Tomb Raider: Anniversary PSP Review

May 30, 2010 by  
Filed under PSP, Reviews

Tomb Raider ain’t all about the boobs. You know this, I know this, any gamer worth his salt knows this. Ignore the pixellated buttocks and painfully tight shorts- Tomb Raider is about those breathless few seconds as you leap into the dark air, praying that the ledge you stretch out your fingers for isn’t just a seam in the rock face, or the rush of wonder as you crawl out of a tunnel to discover a vast, crumbling and long-forgotten city. Tomb Raider is about awe, loneliness, determination, sanctity and giant rolling boulders.

Sadly, this is not the Tomb Raider memorialised in the popular imagination. Over the course of her eleven iterations, two movies and nine real-life representatives, boobs (with their action movie adjuncts guns, explosions, fast driving and sleazy banter) have come to the fore, obscuring both Lara’s taciturn, hard-as-nails persona and the truly unprecedented experience of which she was the centre.

Now only the most puritanical of apologists would deny that Lara’s status as the first mainstream videogame sex symbol has played its part in her success, and you can’t help but feel just a teensy bit cynical when Toby Gard, her disenfranchised creator, starts to whinge about her BMI-defying attributes. If you wanted to put personality before looks, Toby, why didn’t you give Lara a fifty-inch waistline and a yashmak?

But let’s get our priorities in order. Tomb Raider was a landmark game because it demonstrated, along with Super Mario 64, the cavernous possibilities of three-dimensional gaming, not because of the cavernous nature of Lara’s cleavage. It was also fantastic because beneath all the HIGH OCTANE THRILLS and tedious, trivial gunplay, it was a game which expressed, with a poignancy matched only by its greatest descendant Ico, the fragility of a human being lost in an ancient, hostile landscape. Lara’s very obvious femininity has a subtler role here, inspiring feelings of protectiveness and empowerment among male and female players respectively.

And thankfully, this is the Tomb Raider Crystal Dynamics remembers. Even given the relative limitations of the PSP hardware, Tomb Raider: Anniversary is a masterpiece which simultaneously advances the Legends formula and recaptures something of the spirit of the magnificent original.

Gone are the hordes of unshaven guerrilla banditos with their penchant for biting your bullets. Gone are Zip and Alister, your wifi-enabled cheerleading squad. It’s back to first principles and back to the haunting isolation of Himalayan mountainsides, Egyptian pyramids and Atlantan ruins. Silence. Wind in distant crevasses. The creaking of brittle timbers. Water splashing on rocks.

Crystal Dynamics has a certain pedigree in the action-adventure genre thanks to Soul Reaver, whose megalithic potential has yet to be realised by any subsequent game in the Legacy of Kain series. But rather than invoking this rich albeit troubled in-house legacy, their first collaboration with Lara in Tomb Raider: Legend was pretty much a straight rip of Ubisoft’s superlative Prince of Persia titles, with more or less the same range of moves and well-judged, accessible but tightly linear acrobatic puzzling predominating throughout.

When it came to remaking the original this approach must have presented something of a dilemma, because the PS1 Tomb Raider is a rather different Aztec burial urn of fish. Part of the discord can be put down to the mercilessness of the simulation. Where Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is lenient enough to let you approximate the distance from ledge to ledge or pillar to pillar, Tomb Raider forces you to eke every last millimetre of horizontal movement out of your jump, and align Lara’s flailing hands just right in the bargain.

More fundamentally, the PS1 title has a yawning open-endedness which is both intimidating and exhilarating, with multiple routes and objectives, different elevations and hidden items obliging you to take a fully- well- three-dimensional attitude to your surroundings. Sands of Time, with its unambiguous waypoints and corridor progression, keeps you firmly on the beaten path. A lavishly rendered, consistently creative beaten path, granted, but a beaten path nonetheless.

In a nutshell, the developer has preserved the open-plan nature of the elder game whilst injecting it with the comfortable fluidity and funky moveset of the younger, and the result is an action-adventure which neither holds your hand to the point of complacency nor frustrates you to the point of surrender. Each of the cathedral-like environments will dazzle and dizzy when you first lay eyes on them, but once you step forward into the gloom the mechanics of running, jumping, hanging, swinging, swimming and climbing are as smooth as silk. Checkpoints are much more generously spaced and the semi-automatic camera does its job for the most part, though it occasionally gets into a bit of fluster over the Croft backside. The grapple shot, retained from Legend, has been convincingly worked into things.

The only real downer is the combat. I have a dream that someday a Tomb Raider game will be released that doesn’t feel obliged to intersperse all the tomb raiding with myopic thugs and suicidal wildlife, but till that fateful day Anniversary‘s take is probably the best we can hope for.

It’s your classic strafe-jump-shoot affair with the now deplorably ubiquitous bullet-time add-on. Shoot an enemy for a bit and it will become enraged, whereupon it will hurl itself brainlessly at your face and give you the opportunity to perform a lethal ‘Adrenaline Dodge’ countermove. Time slows, sound goes all underwater-blurred and Lara does her best Max Payne impression as three cursors converge on your target’s body. Fire off a shot when they intersect to score critical damage.

It’s functional enough in the same way that beans on toast is functional enough, and were that the whole story we could just tidy the gunplay under the carpet and be done with it. But in a fit of bandwagon jumping, Crystal Dynamics have also seen fit to throw in QTE sequences during the boss battles, and consequently turned one of the more iconic Tomb Raider moments into something barely worthy of Sonic Heroes. How on earth can you go wrong with a T-Rex?

Fortunately, fire-fights are infrequent and brief and the scenery is a major consolation. I have no idea what sort of techno-jiggery keeps everything ticking over, but suffice to say this is easily the most gorgeous game of its type on PSP, out-pacing even the mighty Daxter. Draw distance is through the roof, ambient light and reflections routinely mesmerise and the visual design is rarely short of breathtaking. Lara’s svelte figure is alive with all kinds of dynamic lighting and subtle texturing, right down to the weave in her trademark blue top, and while the frame-rate dips noticeably in some areas it never becomes unmanageable. Not all of the highlights are immediately obvious. A few levels in, I was astonished to note that Lara’s aristocratic features had actually become smudged with dirt during all the scrambling. (Yes that’s right, you can make Lara dirty, nudge nudge wink wink etc- now run along and play with your Action Man.)

On the aural front, Crystal Dynamics has gone for a straight revamp of the original soundtrack, which is just as well because the original soundtrack was excellent. The bursts of orchestral music which signal traps or the presence of enemies are as suspenseful as they were back in 1996, and the title theme is amongst the best ever composed.

There are a couple of other minor issues, neither of them remotely game-breaking. While technologically impressive, the new in-engine cutscenes are directed somewhat less intelligently than their FMV predecessors, and there’s a certain unappealing goofiness to the ‘acting’. Chief villainess Natla now resembles the ghastly lovechild of Madonna and Bloodrayne, and Lara’s eyebrows behave like they’re on the set of Carry On Camping.

The other caveat is hardware-related. Up till now I’ve avoided judging the PSP version against its bigger sisters on other platforms, simply because the execution is so impeccable (going some way towards justifying the additional development time). But it goes without saying that if you own a PS2, 360 or modestly-specced PC you should lay aside your humble PSP. The poor little blighter takes its sweet time loading levels and some of the sound effects, and the analog nub, while sufficiently responsive, is no substitute for a Dual Shock.

But if you prefer to raid tombs on the go you won’t be disappointed with this pearl of an action-adventure. Lara may have lingered in the minds of the uninitiated by virtue of her chest measurements, but she is fondly recalled by the PlayStation faithful for the quality and beauty of her games, and Anniversary is set to continue that tradition.

9/10

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