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.
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.
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.
There’s another world, parallel to our own - one made up of hidden or decayed places, built by people but used only by a few or abandoned altogether. We are separated from it by a few metres of concrete when we walk the streets or use a subway; it’s just above or below us in the mechanical floors of hospitals and universities; we can see it in the empty industrial buildings visible from canals or from moving trains. These kinds of spaces are all around us, and yet rarely seen. Some, like steam tunnels, are the blood vessels that keep towns and cities alive. Others, like the ruined factories of Detroit, are the parts of the urban landscape abandoned by people and capital and left to fall apart.
These eerie locales have a grip on the imagination of many people, not least the urban explorers who venture into and photograph them. They also have a powerful hold on fiction, which often imagines a life driven out of the light by some catastrophe and into the dark places, often underground. This trend has been particularly strong in videogames, where the hidden and decaying areas of cities provide a venue for post-apocalyptic struggles. Numerous games have mined this territory, but few have done so as effectively as the 2010 survival first-person shooter Metro 2033.
Hostile Waters has both an unusual premise and unusual gameplay. It is a war game set in an utopian world that has abolished war altogether; and it is a strategy game in which the player is not limited to giving orders, but can actually directly control units on the battlefield. In both its story and its gameplay, Hostile Waters requires players to re-learn war.
Like Populous: The Beginning, Hostile Waters was the product of a veteran British games developer entering its final years. The similarities don’t end there - Hostile Waters also failed to receive the recognition it deserved upon release in March 2001 - at least from consumers - and sold poorly. One likely reason is the lack of multiplayer, which was to be added in a patch which never saw release. While not much discussed even today, Hostile Waters has been called “one of the best games you’ve never played”. This minor cult reputation is built on the satisfying combination of those two key elements - the game’s unusual story, and novel gameplay.
By 1998, Bullfrog Productions were one of the most successful, innovative and respected games development studios in the world. With games like Syndicate (1993), Theme Park (1994) and Dungeon Keeper (1997), the British studio had built a reputation for creative and original releases, known for their humour and novel game mechanics. However, dark times lay ahead. The company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts and the departure of co-founder Peter Molyneux to found his own studio would endanger the company. Within a few years numerous projects would be cancelled, and Bullfrog would be gone, absorbed to become just another cog in the EA machine.
Despite these ominous signs, 1998 saw the release of one of Bullfrog’s most important, and sadly underrated games: Populous: The Beginning. The game is a unique hybrid of two distinct gameplay styles: the god game, which Bullfrog had pioneered with the original Populous in 1989; and the real-time strategy, which was then enjoying its first major boom of popularity in the mid- to late-1990s. While The Beginning is primarily an RTS, it draws significantly from the Populous series, to which it serves as a loose prequel. While the earlier games put players in the role of a mighty god overseeing the advancement of a human civilisation, The Beginning has them guide a powerful shaman struggling to achieve godhood. While at the time critics were muted in their response to the game - frankly confused by its radical new gameplay style - Populous: The Beginning is an extraordinary strategy game, easily one of the most unique and engaging ever made.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a golden era for strategy and management games of all kinds. Whether you wanted to build ancient Rome, fight your own version of World War II, or establish colonies in another star system there was at least one game to suit your purposes appearing on the shelves. One way for developers to compete in this crowded market was to combine and hybridise strategy genres - as British developer Firefly Studios did with their first game, the enduring success Stronghold.
Firefly were well-placed to advance the fusion of city-building and real-time strategy gameplay. Their founders, Simon Bradbury and Eric Ouellette, had both worked for the successful developer Impressions Games, which had been acquired by Sierra in 1995. There, they had worked on the successful Caesar series of city-builders and the medieval strategy series Lords of the Realm. These would each be a strong influence on Stronghold, which was developed in a single rented room in South London and eventually released by Take 2 Interactive in October 2001.
The sudden and unexpected announcement of a new XCOM game provoked a wave of speculation. Fans of the series, which was rebooted to tremendous success by Firaxis in 2012, pored over the trailers. Chimera Squad was variously described as a sequel, a spinoff, a testbed of ideas for a forthcoming XCOM 3, and even as a "glorified DLC".
The wait to find out was not long, however, as the game was released just days later on April 24, 2020. Chimera Squad turned out to be a very interesting prospect indeed. Just as the heroes of this new entry in the series are a mix of human, alien and hybrid members - hence the title - the game itself is a strange mix of familiar and new elements. This remixed formula is mostly successful, and should appeal to a hybrid audience of XCOM veterans and newcomers to the series.