On the eve of Tomb Raider’s 25th anniversary, a reader ranks the 10 best entries in the franchise, from the 90s to the present day.
Over the course of 25 years Tomb Raider has been a pioneer of action adventure video games and heroine Lara Croft has cemented herself as an icon. One of the most successful franchises in gaming, Tomb Raider has had peaks and troughs, with 12 mainline console games and numerous handheld and spin-off titles. Lara has been through many different adventures and ranking my favourites is a difficult task. But as it’s Lara’s 25th birthday she deserves it!
The thrills of shooting a T-Rex in the face, the fear of missing a perfectly timed jump, the bliss of locking your bumbling butler in the walk-in freezer… Tomb Raider provides experiences unparalleled in the genre.
Here is my top 10 Tomb Raider games.
Coming in at number 10 is the game that is often held responsible for the downfall of original Tomb Raider developer Core Design, and for good reason. The tank controls from the original PlayStation era returned and were somehow made even more clunky, the game was riddled with bugs, featured bizarre levelling up elements, awful stealth gameplay, and dialogue trees which while good in theory were completely superfluous.
But looking back, many people overlook what Angel Of Darkness did well: a challenging puzzle game, varied locations bought to life with vivid and beautifully realised graphics for the time, along with one of the most accomplished and incredibly tense stories Tomb Raider has ever done. Combining a film noir style of storytelling with a sweeping orchestral score that sets the mood beautifully, along with Core’s excellent level design, Angel of Darkness succeeded where it mattered for a Tomb Raider game.
Though the game certainly feels rushed and an extra 6-12 months in the oven would have resulted in a far superior product, Angel Of Darkness is worth your time – once you get past the game’s many quirks.
The most recent entry in the long running franchise is a solid game and builds well off the two games that preceded it in the reboot trilogy. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is an incredibly refined experience, with tight controls, beautiful graphics, and a striking soundtrack.
There’s a lot to love about the game but the real standout of the experience is the actual tomb raiding and puzzles that make a massive comeback in both side quests and main questline, as well as excellent difficulty settings so you can tailor the experience to your liking. The tombs themselves are tricky and give an excellent sense of achievement when they’ve been solved.
However, Shadow suffers in a couple of areas, mainly the storytelling. A poor script tries to explore Lara’s mental state with all the subtlety of jackhammer, with poor pacing, a silly plotline, and an underwhelming villain. Add to this a boring open world hub where costume changes are limited and an overabundance of stealth over shooting and it adds up to make Shadow the poorest entry in the reboot trilogy. Sadly, the balancing act of making a Tomb Raider game the best it can be wasn’t met with this entry, Shadow was a boring conclusion and a bit of a missed opportunity.
The third and fourth entries in the original Tomb Raider run are both guilty of the same sins: both have puzzles that are virtually impossible to work out without a guide. Tomb Raider 3 is better than its successor, mostly because it still feels like a bold globetrotting adventure, whereas The Last Revelation’s Egyptian setting becomes monotonous over its long running time.
Tomb Raider 3 operates in a similar fashion to its predecessor, adding a couple of extra moves to Lara’s arsenal, including a sprinting and crouching. The new moves don’t quite provide the gameplay diversity they should though, only being used sporadically. Also returning is vehicle sections, but an awkward kayak mission makes their inclusion more of an annoyance than a welcome distraction.
Tomb Raider 3 is still an enjoyable romp despite its drawbacks, with a mission in Area 51 being a personal favourite, plus the best implementation of Croft Manor in any of the original Tomb Raider games.
Tomb Raider Underworld took what worked in 2006’s Tomb Raider Legend and opened it up; sprawling levels that were beautifully realised on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s superior hardware. It’s a thrilling conclusion to Crystal Dynamics’ first games and in some ways is the best of first reboot trilogy.
The game is more open than Legend, so exploring is a more viable option than before, though the game still very much retains a linearity that Legend also had – meaning the openness can feel somewhat hollow, which is disappointing – exploration doesn’t amount to much more than seeing more of a level. Combat is refined with its auto lock-on shooting incorporating melee into the proceedings, so encounters can be approached with a bit more variety.
Exploring Norse mythology has never been so fun, and the game cleverly intertwines the myths believably. Issues with the camera, minor bugs, and awful quick time events mar what is a stellar action adventure title.
Legend followed Angel Of Darkness, at a time when Tomb Raider could have been finished. Taking over from Core Design, Crystal Dynamics built Legend from the ground up, creating a completely new style of Tomb Raider with an emphasis on story and free-flowing platforming.
Leaving the tank controls of the original games in the past where they belong, Lara’s 360° movement was a change the series desperately needed. Taking heavy inspiration from the Prince Of Persia series, platforming went from the original’s static, precise grid gameplay to leaps, bounds, and swinging that smoothly connect together in a balletic fashion.
Legends’ story is tight, interesting and well-paced, the game delves into Lara’s past and gives her a much needed personality boost. She’s still an English explorer with a twinkle in her eye, but her motivations are more interesting and her backstory is enticing. Tomb Raider finally has an emotional pull and it’s all the better for it. Legends’ biggest drawback is its incredibly linear structure, feeling more like a set of corridors rather than open explorable spaces and a short length – with the game taking a mere six hours to complete.
Tomb Raider Anniversary is a faithful adaptation of the very first Tomb Raider game. The story, the puzzles, and the pacing are nearly identical, but with Legends’ updated gameplay and the graphics now more closely resembling real places instead of the pixelated triangles of the original.
What elevates Anniversary above the likes of both Legend and Underworld is it sticks to the original game’s structure, so it retains the more open structure that was absent in the aforementioned games as well as far higher difficulty; it has a better balance of gameplay with a more adequate running time.
Anniversary is a stellar entry and one the series’ best, QTEs being one of the few drawbacks as they turn some of the most thrilling moments of the original game into annoying button presses. It also removes the shock and awe of encounter with the T-Rex, which is almost sacrilegious. It’s a minor gripe with a game which pretty much delivers on most fronts.
The reboot trilogy is a touchy subject for Tomb Raider diehards. The games takes a big leaf out of the Uncharted playbook, going for grand cinematic storytelling rather than the platforming and puzzling of the original games. It may have fallen apart had it not been for the interesting story and well-crafted character study; Lara is young and uncertain of herself but still fearless and capable.
Though there’s an element of cognitive dissonance with the story, it’s a minor negative with one of Tomb Raider’s most interesting plots. As the game progresses her ‘kill first ask questions later’ attitude from the original games begins to come back and it’s great to see. But this is a fundamentally different Croft, she feels like a woman more grounded in her environment and lacking the wit and charm of the previous Laras.
The game goes in a different direction with its structure, choosing a semi-open world Metroidvania style that opens up as Lara obtains the right gear. The Japanese influenced island in Tomb Raider is one of the game’s greatest strengths; this is a thrilling and beautiful land to explore, combining tight linear corridors and open spaces with excellent design choices by Crystal Dynamics.
The combat in the reboot finally reaches a standard worthy of praise, with its third person shooting mechanics being near best in class for the time – the bow and arrow providing a satisfying weapon to take on enemies silently.
The original game, the one that started it all. A game that took the world by storm thanks to its groundbreaking level design, its fiery protagonist, and its chilling atmosphere. Lara Croft became an overnight sensation, as one of the first female protagonist in gaming. Her oversized proportions were the big talking point, but it should have been her incredible confidence and cheeky wit, Lara was so much more than her looks.
Before the advent of the open world game, Tomb Raider’s enormous levels, with hidden nooks and crannies, were a world away from the other 2D games of the 90s and the ability to explore them at your leisure was a joy. The controls were stiff and ridged, meaning the platforming tasked the player with precision, lining up jumps perfectly could be the difference between life and death – it’s thrilling.
Tomb Raider is a challenging game, but one that feels rewarding to conquer and on a modern PC, without the horrible save system, it’s still a fun game to return to.
A more confident Lara, a larger more beautiful world, a bigger emphasis on exploration and platforming; the sequel to 2013 Tomb Raider is better experience in almost every way. Where Shadow fell down was in its attempt at making the world bigger but it felt more empty. Rise expanded the world but it still feels dense with every inch of the map thought through, all of it was designed for a reason.
Rise is even now one of the best-looking games of all time, with the realistic snow deformation, the towering mountains, and the realistic wildlife making it a beautiful lived-in place. Like its predecessor Rise’s story is tight and well told with good performances from the cast. The villain of the game is a notable step up from the previous game, with a personal attachment that makes their relationship far more captivating than a typical bad guy.
The combat encounters are far more varied in Rise, offering options to go all guns blazing or be stealthier. Both are viable, though stealth is still very simple with all enemies able to track your location once you’ve been spotted, which is a minor annoyance with the system. Rise Of The Tomb Raider was everything a sequel should be; it added lots more tombs to solve, refined the combat, and told a fascinating story at the perfect pace.
Tomb Raider 2 is a near perfect example of how to make a Tomb Raider game. It mixes combat, exploration, platforming, puzzle solving, and a captivating story told across multiple varied destinations. Adding in the ability to control vehicles adds a new layer of gameplay that breaks up the gameplay loop nicely, tearing round Venice in a motorboat has never been so fun.
Far more human enemies in the game provide a serious challenge, with them able to take you on from a distance as well as running at you with their dogs, better utilising Lara’s weapon arsenal and her acrobatic skills to stay alive. The puzzles in the game are tricky but working them out involves reading your environment rather than an online walkthrough, which is the mark of good game design.
The narrative is stronger too, involving an ancient dagger that gives the holder command of a grand army and the power to transform a person into a ferocious dragon. Taking on a group of thuggish cultist has become a mainstay of the Tomb Raider franchise and Bartoli and his goons are some of the best. The final showdown at Lara’s home is a thrill and one of the most memorable moments from the entire franchise.
Tomb Raider 2 is the best Tomb Raider game of all time and a Capcom Resident Evil 2 style remake would be absolutely welcome. Taking the excellent design of the original games and adding updated controls and the combat from the reboot games could be a match made in heaven. Come on Square Enix do it!
By reader Jay Johnson
The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.
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