Welcome back, Adventurer!

It’s been a while since this series began. In terms of release chronology, over ten years have passed since Lara made her debut. Seven flagship titles, with varying amounts of quality and innovation, graced three generations of console hardware. There were movies, spin-offs, product tie-ins. The time was right to take a look back at Lara’s beginnings, comment on them, and revise them based on modern trends. What we got in June of 2007 was Tomb Raider: Anniversary.

It’s funny looking back on this game now, in a day and age where seemingly half of the premier games launched are either straight remakes of past titles or retreads of familiar concepts. The remake was a relatively novel concept back then. One of the highest profile games that comes to mind from this time is the excellent Resident Evil remake.

In the case of both Resident Evil and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, they do more than just bring the game to newer hardware. Both of these titles, and any good remake in general, should expand on ideas present in the original, add something unfamiliar for return players, and maybe even give you a little nudge in the ribs when encountering an iconic moment. What Crystal Dynamics, at the behest of publisher Eidos, decided to create is indeed a quality remake, though not without making a few minor stumbles along the way.

The overall plot is almost entirely the same, only it too presents itself with the glossy sheen of remake paint. There’s not a whole lot to discuss with these changes. They add clarity where needed and humanize the characters a whole lot more. I’ll be talking more about the latter of those changes later on. Just know for now that if you’ve played TR1 you’ve played Anniversary.

There’s a laundry list worth of changes made in order to streamline the gameplay experience, and listing these all off here one by one would likely not make a significant point. I’ll simply state that the changes do make the game snappier, but they also remove some of the quirks which made TR1 a treat for me. I feel the only noteworthy change is a marked improvement in every way over the original; the grappling hook. Lara can swing around from platform to platform, scale walls, and pull objects with it. Any game, regardless of genre, is improved by the inclusion of a grappling hook and nothing can change my opinion on that.

Starting with Croft Manor, it’s interesting how large a shift away Anniversary is from the first game, and how the game’s level design philosophy is inverted from the original. The manor still served its purpose as a tutorial level, but where TR1’s manor was a fairly brief, guided tour of Lara’s digs narrated by Lara herself, Anniversary’s manor was sprawling, wholly without prompts, and took me over an hour to finish.

I became wholly engrossed in the mansion, taking my time to read all the open books scattered around (sporting nods to other games in the franchise) and figuring out which room to check out next. I had to find Lara’s pistols and grappling hook before I could finish the level. It plays like a Metroidvania in microcosm, and was a highlight of the game for me. It has the same traits; doubling back with new abilities, trying to recall the locations of locks and places I couldn’t quite reach yet. Resident Evil again comes to mind, and for good reason.

Unfortunately, that sense of exploration, so present in the Croft Manor, doesn’t shine through quite as much in the levels of the game proper. For the most part, levels are much more linear than their original counterparts. An effort was made, according to the development team, to cut down on the “less interesting hallway traversal.” While the environments have been tightened up considerably, I feel that the polishing removed some of the quirks that made TR1 special. Some of that maligned hallway traversal was important, necessary. Levels in Anniversary are slightly too streamlined. Some of the rough edges, particularly those which are dead ends or loop back on themselves, help expand the world and arguably the immersive nature inherent to these games. Having winding passageways to get lost in, or a few goodies to find in a proverbial back alley adds believability to the space. Anniversary, for the most part, is a more distilled lineup of set pieces, pulled directly from TR1 and modified for modern (as of 2007) gaming expectations.

I want to gripe on a small design change as well. At the end of the game, when Lara drew closer to the secrets of Atlantis, the corridors and antechambers adopted a dark, orange and black runic look to them. I much prefer the fleshy, writhing textures of the original to the frankly drab presentation of Anniversary. The Atlantean enemies, too, changed from sickening, corpulent beings in TR1 to looking like they’re not biological at all.

Cutscene Killer
As you might recall from the look at TR1, nearly all of the enemies Lara faces are animals, with a very small handful of human opponents. Here in Anniversary these villains are still present, though only the fight with Atlantean queen Natla occurs within gameplay. The other conflicts, oddly, are portrayed through cutscenes. Control is taken away from the player (aside from the odd quick-time event, another hallmark of late-aughts game design) to have Lara pull the trigger herself. I was puzzled by this change at first, but when I read into the development notes the thought process began to make sense.

One of the driving thoughts behind this game’s development was to introduce the concept of morality to Lara. Crystal Dynamics wanted to make her less of a superhero and more of a person. They try to accomplish this by having Lara show remorse and hesitancy towards turning her dual pistols on another human. It’s a difficult emotion to express through gameplay, and the decision makes sense. Compounding on this, Lara is able to make good on these emotions with vastly improved facial animations, a far cry from the “resting Lara face” back in TR1.

I want to note this change now, knowing what the future will bring. After this trilogy of games concludes, We’ll be entering the gritty phase of Lara’s career. While I’ve played the first game in the Survivor Trilogy prior to this retrospective, it was interesting to see some of its DNA here in Anniversary. We’ll be seeing a much more human Lara Croft in the games ahead.

Remake, or Replacement?
So at the end of the day, we’re left with a fairly solid remake of a classic. But, as with so many remakes, comes the question of whether or not this is an outright better version of the original game, a fun—though different—take on its source material, or if potential players are better off forgetting this entry even
existed. For my money, I’d say it falls under the second category.

There are enough changes to make it palatable to a newer audience, even over fifteen years since the remake’s launch. But the overall sense of exploration has been diminished. I said this way back in my original look at TR1, but having to traverse such obscure, ancient in game-sense environments, added the feeling that I was the first to uncover them. I definitely wouldn’t give Anniversary a miss, but I wouldn’t trade it for the original either. Try it if you find the mechanics of its source material too cumbersome.
With that, the final game in the Legends trilogy, Tomb Raider: Underworld is next on deck.