Tomb Raider II: The Dagger of XianBy Mark Huang
The Lara Croft action figure was supposed to be the item of choice for most young boys last Christmas, but it was recalled at the last minute because Eidos disapproved of "certain features" of the doll. No, the toy manufacturer wasn't skimping on the plastic where it was needed; it was her face that was reportedly hideous. The recall was a sore disappointment for the millions of fans of Lara, the star of Eidos's hit Tomb Raider and now Tomb Raider II. No doubt most had looked forward to reliving her adventures on the living room floor: killing endangered species, mowing down monks, and surviving explosive decompression.
As for the game, if you played and liked the features of the first one, you'll enjoy the new features of the sequel. I worded that carefully; the old features like stable graphics, effective audio, and fast rendering are replaced by new ones like, say, Lara's new wardrobe. Still, the game is very playable if you have a fast computer and a 3-D accelerator, or a Playstation. The interface is the same as Tomb Raider's: a flying camera tracks Lara as she moves, jumps, and "acts" in a full 3-D world. Ctrl, of course, remains not so much an "action" key as an all-purpose maiming one. Lara's charming new weapons include a harpoon gun, a grenade launcher, and an M-16. The baddies have apparently surgically implanted flame throwers, which I haven't been able to recover from their bodies but sorely want, of course.
The other pieces of good news about Tomb Raider II are: the much larger levels; 900% more people to kill; Lara's new wardrobe; the new driveable speedboat and snowmobile; Lara's wetsuit; 62 new audio tracks; 2 new heaving/grunt sounds; rolling in midair and underwater, and finally; the flying ponytail. The last one, I think, should be expanded upon, since it's one of the things I find most attractive about the game. It moves, it slithers, it bounces, it floats - it's the product of countless sleepless nights of coding. I sometimes just sit and watch it when I have nothing to do.
Of course, with good news comes bad news, and the PC version of Tomb Raider II, at least, has its fair share. It might just be the speed of my computer, but from general agreement among others who have played it on a P-200, it seems the overhauled graphics engine is just buggy. It handles very large areas much better than its predecessor, but the tearing of frames is so irritatingly bad that I sometimes use it to cheat. Hidden doors are easily found by sweeping the camera angle very close to the wall and watching for large swatches of polygons that disappear.
The limitations of the interface are even more painfully felt in Tomb Raider II with its more elaborate level designs. Sometimes all that separates you and freedom from certain peril and doom is a rickety wooden door. Of course, rather than tossing a grenade at it, you have to traverse 9-10 km of virtual space, extinguish a few endangered Tibetan species like the American bald eagle or the Siberian tiger, and find a key that's hidden underneath a packing crate on top of a remote mountain to open the door properly. Also, given the fact that she's packing the heat of a largish Miami S.W.A.T. team, you'd think she'd remember to pick up some rope, too. But no, most of the time you have to find your way around those pesky 46 degree slopes that she can't stand on.
The "puzzles" continue the Tomb Raider tradition of being fairly lame. There seems to be just one object class named Puzzle.SwingingObjectOfDeath which Core reuses for all of the hazards. Sometimes it's a swinging packing crate. Other times, it's a giant swinging axe. When things really get tough, you can count on finding a swinging sword. The real puzzle is why these things would be in someone's house or remote monastery to begin with, and where they get their power from. Forget the Dagger of Xian, Lara - go find the alien perpetual motion machine powering the world's swinging objects of death.
The sheer beauty of the game, though, greatly overshadows these problems and immerses most people enough to convince them to suspend a great deal of disbelief. No other game combines sex and violence in such a tasteful manner, and not many approach its status as a pop culture icon. The rumors of a Tomb Raider movie starring Elizabeth Hurley are flying strong, but until then, I'll be playing some more to figure out what track 23 is referring to: "<\shower noises> <\pause> Don't you think you've seen enough? <\click> <\BANG!>"
Tomb Raider II
For Windows 95 and Sony Playstation
By Eidos Interactive and Core Design
Release Date: In stores now
Next week: Riven