Review: The Tomb Raider Trilogy

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Ever since the first Tomb Raider, the series had been in gradual decline for years, hitting rock bottom with the notoriously buggy Angel of Darkness (it wasn’t as bad as most critics made it out to be, but it definitely played like an unfinished product). But then in 2006 Crystal Dynamics took over the franchise, and it has been getting better and better with each new release since.

Tomb Raider: Legend got the series back on the right track, Tomb Raider: Anniversary continued Lara’s rise with a much improved remake of the original franchise starter, and more recently Tomb Raider: Underworld gave Lara a full modern makeover. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of the best recent downloadable games as well, but technically it’s not considered a Tomb Raider.

Unfortunately for PS3 owners, Legend and Anniversary came out before and shortly after the console launched, so the only Sony platforms they made it to were the PS2 and PSP. Until now!

Following the successes of other HD bundles, like the Sly Cooper and God of War collections, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have ported, polished and upscaled the PS2 versions of Legend and Anniversary, and tossed them onto a single Blu-ray disc alongside a re-release of Underworld and exclusive bonus materials (XMB theme, Home avatar items, and a total of 15 developer diaries!) to form The Tomb Raider Trilogy.

It’s vital that these three games are packaged together, too, because they are tied together by the same narrative threads. So being able to play the trilogy in sequence without having to wait years in between does create a more unified and engaging experience. The collective storyline is well told, too!

The other great thing about an all-in-one trilogy like this is being able to see the progression from one game to the next. I played them in order one right after the other — Legend, Anniversary, and then Underworld — and it was neat to see each game improve upon its predecessor, both graphically and in gameplay and story composition.

Anniversary and Underworld are far and away superior to Legend, but not because Legend is bad, but because they both build upon the foundation Legend establishes — Legend came out first, so it only makes sense that the other two are much better! Legend freed Lara from her tank-like movement constraints and turned the series around with more intuitive controls and new gameplay mechanics (like the grappling hook). These influences can be felt in the proceeding two games.

What’s also interesting is how each game has distinct personality traits that help it stand apart from the other two, and this prevents the series from blurring together and becoming stale before you can finish the whole thing off.

Of the three, Legend is the Hollywood action-adventure blockbuster, with more scripted and linear level designs and bosses, plenty of Quick Time Events (QTE), and just as much emphasis on shooting and cinematic set pieces as the usual exploration and puzzle solving. Vehicular combat also plays a prominent role – but sadly the motorcycle controls are horrifically bad.

Anniversary, on the other hand, is pure Tomb Raider. There are no night clubs or factories or industrial compounds here, only caves and tombs and ancient ruins lined with deadly traps. Puzzles and platforming acrobatics take center stage, and appropriately the puzzles and level design in this installment are the most challenging and complex of the three. I’m afraid some of the QTE action does carry over from Legend, though.

And then there is Underworld, a truly modern Tomb Raider which effectively meshes action and storytelling with adventure and puzzles, while also broadening the scope to showcase larger, more dynamic and less linear environments that allow the player to become fully immersed in the role of Lara Croft. This installment, Lara can now wall hop, sprint, throw held objects, and build up a ‘Bullet Time’ slow motion power. Enemy AI is also more aggressive, compared to Legend and Anniversary in which foes will often stand still to be pumped full of lead.

A similar graphical progression can be seen as well. Although this PS3 version does look brighter and sharper than the Xbox 360 version, Legend is still an HD port of a 2006 PS2 game, and the age shows through with blurry textures and aliased edges. But for what it’s worth, Legend’s cartoonish art qualities help it maintain an attractive appearance.

Anniversary also keeps Lara grounded in fantasy, but mixes in just enough realism to give the game a huge graphical boost. Lara’s character model, still exaggerated in all the right places, has received a noticeable polygon bump for greater detail, and the lighting throughout the many cavernous environments builds a moodier atmosphere and a deeper sense of wonder.

Underworld then pushes the engine further, introducing subtle animation touches that make Lara (and thus you) feel like she is physically present in the game world. Lara now reacts to nearby flames by holding her hands up to her face to ward off the heat, and also pushes through foliage that bends around her body rather than magically passing straight through it. Lara’s skin and clothing even dirty and show moisture to reflect her struggles against the environment.

The odd thing about Underworld, however, is that, even though it is the newer and more technologically advanced game of the three, it is also the roughest around the edges. What’s even stranger is the fact that I don’t remember so many rough patches when I first played the standalone release a couple years ago. There aren’t any game-breaking bugs, but there are some frame rate stutters and a lot of little animation glitches when shimmying across ledges, and in general it seemed to me that Lara would get stuck on her surroundings and miss more jumps than the two other games.

In typical Tomb Raider fashion, the major universal flaw is the camera. In all three games, you do have to tussle with the camera to get it at the right angle, and many times a wall or pillar will impede the camera’s ability to pan a full 360 degrees, leaving you dangling on a ledge with a blind leap of faith as your only option. The gunplay isn’t particularly special in any of the games either, but it gets the job done.

As a whole, The Tomb Raider Trilogy does far more than just get the job done; it assembles three standout action-adventure titles into a single $40 package, properly updates the two older games for an audience that probably wasn’t able to play them before, and piles plenty of bonus materials on top of the 20-30 hours of total play time (for me, each game clocked in at roughly 7-10 hours) to keep you in a tomb raiding frame of mind until Crystal Dynamics’ next Tomb Raider reboot arrives.

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Pros:
+ Three great action-adventure games for $40
+ Each game has an individual sense of style and gameplay
+ Connected story threads present a unified narrative
+ Fun to experience the progression from one game to the next
+ Each game is loaded with collectible treasures and unlockables

Cons:
– All three games suffer from poor camera system
– Underworld is more unpolished than I remember the standalone version being
– Terrible motorcycle levels in Legend

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: 3/22/2011
Genre: Action-Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!