My Personal Assessment
I have talked about most of my favorite parts of this game. They have these things in common:
- The quality of the texture work is not up to the standard of the rest of the game
- Structurally, they are all optional
- Spatially, they are often sequestered away in small side rooms which contain only them
It's not that I like these features. It's just that these are features that the things I like seem to have. This leads me to believe that all these fun set pieces that were implemented towards the end of the game's development. I'll explain why I think that.
Planning and tweaking challenges involving the most intimate parts of platforming mechanics requires those mechanics to have been fully implemented. I think Tomb Raider's mechanics were being implemented almost all the way through development, because they were secondary to the visual design and texturing of the jaw-dropping locations. This is why, usually, you don't have to do anything very specific to move through the game's levels.
When the levels were almost finished and the mechanics had been fully implemented, someone on the dev team who had become intimately acquainted with the possibilities of the platforming had come up with some decent ideas. They knocked together the challenges I've talked about with basic textures, and slotted them into side rooms so they wouldn't get in the way of the nicer-looking level bits whose appearance had been painstakingly composed over many months.
These small challenges are now what we can look on as extremely modern pieces of platforming. Many of the movements I've talked about are short, and don't involve risking the loss of progress. The brevity lets you focus on the movements, and the forgiveness allows designers to surprise you. Surprise + Focus = Communication. Less like Prince of Persia or Mario, it puts me in mind of my favorite contemporary platformer, VVVVVV, a game which I feel communicates a lot.
Sadly, the sequels didn't really move any further in the direction of communication. The additions that were made to the game mechanics were vapid: the changes that grabbed headlines were that you could drive a few vehicles, and that you could use more guns.
They gave Lara new ways to move: monkey bars, zipwires, and ladders. These did enable the creation of new spaces, and also added to the "adventuring" feel of things. But there was never any nuance to interacting with them; mostly they are so slow they can feel like busywork. The worst example of slow busywork is crawling (introduced in Tomb Raider 3). Crawling is so dull. It's an insult to your intelligence, and mine. Cara Ellison believes that crawling was added mainly so that the player could get a good view of Lara's arse. I'm more inclined to blame the influence of Metal Gear Solid, but I definitely recommend this article of hers -- it will give your cynicism muscles a workout.
There was one addition that strikes me as thoughtful: a jump that allowed you turn 180 degrees in the air. This enabled the strategy seen above; it's interesting, though probably unintended, so I wouldn't really use it to defend the designers.
The original Tomb Raider was not entirely a good game, either. It's clear that the first priority with the gameplay was to show off animations and textures, the second priority was to make things humanly plausible. Depth wasn't really on the agenda. The developers looked at the platforming genre and decided that the most fun part was jumping from the very end of a ledge, and making it to the other side by the skin of your teeth. They animated that, and made some nice-looking locations for you to do it in. That was what they saw their job as being. The set pieces I've talked about were afterthoughts.
It would surprise me if the platforming of the new Tomb Raider offered anything cerebral at all. Its target audience are the fans of Uncharted and Enslaved. Those games are not about rewarding the contemplation of movement mechanics -- they are about rewarding obedience, and it frightens and upsets me that they are widely praised. Not that they are completely worthless pieces of media; they look and sound very nice. But I wish they would do away with the orwellian QTEs and meaningless walking around. I wish we could have more communication, and less crawling.
I'm indebted to the great Tomb Raider scholar Stella Lune for her consultation and for the use of several images.