One of the most successful video game series of all time returns from a hiatus with Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. This latest adventure starring modern-day adventuress Lara Croft sends her to Paris, Prague, and a number of dangerous, ancient, subterranean catacombs. As before, Lara will need to run, jump, climb, shoot, and think her way through various trials and tribulations, and certain death often lies at the bottom of a long drop that is just one miscalculated step away from where she needs to be. In development for years, this new Tomb Raider was intended as a reinvention of the series, with a darker edge and all-new gameplay elements. That is indeed the case, but unfortunately, it's easy to tell that Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, despite all the time spent in the making, shipped before it was completely finished. Much like in the just-released PlayStation 2 version, numerous glitches, some superficial and some serious, as well as a cumbersome and often frustrating control scheme seriously hurt this game, making it considerably less enjoyable than it could have been. Nevertheless, hard-core Tomb Raider fans and other particularly patient players should be able to overlook some of these flaws and enjoy this new installment for its engaging storyline, death-defying action sequences, and impressive locations.
Lara Croft's latest adventure is fraught with peril. And camera problems.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness begins in Paris, when a heated argument between Lara Croft and her mentor ends with a deadly twist--the old man is killed, and since Lara is the only one present at the scene, she spends the first part of the game eluding the authorities, who assume she did it. As Lara desperately searches for answers to why her mentor might have been killed, she becomes increasingly aware that a notorious serial killer is apparently shadowing her wherever she goes, leaving you to wonder whether she is indeed to blame for the crime in some way.
Suffice it to say that the plot thickens, and the truth comes out. The story soon involves a secret society, the search for a set of paintings with a hidden secret, and a healthy dose of the occult. Lara will discover the nature of a truly sinister villain, and she'll even cross paths with an adventurer named Kurtis Trent, who seems to have a similar agenda--as well as some surprising powers. The story of The Angel of Darkness unfolds gradually and in different ways, such as when Lara happens upon important documents, during dialogue between Lara and other characters, and in stylish cinematic cutscenes using the game's 3D engine. It's surprising that the game scraped by with a T rating, as the story features some decidedly grisly and violent imagery, the likes of which would land any other game these days an M rating. At any rate, rest assured that this Tomb Raider doesn't pull any punches. In the early part of the game, you hear about the grisly way the serial killer dispatches his victims. Later on, you get to see it firsthand.
In fact, the interesting story is probably the most compelling reason to struggle through the game. The actual gameplay of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness often isn't fun at all, but instead can be frustrating, difficult, and tedious. The controls are the biggest problem. Though the first few sequences of the game are intended to be a sort of tutorial that introduces you to Lara's various moves and abilities, the beginning of the game merely makes its problems painfully apparent. Though she's supposed to be agile, Lara moves like a cement truck. There's a very noticeable lag between when you input the command to move and when Lara actually begins moving in the direction you've indicated. Just turning in place can be difficult--sometimes you'll accidentally turn a full 180 degrees, rather than just the few degrees you needed to line yourself up with the platform you're standing on. Simply put, you'll undoubtedly struggle for hours getting accustomed to the game's control. Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness supports only keyboard (and optionally mouse) controls, though for what it's worth, the digital control afforded by the keyboard actually is somewhat better and more precise than the analog gamepad controls of the PS2 version.
The camera is just as problematic as the controls. The third-person perspective goes haywire in situations when Lara has her back against a wall, whereas many recent games have solved this problem by seamlessly switching to a first-person view in such cases. Sometimes the camera will switch on you from scene to scene, and occasionally this will cause the controls to flip. For example, you may be climbing hand over hand across a rope stretched across a bottomless pit, and suddenly just turn around, or just stop. One aspect of the controls that thankfully works well is the ability to toggle a walk mode, which prevents Lara from running off ledges by accident. The other good news is you will eventually get used to the controls if you stick with the game.
You can eventually get used to the controls, but you'll never stop wishing they were simply better.
You'll also get used to the fact that approximately half the time you mistime a jump and die--and you'll die very often--the controls will be at least partly to blame. It bears mentioning that the Tomb Raider series has never been known for its responsive control, but rather than buck the bad trend, this latest game seems to control even worse than its predecessors. As a result, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness probably won't be winning over any new fans, though since trial-and-error gameplay has always been a part of the series, existing fans shouldn't feel completely out of their element.
Lara essentially has all the same moves that she had in previous installments in the series. She can jump high and far while standing, jump even farther while running, shimmy across ledges, swim underwater for a while, and automatically lock on to enemies whenever she draws her weapon. Lara can also crawl on all fours or while prone. The most obvious new gameplay element is a stealth mode, by means of which Lara can creep up on unsuspecting foes. She can also flatten her back against a wall and take a peek around a corner, just like Snake from Metal Gear Solid. Stealth elements are rapidly becoming overused in games, so it's probably for the best that the stealth mechanics are largely irrelevant in Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. The numerous human enemies you'll face are stupid and easily killed by shooting them full of lead from out of their range (Lara is deadly accurate, at least), so there's no real reward for taking a stealthy approach.
It's been a couple of years since the last Tomb Raider game, and apparently Lara's fallen out of shape in the downtime. An important aspect of the gameplay is that she can't climb indefinitely--her ability to hang onto ledges or other objects is governed by a grip meter that begins dwindling as soon as she catches hold. You'll often have just enough grip to make it across a chasm of some sort, and the camera will often cause you to become disoriented and die during these timed sequences. Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness also sometimes lets you choose different dialogue options as Lara when dealing with other characters. This strange nod to traditional adventure and role-playing games has little bearing on the gameplay, but it isn't a bad touch.