With Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Eidos had achieved their objectives. The reboot of the venerable series had secured strong sales coupled with good reviews, and had gone a long way to reviving the reputation of Lara Croft. As they had been in the 1990s, Eidos were eager to see a follow-up. They tasked Crystal Dynamics with two parallel projects - one, a direct sequel to Legend which would see release in 2008.
At the same time, they resuscitated a concept from the Core Design era - a remake of the original Tomb Raider game from 1996. Eidos instructed Crystal Dynamics to begin work on bringing the project to completion. The next Tomb Raider game then became a product with two purposes: to act as a loose prequel to Legend on the one hand, and on the other to serve as a belated marking of ten years since the series began. For this reason the game was titled Tomb Raider: Anniversary and saw release in June 2007, only 14 months after Legend.
Anniversary represents a unique fusion of two eras of the Tomb Raider series. While preserving some of the smoothness and new mechanics of Legend, it also brings back the solitary, atmospheric adventuring and strong emphasis on puzzles from the 1996 original. The result is a game which is strikingly different to the one that preceded it and which has more of a niche audience - but which also shows just far the Tomb Raider series had come in its first decade.
Being a remake, Anniversary broadly preserves the same story and structure of the original Tomb Raider, albeit while inserting it into the continuity of Legend by having it serve as a prequel. Set in 1996, it begins with Lara being contacted by the mysterious Jacqueline Natla, of Los Angeles-based Natla Technologies. Through her henchman Larsen, Natla recruits Lara into a search for an ancient artefact, the Scion of Atlantis. Lara accepts, because her father Richard had himself pursued the Scion, and because she believes it to be a repository of ancient knowledge which may help her locate her missing mother. In this way, what was mostly a carefree adventure in the original Tomb Raider is transformed by Anniversary into a kind of family reunion quest with some shades of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Because the ancients were a thoughtless lot, the Scion is inconveniently split into three segments. The player and Lara must acquire the first in Peru, the second in Greece, and the third in Egypt. These locations each consist of four almost seamlessly connected levels, and are followed by a fourth chapter on the “Lost Island”, a surviving fragment of Atlantis, for the finale.
Looked at as a prequel and follow-up to Legend, this structure is radically different. Anniversary has just four locations, compared to seven in the previous game. Its chapters, and the game as a whole, are far longer and will take many players something like 10 to 12 hours to complete. The story is also very barebones, by comparison - with only a handful of cutscenes mostly equivalent to the ones in the original Tomb Raider. Those cutscenes may be in-engine, as opposed to dated pre-renders, but this very basic story isn’t very compelling and not a major draw to the game. While Keeley Hawes returns to voice Lara, she is seriously wasted because she has a tiny number of lines. Lacking a headset, she has no-one to talk to during gameplay which adds to the game’s very lonely feel.
The advancements to the basic Tomb Raider gameplay are mostly carried across from Legend. Lara’s movement is quite fluid, with the awkward grid system relegated to the dusty past. Our heroine in fact gets on extra addition to her moveset, the ability to run along walls in a semi-circular arc using her grapple. While that gadget returns from the previous game, the PDA, flashlight and smart binoculars are all cut, presumably on the basis that they were absent in the 1996 game. There are few fancy gadgets for Ms. Croft in Anniversary - just her guns, agility and wits against the challenges presented by the four tombs she explores.
Make no mistake - outside of the improved graphics, physics and controls Anniversary strongly resembles the original game. Lara is the only human being who appears in the game outside of cutscenes. The player will explore and tackle puzzles for hours at a time without hearing any human sounds except from Lara’s grunts, moans or screams depending on the height of the platform she has just fallen off. The warm, fast-paced and cinematic feel of Legend is entirely absent. Fans of the older games will relish this more pure tomb raiding experience, but it can be quite alienating for players with more modern tastes.
Being a largely purist Tomb Raider experience, Anniversary focuses overwhelmingly on its large-scale, environmental puzzles. This is even more true because the remake omits a lot of the travel time between puzzles; upon completing a major challenge, the player is almost immediately presented with the next one. With this structure, the puzzles obviously need to be excellent - and thankfully, they mostly are. This is Crystal Dynamics’ major achievement with the game, as the puzzles had to be heavily redesigned around the new movement and physics code brought over from Legend.
Some of the most clever and satisfying challenges employ the physics code. In the Greece chapter, a chamber themed around Poseidon, god of the sea, requires carefully raising and lowering the level of a large pool of water. By doing so, Lara can acquire and then manipulate a floating platform to reach her destination. Very often, solving puzzles requires the player to navigate around the walls of chambers, using numerous ledges and horizontal bars. This can become a bit repetitious, and becomes frustrating when combined with instant deathtraps, which become numerous in Egypt.
In the traditional sense, there isn’t much scope to explore in Anniversary. Being taken from the 1996 game, the environments are almost entirely indoors and it’s a rare treat to be able to even see the sky. Problems can only ever be solved in one linear, pre-designed fashion, but there are numerous artefacts and relics hidden around the stages which, when found, unlock various rewards. Impressively, this includes not only several alternate costumes for Lara but also a developer’s commentary track for each location. Crystal Dynamics crafted some very impressive monolithic architecture, from an underground coliseum to a pair of vast statues - one of Horus and one of Anubis - submerged in a pool of water hundreds of feet deep.
As ever, the combat and boss battles are the weakest and most perfunctory element of Anniversary. Frankly, the combat is often absurd - in the otherwise enthralling and atmospheric Greece chapter, Lara is occasionally and inexplicably beset by groups of angry gorillas. Encounters like these are an unwelcome interruption to the game’s ambience - not to mention reinforcing the feeling that Lara has an even bigger thirst for the blood of majestic endangered species than Donald Trump’s sons.
The boss fights are heavily dependent on exploiting a new feature, the “adrenaline dodge”. This is basically about provoking enemies into an enraged state, and then jumping to one side while delivering an implausibly precise shot to the head or some other vulnerable spot. It’s fair to say that if this was intended to make bosses less tiresome, it is a dismal failure. Because Anniversary does a poor job of communicating how bosses are supposed to be beaten, they tend to be a frustrating and time-consuming slog. Honestly, the game would be better if combat was omitted entirely, with Lara being left to fall to her death in peace without an assortment of vulnerable animals trying to accelerate the process.
Looked at as the middle entry in the Legend trilogy, Anniversary is a surprisingly jarring change of pace. With this game, Crystal Dynamics may have preserved their advancements in graphics and controls, and they may have updated the puzzles from the 1996 game, but they still took Lara Croft back to basics. This is a long, slow, solitary game which pits players against a large number of genuinely challenging puzzles. Like the original series of Tomb Raider games, it can be frustrating at times and the obstacles in the way of progress can seem unfair. With that said, Crystal Dynamics did a fine job of delivering a host of satisfying, and even inspiring moments.
The stripped-down, back-to-basics feel of Anniversary is a reminder of the sense of solitary adventure which made the Tomb Raider series a household name to begin with. With this game, mileage may vary based on what kind of experience players expect. As a prequel to Legend, it doesn’t satisfy because of its minimal story and an absence of Lara’s new, likeable personality. As a retro Lara adventure with a number of mod cons added on, it’s an engrossing outing.
Whichever side of the line they found themselves on, fans of the series did not have to wait long for the next entry. Tomb Raider: Underworld would boast a whole new engine, a darker tone and a bold attempt to marry new and old styles of gameplay.
The original Tomb Raider was released in 1996. A pioneering game, it did for the third-person action genre what Quake did for the FPS - showing what could be achieved with fully-3D engines and setting the stage for numerous imitators. The Derby-based developer Core Design would rise to become a British success story and the game’s protagonist Lara Croft would go on to become a gaming icon, and one of the industry’s few household names.
Inevitably, publisher Eidos were hungry for more. Over Core Design’s protests, they demanded a new Tomb Raider game each year. The studio wanted to pause, to develop a new engine and prepare Lara for more genuinely fluid and engaging adventures. Instead, they were forced by Eidos to push their engine and increasingly aged gameplay further and further each year, in pursuit of more profit. Core Design went as far as to kill Lara off in the fourth game The Last Revelation, only to be forced by Eidos to revive her. The situation came to a head with the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness in 2003. The sixth in the series, the game attempted a flawed new direction and was pushed out by Eidos in an unfinished state.
While the resulting damage to the Tomb Raider name was largely the fault of Eidos, it fell to them to try to find a way to rejuvenate the series. In 2004, they made their fateful decision and pulled Core Design from the franchise - a move which ultimately led to the studio’s demise under new ownership in 2010. Instead, another studio owned by Eidos was given the task of developing a bold reboot for the series. Crystal Dynamics, based in California and known mainly for the Legacy of Kain series, became the first American studio to handle the British icon that is Lara Croft.
Japan, 1974. It’s early spring, and the cherry blossom explodes with colour. At the golden hour, the evening sun bathes the tarmac of a road in golden light. Halfway up majestic Mount Akagi, a Lancia Stratos rally car powers up the mountain road. At the critical moment of entering a hairpin, the driver applies the brakes with perfect timing and the car - a wedge-shaped masterpiece of Italian engineering - drifts around the corner with angelic grace. As the route straightens out, the precise application of power sends the Stratos further down the ancient mountain, while a torii gate at the roadside marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. It is poetry in motion; a momentary religious experience; an automotive encounter with God.
There is a grand tradition of rally video games, stretching back into the 1980s. Released for a host of platforms, they have varied in their approach to realism and their relationship to official championships. Art of Rally is a genuinely unique take on this venerable sub-genre of racing games. Developed by Canadian outfit Funselektor Labs, it recognises the things that make rally unique and special - the mastery of its delicate technical skills, the sense of being alone against the elements and the clock, and the euphoric experience of getting a corner just right.
At its best, there’s something almost mystical about rally videogames and Art of Rally reflects and augments this with its distinctive aesthetic. The game doesn’t aspire to the mud-drenched hyper-realism of the big, triple-A rally sims. Instead it has a low-poly, highly-stylised, and beautifully colourful look. The many and various stages in Japan, Italy, Norway, Germany and Finland don’t precisely replicate real places but have an almost dreamlike quality, allied to an excellent electronic soundtrack. The near-spiritual euphoria that can come from mastering a challenging corner is not lost on Funselektor - one of the first things seen upon starting the game is a car encountering a monolithic statue of the Buddha.
My overview of Michael Moorcock’s epic Elric saga continues, and concludes, with this second part. The guide covers the eight main novels in the sequence in their internal chronological order; to catch up with the first four novels, be sure to read or listen to part I.
Following those first four books, Elric has made enemies in what remains of his Melnibonéan people, and in the powerful sorcerer Theleb Ka’arna. More positively, he has made a stout ally in the form of Moonglum of Elwher. He has won great victories, and done terrible things, all with the demonic sword Stormbringer at his side.
All of these events are factors in the stories which follow in books 5 to 8. Here, the chronology and provenance of the series becomes a bit more complicated. The four books were published out of sequence, during three decades. Confusingly, the book published first is actually the last in the main sequence. Hopefully, this concluding part of the guide will clear up the probable misunderstandings - rest assured that these are fine books, and a wild ride in the Multiverse.
By 1972, Ursula K. Le Guin was increasingly being seen as one of the most important writers of science fiction and fantasy. Following three fascinating but mostly ignored novels, the Oregon-based author and her Hainish series were brought to wide attention by The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). She had also published A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Tombs of Atuan (1971), the first two entries in her Earthsea fantasy series, to some acclaim.
While Le Guin’s career was taking off, she was profoundly troubled by outside events - specifically the horror of the Vietnam War. This would profoundly influence the fifth entry in her Hainish series, The Word for World is Forest. As Ken MacLeod put it in his introduction, the book is a “reflection on invasion, exploitation and oppression, and on the necessity and cost of resistance.”
While this description is accurate, it is also an understatement. While certainly a “reflection”, the novel is also a forceful howl of anger. Le Guin later wrote of science fiction not as a means of predicting the future, but of explaining and commenting on the present. While this process is evident in other examples of her work, The Word for World is Forest is particularly strongly suffused with the author’s feelings about contemporary events. Many of the elements of the book are analogues for aspects of the war then raging in Vietnam, and consequently the novella - only 126 pages long in the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition - feels direct and pointed. While Le Guin later regretted this bluntness, it is arguably crucial to its significance today. After all, its calls for tolerance, respect for the natural world, and fierce condemnation of colonialism are sadly as important now as ever.
Nothing looks quite like Amid Evil. Released from the murky ambiguity of Early Access into the sunlit uplands of actual completion in 2019, the fantasy shooter by developer Indefatigable has a genuinely unique aesthetic. Even moreso than its eminently solid gameplay, it is the visuals and level design of Amid Evil which elevate the game into being one of the best examples in the recent retro shooter boom.
Fantasy shooters have always been few and far between, and this means that Amid Evil is condemned to lazy comparisons with Raven Software’s games Heretic (1994) and Hexen (1996). Indefatigable’s game deserves better than to be categorised with these shooters, which have dated poorly and which did little more than port Doom into a hackneyed high fantasy setting.
That’s not to say that Amid Evil has particularly groundbreaking gameplay itself. Its movement and weapons in particular will be familiar to anyone with a cursory experience of ‘90s shooters. The game is broken up into seven episodes, playable in any order as was standard for a number of games from that era. The story, too, is barely there - the player takes on the role of the nameless “Champion”, and is tasked with cleansing seven realms of the evil that has corrupted and subverted them. It's the way the developers built these worlds that gives Amid Evil the touch of greatness.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s first three novels didn’t make much of an impact. Released in 1966 and 1967, they kicked off her acclaimed Hainish cycle but generated little notice at the time. The same certainly isn’t true of her next works. In 1968 Le Guin published A Wizard of Earthsea, which began her excellent Earthsea fantasy series. Then, in 1969, Ace Books released the hugely acclaimed SF novel with which Le Guin is most associated: The Left Hand of Darkness.
Now having sold over a million copies in English alone, The Left Hand of Darkness is regularly cited as one of the most important science fiction novels of all time. It won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel, appears prominently in numerous best-of lists, and has generated a great deal of academic attention. In many ways, this enduring success was surprising - at least to the author herself. In 2017, she wrote:
“Left Hand looked to me like a natural flop. Its style is not the journalistic one that was then standard in science fiction, its structure is complex, it moves slowly, and even if everybody in it is called he, it is not about men. That's a big dose of "hard lit," heresy, and chutzpah, for a genre novel by a nobody in 1968.”
Here, Le Guin alludes to the most famous aspect of the book - its contribution to feminism and the discussion of gender in science fiction. This is a fascinating part of The Left Hand of Darkness, but Le Guin’s books can never be reduced to just one theme. The story covers ideas about cultural difference, loyalty, political conflict, and religion. It’s a highly recommended read in and of itself for anyone interested in SF, but also rewards some prior awareness of the wider Hainish series. As Charlie Jane Anders has written, “when read and considered as a whole, Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle feels like an even more impressive accomplishment than its stellar individual works.”
Created by Michael Moorcock in 1961 with the story “The Dreaming City”, Elric of Melniboné is one of the definitive characters in British fantasy fiction. A albino sorcerer and warrior with milk-white skin and hair, Elric is a magnetic antihero - cursed with a black sword which feeds on souls and bound to serve the capricious chaos deity, Arioch. In writing the Elric stories, Moorcock consciously worked to avoid repeating the high fantasy style of Tolkien - and in so doing inspired numerous subsequent imitators of his own.
While Elric is well-known to fans of fantasy, the character might even be a household name if the series were more approachable to read. Until relatively recently, the eight main novels in the sequence could be difficult to get hold of, and while the reissues by the publisher Gollancz are very welcome, they also leave something to be desired.
The Michael Moorcock Collection is a mammoth undertaking, as it comprises no less than 28 volumes, most of them containing multiple novels. Gollancz and the mastermind of the project, John Davey, deserve a great deal of credit for making Moorcock’s work more available. Unfortunately, in the case of the Elric books very little indication is given as to reading order, or the circumstances in which the stories were originally published. Stories are inserted into odd places, and a lot of frankly extraneous material is inserted - presumably to bulk up the thinner volumes.
Because the Elric stories were written out of sequence over a period of decades, and have been republished several times, there was already a high potential for confusion. Split into two parts, this introductory guide to the books lists and introduces them in order of their internal chronology. First, though, an introduction to the Pale Emperor himself.
A network of space stations that span from Earth to deep space; rival factions in open and covert conflict; and a population of aliens and civilians caught in between. These elements and more feature in the epic 1981 sci-fi novel Downbelow Station.
Carolyn Janice Cherry published her first novels in 1976. She began using her initials to disguise her gender, as other women in science fiction commonly did at the time. In a more unusual twist, she appended an “h” onto the end of her name, in response to suggestions that the surname “Cherry” made her sound like a romance novelist. Both of the novels she published in that first year, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth, are loosely connected to Cherryh’s grand SF setting, the Alliance-Union universe.
The setting is an intimidating prospect. Between 1976 and 2019, Cherryh published 27 novels in the series, split across no less than nine sub-series, and with more underway. The books cover a wide span of time, from the 21st century out into the far future. While the books are very varied, they broadly focus on the affairs of humankind in deep space, the conflicts between various human factions including the titular Alliance and Union, and encounters with a number of alien races. To read them all would be a major undertaking - at least, as Cherryh has explained, they can almost all be read in any order.
Luckily, that means that Downbelow Station is more accessible than it otherwise might be. Published in 1981, the book is one of Cherryh’s most acclaimed - notably, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is one of the cornerstones of the wider Alliance-Union setting, but is definitely a satisfying read in its own right. This will be particularly true for fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5, as Downbelow Station is a classic, and complex, space station story.
The nostalgia for the golden era of first-person shooters started almost as soon as that era had come to an end. As early as 2001, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and particularly Serious Sam contained elements that were conscious throwbacks to earlier times. Recent years have seen a glut of retro FPS games that display their 1990s influences openly. Lately, the term “boomer shooter” has come to describe these games.
The glory days of the traditional FPS - with all its secret areas, rapid movement, minimal story, and emphasis on straightforward action - were around 25 years ago. The generation that grew up with games like Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D, and Unreal aren’t quite boomers exactly, but are of an age that might make them vulnerable to a nostalgia cycle. However, any suspicions that the retro revival is merely a blip should be dispelled by Realms Deep 2020.