Tomb Raider began as an idea in 1993, yet it wasn't for another 18 months that development really began on the project. Originally the character was a male adventurer, but as the gameplay for the title evolved this was changed to a female protagonist. This was an unprecedented step at the time, as gaming leads were invariably male to cater towards the majority of players.
The character was initially called Laura Cruz, yet this was changed to Lara Croft as her back-story developed. This led to the creation of one of the most recognisable icons in gaming. The blue top, brown shorts, twin handguns and exaggerated figure were an instant success and led to Lara appearing on magazine covers and in the popular media. In 2006 she was named the most successful human videogame heroine ever, which is quite an achievement.
However, there was more to the Tomb Raider games than a charismatic and appealing lead character. When the game was released the gameplay was unlike anything else. The combination of third person adventuring and action were revolutionary and superbly executed. Levels consisted of a complex series of levels and platforms which needed to be explored carefully to find the items necessary to continue. There was a real sense of peril and danger when leaping across a 40 ft drop to reach an extra clip of ammunition or to recover a vital key.
Swimming also played an important aspect of the game, and a limited breath bar made some challenges especially tense as you raced against time to complete your searching. Puzzles were frequent and challenging, ranging from the simple item recovery tasks to the more complex. A particular favourite is the cog challenge from the game's opening level, or the huge multi-area puzzle from St. Francis Folly.
The satisfying combat and tension created between encounters led to an exciting atmosphere which made the game rewarding to play and unlike anything else available on the market. The graphics and sound were carefully crafted and helped to bring the game to life and create a convincing atmosphere. It was easy to see why Tomb Raider was such a huge success with gamers who were treated to a brand new experience.
Having sold millions of copies and received almost universal critical acclaim sequels were inevitable. After a small expansion, Unfinished Business, which contained four new levels, work began on a sequel.
Tomb Raider II built upon the success of the original by offering a variety of new locations, weapons and vehicles. Lara also had an expanded move list and the game instead focused on combat and gun play which was received well by gamers. The "secrets" system from the previous game returned with greater rewards and more replay value. The game was released at the height of Lara's popularity and as such it sold even more than the previous instalment, cementing its position at the top of the adventure genre.
An expansion, The Golden Mask, followed soon after offering more levels. The series was now so large that the developers Core Design began producing sequels every year. Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft again offered new design elements, increased vehicles, weapons, moves and the ability to select which set of levels you tackled next. The twisting plot was also refreshing and was suitably different to the previous titles. The game did receive some criticism that many of the locations featured weren't tombs, but the game was well executed and tried something different.
After another expansion the developers decided to return to the more classic roots of the series and set Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation entirely in Egypt, where Lara was forced to battle against her possessed mentor in order to avoid the Apocalypse. This series was perhaps a defining moment in bringing all the previous gameplay elements together into an incredibly polished title which is regarded by many as the defining Tomb Raider experience.
The games' popularity had taken its toll on the development team, who in a shock cliffhanger ending took the step of killing Lara off. Yet, somewhat inevitably the publishers saw more money left in the series and released Tomb Raider: Chronicles. This was a retelling of Lara's life from key figures in her life at her funeral. Chronicles received mixed reviews due to its complex nature, number of bugs and the gameplay starting to show its age. It was time to bring Tomb Raider to the next generation.
With the PS2 release, it was soon clear that Core Design were working on a new Tomb Raider title to bring Lara to a new console. Angel of Darkness was one of the most anticipated titles, yet upon release it became the weakest of the games. Having been rushed out ahead of schedule, large portions of the game were cut or missing which meant that the plot was frustratingly complex and contained many strange inconsistencies.
The decisions to include an edgy side character, set the game almost entirely in modern settings in Paris and to use a frustrating control system meant that many players felt they weren't getting a true Tomb Raider game.
Lara seemed to have run into some trouble. However, hope was around the corner and developers Crystal Dynamics stepped in and decided to give the franchise a reboot. With Tomb Raider: Legend they decided to return to the basics: raiding tombs. Setting the game in a variety of interesting locations with improved animations, next-generation graphics and a basis in reality made this title wildly successful. Many felt that the game was a faithful return to what the series did best, largely thanks to input from Lara's original creator. Legend became the fastest selling Tomb Raider game and critics were delighted with the complex story and excellent music.
In order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the series, Crystal Dynamics decided to remake the original title, in the form of Tomb Raider: Anniversary. This title revisited the original, staying true to the plot and the locations whilst adding in the smooth new animations, gameplay elements and several new puzzles. Anniversary had a nostalgic feel which made it satisfying to recognise passageways you had walked down years before. The new elements just felt right and proved that Crystal Dynamics had managed to bring the series onto the next generation of consoles without losing any of its distinctive feel.
Tomb Raider is one of the most recognisable game franchises in the world and its popularity doesn't seem to be fading. Tomb Raider: Underworld is set for release this November and looks set to carry on the excellent work of Crystal Dynamics in continuing the modern aspects of the games. The title looks set to really demonstrate the true power of the next generation consoles as well as the PC.
When enemies are killed their bodies will remain in position. Subtler changes are also present. When Lara moves through muddy areas her footprints will remain, but they can be washed away by rain or water. This plays a part in gameplay, with wet surfaces meaning that Lara is more likely to slip and fall, which is particularly perilous near ledges and drops.
A new combat system will be integrated which allows Lara to fire at different targets separately, which I saw demonstrated in a level where Lara fought large spiders whilst navigating through a crumbling tomb. A melee combat system will also be in place which will allow Lara to fight enemies with a number of different moves. Her motorbike and grappling hook will return with an increased variety of uses which will be key to many of the puzzles. The developers are keen to make the puzzles satisfying without being too challenging or obvious, which could well be difficult to balance.
Underworld feels like a Tomb Raider game, and with a series of such pedigree it will surely be one of the Christmas season's most interesting titles.