Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness has been billed as the first true renovation of the best-selling series since the ground-breaking 1996 original. This edition is built on a completely new engine, which pumps out "next-generation" graphics and allows many new animations and interactions. Lara herself enjoys the engine upgrade as well, as she's now rendered with ten times the number of polygons as in earlier Tomb Raider games.
The role-playing aspects of this adventure are slightly more central to play than in earlier games. Lara must enter a dark, supernatural world where nothing is certain. She must interact with other characters, and complex situations call for her to make ethical decisions where there is no clear-cut "good" or "evil" choice. Lara also develops throughout the game, as her abilities improve and adapt to the way she's played. A new system is designed to offer smoother control of Lara's many moves, which include new stealth attacks and hand-to-hand combat.
Five forgotten works of art, the 14th century Obscura Paintings, will unlock devastating powers if they fall into the hands of a mysterious alchemist who leads a secret alliance of powerful people. Stopping the villain would be difficult enough, even for the resourceful Ms. Croft, but our heroine's quest is complicated as she is framed for the murder of her former mentor, Von Croy. Now, on the run from the authorities, Lara must avoid being captured as she strives to keep the alchemist and his alliance from unleashing their evil on the world.
While most of the previous Tomb Raider games had you traipsing about exotic locales, the latest installment begins with Lara accused of murdering her former mentor, Werner Von Croy, in Paris. After what seems to take too long, you finally start to gain clues as to what is really going on. There's something called the Monstrum stalking Paris (that's sort of the major plot, so I won't give away details), and it's Lara's job to figure out what's really up. An upshot here is that the cutscenes, while graphically average, feature topnotch voice acting, and the game's music is one of the best video-game scores to date.
As expected, this leads Lara on a wild goose chase, exploring such new areas as a night club called Le Serpent Rouge, discovering the secret hideout of a potentially powerful ally, and even briefly taking control of a new character named Kurtis Trent. His levels are an interesting diversion, reminiscent of the early Resident Evil games more than anything else, but his inclusion seems mainly to drag out the story a little more.
The "upgrades" that Lara receives throughout the game are nothing more than a contrivance, allowing Lara to jump further, run faster, etc. as you progress. It sounds cool, but the implementation is all wrong. Usually, there's some arbitrary box or door that Lara must drag or kick open to gain an upgrade, and that means that door you couldn't open earlier is now fair game. The connections between the upgrades relate directly to the puzzle you're working on, as there's very little chance to backtrack and try new skills as they're learned. Additionally, the somewhat awkward but ultimately useful cube-based style of gameplay in the previous games is gone, as Lara is no longer walking on a grid. You used to know exactly how to line Lara up for a jump, but now that the grid is gone, it's more difficult.
Most of the puzzles are of the typical Tomb Raider variance, with switches to flip and levers to pull. There are also the usual crate-dragging puzzles and other maneuvering of crate-shaped objects to get to various places. There are also a few puzzles that border on Myst levels of irrelevance and concocted, made-up logic, which feel entirely out of place, even if there's just a few of them.
A real letdown is that, except for the darker plotline, Angel of Darkness plays pretty much the same as any other Tomb Raider game. There are timed sequences, things to shimmy on and hang from, dumb enemies to kill, and so on. The writing is perhaps the best of any Tomb Raider game, but it all has a very pass feel. This might be forgivable if the rest of the game didn't scream, "Release me in time for the movie!" I'm a fan, but some things are really difficult to forgive, much less forget.
The Tomb Raider series has never really been known for its precise control, but because of the exploratory nature of the games, it's mostly been forgiven. I'm not sure how (or possibly why), but the controls are slower here. Far slower. To put it lightly, Angel of Darkness controls like a derailed, speeding freight train. With no brakes. On an ice rink. And the ice is cracking. Mouse control is particularly atrocious -- it's either a full 180-degree spin or a few seconds of a degree with little in-between. With the precise movements required by Lara, the mouse is not an option. The gamepad and keyboard are the better alternatives and work equally better, but it's still slipshod at best.
One of Lara's most useful moves is walking: she won't fall off ledges or accidentally make some other move you don't want when the walk key is pressed. Pressing left or right in walk mode will make Lara slowly strafe in the appropriate direction, which is required for precise movements. However, if your timing is just a little off, then pressing left or right will simply rotate Lara in place, even if the walk icon is showing. Even weirder, she'll sometimes strafe in one direction and rotate in the other. Timing is key during many of the episodes, and these types of glitches just aren't acceptable.
Finally, the inventory is a mess. I collected several maps throughout the game, but could never figure out how to view one. The game even told me to look at the map a few times, but activating the map made a beep followed by the same rotating inventory image. Most of the guns each took two bullets for each shot, even though there's only one barrel. The Notebook, which you find fairly early on, contains a lot of important information. Unfortunately, it's never annotated, only appended to. The Notebook becomes an unwieldy mess the further you go, and it's often difficult to figure out what applies to your situation without flipping through page after page.
When everything is just right, the game is truly beautiful. Lara's animation is topnotch, as are most of the enemies and other effects (fire, water, etc.). Reflections are everywhere, and there's a true sense of height when you're dangling from a ledge. There are some ragdoll physics in effect here, but the results are hit and miss. Sometimes, a dead enemy literally looks like he had his head up his butt (before oddly flashing out of existence); other times, plummeting to your death (which you'll do a lot of) results in Lara bouncing off objects in a very believable manner.
All the prettiness, though, doesn't save the other major problems. In addition to the previous graphical issues, Angel of Darkness has some major clipping issues. Helicopter lights shine through roofs, Lara clips through some steps and walls, enemies shoot through doors, etc. In particularly busy areas, the entire screen flashes through walls, showing perhaps areas that are locked to you at the time in strobe light fashion. There are far too many examples of graphically impressive games where such issues are resolved, and given the three or more years this has been in development, it almost seems like this is a beta version of the graphics engine.
Adding injury to insult is the screwball camera. While it's just fine for most situations, it's completely useless when it matters most. Much like the pre-rendered games of the same era as the original Tomb Raider, the camera will fix itself on a position, presumably for a dramatic impact. This often reverses your control and completely messes you up. There's a way to look around, but it's disabled during these "dramatic" scenes. It's an artificial way to make a potentially easy situation exponentially more difficult, and it's not appreciated.
Will anyone enjoy Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness? I don't know. I'm a big fan of the Tomb Raider games and I struggled through it. It's certainly not going to draw any new fans to the series; it's got more issues than a transvestite teenager on Jerry Springer. We can only hope that a patch (or more likely, multiple patches) will be released to address the major issues. The moments that shine are really good, but they're the minority here, and the rest of the game should really have been in better form.
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