Back into the fray

Welcome back, adventurer! This retrospective picks up where the previous one left off, in which we examined Tomb Raider and its expansion. Now we’re looking into its follow-up and the follow-up’s own respective expansion.

The sequel to Tomb Raider came out a year after Lara’s first adventure, marking an effort to expand upon elements which worked in the original. Core Design expanded the game’s scope by adding more set pieces, a wider variety of locations, vehicle segments, new gameplay mechanics, and finally by giving Lara herself a face-lift both visually and mechanically. The message is clear: more, more, more.

Heather Gibson contributed to the game’s plot, and had this to say in Daryl Baxter’s book The Making of Tomb Raider:

Towards the end of TR1 a history program was aired on the Sky documentary channel about Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. I was fascinated by the myths and the legends around this character but also the documented facts. It was speculated that the emperor’s tomb lay within an unopened earth mound. It was supposedly elaborately decorated and full of deadly traps to deter would-be tomb robbers…When I arrived at work the following day it seemed most of the team had watched the documentary too and we all agreed that the emperor and his legacy would be a perfect subject matter to base the game around.

Core knocked it out of the park with this concept. Building a story with inspiration from ancient myths is tried and true. Dan Brown and even the preceding Tomb Raider would agree. Personally, I wish they went a bit further with the idea. The game itself did not mention Emperor Huangdi, which feels like a missed opportunity. Injecting a bit of the real world history behind the game might’ve been a fun lesson for players to uncover.

Instead, Tomb Raider 2 invents a nameless fictional emperor. This no-name emperor used the game’s MacGuffin—the Dagger of Xian—to lead his armies to victory by plunging the dagger into his stomach, turning into a fearsome dragon. Opposing Tibetian warriors snuck beneath him during a battle and wrenched the dagger away, killing the emperor and winning the fight. Afraid of its power, they sealed it inside the Great Wall of China. In present times a cult leader named Bartoli is obsessed with finding this dagger. It’s up to Lara to set off on a globe-trotting adventure to obtain the dagger for herself.

If that synopsis sounds a little bland, it’s because it felt a little bland. That doesn’t make it bad, though. To me, there are two primary schools of thought regarding storytelling in games. One side puts the story first and molds the gameplay to its whim in service of the plot. The other (used here) lets the story act as a frame to dictate the environments and enemies you’ll be encountering. Neither of these schools are wrong, though, and this particular frame does a fine job in justifying some of the more interesting locales you’ll visit.

Most of the team behind the original Tomb Raider returned for the sequel, save for one important player. Toby Gard, Lara’s creator, left during the development of Tomb Raider 2, citing creative differences and his distaste in Lara’s portrayal as a sex icon in marketing. I did not feel his absence while playing the game in the slightest. Tomb Raider 2 plays like a natural continuation of the formula laid out in the original with a few notable caveats I’ll discuss later. The game is still a cinematic platformer at heart, and that style of gameplay is still very much present here. Occasional fixed camera placements emphasize particular landmarks or emerging threats, but they can get in the way of lining up the precise jumps required to navigate through the elaborate tombs.

More, more, more

Vehicles are the most gimmicky addition to the game, only appearing in a mercifully small handful of levels. Lara drives a boat similar to the one Indy operated in Last Crusade while exploring Venice, and a snowmobile in the mountains of Tibet. These vehicles are, put simply, awful. Lara often pinballed against the walls as I struggled to line up a jump, only for the vehicle to speed up too quickly and careen off a ledge in a fireball. It’s possible this is part of an issue larger than Tomb Raider 2, though. Older games don’t always work well when running on hardware and software designed twenty years after they were released.

Thankfully, Lara herself still controls about the same as she did previously, with a few upgrades picked up in the sequel for good measure. She’s now able to climb walls, do a slick mid-air flip, and perhaps most shockingly of all—wade.

Yes, wading is a new move in Tomb Raider 2. In the first game, there simply were no shallow pools of water. Looking back at the original, I can see how bizarre it is. But when I’m in the moment, I really don’t think too hard about how deep the water is. I see a lake, and my only thought is whether there are any goodies at its bottom. In Tomb Raider 2, pools can come up to Lara’s knees or thighs, and she’ll do a unique little animation specific to wading, pattering along at a slower pace. It comes at a cost, though. Enemies don’t seem to be slowed by water the same way Lara is, and they’ll trounce her if she’s not careful.

On the subject of enemies, they’re one of my largest complaints about this new game. In Tomb Raider, there were only five human enemies, each of them unique, and very few of them actually, permanently, killable. Human foes would usually take a set amount of damage before scampering off behind a corner and disappearing. It added tension and the lingering threat of “You got me this time, Lara, but I’ll be back!” to every encounter. In Tomb Raider 2, there are countless goons with wrenches and shotguns and baseball bats all charging towards Lara, leaving you no choice but to gun them down where they stand. They aren’t particularly intelligent enemies, either, feeling more like cannon fodder than a worthy foe in most fights. Late 90’s video games aren’t known for their stellar AI, and this game did nothing to buck that trend.

The addition of more enemies changes the way items are dispersed throughout the game, too. Very few items are found in the environment itself, and instead the aforementioned human enemies drop the bulk of your supplies. This change curbed my desire to explore every nook for extra health and ammo. A great portion of the joy I felt with the original came from this sense of discovery, that little surge of dopamine when I found a nice little stash of ammo in a dark corner. Instead, I mashed the “use” button on every corpse I made, since their character models frequently conceal any items dropped.

Odds and Ends

Flares are another new addition, with their own inventory slot and a new animation. It’s an early example of a dynamic lighting system, one I felt worked well in a game centered around exploring dark caves. Lara takes a moment to light one up, and the world around her expands and gains definition. She can also throw these flares, and the light follows it in the way you’d expect. I tossed one down a deep chasm and the glow went down, down, down all the way to the very bottom. I saw how far that little flare fell and knew that it’d be certain death if I tried to follow it. It’s a hard feeling to put into words but little moments like that, when you can truly appreciate the scale of a virtual environment, are some of my favorite parts of this game.

Still keeping with the theme of more, more, more, the weapons are also a step up from the original. You’ll gain access to an array of weaponry familiar to any standard action game. Assault rifles, harpoon guns, grenade launchers, and a few returning classics round out the arsenal.

They don’t change much of the game’s rhythms of combat and exploration, but the inclusion of more aggressive weapons points towards the game’s more action-oriented focus. Compare Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Independence Day. That’s how the two games contrast one another. Bullets whizz by, shattering the glass behind you as mafia goons try their best to gun you down.

Glass, too, is another inclusion which surprised me, both as a new gameplay element and a new facet to the environments. The environments, though still just as blocky as they were in Tomb Raider, have a new focus on lived-in places with attention to basic architecture—therefore, windows. When I first encountered some panes in the Venice level, I appreciated that they were transparent—a nice new feature—but assumed they were fixed like the walls around them. When no path around presented itself, I got frustrated and consulted a guide and realized I was supposed to shoot out the glass and run through the newly-made path. I must have shattered thousands of windows in hundreds of games with guns and cars but for some strange reason my brain decided that the windows in Tomb Raider 2 were immutable and permanent.

In the midst of all this action, the game’s music itself is as wonderful as ever. Nathan McCree returns to score this game, and his work is just as good as it was in the original entry, if not a bit better. He riffs on the main theme from the first game with great results on a track that can be heard in the menu and occasionally during gameplay. The rest of the music also fits perfectly. The creeping, plodding tracks work well to set the mood, though I can’t help but be a little put off by the bizarre dance remix of the Tomb Raider theme, which plays during some of the more action-focused sequences of the game. It’s not a bad song on its own, but it misses the tone of the rest of the otherwise solid soundtrack that aims to put you in an exploratory mood, not a dancing one.

Exploring the unknown

That exploration has been changed, too. Instead of abandoned temples and the long-forgotten depths of Atlantis, now there are levels set in an opera house, an oil derrick, a Tibetian temple, and even Lara’s own Croft Manor via a short tutorial level and climactic epilogue. Unfortunately these environments draw attention to the limitation of the hardware of the time. Extra details and objects are what make these places feel more lived-in, but adding those details into a video game requires a high level of graphical horsepower, something which the scrappy PlayStation 1 simply could not handle. Some games of Tomb Raider 2’s hardware generation like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII solved this issue with pre-rendered backgrounds, essentially illustrations rigidly fixed in place which three-dimensional characters can run around in. Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII are two well-known examples of this type of rendering from the PlayStation 1 console. These games provide astounding detail for their time and Tomb Raider 2’s 3D levels feel barren in comparison.

This presents an interesting dilemma. If Core had implemented a pre- rendered art style here in Lara’s second adventure, they would’ve needed to drastically change the game’s design to suit the static camera angles and a slower pace of play. This would’ve been a significant departure from the original game, likely alienating fans. I think they made the right decision by keeping the visuals fully three-dimensional at the compromise of graphic fidelity. You get more freedom with the angles you’re allowed to see, making it easier to line up tricky jumps and see threats from all angles.

The non-inhabited levels, though, are an absolute treat. You get the same forgotten crypts and desolate, hostile places deep underground rendered richly with an artistic polish not yet seen in the franchise. The standout area for me was a massive ship, capsized and in pieces at the bottom of the ocean. I’m a sucker for shipwrecks in video games, and this one was a treat.

You’re tossed into the ocean, coming off the back of a submarine via cutscene. The ocean floor is vast, much wider than a PS1 game has any right to be. The big challenge here is that there’s only one way to get to air, and you’ll have a hard time finding it. The naturalistic approach to level design gives each location an extra sense of place. After swimming through a few rocky tunnels, you’re in the bowels of the Maria Doria shipwreck. A breakable floor gives way into the core of the ship, plopping you into a large room with an unusual piece of wood and loads more foes to shoot. Upside-down ballrooms and Mafia goons are your companions for the next few hours.

After passing through this area a few times, I took a closer look at that piece of wood and realized the peculiar item was actually a diving board and that I was in a grand, upside-down swimming pool. The discordance of this area, with its holes in the wall that lead to the ocean and the chandeliers sprouting from the floor, challenged me to interpret the areas based on cause and effect. As I played, I would have little epiphanies throughout the level. A lot of: “oh, so this fell on that, which caused this giant hole!” It’s a fantastic sensation and one perfect for a series about discovery.

While the creepy, abandoned environments are great, the inclusion of human enemies can be baffling at times. On the deck of this broken ship, in a large cavern nestled in the bottom of the ocean, stands a rusted swimming pool. In this pool, a hidden door gives way to a secret treasure, should Lara approach. But danger lurks behind the door, too. A lone scuba diver, brandishing a harpoon gun and a bad attitude, waits inside this tiny closet. If you open this secret door, the odds are good that you’ll get a face-full of steel.

This setup, if it were in any movie or book or television show of the modern Internet age, would likely be relentlessly lampooned by its fanbase and memed into franchise history. But this moment hasn’t been discussed much online, and I think it speaks to the relative absurdity of video games compared to other media. The fact is that this blockbuster game came out during the web’s infancy, and discussion of such a video game-y, silly moment didn’t occur as much back then. So I’m writing about this moment, here and now, to help revive discussion of a scuba diver concealed in a hidden compartment, inside a pool, on half a ship’s deck, in a cavern, underneath the ocean.

A bit of horror found its way into Tomb Raider 2 after this combination high-and low-point. There are a few moments when I finally find my way into the Temple of Xian in the game’s final levels. Dimly lit corridors and ominous, droning ambience are your only companions in this forbidden space chock full of hair-trigger blades ready to give Lara a free haircut. For a game this old, relying on a basic lighting engine and a low bitrate soundtrack, it really pulled off a sense of tension which some modern-day horror games struggle to match. I’d put it up there with the slow, droning heartbeat from the first game in terms of a mood-setter.

Closing the Tomb

Meanwhile, back at the Temple of Xian, Lara makes her way through caves of spiders and traps only to encounter the cult leader Bartoli. He gains the power of the emperor by undergoing the rite which the emperor performed so many centuries ago. Plunging the dagger of Xian into his chest, he transformed into the same fearsome dragon seen in the opening. Lara defeats the dragon Bertoli with overwhelming firepower before removing the dagger from his belly.

The level closes with a brief escape sequence, much like the original game, from a crumbling Atlantean structure and Natla. Unlike the escape sequence in the first entry though, this one elicits an actual sense of urgency to leave. It’s a straight shot from the final boss area to the exit and that’s another marked improvement. Fiddling around with precise platforming does not mix well with a sense of urgency, and the dash to the finish makes much more sense.

Lara’s character was present throughout the cutscenes too—slightly posh, but playful. She’s got the dagger of Xian, and is admiring it in her Croft Manor bedroom when she hears the crunch of tires on gravel. Triad members are back again, one final stand and attempt to get the dagger back. At the very end of the game, after holding off waves of goons, Lara decides she needs a shower. Resting her shotgun by the tub, still begins to undo her nightgown before turning towards the camera.

“Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” Lara asks, before blasting the camera. It’s a fun ending, for sure. I love a character exuding classic 90’s femacho ‘tude, and this ending had me grinning from ear to ear. It’s always fun being in charge of a character who shares a mutual, if sometimes snarky, relationship with the player.

So as credits roll, does Tomb Raider 2 meet the expectations of a more, more, more sequel? Does it compound upon the established mechanics in a fun way and give the player something to take home with them and talk about? I’d say yes. The Core team did a fantastic job with this entry, giving Lara more actions to do, more tools to play with, and more detailed wonders to explore. The main team behind the first two Tomb Raider games would not return to develop the next entry. Instead, the third installment was created by a new team within Core and targeted a more back-to-basics approach.

Expounding the expansion

First though, came the expansion to Tomb Raider 2. Entitled The Golden Mask, which sees Lara diving into chilly Alaskan waters and traversing an old Soviet- era base in search of the famous Golden Mask. She digs deeper into the base and winds up inside a tropical Shangri-La rife with monsters and mercenaries also searching for the mask. It’s up to Lara to take down everyone and everything in her path to get her hands on the mask and roll credits. There’s not much else to talk about here, save for one bizarre hidden level I’ll discuss later.

While the first game’s Unfinished Business expansion was developed by a smaller B-Team, the main group who developed the main campaign for Tomb Raider 2 returned to develop this expansion. This continuity produces levels that feel more cohesive with the main title rather than experimental offshoots. The downside is that Golden Mask doesn’t try to experiment as much with new level design or ideas where Unfinished Business tried something new. Take, again, the Temple of the Cat level, which used animated textures to simulate motion across a wide area, an impressive feat for the time. Basic, sure, but functional. Here in Golden Mask, everything feels like a second helping the main campaign, especially with the repetition of snowy areas from the main game.

Only one new music track made its way into the expansion, sort of a drum beat which lingers over the more action-filled moments. It’s fine, I guess, and fits the mood of the game better than the techno beats mentioned earlier. It’s all fine, and that’s about the most I have to say about this expansion.

Nightmare in Vegas

So, let’s talk about this final level then, Nightmare in Vegas. It’s completely separate from the four preceding levels. Lara wakes up in a posh Vegas hotel and stumbles through casinos, a concert set, a massive sculpture, and a small slice of the Vegas streets complete with dinosaurs. It’s absolutely wild and shows the designers taking freedoms they never had before. Lara in the Las Vegas strip? What’re the odds of that!?

At one point her faithful butler Winston appears in the bathroom, putzing around and farting exactly like he did in Lara’s mansion. There’s no real need to rescue him from the bathroom outside of gameplay concerns, but his inclusion here is strange and only adds to the dreaminess of the stage. You just open up a door and there he is, mugs of tea still clattering on his metal tray.

The standout for me here is the Elvis-themed concert set. Taking after Jailhouse Rock, the cubes upon which the worlds of these early Tomb Raider games are built are used perfectly here. It uses this abstract architecture to build a set which the King himself would be happy to perform on. Just go easy on the gun-toting goons.

Lastly, T-Rexes dominate the bottom half of the level, the roads of Vegas. You fight a few of them on the asphalt and in a rare display of cheapness, vans with CNET plastered on them litter the environment. It left me scratching my head but I carried on all the same.

And with that the expansion ends. Tomb Raider: The Golden Mask has left the building. It’s more of the same on top of Tomb Raider 2’s more, more, more. The fact that these expansions are so obscure makes them my favorite parts of these games, if only because very few people have played them. It’s just a shame that there’s only one more expansion pack to go in Tomb Raider 3.