Reviewed: August 27, 2003
Released: June 20, 2003
Lara Croft and me go way back. She was the reason I bought a 3DFX Voodoo card back in 1996 and she was what inspired me to write my first online strategy guide which in turn launched an empire resulting in the online magazine you are reading at this very moment. She’s the reason I’ve spent more than three hours of my life waiting in lines at E3 to sit on the back of her Harley to get my picture taken and she is the reason I have refuted more than a thousand email inquiries about a “nude code” for her various games.
Lara Croft is one of those gaming mega-stars that, much like her games you either love or hate. Sophisticated gamers easily dismiss the sexy action hero as fodder for sex-starved adolescents, but there is no denying the overwhelming popularity of this video vixen on a worldwide scale. After five games, several expansion packs, two blockbuster movies, and nearly a year of inexplicable delays Core and Eidos are back with Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness.
Angel of Darkness is one of those games that falls victim to its own hype. Even as early as February of 2001 the developers were making grand promises that eager gamers were eating up while cynical game reviewers stood back knowingly with the “wait and see” attitude. This was going to be Lara’s first new adventure on the then, relatively new PlayStation 2. Promises of a completely redesigned game engine, no more sector-based gameplay, higher polygon models, rich detailed textures, and more in-depth story and gameplay were exactly what the public wanted to hear, but how much of this grand vision actually came through into the final product?
Well, the game engine has been overhauled, updated, and finely tuned but there are still unmistakable traces of the original design left intact. Controls have been severely modified and not necessarily for the better. The visuals, sound, and storyline are exceptional and deliver everything the designers have been promising, and the introduction of a new secondary playable male character is a bold step forward for a franchise that has previously relied on a single female lead.
First and foremost, Angel of Darkness tells a story. Previous Tomb Raider games have also told a story but these have been merely the most basic of premises to justify a dozen or so levels that Lara needed to conquer to obtain rare artifacts. This time, the story is much darker and realistic. Lara is suspected of murder and is on the run from authorities. Stripped of weapons you must rely on cunning and some hand-to-hand fighting skills early in the game as you try to solve the underlying mystery and clear your good name. Without a doubt, this is the finest example of storytelling in the history of the Tomb Raider franchise, both in content and quality of the cinematics.
When the movies are over and you are put in charge of our heroine is when things start to get a bit ugly and all too familiar. The biggest change that will immediately hit you is the new control scheme, which is just downright awful. Millions of gamers have gotten used to playing this game a certain way for six years now and Core up and changes the entire mechanics of the gameplay, and despite promises of user configuration in the manual, you are stuck with the hard-coded controls.
Previous Tomb Raider games have all been sector (or grid) based. Even though they were invisible to the gamers’ eye, programmers created the levels using a complex system of squares that controlled Lara’s movement within the world. While this may seem limiting it was never a gameplay issue and it made the games perfectly suited to the precise nature of the digital D-pad controls. Even when Lara made her way to the Dreamcast the analog stick was still sending Lara digital “move” and “don’t move” signals.
The precision of the Dual Shock is still not realized, even in this latest title. To get Lara to run you must mash the stick fully forward – anything less will result in a walk. After a few hours of playing I had a crescent-shaped indentation in my thumb from exerting so much pressure on the stick. The lateral control is extremely twitchy resulting in difficult turns and rotations which usually end with a missed jump, long fall, and premature demise. I worked and worked at becoming skilled with her new controls and even after 20+ hours the game still doesn’t feel right.
Core has also dumbed-down some of the controls. Interaction with certain objects is now handled automatically based on your position. If you want to vault onto that dumpster simply walk into it but you had better be “exactly” in the trigger location and facing at a perfect perpendicular angle or the animation and the move won’t happen. This means you will find yourself trying to make subtle directional tweaks with an already twitchy control system.
Despite the clunky controls, Core has added a whole new set of moves to Lara’s repertoire. Some are merely enhancements to previous moves such as the new ability to shimmy around corners while others are entirely new like going prone and crawling. Her climbing abilities have been improved and expanded so she can climb a wider variety of textured surfaces and her monkey swing has been enhanced with the ability to go hand-over-hand across ropes. Naturally, the designers have made sure to include plenty of environmental challenges to put all these new moves to good use.
Gone is the training level in the mansion. You now receive on-the-job training beginning from the moment the police dogs knock you through that second-story window. You’ll learn all of Lara’s new (and original) moves as you are walked through a progressive series of challenges that take you from the alley to the rooftops of Paris. It is here where you will quickly learn if this is the game you have been waiting for ever since you finished Tomb Raider: Chronicles.
I’ve been talking a lot about controls but only because in a game such as Angel of Darkness, control is paramount to the gameplay. Core continues to use the clunky grid system – yes they keep trying to bury it deeper but it is there – and the new auto-trigger function that has Lara interacting with the environment to climb, vault, etc. is hit and miss. Many of Lara’s moves including her cool stealth ones now feature lengthy animations where control is literally taken out of your hands for 1-3 seconds at a time. This totally breaks the pacing and flow of the gameplay when you push into a window or attach to a ladder or vault onto a ledge then watch as the game performs the action for you.
Control issues aside, there are more problems lurking in Lara’s latest adventure. Angel of Darkness is more about exploration and adventure this time with acrobatics and combat taking a definite backseat. For much of the game Lara is limited to her new martial arts skills, and while hand-to-hand was tremendous fun in the latest Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb game, it just doesn’t come across nearly as well with Lara. Combat is sluggish and Lara doesn’t have a huge variety of moves or combos. When you finally do get a weapon in your hand the auto-targeting will give you advance warning of approaching enemies, often before you would otherwise be able to see them.
Not that the enemies would even try to avoid you. The AI in Angel of Darkness (or should I say lack of AI) is stupefying. They charge at you in a blind berserker rage, but then why not since they can withstand incredible amounts of damage before going down. Even the boss fights aren’t that impressive or difficult, relying on the tried and true model of memorizing patterns, locating weaknesses, and dancing around firing weapons until dead. Yawn.
Ah, but this is an adventure game so action isn’t that important. So let’s look at those puzzles. Many of the puzzles are reliant on Lara’s new RPG-like abilities. By performing various actions you can increase Lara’s strengths in her arms and legs. I suppose this was a good idea on paper but it really failed in the execution and ultimately forces you to perform a bunch of mundane tasks before you can get back to the game. Imagine if you wanted to move your TV from one room to the other but you first had to go to the gym and workout for an hour. Quite often you will come to an action puzzle and find you are not “skilled” enough to tackle it.
Action puzzles are only half the formula. We have the traditional adventure-style conversations where Lara is now able to pick from a menu of topics to lead the conversations in various directions and obtain useful information. There are plenty of item gathering and manipulation puzzles but many of these seemed forced as there are often simpler and more logical solutions staring you (the gamer) in the face that Lara is apparently oblivious to.
And what of Kurtis Trent, this new co-star who attempts to steal our valuable “alone time” with Lara? Things don’t really get a whole lot better on those few occasions you play as Kurtis. He has a limited sub-set of Lara’s moves and a few tricks up his sleeve like the FarSee ability that shows him sections of the upcoming level. This is his version of Lara’s stealth move. Kurtis’ levels are more focused on combat, perhaps to balance the reduced level of combat in Lara’s levels. Often it seems as if he were added for the sake of being able to list a new playable character on the features list.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you about the crashes, bugs, and glitches…OH MY! First of all the framerate is horrible (but more on that in the next section), but what is really distressing are the overly abundant amount of crashes and system lock-ups that will have you resetting your PS2 and replaying parts of the game over and over again. There are also plenty of scripting bugs that will have doors closing prematurely or triggering other events that result in an unwinnable situation forcing you to the load screen once again. For a game that was supposed to have released almost a year ago, there is no excuse for a game with this many bugs. One has to wonder what the designers and game testers were doing this past year.
Much like the gameplay, graphics are a love-hate scenario. Overall, the graphics in Angel of Darkness are stunning until you start to move Lara or the camera. The game is plagued by horrible framerates, especially in the more complex levels or when inclement weather creates rain and fog. Spinning the camera around Lara will result in a jittering effect that will have you reaching for a paper sack.
The levels are built around two real-world cities, Paris and Prague and the attention to detail and architecture is spot-on. You explore authentic city streets, museums, sewers, and even a creepy graveyard. The level of detail is truly breathtaking which might factor in to the inexplicable framerate problems where the game will sudden turn into a slideshow and Lara is the only one on the screen.
Interiors are just as well designed, architecturally thought out, and finished off with detailed textures. Unlike the outdoor levels, these are a bit more stable in the framerate department and are considerably more fun for that very reason. There are plenty of exciting environmental puzzles that will test many of Lara’s new and original abilities.
Lara herself has been updated with thousands of polygons smoothing out her voluptuous figure. Her makeover includes a new wardrobe that is more functional than fashionable. She now sports some hip-hugging blue jeans (sorry – no low-riders) and a nice jacket early in the game. Later she will pour herself into a wetsuit but for the most part, gratuitous skin is out and realism is in. Lara also has a bit darker attitude, what with being a suspected murderous and all. This is reflected in both her conversations and her new facial appearance, which has her looking slightly annoyed most of the time.
There are plenty of special effects but these are mainly of the environmental type including haze, mist, weather, lens flares, heat distortion, and some good liquid and water textures. Lighting is particularly nice with multiple light sources, shadows, and reflections. Everything shares a unified color palette, which means characters, and objects blend with their surroundings. Nothing looks unnatural or out of place. One nice touch is that all of the items with which you can interact are now highlighted with that little glimmer effect to help them pop off the background scenery.
The sound follows the same hit and miss pattern as the rest of the game. On one hand you have some of the most amazing music you can imagine. The London Symphony Orchestra delivers a stunning score that grabs you from the opening menu and carries you throughout the entire adventure. It creates mood, tension, and total atmosphere.
Sound effects are disappointingly minimal yet they manage to get the job done. There is a surprising amount of speech in Angel of Darkness, at least when compared to other Tomb Raider games. The quality of the speech and performance of the voice actors is very professional but the content is often a bit campy and even forced at times. Even when presented with multiple conversation paths, it seems that you are ultimately led to the desired results. There are plenty of authentic English, Czheck, and French accents that really give the game some added authenticity and place it firmly in its European setting. Everything is presented in a spatial 3D surround sound thanks to a wonderful Dolby Digital mix.
Lara is a mixed blessing. There is no denying the sexiness of a proper female English accent and Jonell Elliott performs the voice of Lara perfectly, conveying all of the emotion and newfound darkness of the character. What did grow incessantly annoying was the abundance of non-speech noises coming from our heroine. Between the screams, moans, grunts, and other noises Lara makes, anyone not watching you play the game will think you are watching an adult film. It’s humorous at first but it wears thin near the end.
One trip through Angel of Darkness will take you anywhere from 15-20 hours depending on your learning curve for the new controls, your overall adeptness at these games, and how many times you get “busted” by a system-locking bug and forgot to save forcing you to replay your last hour. It won’t take more than one of these lock-ups to send you to the save screen every 15-minutes or so. And make sure to save in multiple slots otherwise a scripting bug could render a single save file worthless forcing you to restart the entire game.
Unlike previous Tomb Raider games that presented you with a handful of secret items, areas, or unlockable bonus content, there is nothing here beyond the core game (no pun intended). There are no branching paths, multiple endings or any reason to replay the game anytime soon after your first pass. The game is a bit longer than your typical rental but with all of the glitches and the quirky new gameplay you might want to try before you buy.
For several million of you out there, there is nothing I could possibly say to keep you from buying this game and you are the people who will undoubtedly enjoy it regardless of its faults. For anyone less dedicated or those who have always wondered about the Tomb Raider hype and were thinking about jumping into the franchise with this title, be warned.
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness attempts to make several bold steps forward in both gameplay and immersive story design. While it nails the story aspects perfectly there is still just a bit too much of the old Tomb Raider showing through the seams. A lot of previous issues have been patched but nothing has been truly fixed, and at the end of the day we are left with an overly ambitious game that falls short of it’s own aspirations and the capabilities of the platform.
Editorial Note: Between the time I received this game and the posting of this review Eidos has announced that Core Design is no longer responsible for the Tomb Raider franchise. Crystal Dynamics will be developing the next installment in the ongoing series. We wish you luck.