Welcome back, Adventurer! Now we’re picking up with Tomb Raider 3: Adventures of Lara Croft. Core is at it again and delivered another classic tomb raiding experience. There’s a quite a bit to get through, so let’s get started.

Core changes

The amount of effort and crunch put into creating the first two games generated a lot of stress for the original development team. They wouldn’t return to Tomb Raider development. By then, the franchise was a cash cow, and Core decided to put a new team together to work on this sequel. Tomb Raider 3 was developed in roughly eleven months, a considerably tight schedule even for the time.

It’s a weird feeling playing through an annual franchise this old. Nowadays, it’s a common sight with series like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty churning out games faster than you can blink. To my knowledge, this is one of the first franchises to become a yearly one—outside of the Maddens and FIFAs, of course.

TR3 attempts to be thoughtful about mixing elements of TR1 and TR2 together, trying to create a blend of the two games that appeal to everyone. It feels like a more, more, more sequel, however this time instead of saying, “Hey, let’s add in all this cool stuff which we couldn’t do before,” now the message is, “Well, let’s churn out some more levels for people to roam through.” The end product is a more, more, more of the same entry. More levels, more gunplay, more climbing.

These levels, though, are the most elaborate and detailed in the series so far. This jump in fidelity came from yet another reworking of the game’s engine and switching to the PlayStation 1 as the lead platform. Switching to a more powerful console allowed for higher-resolution textures, colored lighting, particle effects, and—oddly enough—triangles in the level geometry.

Up to this point, the levels in Tomb Raider were created on a grid system— squares with textures plastered to them at various locations and heights. It sounds like a simple change, but triangles are the simplest building block 3D video games have. The decision to use squares as canvas up until this point was likely one made out of convenience.

Now levels are less abstract in their design, less obtuse in what they’re trying to portray. It improves the abandoned jungle spaces immensely, though the inhabited areas don’t fare quite as well.

What brings new life to the populated levels though, is colored lighting. Candles give off a warm orange glow. Harsh spotlights bathe asphalt in a brilliant white. Light up a flare in a dark tunnel, and the darkness turns crimson. It’s another fantastic way to add to a level’s style and mood.

In addition to these new elements, there’s a new focus on cinematic design in Tomb Raider 3. Most levels end with a simple in-game cutscene serving as a segue from one level to the next. These scenes are well animated and acted for the time, with a sense of purpose injected into the lead-up into the next level.

Lara’s got a few new tricks too. She can crawl, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace, through caverns and crevices, opening up a few new concepts for exploration. Think air ducts and small cave tributaries, winding into parts unknown. She can dash now, too. There’s a limited sprint meter which feels oddly forward-thinking for its time, seeing how many games now have some sort of limited dash. She’s less maneuverable when dashing, but the payoff is more speed.

Please run

Speaking of running, I mentioned in previous games that I’m playing this franchise on PC. The games are still playable with the help of fan patches and a bit of tweaking. I actually kind of enjoy this whole process of trying to get dusty, decades-old software working on modern systems. It’s like trying to get an old car running, or fixing your vacuum cleaner so you don’t have to buy a new one. You save a bit of dough and get that sense of accomplishment from having fixed it yourself.

I wanted to bring all this up before I say what I have to say next: If you’re considering playing these older Tomb Raider games, please, please don’t trouble yourself with the PC versions. I had a helluva time getting this one working on my computer and nearly resorted to picking up a separate copy of the game on PlayStation so I could continue this series of review. Thankfully the computer gods smiled down on me, and I could continue experiencing this franchise in the same fashion I have been so far.

I dusted off my old PlayStation Portable, though, as a test of how this game would look and play as if I were playing it on a PS1 crammed into a three-inch screen. When I couldn’t get the game to run correctly no matter how hard I tried, it served as a way to get through some of the early stages and get a feel of how the game played on console. It’s a hand-cramping experience, for sure, and not ideal due to the button differences between the PS1 and PSP. The placement of the shoulder buttons and the overall lack of a second set shoulder buttons make for a rough time. I’d highly recommend sticking to a true home console version, if you do decide to play this or any of the early Tomb Raiders.

But, is it any good?

So let’s talk about the game itself for a bit. It’s a return to form, or maybe a compromise. The games preceding Tomb Raider 3 primarily directed their attention towards exploration and combat, respectively. But one of the design priorities here seems to be a mix of the two, and it’s one which I think worked well.

After an opening stint in India you’re sent to a screen with a globe where you can pick one of three level sets to traverse next. These locations can be visited in any order and allow you to pick the variety you want in level design and encounters. You need to use your head a bit, but you can figure out if you’re going to get TR1-style levels or TR2 just by looking at the area map. South Pacific for TR1 style, London for TR2 style, and Nevada for a mix of the two.

After two games filled with tropics, I grew tired of seeing dense jungles so I decided to try the Nevada levels. These, of course, take you to Area 51. Las Vegas —with its T-Rexes and Elvis concert sets—does not make an appearance. Instead you’re out in the desert, killing snakes and eagles while a stealth bomber occasionally soars overhead. It proves harmless though, mere window dressing and foreshadowing the military base levels you’ll encounter next.

And boy, what levels they are. Lara encounters test facilities, a working UFO, and even the corpse of a grey man. Mounted turrets threaten to gun you down if you take a wrong step. Soldiers chase after you, this being a restricted area and all. These three Nevada levels, in microcosm, are the best thing TR3 brings to the table. They transition from outdoors and open to indoors and winding corridors, all the while putting you in one place which few have been and another where nobody should be—without the proper clearance at least.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

The TR2-styled London levels proved a bit more disappointing, with the promising cityscape turning into a winding labyrinth of subway tunnels and underground passages. Its only redeeming quality was a fun, though small, museum section where you have to navigate a sphinx eerily similar to the one you encounter in TR1. The tunnels in particular house some classic esoteric puzzle design which makes a lot of people steer clear of older games such as these.

Towards the end of the level, you’ll need to progress through a subway gate. To do this, you’ll need a subway ticket. How do you get a subway ticket? Well, you buy one of course. There’re eight ticket booths you pass early in the level. Easy enough so far. But wait—Lara doesn’t have any change. So you’ll need to find some money. I have no shame in admitting that I used a guide for this part of the game, as you’ll see here. The guide stated that there are several locations in which the coin could appear, if you fulfill certain criteria in the level. My progression through the level meant that the coin was hiding in a darkened subway platform. Go to the subway platform and get the coin, right? Wrong. You need to find a way into a power room and turn on the lights to make the coin appear. That’s not so it’s easier to see the coin, it’s to make the coin appear. If you light up a flare where the coin should be, you won’t find it. You have to turn on the lights. In other areas you’re able to see items in the dark just fine, maybe use a flare if you’re having trouble. Not so here.

So fine, you found the coin and now you can buy a ticket. But remember those eight booths? Only one of them will actually give you a ticket. The others are red herrings. It’s not advertised which, and it’s easy to miss. The booths are set up as scenery, not a switch or something else Lara could interact with. This may sound strange, but there’s been little in the way of object inventory puzzles in the franchise so far. I just figured that either I needed to use the coin on the gate, or maybe find a ticket elsewhere, not an exchange of coin for ticket. So I went back to my old friend the guide again and figured out which booth I needed to interact with to get the ticket.

I’m not a fan of arbitrarily gatekeeping progression in games, nor am I a fan of deviously hidden elements you need to interact with to progress through a game. If this were a secret, something to get a powerful weapon or bypass a huge chunk of the level, I’d be fine with it. But instead this game committed two of my deadly gaming sins in service of…padding the game length? Adding a tricky puzzle? Either way, this part of the game was an absolute slog.

The South Pacific levels are pure TR1. Dense jungle, ruins, and a whole heaping of Indiana Jones-esque traps to avoid. The level design is smart, winding without being too overwhelming, and engaging.

The only issue with these levels are the arguably racist enemies. They bear resemblance to a picture right out of an old NatGeo magazine, complete with neck rings and grass skirts. While I didn’t have an issue shooting goons with guns or wrenches (those wrench people made their choice), I did take issue with fighting natives armed with spears and blowguns. They’re no match for Lara’s firearms, and I honestly felt kind of bad gunning them down. Lara’s whole reason to be on this globe trotting adventure is to take these artifacts for herself. It conjures a message about colonialism and the sheer number of artifacts the British Museum took from other cultures. As such, this part felt cruel and sent a message I’m not sure Core intended to convey and wasn’t equipped to handle here on the PS1.

Vehicles and other annoyances

Vehicles return in the South Pacific section and a few other areas, and they’re somehow worse than they were in Tomb Raider 2. This time there’s an ATV and a kayak you can try to drive around. These vehicles are even more terrible than before—more fiddly, exploding with shocking regularity, and proving harder to exit when you need to. As with TR2, I have no idea if this is an issue with PC compatibility or if it really was this terrible for players back in 1998. I felt the hate and frustration flow through me as I mashed the same two keys over and over again in a fruitless attempt to get Lara to get off the damn ATV. Only the last area’s vehicle section—an inflatable boat was tolerable, thanks to the lack of reflexes needed to navigate its passive waters. This easier ride made it so I didn’t need to fuss with fiddly controls, instead simply asking me to enjoy riding the little dinghy around the freezing waters.

Lara travels to Antarctica for the final act of the game. The environments are brutal, the levels more confusing and devious than they’ve ever been. One standout to me was a mine cart level set deep within a glacier. The circular design combined with separate tracks, each with their own branching paths and enemies straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Each of these Antarctica levels took me over an hour to beat, going off the in- game clock. This clock isn’t quite accurate, as it only takes into account the time spent in game between saves, not any screwups. So say for example there’s a tough section, maybe a minutes’ worth of gameplay. Now say this section takes twenty tries. That’s twenty minutes spent on part of a level which the game only counts as one minute. I can’t be entirely sure how long these levels took, but I can tell you that they were grueling. These Antarctica levels represent the hardest the games have been for me so far. It was a challenge that evolved into tedium, a far cry from the thrill of beating a tough part of a level.

A few more levels of this wintery deathtrap, an oddly anticlimactic final boss fight, and a more involved and entertaining escape sequence than the previous two games, and you’re gone, done, roll credits once again. Lara escapes from imminent death and the threat of a global catastrophe has been averted once again.

It’s tough to say a whole lot about this game, and I think I know why that is. A quick search shows that this is the longest Tomb Raider game in the franchise. Once the novelty of a level wore off, I was going through the motions and just pushing switches and finding keys like a bog-standard maze crawler. Many of these levels overstayed their welcome, and I found my concentration drifting from drudging climbable walls to what I was going to make for dinner that night.

Going from more, more, more to more, more, more of the same is a good way to lose my interest. Take again, for example, all of the me-too sequels out there and games where the only variety from one game to the next are level settings and a relatively barebones story. That’s my biggest problem with Tomb Raider 3, and though it’s not a bad game, it didn’t have a whole lot of new tricks to win me over like the first one way back in 1996.

Expanding pains

As with the other two games, Tomb Raider 3 also has an expansion. Unlike the previous two expansions, I was unfortunately not able to play this one myself. The expansions were PC only, and only included in boxed copies of the “deluxe” edition of the game coming out a few years later. This means that boxed copies of this game are twenty years old now—not impossible to hunt down, but certainly more difficult. Thanks to avid fans of the series, those two expansions were available for free download, and as long as you were able to troubleshoot any errors yourself, you were able to take a shot at these mysterious expansions.

Here, though, I wasn’t able to find a download source which I trusted enough to run on my PC. Malware is no joke, and I wouldn’t want to find myself on the receiving end of any if it came down to it. Instead, I watched a few play-throughs of the game on YouTube, including one put together by the user Tomb of Ash. His play-through includes a few of the expansion’s developers on voice commentary. It’s fun, and gave me a few more insights into the game which I did not pick up watching a speedy play-through only focused on completing levels as quickly as possible.

There’s a handful of levels taking place in a Scottish castle, and Nessie herself makes a few cameos throughout the level. I’m glad I decided to watch a second play-through, as the expansion has so many little niches and fun little secrets easily missed on a hurried run. See Nessie in the background? Well, later on you’re able to climb inside her, and find out that she’s little more than a submarine meant to putter around Loch Ness and draw tourism dollars.

It’s this level of fun, just like in Golden Mask, which makes me love these expansions so much. They exhibit a bit of creativity not seen in the proper game, or creativity in service of a neat concept. It makes these expansions fun to dive into and see what little treats you can find buried within.

Unfortunately, this is the last expansion released during this generation of hardware. The next won’t come until a new generation of hardware has come and gone. But that’s not the end of the story for Tomb Raider on PS1, there are still two games left on the system, and the next one was intended to be Lara’s last adventure.