Tomb Raider is one of the biggest gaming franchises in existence. It's spawned ten games and two films, and it's made a cultural icon of heroine Lara Croft. Yet despite its universal success, Tomb Raider has struggled throughout its history to maintain the high level of quality set by the earlier titles in the series. As Tomb Raider approaches its fifteenth birthday, we look back on the life and times of Lara Croft.
On November 25 1996, Core Design and Eidos Interactive unleashed the original Tomb Raider on an unsuspecting world. 3D gaming had just hit the mainstream with the recent launch of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, and Tomb Raider offered a potent combination of original gameplay ideas, gorgeous graphics, and polygonal breasts. The original Tomb Raider saw Lara Croft pillaging priceless artifacts and endangering local wildlife from Peru to Atlantis in search of the mystical "Scion" artifact. It was the right game at the right time, and became a critical and commercial hit, selling over seven million copies.
What many people forget about the first Tomb Raider is that it was brutally difficult. The game was puzzle-heavy, its combat and platforming extremely unforgiving, and most of its massive levels contained just one save point. Knowing that many gamers didn't make it to the end of Lara's first adventure, Core Design sought to make Tomb Raider more accessible in the inevitable sequel.
In the run up to the release of Tomb Raider 2, Lara Croft was already a household name, and the next game in the series was highly anticipated, even making national news in the UK. A bigger budget made for a longer game, more eye candy, and a more diverse range of environments, along with new gameplay devices like vehicles and underwater combat. Tomb Raider 2 saw Lara visit Venice, China, and the ruins of a sunken cruise ship in a more action-focused adventure.
Though some fans of the series bemoaned Tomb Raider 2's shift from puzzle-solving and exploration, there's no doubt that this change helped the series obtain more mainstream success. And with this snowballing success came increased sales and more sequels.
It's difficult to fault a developer for sticking to what they know is successful, and that's exactly what Core did with its third Tomb Raider game, offering gamers a steaming bowl of the same Tomb Raider experience they knew and loved. New backdrops such as Area 51, London, and India as well as powerful new weapons and a bikini-clad Lara could only sweeten the deal. However, reviewers of the game at the time started to see a pattern emerging. The two-year-old game engine was beginning to show its age, as was the tried-and-true Tomb Raider gameplay formula. 3D action platformers had been evolving alongside the Tomb Raider series for the past two years, and Tomb Raider 3's graphics and control system compared unfavorably to many of them.
Despite its aging technology, Tomb Raider 3 continued to up the ante in terms of cinematic gameplay. The dialogue was cheesy, the villains ridiculous, and the voice acting questionable at best, but Tomb Raider 3 was one of the first games that gave players the sense that they were acting out a movie (albeit a pretty bad movie, with giant spiders and terrible acting).
2001 brought about the first appearance of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movie. Though a critical flop, it was fairly successful commercially, bringing in $274 million for Paramount Pictures. But the mediocre quality of the film was to foreshadow the fortunes of the next Tomb Raider video game.
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness was released in 2003, promising a brand-new game engine, improved graphics, and controls and an intriguing, cinematic plot. However, it was not to be. The game was a train wreck - full of bugs, panned by critics, and met with poor sales. Core had written an entirely new game engine for Angel of Darkness, but it simply didn't work - the game was prone to frequent, frustrating crashes. And while its visuals may have received a much-needed boost, its gameplay remained firmly rooted in the past.