Monday, 23 December 2013

Looking back: Tomb Raider

Remember those first cautious steps into the dark and snowy cave at the beginning of Tomb Raider? Just after witnessing your Sherpa being eaten alive by wolves in the cutscene before? You knew, yes you damn well knew, those wolves were going be back at any given moment. Still you continued forth. Deeper into the dark and scary, yet so intriguing cave. Not even after damaging yourself on mechanical arrows, triggered by your clumsy  steps on a sinking stone switch covered in some ancient pattern. Still you continued inwards.

You encounter bloodsucking bats, viscous wolves and a huge, savage grizzly bear in the first level alone. Yet somehow, Tomb Raider just pulled you further and further in. There's something basic in human nature to explore, something most of us can hold at bay, but only for some time. Tomb Raider hit that fascination so perfectly back in 1996. Room after room, tomb after tomb and dangerous animal after another; the game put life back into your exploration genes.

What is more satisfying than finding a sealed tomb from ancient times, being the first to go down into something built by kingdoms far since fallen, and exploring it for artefacts?

The game brought out your inner Indiana Jones, yet here you couldn't blame some stupid sidekick for pressing the wrong lever or not running fast enough from a boulder. It was about doing Indiana's decisions all by yourself. Alone. This feeling of loneliness helped build an atmosphere and tension almost unsurpassed in the series to this date. Add then the incredible title screen melody and short orchestral snippets throughout the game, only used to heighten tense moments even further. Mostly though, you were simply left with the eerie quietness of abandoned tombs, occasionally interrupted by distant mechanical noises, heavy rumbling or animal sounds. I was scared hopeless at times, but still I wanted to explore every passageway and tomb to the very end.

Luckily you weren't completely alone, you always had with you, what was to become one of the most famous game characters of all time; Lara Croft. Her generous chestsize, dual wielding pistols, tight shorts and iconic turquoise top probably appealed to the many teenage boys that saw the cover of the game at their local game shop. Although Lara was modelled stereotypically, there was something refreshing with a strong, female protagonist though, and it made the game stand out from the competition. Within the time of the sequel, Lara Croft was as famous as any other game character. She was everywhere, from soda bottles to magazine covers. Lara was the new front figure for 3D gaming. Cheap sex appeal maybe, but it helped sell the game to world wide fame. Most people that actually played the games quickly forgot about this appeal and became wowed over by the fantastic game built around Lara.

Can I summarize the Tomb Raider experience? It's a difficult task. I could mention the time where you jumped out of your seat, encountering the T-Rex for the first time. Or the time you stepped into King Midas' hand and turned to gold. Or the claustrophobic feeling of not finding your way underwater after turning a lever. Or the unpredictable, hatching of creepy, human sized eggs. Or the many deadly pitfalls. Not to mention the creepy as hell doppelgänger, which I'll let newcomers to the game find out on their own what is. It's one of those games where the list of memorable and great moments is endless.

These moments weren't only the ones involving certain death but also the moments where you stood in awe at the size the game could render of large rooms, statues, or halls. All covered in old hieroglyphics and wall murals, further heightening the feeling of exploring true history. The developers wanted to make you feel like a world famous explorer and archaeologist, and they succeeded brilliantly.

Tomb Raider looks very dated by today's graphical standards, with it's block based worlds and simple textures, however some of it's showcase features remain. The caves and tombs are still eerie, intriguing and impressively large. The levels are diverse in locations and colours. The water feels somehow "right" when you swim in it, and actually holds up as one of the best games when it comes to the sensation of actually being in water. Tomb Raider one of my first moments were I thought 3D gaming was being used really intelligently, all in realtime 3D and not pre-rendered.

It might be a tricky game to understand for young gamers today, I fear they won't "get" what this game meant 17 years ago. The visuals are very grainy and dated, the gameplay has an unforgiving learning curve and the way the game simply demands that you explore without hints to progress will alienate the more impatient crowd of today. For me it still holds tons of nostalgia, and I will never forget the times I played it back in the mid nineties. Luckily for the younger audience and interested alike; there's a remake of the original released in 2007! The remake, titled TR: Anniversary, is well made and lets you enjoy the experience from 17 years ago in high resolution and much improved graphics!

All hail the queen; Lara Croft and her legendary Tomb Raider!

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