Watch your step, Lara.
I've always pictured Lara Croft as the type to wade into a fracas with both guns blazing, asking no questions and taking no prisoners. And it's been
perplexing that someone possessing her amazing physical prowess would be as helpless as a kitten when left without a firearm. However, it never
occurred to me that what was missing was an ability to tip around as silent and sneaky as a ninja, peering around corners and creeping up on foes from behind.
Since she never went up against anything that actually deserved the reverence of stealth, there was never much incentive to sneak. Well, the good folks at Core -- apparently bitten by the Solid Snake bug -- have opted to add a stealth element to the game, in addition to a bevy of other new features that probably no one on Earth thought were missing. The result is Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, a hodgepodge of odd gaming options that never actually coalesces into a satisfying adventure.
The story here revolves around our heroine Lara Croft having been framed, Max Payne style, for the murder of her mentor, Professor Von Croy, as well as for the deaths of a number of others unfortunate enough to enter into the adventurer's company. The tale also features cultists and several paintings with occult associations and, though aptly moved along by numerous cut scenes, it never manages to build to a captivating crescendo. Nevertheless, it's a far cry from some of her previous nonsensical adventures and a good deal more mature in nature.
In addition to exploration through Paris, Prague and the catacombs of Europe, players will encounter the obligatory puzzles -- although these are much more intuitive and not nearly as mind-meltingly difficult as those in previous games. Speaking with or performing a task for other characters will help you to solve many of the puzzles. This is a definite plus to anyone familiar with Miss Croft's earlier exploits. Of course, you will still be seeking elusive keys to open a series of doors, but you'll never find yourself having to execute blind backflips up narrow chimney-like passageways in order to obtain them.
The game indeed looks better than earlier installments in the series. Environments are suitably creepy and dark, or impressively expansive.
Effects such as rain, smoke and water have definitely improved. The characters are passably well rendered, including a new playable character named Kurtis Trent.
Everyone seems to fare better than poor Lara who still resembles nothing more than a bubble-headed, alien-eyed refugee from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. However, there are still graphical glitches and players will notice a variety of clipping errors and a good amount of slow down, at times ití¢â‚¬â„¢s almost like playing the game in slow motion.
The item-ring which was a standard in the TR series is mournfully absent here, replaced by a standard item menu, which increases the chances that you will collect items without knowing what they are and then have difficulty finding them later.
There is, however, a helpful hand icon which will now appear to indicate objects with which you are capable of interacting, and this is bound to minimize some of the frustrations of exploration. Unfortunately, the hand icon never disappears, even after an object has ceased to be useful or a particular box or cupboard has yielded all of its useable contents.
Lara now allegedly gets more powerful as you play the game. These increases are not optional, they are necessary to proceed in the game, and
they are also something that must be taken on faith as you're never actually presented with stats to view. She'll simply tell you, "I feel stronger now," which indicates that some ability has increased but there's usually no telling precisely what precipitated the change or why. She's simply stronger than she was 30 seconds ago and so can perhaps jump farther, hang on longer or move a particular object that she couldn't move before. This can be frustrating, since figuring out Laraí¢â‚¬â„¢s new ability by trial and error can lead to a lot of reloading saved games.
When it comes to control set-up, TR:AoD has one of the worst of any game in living memory. To incorporate her new stealth and hand-to-hand combat moves (and perhaps just to be obstinate), Lara's controls have been completely rebuilt from the ground up. Reliance on the analog stick, while an option in previous games, is now absolute. This is unfortunate as D-pad control was always far more accurate. The new Lara seems completely incapable of grasping the concept of backing up, instead she rotates -- not fluidly, but in fits and starts. Just getting her correctly positioned for a jump is a frustrating ordeal and certainly not suited to an action game where precise control is key.
The once sure-footed Lara is now prone to stumble off of planks and accidentally hurl herself over railings. To offset this, they have implemented a walk toggle which will prevent her from falling but has its own irritations, especially when you're locked into a walk and need to make a sudden run.
At times Lara will muster the fortitude and presence of mind (or foot) to actually kick in a door to gain entry. Later she will encounter an identical door and make you go look for a key instead. You can also count on her to inexplicably
dummy up on obstacles a two year old could accidentally knock over, or be completely blocked by objects that an old codger with arthritis in both knees and a hip replacement could easily scramble over or under. To make matters worse, there still remains that torturous lag between pressing a button and Laraí¢â‚¬â„¢s actual execution of a move which plagued previous TR games.
At least you always have the option to save your game. This is necessary because the faulty control will keep you dying on a regular basis.
Fortunately for the new stumblefoot Lara, her opponents put up almost no resistance at all. Although she now possesses a few lame stealth abilities and several new and poorly implemented hand-to-hand combat maneuvers, you can hardly believe she needs them because the enemies you encounter are the usual assortment of dead bulbs who will permit themselves to be peppered with bullets without ever entertaining the notion of
duck-and-cover. A few stiffly executed kicks will knock them right over and, once deceased, their bodies will flash arcade-style and then simply vanish. So much for realism.
When compared to its predecessors, TR:AoD is about as short as Herve Villechaize kneeling in a pothole. However, that may be a blessing. Despite its new look, fairly interesting storyline, and a bucket load of new moves and features, this game is fatally flawed by the completely revamped control system which makes it a nightmare of frustration. Hopefully, the controls will be overhauled yet again before Ms. Croft goes on her seventh spelunking installment.