You had to see this one coming. Despite all the hooplah about Lara returning to the console that made her famous (well, its successor, anyhow), you had to know that the PlayStation 2 would not be the only place you could get your Tomb Raider Anniversary fix. Now, the game that looked uncannily good on PS2 looks even better on 360 and hasn't lost a beat.
With last year’s Tomb Raider Legend, new developer Crystal Dynamics tore down the decadent remains of what Tomb Raider had turned into and laid a fresh, firm foundation for what it might become. Unwieldy complications were removed, and the game returned to the "high camp and grand ruins" formula of those early successes.
The result was impressive, and the response seems to have convinced Crystal Dynamics that what people want is Lara back the way she used to be, only better, faster and prettier. And that’s what they’re giving us with Anniversary, a remake of the very first Tomb Raider, which makes full use of all the advantages of the 360 - well, most of them. No online multiplay here, but Lara does look every bit as attractive as the impossible pin-up girl she is, and her moves have evolved for the better since her early days in the mid 1990s.
So once more the story has Lara - remodeled and back in figure-hugging green - heading to Peru to find a relic called the Atlantean Scion. It’s a trail that goes from Peru through Greece and Egypt and, eventually, to Atlantis, although - then as now - it’s the destinations, rather than the flimsy plot, that really matter.
See, what provided the brilliantly engaging atmosphere of the original Tomb Raider - something lost in the increasingly urbanized sequels - were the tombs themselves. Vividly imagined and tapping into an Indiana Jones-style matinee spirit, the archaeological environments were bursting with a character that the later, blander settings couldn’t compete with.
Now the revamped ruins are back, and they look incredible. Anniversary plays out across a series of stunning arenas - huge, almost theatrical spaces packed with a labyrinthine arrangement of platforms, pillars and other interactive obstacles. Occasionally, in other games, you’ll come across a grand-standing set-piece or area and remember it as a highlight - here you’ll find several on every level. There's a thrilling sense that you’re wandering around a masterful creation. The parallel is strengthened by the haunting emptiness of the world Anniversary leads you through - these are fallen civilizations, and they lend a somber feel to proceedings.
Just as crucial as these grand surroundings themselves, of course, is how Lara moves through them. The gameplay generally is a very sensibly selected mix of classic controls and the things that Legend got right. The grapple line stays, for instance, but its implementation is much improved - it’s now a hook rather than a magnet, so the “fire at will and see if it sticks” approach is ditched.
The rest of Lara’s updated move set is a balanced act of engaging variety and intuitive difference - in other words there are enough to stop you getting bored, but not so many that you’ll get confused as to what to use when. Lara leaps, hangs, scrambles, somersaults and swings using all the ledges, cracks, ropes, poles and boxes that the environment throws at her. There’s a fluidity and control to her acrobatics which recalls Prince of Persia, although there’s a character to her actions - a curt, balletic handstand to mount a ledge, a gymnast’s whipped flourish into a tumbling forward-flip - that’s uniquely Lara.
The coming together of the game’s environments with Lara’s graceful new move set mean that Anniversary’s central pleasure is in simply negotiating and moving through the levels. They gel so satisfyingly that even traversing simple obstacles is remarkably fulfilling, and the sense of anticipation on seeing a huge new room for the first time - scoping for hand-holds and doing imaginary run-throughs - is a real joy. This compensates for the fact that picking out your route is never particularly difficult, as the moves are obstacle-specific and grabbable fixtures clearly identifiable.
What challenge the game does have is in the puzzles. Of course, the different types of gameplay aren‘t totally distinguishable - there is a puzzle element to plotting a course through the ruins - but there are several moments when you’ll be presented with a poser that’ll block your progress until you’ve figured it out. The nuts and bolts of these problems are classic Raider - pressure pads, cryptograms, levers and boxes - but inevitably the occasional solution will prove inexplicably elusive.
Less successful is the combat, which never amounts to much more than leaping and shooting as fast as possible. Anniversary doesn’t over-extend itself, keeping encounters short and simple and never trying to build them into anything more than temporary obstructions. The notable exceptions are the boss battles but even here the game avoids over-burdening its simple combat mechanic.