity issues, performance problems, programming glitches, and half-realized gameplay mechanics. The game wants to be very dramatic and story driven, but the story elements aren't developed enough. During her time in Paris, the game feels like it wants to be "Shenmue" (1999) with a rich cast of characters to interact with and clues to follow, but these interactions tend to lack depth, feeling, and purpose. Lara's objectives are never clear, even with the aid of the new notebook feature in her inventory. The money system is completely baffling and obviously incomplete because it's never used. Lara can collect cash by pawning stolen goods at a local pawn shop (!), or by picking up infinite amounts that happen to be lying in the street, but she never actually uses it anywhere in the game. At one point she "buys" information from a news reporter, but no transaction takes place. He also sells her a gun, but her bank account never goes down and the gun never even appears in her inventory. Lara's stealth mode is never fully realized and there's rarely any reason to even bother. Camera movement is restricted in stealth mode and she can't climb ladders or shoot her gun, which makes the system rather useless. The game finally introduces unarmed combat, but Lara's melee attacks are completely ineffective and very hard to control, so there's no reason to use them. In an attempt to get around the standard "find the key to unlock the door" paradigm, the game introduces a body upgrade system which allows Lara to access new areas by gaining physical strength. Unfortunately, the system is both absurd and obtuse, and often boils down to just pushing a box around until she's strong enough to move to the next area. The inventory screen is also not fully fleshed out, and lacks the ability to select, use, and inspect items. Items that you collect disappear unexpectedly, or don't even show up at all. But the most frustrating aspect is having maps that you can't even look at. The game infuriatingly mocks you at one point when Lara says "I think this is the place. I'd better check my map." Too bad the player can't...

While the game is quite stable, it does suffer from numerous glitches and clipping problems. The worst bug that I experienced was getting locked inside of a room and having three copies of a voiceover playing in an infinite loop. Fortunately I had saved my game shortly before that. I also managed to get the camera stuck in Lara's head on a couple of occasions, which was creepy and extremely disconcerting. Other small problems add to the disappointment of the game as well, with one of the most offensive ones being the blinking corpses. Whenever you kill a foe, their body blinks for a few seconds before disappearing, which is utterly baffling. Why not fade the bodies away? That would be much more aesthetically pleasing. And since there aren't a large number of enemies in each level, would persisting the bodies be that difficult to do? There's also a glaring costume continuity issue in the game that really bothered me. When Lara walks through the door between the Strahov warehouse and the bio-research facility, she magically exchanges her long pants for shorts. That sort of blatant carelessness is completely inexcusable. And in keeping with tradition, the instruction manual also features several inaccuracies (including features that didn't make it into the game). For the record, use the SQUARE button to switch targets, not the triangle button. Square is your friend... And like many games, the screen shots on the box aren't even from the game. These are all minor issues, but they do add up, and the player shouldn't be forced to make so many concessions just to enjoy the game.

As far as the story and continuity goes, the game looks like a superbly shot, but poorly edited film. Story elements and cinematics are disjointed and lack any sort of flow. It feels like crucial elements are missing and that much more is going on in the game than we have access to. This may also explain the lack of any clearly stated objectives. The story and characters are well thought out for most part (except for the inexplicable villain at the end), and the background history of the Lux Veritatis and the Nephilim is detailed and interesting. However, for me the biggest problem is with Lara's involvement and motivations. There's a serial killer on the loose and Lara is a prime suspect, so in order to clear her name and prove that she's not a cold blooded killer, she starts piecing together a mystery and leaves a trail of innocent bodies wherever she goes. Lara turns out to be FAR more deadly and dangerous than the Monstrum, but nobody seems to care about the moral ambiguity and repercussions of her murderous acts. It's not like she's with MI-6 and has a license to kill, and most of her victims are simple security guards with no evil plans for world domination. Again, the French police remain clueless and even apathetic towards the rash of rent-a-cop and mafia murders at the hands of Ms. Croft in the streets of Paris. Even more ironic is that the supernatural beings that Lara encounters throughout the game CAN'T be killed. Only people and dogs can die, which is a sharp contrast to the previous games. Lara is mean and vicious in this game, and not the cultured and sophisticated adventurer that we've seen before. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it does seem that she's grown up quite a bit and lost a certain innocence along the way.

Mercifully, the game is much shorter and less difficult than the previous "Tomb Raider" entries. I finished it in 20 hours, which felt just about right. (I gave up on "Tomb Raider III" (1998) at about 50 hours, and I hadn't even hit the halfway mark) However, in addition to various gameplay elements that didn't make it into the game, it's obvious that the game's difficulty was seriously cranked down after the initial beta version. Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in the official strategy guide, which walks through a considerably different and much harder game. I think that easing up on the difficulty was a wise choice, since I wouldn't have been compelled to finish the game if it were any harder. While I'm a big fan of Lara Croft and I enjoyed playing the game (and it was certainly better than the live action "Cradle Of Life" film), it requires patience and forgiveness, and I don't think it's going to win over any new fans, which is what the franchise desperately needs to keep itself going.

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Copyright © 2006 Alex Smits