A lot of attention is given to Lara Croft's exploits to the furthest edges of the earth. It's understandable - the game is called Tomb Raider, so you'd expect that she'd visit exotic locales, poke into their forgotten crevices and shove everything that isn't nailed down into her knapsack. But there's one place I love exploring above all of the ruins, crypts, and lost continents - and that's Lara's palatial estate, Croft Manor.
Lara's backstory is always rooted in aristocratic upbringing, the enormous wealth of her family funding that jet-setting lifestyle. It wasn’t until Tomb Raider 2 that we actually got to see evidence of that life first hand. After a surprise run-in with a group of evil mercenaries and the demonic queen of Atlantis in the first game, Lara decided it was high time to install some training equipment back home. And so the sequel opens on Lara Croft giving her assault course a quick run-through before heading off on her latest adventure.
This isn't a typical tutorial section, filled with linear corridors and forced button prompts. While Croft Manor provides a safe space for Lara to practice her backflips and other acrobatic feats, away from all of the dinosaurs and minotaurs out in the wilderness, you're not required to do any of it. At any time you can bail from this homemade obstacle course and simply wander the grounds, while your loyal butler remains at your heel.
There's a lot more to Croft Manor than meets the eye, though. There are secrets galore - a hedge maze provides a secret entrance to her mansion, hidden passages open at the push of a button, and more small touches await if you simply take the time to find them. What should be a short little sequence to get acclimated to the series', ahem, unique controls and mechanics now has its hooks in me. I have to find everything. And I have to see if I can trick Lara's butler to walk inside the freezer while I lock him inside (spoilers: you totally can).
But while exploring Croft Manor in Tomb Raider 2 is its own reward, Tomb Raider Legend's updated version of the mansion was built specifically to house dozens of puzzles to solve and secret artifacts to find. None of it is imperative to the plot, but it provides a nice change of pace from the dangers of exploring uncharted jungles and caverns. There's something comforting about strolling through its familiar halls, scrambling up a massive set of jungle gyms and climbing walls in one room, or wandering into a fully-operational command center in the foyer, and you're able to explore to your heart's content without any beasts breathing down your neck. The puzzles are tricky, too, requiring you to use every move and gadget in Lara's repertoire to figure them out.
None of this has to exist. Tomb Raider isn't about lounging around your house and terrorizing the help. But turning Lara's house into an actual place and allowing you unfettered access to it personalizes her in a way that a dozen expeditions don't. The series has always tried to walk a fine between portraying Lara Croft as a character of significant depth while also playing up her sexuality to almost comedic effect, and it's rarely ever succeeded at doing both. Croft Manor, then, becomes another way for Lara to express her personality - that Lara cares so much about the pursuit of unearthing these historical relics that she took this centuries-old mansion and installed a training course smack in the middle of it.
It's also used to great effect when the game invades your safe haven with a few surprises of its own. It'd be one thing to watch Croft Manor get raided by mobsters or set on fire if your only interaction with it is through non-interactive cutscenes. But Tomb Raider makes these moments more impactful because you can stretch your legs and spend a significant amount of time simply tooling around and getting to know the architecture. There's a sense of ownership in those moments. It's not just Lara's house - it's your house, too. And it hurts a hell of a lot more when it gets taken away from you in Tomb Raider Underworld because of it.
I'm not denying that travelling to the Great Pyramids of Egypt or the highest peaks of the Himalayas is exciting. Getting to explore distant lands is one of the best parts about the fantasy that Tomb Raider offers. But my favorite parts will always be the the ones where I can spend a few minutes getting to know Croft Manor before heading off to parts unknown - and lock a frightened old man inside a walk-in freezer in the process.