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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, the game that almost killed the series

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From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, Lara Croft faces her darkest hour in the platformer that almost killed its creators and put a legend on life support. But was it really that bad? (Yes.)

In the opening minutes of the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara Croft is half-drowned, beaten unconscious, burned, impaled, assaulted, almost killed multiple times, forced to clamber out of a cave in a way that would leave the average mortal without fingernails and left standing cold and hungry on an island designed with loving care to make the next couple of days a living hell both physically and mentally.

On the plus side, could be worse. At least she’s not in The Angel of Darkness.

The Angel of Darkness, no relation to the Angle of Darkness, which is 97.5 degrees for reasons that must remain obtuse, is arguably one of the worst sequels ever. To give it credit, it tried, really hard. Almost never though has a sequel so completely failed—to such an extent that Tomb Raider was taken away from creators Core Design by publisher Eidos, and given to another company to salvage.

That was utterly humiliating for one-time superstars Core, made worse by being entirely justified. Worst of all though, the newcomers’ reboot, Legend, was excellent.

The backstory goes something like this. Tomb Raider was released in 1996, and proved ‘rather popular’. Lara Croft’s face and sundry other body parts became as familiar to the world as Mario’s moustache, and for a while, the world went crazy.

There were magazine covers and models; there were appalling music CDs and bad Angelina Jolie movies, and porn spoofs and at one point, Lara was even arrested outside Tesco—though that turned out to be a hilarious mistake.

Unfortunately, there were also too many bloody games , rushed out to capitalise on the character while the gold rush lasted. They all played much the same, with the addition of typically one big new thing per game. 

The second, “Tomb Raider II”, added outdoor levels for instance, the third, dubbed ‘Adventures Of Lara Croft’ as if screaming for help, went for more complicated geometry and thankfully not this guy’s ideas. The Last Revelation tried having one complicated setting instead of lots of little ones. Chronicles took different spins on the character, from Famous Five-style childhood adventures to weird Matrix-style heists. They sold, but the series was noticeably off the boil and getting colder.

The Angel of Darkness was Core’s big play to change that. It was going to reinvent Lara Croft as a darker antihero. On the run from the law, up to her neck in secret societies, and stumbling into a story so complex, it would need a trilogy. Well, she stumbled! That’s a start, right?

Even if The Angel of Darkness had been released in its intended state, instead of the buggy, half-finished mess that was eventually thrown onto the shelves, it would have been awful. As it was, it was both awful and barely playable—as if Core had never played Tomb Raider, never mind created it. 

Much like another famous failure, Ultima IX: Ascension, the project was out of control and its ambitions much higher than the team could actually manage. Even ignoring that though, many decisions were simply… bad. We’ll see a few of them in a moment. First though, let’s look at the story. Cue intro!

OK. By the technical standards of the time, this isn’t terrible, though make no mistake, it’s not good. In terms of content though, whooooo, where to begin? That accent? The font? Lara’s new attitude being more toxic than a stonefish spine, especially if you played The Last Revelation and thus know that what she’s cross about is him rudely assuming that a pyramid falling on her might be fatal?

Really though, the highlight has to be the police description there. “A female, described as Caucasian, brunette and wearing a ponytail.” Really? You’re describing Lara Croft, and those are your identifying features? No “Wears sunglasses indoors” maybe, or “Appears to be trying to start a beachball-smuggling empire?” perhaps? Come on. Manners are one thing, but really. If you asked Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinham for a description of this woman, every one of them would immediately say “Boobs.” Then some other stuff, sure, but even so.

The basic premise of is ultimately OK, though—the artefacts of the day being a series of paintings that some psycho wants to use to awaken an ancient race called the Nephilim. Think fallen angels, since that’s the usual pop-culture version of the Biblical myth. 

I do query his plan to do so by raising one called “The Sleeper”, since I personally wouldn’t trust anyone who’d earned that nickname not to respond to the call of evil with “Just another five minutes…” but whatever. Lara Croft versus biblical horror and chasing a serial killer in a race against time for magic paintings. That works.

Speaking of hellish creatures of torment though, let’s look at those controls. How could something as simple as a platformer be screwed up? In absolutely every way possible, that’s how.

If you play with a controller, you deserve sympathy. If you play with keyboard, I think the creators should be forced by law to send an apology note. Many 3D games of this era used ‘tank’ controls. In Tomb Raider, a tank would arguably be more agile and capable. 

It took about four days to get past the tutorial area, not because there’s anything complicated in it, but because Amazon couldn’t replace the smashed peripherals any faster. Nudging the scenery completely knocks the wind out of Lara’s sails, pressing backwards brings her to a full stop before she can start the steps. If you want to simulate the experience, fill your keyboard with sick and then smack yourself hard in the face with it, you fool.

It gets worse, though. Almost immediately, you’re sent into a derelict building with a padlocked wardrobe—obviously there to test the inventory system, right? Half right. Actually, the crowbar you need isn’t in the room. It’s across the street, after a big jump there to test your ability to leap move and grab. 

A sensible tutorial would have you practice this over a harmless drop. Not here! No, The Angel of Darkness does it over a drop that nukes your health bar, and to add insult to injury, a drop it makes far more sense to take an easier running jump over. That’s if the jump actually triggers. It doesn’t always.

You know what, though? We’re still not done. While it’s not a problem here, this tutorial also introduces a horror to come: Lara’s grip meter. It may be more realistic that she can’t keep holding her body weight from her fingertips indefinitely, but it’s not fun. 

Worse, it’s part of a levelling system that makes no particular logical sense. There’s a ledge on the roof of the building that you physically can’t cross to begin with—you don’t have the upper body strength. Use a crowbar to break down a door though, and Lara announces “I feel stronger” and suddenly has no problem. If you’re wondering if this system can bug out later on and really screw you up, the answer is ‘ho ho, yes’.

Still. What’s behind that padlocked rooftop door on a crumbling Parisian building?

This is still the tutorial!

Tears of stupidity continue to fall though. After all that effort to get a crowbar, you have to sneak past a guard with a gun and a grenade on his belt to get the key—just lying in the open behind him—adding a dreadful stealth mechanic to the already awful game. That lets Lara out of this purgatory, and into the first proper level, where things actually get worse. I know. Shouldn’t be possible. Is.

The level is a derelict apartment building, filling with smoke or tear gas, somehow, due to grenades thrown by a couple of cops who wander into the lobby but don’t actually bother giving chase. I’m not sure how much gas you get in one of those things, but I do know correct operating procedure isn’t to throw one into the building’s doorframe so that it bounces off into the street. That actually happens. Is it worth mentioning that the cops have no masks or protection? Of course not. It’s expected.

The stupidity then hits fever pitch as Lara has to race against time before she suffocates from the really-not-that-much-smoke by climbing up the building. This is one of the genuine obstacles she faces.

How does the world’s most agile heroine get past this? A clue. Earlier, her solution to a wardrobe about her height blocking the path was to drag its incredibly heavy bulk out of the way rather than, y’know, climbing over or around it. Here, the only solution is to drag a big box to find a new path.

A box that she’s not strong enough to move.

There’s more to the level, but… seriously? Making it even worse, it’s glitchy. Sometimes the timer doesn’t work, the cops don’t necessarily bother to give chase, and there’s a bug that stops them coming in at all. If you run up to them, Lara also proves her badass antihero credentials by… meekly surrendering immediately. When Eidos took this series out of Core’s hands, it wasn’t engaged in executive meddling. It was doing the world a public service. How anyone could stand playing past the first levels is a mystery only matched by why! Still, they did. Here’s proof, in video walkthrough form.

Later in the game, there were some adventure elements, a new character called Kurtis Trent sharing the limelight for a bit, and far, far too many levels of this crap. Individually neat ideas like having Lara raid the Louvre went wasted, with the rest being more ridiculous than a clown driving instructor. (They make sure clowns are qualified to drive their cars. Very efficiently. They can pass 50 people at once.)

Very little however was as silly as one of Angel of Darkness’s most hilarious missteps—the Making Of video. I remember this from coverdiscs at the time, and… oh my. Get ready for some of the most pretentious balls ever spoken about a new game. Still, to give it some credit, it’s not always wrong. “Our vision is to take somewhere dark, somewhere they may not necessarily want to go…” definitely sums things up. And you can’t argue with: “It will be a new experience. One that almost will be shocking to people who’ve played Tomb Raider in the past.” Even if the shock ended up being the controls.

Mostly though, it begs the question: what the hell game were you playing? There’s a line that says “For the first time Lara will have a moral choice to make. There’s no longer a clear-cut case of good versus evil. This is a more complex tale.” Remember, this is Lara Croft versus demons.

Here’s a more fun game than Angel of Darkness – see how much of this drivel you can sit through. If you make it all the way… actually, I don’t know how impressive that is. I’ve never made it.

Luckily, while none of this ended up a happy story for anyone at Core Design, Angel of Darkness’s self-destruction did lead to good things for the series after all. New developer Crystal Dynamics brought back Lara’s original creator Toby Gard (who had left Core after, amongst other things, protesting Lara’s ridiculous sexualisation over the years) and together created the mostly excellent Legend. Its boss fights were indescribably terrible. Everything else worked brilliantly, with the highlights making Lara actually likeable again, going back to focus on big impressive vistas instead of dank alleyways and such, and making it a fun adventure with a backstory that made it personal without being miserable.

And then we got the Tomb Raider reboot, no number or subtitle. It’s got its problems, and it would be nice if it was more Tomb Raider and less Uncharted, but it’s an interesting spin that I enjoyed playing. Of course, that didn’t stop me also penning an extremely snarky piece on it called Tomb Raider: A Survivor Is Abridged. It’s full of spoilers, but hopefully quite funny.

If for some reason you want to play The Angel of Darkness yourself, don’t mistake it for Broken Sword: The Angel of Death, which is an entirely different dreadful sequel that lost its way to the point of almost killing its series. Though there does seem to be something about that name, doesn’t there? Note to any other developers: when rebooting a franchise, avoid those words. It’s simply not worth the risk.

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