Llewella Chapman (University of East Anglia, UK)
17 February 2024
‘Made by the fans, for the fans’ very much sums up this lovingly-crafted and faithful remaster of the first three games and their accompanying expansion packs of the Tomb Raider franchise, originally developed by Core Design and published by Eidos Interactive between 1996 and 1998.
Fans of these games have been calling for them to be remastered for many years. Following the publishing takeover of the franchise by Embracer in 2022 and the commission that shortly followed, Aspyr employed fans experienced in creating their own Tomb Raider engines, renders, mods and artworks in order to achieve this, including Timur ‘XProger’ Gagiev, Yousef ‘Troye’ Shaqqouri, Michael Chaban (Arsunt), Giovanni Lucca, Konrad Majewski, Monika Erosova (Raina Audron), Ian Turner, Axel Hatté (Delca) and Jason Chester, as well as others. As XProger tweeted on the day of the remaster’s release, aptly on Lara Croft’s fictional birthday:
I am grateful for the heads of @SaberGames for trusting me to lead the project and assemble a dream team of true fans … From the beginning, we had complete freedom and set ourselves an impossible goal, which could only be approached by a small ‘Development Team’ of crazy people, ready to work 24/7 [over the] next year with an absolute vision of what and for whom we [were] doing. Thanks to all the original developers and community, we eagerly read ALL your comments, interviews, reviews and reactions. The responsibility to all of you was higher than the fear of deadlines and the insane amount of work.
(Twitter, 14 February 2024, 10.20pm, https://twitter.com/XProger_san/status/1757892574092636206)
Besides XProger’s tweet thread acknowledging fan involvement in the remastered games, the admission of working ‘24/7’ and the ‘insane’ amount of work over the period of a year echoes the pressures of the small development team who originally worked on Tomb Raider (1996). This included crunch and tight deadlines, leading to the high levels of exhaustion that some of the original team experienced, which have often been overlooked when discussing and celebrating the ingenuity of what made this game, and its subsequent sequels, remake and now a remaster, special and appreciated by many.
It is with this understanding that I review the remaster of Tomb Raider. This will be followed by further reviews of Tomb Raider II (originally released in 1997) and Tomb Raider III (originally released in 1998). In some ways, it is difficult to review the first game, owing to my familiarity with it and its ‘tank controls’, although this has also helped me to make a comparison between how the original was/is played, versus what is offered by its remastered version.
‘Take a look at this, Lara’: The design
The remastered Lara model is certainly a beauty; it is clear that this is one of the elements that has received a lot of time and investment, and it shows. Lara (designed for the original game by Toby Gard) now retains the same model in all three remastered games (Figure 1). The model, designed by Konrad Majewski, was inspired by the three games FMVs, and in the first game Lara now also wears her hair in the bubble braid style. The hair extension doesn’t always work; at points it flicks over her backpack in an awkward way, at other times, it thins out and sometimes passes through her body, which was one of the reasons the original development team removed the unruly braid from Tomb Raider in the first place. But, nonetheless, the model has been beautifully rendered, and no longer does Lara need to source her bras from Jean Paul Gaultier.
On reviewing the original game’s levels in 1996, Charlie Brooker praised ‘now, thanks to Core Design, it’s possible to be an explorer without leaving your seat … Tomb Raider’s environment is utterly believable. Architecturally, it’s often stunning … some of the architecture is prettier than Lara herself’ (emphasis in original, PC Zone, December 1996: 75, 78). Many of these textures and environments have been respectfully and creatively upscaled, in keeping with the look and feel of playing the originals, with a few, rather lovely, environment additions. For example, in ‘The Cistern’, there are now puddles of reflective water on floor tiles, as well as dripping water that falls from the ceiling. When you kill Egyptian mummies and Atlantean enemies in the later levels of the game, they not only explode beside Lara, but also form a cloud of blood around her (Figure 2), enhancing the experience of being in the environment as a whole – something that the original version achieved so admirably in 1996, and has been wonderfully captured and updated in the remastered version.
Admittedly, I believe that some of the upgraded (and AI-upscaled) textures do not quite work, particularly in the ‘Atlantis’ and ‘Great Pyramid’ levels. In the original Tomb Raider, the textures, attributed to Heather Gibson, and atmosphere and design, attributed to Neal Boyd, always reminded me somewhat of Alien (1979) – very much a return to the womb – and the ‘body horror’ genre of films such as The Fly (1986). Whereas the textures for these levels as they appear in the remaster are somewhat cartoonish in their renders (Figure 3), removing the feeling of pulsating claustrophobia and fascinating grossness, which the originals levels captured so well in 1996. The FMVs, too, are probably the least restored of the remasters, likely owing lack of original sources, budget and time constraints, and merely offer AI-upscaled versions as there was little that could be done with the low-resolution originals.
A more troublesome issue is that owing to the upscaled textures and change to lighting (many areas appear darker than in the original), this means that the items to be collected – keys, medipacks, ammunition, etc. – are sometimes difficult, and at points near impossible, to spot, which will likely cause frustration to new players unfamiliar with Tomb Raider.
However, there are some wonderful upscaled textures, artistic renders and lighting to be admired when playing through the training and game levels. Who knew Lara owned such a prestigious collection of artworks in her manor (to the point where she owns four – presumably original and subsequent copies – of Girl with the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, 1665)? It’s an art historian’s dream. I also enjoyed travelling through Greece, where much was to be appreciated regarding the male form (Figure 4), including a humourous placement of key slot and tile (Figure 5), and some beautiful, evocative lighting (Figures 6 and 7).
‘A kind of evolution on steroids’: Camera movement
An apocryphal story, once read and never, unfortunately, forgotten, is that there was once a fan-created ‘guide’ to advise players where best to view Lara’s posterior captured by different camera angles. Not any more in these remasters (unless you toggle the key to flit between the original and remastered graphics)! The removal of the ‘bottom line’ means that no longer does the camera at times caress Lara’s backside, but rather, directs us to admire other elements instead. The difference in camera position and angles, however, does mean that this changes how the game is played in some ways. At times, I found the camera position a little irritating, and needed to switch to the original graphics, but ultimately it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the gameplay. Although for new players, I suspect the camera may cause frustration at points, especially when combined with the unfamiliar control system.
‘No!’: Attempting to control Lara
As part of the remaster, players can now switch between ‘tank’ (original) and ‘modern’ (remastered) controls whenever they so choose. The new controls are based on those implemented by Crystal Dynamics for Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), Anniversary (2007) and Underworld (2008). So how ‘modern’ these controls actually are by 2024 standards remains to be seen.
For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the original games, the way Tomb Raider was programmed by Paul Douglas and Gavin Rummery led to a grid system that players navigated with tank controls to make, sometimes often precise, movements to explore the 3D level terrains. As most other reviewers of the remasters have found, these controls not only offer a factor of nostalgia for those who played the originals, but you are also left wondering how new players will react to this control system.
In terms of the ‘modern’ controls, they are generally fine when using it for combat situations or exploring open areas, however not so much when you need to make that precise jump and grab to reach a ledge there, or that flip backwards when landing on an exact spot to reach a secret area here. Basically, the modern controls have difficulty connecting to the very grid system the original game was built upon, and I found that at points the camera angles offered when using ‘modern’ rather than ‘tank’ controls were problematic. This is not helped by the inability to perform certain moves in order to achieve certain feats, such as ‘side’ and ‘back step’ being unavailable, and that ‘side’ and ‘back’ flips only work when guns are drawn. I believe that either control system is where it will make or break playing the game for newcomers to these games in particular.
‘Say Cheese!’: The additions
Additions to the remaster, besides being able to choose between original and remastered graphics as well as control systems, include a ‘photo mode’, now a mainstream inclusion among newly-released games. I attempted to use the photo mode for the purposes of this review, which led to Figure 8, but other than for my own gratuitous fun, it didn’t really do anything to enhance my overall experience of the game. Photo mode is more likely to be enjoyed by players wishing to share their ‘favourite’ or ‘comical’ captures on social media, and as is common in gaming nowadays, to assist in the marketing of the game.
Achievements and trophies to be collected have also been added, as with other remastered games, and the inclusion of these is a requirement of Sony and Xbox. Again, this feature isn’t really aimed at gamers such as myself: back in 1996 it was an ‘achievement’ in itself to finish the game without the need to receive a notification for completing it. But I think that they nicely capture the inherent wit and humour afforded in the original games, such as ‘Like Dorothy’, which is a cheeky reference to the inspiration of The Wizard of Oz (1939) behind the level cheat codes used in the original games. Although these features don’t appeal to me personally, I understand that for some fans and new players to these games that these will enhance their gameplaying experience.
From the outset, it is clear that despite time constraints, the sheer amount of work needed to realise the remaster project as a whole, and possibly, I suspect, budgetary ones too, Tomb Raider I (as it has been classified so as to differentiate itself within the group of games offered in the remaster) is a labour of love for those involved in its development. While I believe that it is Tomb Raider fans and game historians who will get the most pleasure out of this game/project as a whole, owing to their desire to play these games, whereas the control systems/camera angles may be off-putting for new players, I think that the remaster of the first game is an admirable achievement. For all three games, and their expansion packs, to be so lovingly restored and available on a variety of consoles, at an extraordinarily reasonable price too, is to be celebrated. Vivat Lara! I don’t think we’ve ever seen enough…
A copy of Tomb Raider I-III Remastered was provided for review by Crystal Dynamics/Aspyr.
 As confirmed by Aspyr (8 February 2024): https://support.aspyr.com/hc/en-us/articles/23948827137549-Modern-Controls-Overview-Tomb-Raider-I-III-Remastered
Llewella Chapman is a visiting scholar based at the University of East Anglia, UK. Her research interests include film and video game history, gender and costume. Her first monograph, Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007 was published by Bloomsbury in 2022. She has also published an article on the work of Vicky Arnold (script writer) and Heather Gibson (level designer) for the early Tomb Raider franchise in the journal Feminist Media Studies (2023), DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2023.2217346.
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