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Tomb Raider II (PlayStation) artwork

Tomb Raider II (PlayStation) review

"To get to where you need to go you'll be doing running jumps, backflips, wall-hangs, and all the other good stuff you remember. It's just that now, nearly every opened door will result in a firefight."

It was 1997. The hype could not have been higher for Tomb Raider II. Where the original had downplayed its female heroine, who was a rarity in the decade of Doom Guys and Duke Nukems, the marketing for the second had gone all out to let everyone know just how much of a woman Lara Croft was.

The cover art for the first game featured a stern looking Lara staring down, as if discovering some new challenge to be surpassed. The second features a less serious Lara, posing with one gun unholstered as if for a glamor portrait, complete with red satin background. A PC Gamer cover featured Lara Croft in a black bikini, gun in hand, with the words “Lara's Back!” printed in a huge font. My brother politely asked KB Toys if he could have their promotional Tomb Raider II wall scroll when they were done with it, which resulted in me daily passing by a (nearly) life-sized Lara hanging on his doorway until well into the 2000s, when it finally disintegrated.

Even if the marketing for Tomb Raider II relied on gimmickry and what passed for digital titillation at the time, though, Core Design had set its sights on a higher ideal. Rather than dumbing down the formula that made the original a success, the developer elected to produce another quality title in the hopes of turning Tomb Raider into a franchise.

The first level drops the player onto The Great Wall of China. As anyone who played the first game might expect, Lara is promptly set upon by a tiger and either has to find a vantage point it can't reach, or jump around and over it as it approaches, auto-locked and firing until it falls. Once the creature perishes, the player has to find a way to ascend toward the top portion of the environment. It becomes immediately apparent that the invisible grid is back. Lara's world is again made of square units, with one square being precisely how far she will jump backwards if the Down button is pressed, and--more importantly--exactly the amount of running space she needs to make many long jumps. Other familiar elements are reintroduced in quick succession: switches, swimming, and deadly traps. If the player finds a secret path, the most thrilling encounter from the original game is repeated with the appearance of a T-Rex. Immediately after that encounter, another such beast appears to give the overconfident player a swift death as punishment. Luckily, the player can save his or her progress at any point this go around, save crystals having been eliminated completely. This first level is a masterpiece of design, managing simplicity while hitting all the beats fans of the series love. The level feels spatially huge, the traps are varied, and the secret T-Rex area is a big exclamation point appearing right at the end.

Unfortunately, a few missteps follow.

Instead of staying in China for a few more levels, Lara heads to Venice. If The Great Wall served to show the player all that remained the same in design from the first to the second game, Venice serves to show the differences. In the first five minutes of this level, the player will encounter roughly the same number of human enemies that were present in the entirety of Tomb Raider. A few adjustments have been made over the humans of that game, of course. They take a little less damage to kill, and they give a little bit less when they are hit. Many do not even have guns, but head towards you with a variety of blunt instruments. There won't always be a high perch to take down such an enemy, so you will be jumping backwards while firing at these men quite often. I derided the combat in the original game, especially against human foes, but these small changes make it a great deal more tolerable. That's a good thing too, because Tomb Raider II is filled with these bad guys.

But just because there is a new emphasis on combat is not to say that the puzzling or platforming has been scaled back. You'll be running around open areas looking for switches and keys all over again, and to get to where you need to go you'll be doing running jumps, backflips, wall-hangs, and all the other good stuff you remember. It's just that now, nearly every opened door will result in a firefight. Dead foes provide ammunition and health drops plentifully enough to keep the encounters from becoming truly frustrating, but I could have personally done with about half the number of these villains. Even counting the beneficial tweaks to combat, Lara's move set really just isn't enough to deal with many of these encounters without suffering serious damage. It can be frustrating.

Another issue I have with this entry in the series lies in a series of levels taking place in an oil rig, and then in a wrecked ship. The concept is cool enough. Lara escapes from the enemy's rig to dive down to the wreck and discover the needed artifact there before they do, but it just isn't executed well. I want Lara to explore a gigantic, open area, and even though the tight ship quarters are broken up by the occasional underwater cave, the whole sequence still feels cramped. The atmosphere just isn't right.

However, the game is back in fine form once Lara travels to Tibet. Even the enemy encounters become fun there, in the snow, with birds and mountain lions, yetis and spear-wielding monks (who only attack if you attack first!) providing enough variety to make you want to see Lara's next death animation. One level gives the player control of a snowmobile, and Lara uses it to both make enormous jumps and mow down enemies. If the player has managed to not piss off the aforementioned monks, another level lets you watch them assault your gun-toting foes from afar so you can concentrate on puzzling out where to go next and how to get there.

Finally, it's back to China for another brilliant area that has Lara traveling down to increasingly mystical levels beneath the Great Wall. These areas are fun and appropriately difficult for the endgame. The final boss is exactly what you would expect it to be if you watch the opening FMV, and can be bested in a few tries thanks to some generous ammunition pick-ups there for the taking in the final room.

A brief, easy epilogue back at Lara's mansion ends with some racy humor the marketing department must have loved. Playing through again, it's easy to remember a generation putting down their controllers afterwards, hungry for Tomb Raider III. Whether it was through marketing or design, Eidos and Core did what they set out to do: established a franchise.


Germ's avatar
Staff review by Jeremy Davis (September 16, 2014)

Jeremy has less time for videogames now, but sometimes reviews books on YouTube.

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