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.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.