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Shadow of the Tomb Raider

More than a Tomb Raider: The Growth of Lara Croft

It's been a long and eventful journey for gaming's leading lady.

  • Text: Sam Bishop
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Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Lara Croft started life looking, and behaving, very differently to how she does now.

Eidos Montreal has just unveiled the first slivers of information regarding the upcoming Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the origin trilogy started by Crystal Dynamics in 2013 that took Lara Croft, one of gaming's most iconic characters, and redefined her, showing us for the first time how she became the famous archaeologist-come-warrior. It has been a long road to this point though, and the Croft we've seen come into her own over the past two games (including Rise of the Tomb Raider) is a far cry from how she started out three console generations ago.

Back in 1996, we were treated to our first outing in the Tomb Raider franchise with Core Design's PC, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn title of the same name, giving us the classic puzzle-driven tomb raiding, dodgy controls, and pointy breasts that we all remember. The game that introduced this all-action hero stands as a true milestone for the industry, even if it doesn't quite stand the test of time if you try to jump back into the adventure today.

Here the action was built around the classic Indiana Jones-esque formula of venturing into exotic hidden locations, shooting at the baddies who were protecting the loot, and doing a whole load of cool action shots as you do so, Tomb Raider upping the ante somewhat by throwing wild dinosaur scenes into the mix too. One only needs to listen to the dialogue to hear what we mean ("it ain't over till the fat lady sings" one henchman cries as Croft escapes the opera in Tomb Raider Chronicles); this was a game driven by its mechanics, by shooting and looting, not by the story nor the characters hidden within. Core tasked us with solving logic-driven puzzles while traversing complex structures, but the studio mixed things up with outrageous action sequences that had Lara fighting prehistoric creatures alongside endangered species.

This formula continued in the sequels II and III, as well as The Last Revelation, Chronicles, and Game Boy Color title Curse of the Sword, because it worked. Gamers liked the approach of simple action revolving around a badass woman with a near-supernatural ability to fend off all kinds of wildlife and henchmen. There was some deviation to the structure within these games, like Chronicles which had a selection of different stories linked together loosely as part of an anthology.

This continued in much the same way with the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, perpetuating this image of Croft as a sex symbol with actor Angelina Jolie taking the role, sporting the same revealing tank tops and shorts as her virtual counterpart. The film and its sequel were all about the bombastic action, as one trailer alone has enough flips to last a lifetime, and the wild, unrealistic nature of it all shines through. Sure, there were catsuits to spice things up a bit, as we saw in Chronicles too, but all in all it was more attractive tomb raiding with the most attractive of tomb raiders.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft epitomised her identity at the time.

Despite a jump to PS2 with The Angel of Darkness and an emphasis on more modern environments away from the ancient tombs themselves, there wasn't much of a difference tonally and in terms of overall structure, which is perhaps the reason why we got a break of three years after that release in 2003. Despite that though, the return in 2006 with Legend and Anniversary didn't see too much of a change, as we still got the same old Lara, except this time looking better with the improved technical capabilities and shooting more bad guys.

Moving from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics wasn't exactly smooth either. "They just took it and ran," said former Core programmer Gavin Rummery in an interview. "It felt like a robbery, honestly. It felt like we'd been raided ourselves and the thing had been stolen." You see, after Angel of Darkness publisher Eidos decided that a change was needed, and so it was that Crystal Dynamics took the reins.

It's not as if this period was without innovation though, as before 2013 we saw the release of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010), and this changes the third-person gameplay formula in favour of isometric action. These are innovations that continued past 2013 into Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris and even mobile puzzler Lara Croft GO, but these weren't fully-fledged titles. These were more like spin-offs, mobile title Lara Croft: Relic Runner being another example, so in fact it's really Tomb Raider: Underworld that stands as the last main entry of the noughties.

Just like with Angel of Darkness there was an issue with 2008's Tomb Raider Underworld as well, so much so that publisher Eidos Interactive revealed that sales failed to meet expectations. Clearly there was something up, and something needed to be done with long-term gaming icon Lara Croft, which is why we had another reasonably long hiatus in Croft's journey.

We can't talk about the new era of Tomb Raider without mentioning Uncharted though. This new trilogy is clearly post-Uncharted, which means they're not just about treasure hunting and shooting up the place, but instead they rely on characterisation as part of the action-adventure experience. This means more cutscenes, more personal growth in the heroes we meet, and much more emphasis on why these things are taking place.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Was Tomb Raider: Underworld the last straw for the old Lara Croft?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider