Tomb Raider: Chronicles

Some recent discussion made me reflect that it had been a very long time since I last played a Tomb Raider game — not since before this blog started, in fact. The last one I started was the fifth in the series, Tomb Raider: Chronicles, released in 2000. I never got past the first level, due to my stubborn insistence on finding all the Secrets.

(How essential I consider Secrets to be to the experience of a game varies from title to title. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t bother with this sort of completeness in the previous title, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, where Secrets seemed just sort of haphazardly assigned to arbitrary hidey-holes. But in some of the others, if you didn’t hunt for Secrets, you missed out on some of the game’s best puzzles and most impressive sights. And this episode has a very completist-welcoming approach to Secrets, putting exactly three in each level.)

I’m now once more struggling my way through that very large first level, a maze of Roman alleyways that double back on themselves confusingly, full of levers that open remote gates and walls that have to be mantled up and passageways with no clear purpose. In short, the main challenge is getting lost. Despite the texturing, it manages to make what’s ostensibly a living city feel like one of Lara’s tombs. Well, the series had never been very realistic in its environments — heck, sometimes it barely even qualifies as representational.

Rather than even attempt to get the original CD-ROM version working, I’m playing from Steam. Even that required some special effort to get it working properly under Windows 10: acting on advice online, I downloaded some old Voodoo 3D drivers and installed them to the game directory. I recall that the original Tomb Raider was among the first games to support 3D accelerator cards on PC, although you had to set it up specially, so this feels somehow appropriate.

Another thing I remember from the Tomb Raiders of old: the controls. I remember people complaining about how awkward they were, which surprised me, because back in 1996 I didn’t think they were all that bad. Perhaps (I thought) they were complaining specifically about the Playstation version? I played on PC, with a keyboard, which had an ingenious system that let you execute nearly all of the game’s multifarious movements from the numeric keypad, plus modifier keys on the other hand. But this idea got broken as they added more special actions in the sequels, such as sprinting and lighting flares, and by Chronicles, the numeric keypad is all but abandoned. I’ll have to see if I can set up better controls than the defaults, because with the default setup it’s way too easy to waste a flare when you’re trying to press the crouch button.

Regardless of the controls, though, you wind up doing a lot of awkward shuffling around. That’s just built into the world model. It’s a grid-based world where the size of the tiles is directly linked to Lara Croft’s gait and how far she can jump. If you see a ledge on the opposite side of a three-tile gap, you know that you can make it across if and only if you carefully line it up by walking right up to the edge (using the walk button, which prevents you from falling off), then taking a single jump back for your run-up. This is fundamentally a game about being painstakingly careful, with occasional enemies attacking you to make this more difficult to do. (Wherever possible, these enemies should be picked off from high ground rather than engaged on their own turf.)

Despite the built-in awkwardness, it’s a comfort how familiar the feel of the controls is, even after all these years. I may be using different fingers than in the numeric-keypad days, but the necessary timing is the same. I can still execute all of Lara’s moves, even the secret handstand. I just need to get my bearings and I’ll be out of Rome in no time.

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