Saturday, June 09, 2007

Happy Anniversary

Ten years is a long time - and it's even longer in the computer games business than it's in everyday life. Lara Croft has survived in this business for a little over ten years (as the original "Tomb Raider" came out late in 1996, not in 1997). That's a long time for every game character - and it's even longer for the first woman in the action adventure genre (which, accidentally, also brought the first mass interest to the genre).

But back to the beginning. When "Tomb Raider" came out in 1996, it was a large success and gave birth (more or less) to a new genre: the action adventure. "Tomb Raider" was not the first game of that type (there's, for example, "Deathtrap Dungeon", a game based on a special role-playing-book-type created by Ian Livingstone - who, these days, by pure coincidence, is a vice president of Eidos, the games company owning the "Tomb Raider" licence). But "Tomb Raider" was the first highly successful game of that type featuring a female main character (actually, one of the first games of any type featuring a female main character). Admittedly, most of the gamers were men, but men playing computer games quite often find it quite difficult to get into contact with attractive women - and here was their chance to actually control a good-looking woman.

Lara then did not look very realistic. She was extremely well developed (and would have had trouble walking straight, leave alone climb and jump like she did), but she was also very tough - and still is. For a woman with her curves (which then were a little sharp-edged because the high number of polygons necessary to create a round shape could not be processed by a computer in normal game-play at that time) she wasn't stereotypic at all. From the very start of the game (the intro sequence) the players saw Lara fight. She shot a couple of wolves (the scene is semi-automated in the new game) and climbed around in the icy heights of the Andes (dressed in shorts and a top ... but at least with boots).

And all through the game Lara stayed true to her character. She never, ever was the damsel in distress and got out of troubles by using her mind, her athletic skills and her trusted twin pistols.

I learned from the bonus-disc of the new game that the name "Lara Croft" actually came from the London telephone book. There's a "Lara Croft" listed there (or at least was in 1996) and her name was chosen for the heroine (which in the first drafts had been a man, but then she would always have been compared to "Indiana Jones" - who has, by now, become an action adventure hero as well).

Not everybody liked the idea of a woman looking and acting like Lara - and quite some of them were women. Especially after the advertising campaign of "Tomb Raider II" and "Tomb Raider III" - which worked a lot with the 'feminine' image of Lara - a lot of women just saw her as some digital play toy or even "a man with balloons shoved up his shirt". I don't really like that ridiculous description, it's pretty much like saying a man who's showing feminine traits is "a woman with a banana shoved down her pants". (Both descriptions don't come from me, the first is from an American feminist and the second is from the creator of Lara Croft.)

The series sold well right up to "Tomb Raider IV - The last Revelation", but went downhill from there. "Tomb Raider Chronicles" - the first game without a number and a sub-title since the first - didn't sell too well. As the game designers had 'killed' Lara in the end of "The last Revelation", the next game portrayed four adventures which had happened in her past, splitting up the game into four different stories told by her friends after she had been presumed dead - even though her old mentor still searched for her in the Egyptian tomb that had become her grave as well.

The game designers decided to try something new. The newly 'reborn' Lara (who was rescued from the tomb at the end of "Chronicles") wasn't sent out to find another strange artefact, just as before, she was thrown in the middle of a hunt for a killer. In "Tomb Raider - Angel of Darkness", Lara became the prime suspect in the murder of her mentor (who'd been rescuing her from the tomb). She was on the run and at the same time trying to find the real murderer (stumbling over some supernatural things even then). But the graphics weren't good, the handling and the controls were even worse and the whole game could have easily been the swan song for the series. The new idea didn't work out.

Time passed until the creators realized that they needed to go back to the roots, to sending Lara out to find a mystic artefact. In "Tomb Raider Legends" Lara went back to doing what she did best: find an artefact.

But the team had been doing a lot of remodelling. Lara looked more realistic, her body now showed muscles at the right places (and looked well-rounded, but with modern graphics cards that's not difficult). The controls have been changed and are quite intuitive, especially long chains of movements up the wall (climbing and jumping between small ledges), swinging on poles and using her new grappling hook to swing over chasms or run along walls. Everything can be done quite well now and one major problem of the first games, Lara only grabbing an edge when the player manages to press the right key at the right time, can be turned off if the player wants to (which doesn't make the game too easy, but takes away quite some of the frustration of having pressed a key a split-second too late). Within minutes the player can manage even the most difficult moves Lara makes - and at the same time the level design has become much more interesting. With the grappling hook, the abilities to swing on poles, the ability to climb ropes and poles (not new in "Legends") and various other possibilities, Lara can do so much more than she could then.

"Tomb Raider Anniversary" (and it took me two pages on my word processor to get here) is based on the same engine, giving Lara the same wide range of movements. The grappling hook has been included, too, but the light she had in "Legends" has been removed - as the levels are bright enough to work without it.

The game splits into two games, actually. There's the main game which is based on the very first "Tomb Raider" (looking for the same artefact and travelling through the same areas - although you wouldn't recognize most of them). And there's a little bonus game set in "Croft Mansion" where the player must perform almost everything apart from shooting adversaries in order to get everything working and opening the door to the gallery.

I'm not through with the main game yet - as I bought it on Friday and spent quite some time with "Croft Mansion" to get a feeling for the controls -, but I've just met my old 'friend' again: the t-rex of the lost valley in Peru. He looks far more dangerous and realistic than before - but I haven't killed him yet ... it's more difficult in the enclosed space that fight is set in now than it was in the large valley before. And I haven't managed to fully understand the Adrenalin Moves now that would enable me to kill the dinosaur quickly.

Nevertheless, from my point of view the new version of the original "Tomb Raider" is a worthy remake and fun to play.

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