Coming off of 2006′s Tomb Raider: Legend, it appeared as if, for the first time in what must have seemed like an eternity, the series that simultaneously gave birth to both modern 3D adventure and iconic video game heroine Lara Croft had returned to form. The franchise’s breakthrough 1996 debut notwithstanding, the series found itself in a near decade-long slump, punctuated by the near-unplayable mess that was 2003′s Angel of Darkness. However, it was Legend, penned by Crystal Dynamics rather than the recently dismembered Core Design, which proved Eidos’ continued faith in their media darling with an adventure that stood out as one the year’s best.
And just as Legend re-energized the Tomb Raider franchise with an overhaul and a return to Gameplay 101, Tomb Raider: Anniversary builds upon this foundation, using Core Design’s brilliant freshman effort as a jumping off point for what is unquestionably Lara Croft’s most rewarding adventure to date. The original stood out for its emphasis on epic platforming and death-defying heroics, and this remake manages to recapture this magic, while simultaneously refining it so that the experience feels unmistakably modern.
Anniversary is nostalgic when appropriate, and players who experienced the original will no doubt geek out over several of the little touches offered by this homage to Tomb Raider‘s roots. But this game is more than just a remake: the real accomplishment of Anniversary is that Crystal Dynamics has not used the original as a crutch, but rather as a kind of map, and like Croft herself, the developers were not shy about exploring beyond the edges of what was known, resulting in an experience that brilliantly marries both old and new.
Also brilliant are the numerous touch-ups found in this return to Lara’s first adventure, from Croft herself, now looking every bit the part of a modern gaming icon, to the title’s many sprawling environments, a handful of which represent some of best designed levels to come about in years. Anniversary‘s completely redesigned puzzles also impress, with head-scratchers that are rarely too difficult, many times offering just enough of a hurdle to make the accomplishment feel earned and worthwhile.
While the original’s gameplay was based on a calculating, grid-based system of jumps, Anniversary is much more fluid, more forgiving, with a wonderful checkpoint system that records your progress automatically after nearly every significant accomplishment. Make no mistake, the game is still challenging in parts, but the developers have done a great job at keeping frustration to a minimum. Much of this comes thanks to the groundwork laid with Legend, including a new repertoire of gameplay mechanics such as grapples and pole vaults, so it’s surprising that Anniversary‘s camera feels much less intuitive than Legend‘s, sometimes obscuring the action rather than showing what needs to be seen.
Altogether, Tomb Raider: Anniversary is now the benchmark against which all future remakes will be measured. Like the original, action takes a backseat to exploration, as Anniversary leaves players alone for long stretches of gameplay as they wrestle with the game’s many platforms and crevices, making those encounters awaiting Lara Croft feel all the more intense. Anniversary rethinks one of the most important games of the last decade, and is a fantastic testimonial to its roots, standing out as one the year’s most worthwhile gaming experiences so far.