From watching the making-of featurette included on the Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness DVD, you’d think that Core Design, the long-time developers behind the Tomb Raider series, had recreated the Spanish Inquisition. With its sweeping narration and stoic developer musing, I was under the impression that I was about to undertake an adventure unlike any before it. Unfortunately, nothing could’ve been further from the truth. Aside from considerable cosmetic enhancements, a more personality-centric plot, and a few gameplay tweaks, Angel of Darkness does little to win over new fans or indeed appease its current fan-base.
The story in Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness begins in Paris with Lara Croft hunched over the dead body of her mentor. Unsure exactly what just went down, Lara wonders whether she was the one who did him in, being as they were the only two people in the room when her mentor was shot. Lara is on the run and now has to constantly evade authority and find out why her mentor was killed. As the plot progresses, it becomes obvious that a known serial killer has been tailing her every step. The plot thickens and eventually comes to a simmer until a secret society surfaces and the importance of a set of paintings that apparently harbor a dark secret comes into focus.
As Angel of Darkness is the first in a three part trilogy, the story gradually unfolds and penny-drop realizations are few and far in between initially. In a departure from previous games, Lara can actually affect the amount of pertinent details the player gets to see through finding useful informational items and interactive dialogue, though the game is largely linear regardless of decisions made. But it is the game’s cinematic story presentation that will eventually endear you despite nearly every other element of the experience just begging you to quit.
But even an intriguing storyline won’t do much to help players endure the game’s abysmal gameplay. Unresponsive, tedious, and frustrating will undoubtedly be the most popular buzz words used to describe the control system in Angel of Darkness. The first couple areas of the game serve as something of a tutorial, informing you via on-screen text how to use Lara’s various abilities to overcome the current obstacle that stands in your way. Once you become acclimated with just exactly what you’re up against with Angel of Darkness’ shoddy gameplay, it becomes immediately apparent that this is going to be a rough ride. Moving Lara around with the L-analog stick is akin to steering a 747 with a make-your-own airplane kit remote control. Oftentimes, you are required to jump over large gaps while standing on a platform that is hardly big enough to hold Lara, let alone allow her to position herself for the jump without falling off.
The camera system employed in Angel of Darkness doesn’t help matters either. The camera isn’t always a problem, sometimes you’ll be able to control it Splinter Cell style in certain areas with nary a hitch, but other times your perspective will inexplicable reverse while you are moving, making the same direction you were pushing to proceed suddenly turn around on you so that you are moving the same way you came.
To say that Angel of Darkness’ control system takes some getting used to would be a huge understatement, but alas it is possible. Luckily, you can toggle between a walk and stealth mode, which makes it impossible to accidentally fall off a ledge, which is great given the often-diminutive size of the platforms you must navigate. But walking does little to prevent the fact that you’ll die countless times thanks to misjudged jumps. It’s hard to tell how far exactly Lara will jump in any given scenario, and sometimes even a seemingly perfectly timed jump will still result in disaster. Thankfully, you can save your progress at any time, making it possible to save at a potentially deadly area and load the game up at that exact point should you die (and you will).
Not much has changed from previous Tomb Raider games in the gameplay department., you’ll still need to decide whether a standing forward jump or a running jump is what the situation calls for. And she can still swim underwater, baby step across ledges, and automatically lock on to nearby enemies when she has her gun in hand. But Lara has a few new abilities, too, such as the Solid Snake style back-against-the-wall peak-around-the-corner maneuver, and a stealth-walking stance that allows her to walk up behind baddies and take them out. Unfortunately, these new gameplay elements are rarely, if ever needed to progress, and it’s just as easy to ignore them altogether rather than utilize them for aesthetics’ sake.
One major new “feature” that is being advertised on behalf of Angel of Darkness is that you’re now able to “Improve Lara’s abilities and witness her adapt to how you play.” That’s funny, really, “adapt to how you play”? Wrong. Her ability to “adapt” basically means that by kicking open a drawbridge, or pushing a crate, she’ll respond by saying “my legs feel stronger” or “my arms feel stronger”, then you’re able to crowbar open a door or jump to that faraway platform thanks to her newfound strength. These situations are purely linear and oftentimes it isn’t even possible to progress without kicking that drawbridge or pushing that crate to make her “stronger.” Such a joke.
It isn’t all crates and gimmicks in Angel of Darkness though, there are actually a few sequences that hearken back to the days of Tomb Raider yore or genuinely innovate. For the first few hours of the experience, I actually had a pretty good time conversing with various characters, performing simple fetch quests, and navigating aerial platforms. The puzzles interspersed throughout the experience also seem to be a notch or two above what has been seen in previous games. This time around, you’ll actually have to think, sometimes. But the way Lara controls severely hinders the experience and takes way too long to warm up to.
Visually, Angel of Darkness looks refined and polished, though the incessant slowdown and graphical glitches that pepper the experience seem pretty uncalled for. It isn’t uncommon to witness Lara clipping through solid objects or falling through the floor for no particular reason. But the environments found throughout the game are immaculately detailed and the texture quality that complements every on-screen object or item is irrefutably impressive. Lara also animates better than she has in any previous game, which is to be expected given this is her first current-generation outing. But the sound in Angel of Darkness is hands down the best element of the game. The professionally voiced dialogue used for every character interaction is spot-on, especially Jonell Elliott’s strong, biting portrayal of Lara. The musical score is also excellent, performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and composed by Martin Iveson and Peter Connelly. The music gives a truly atmospheric and cinematic feel to the proceedings.
I didn’t buy into the grandiose hype surrounding Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness prior to its retail release, and in truth I’ve never been much of a Tomb Raider fan to begin with, so its many shortcomings came as no surprise to me and its many bright spots (visuals, music, story) did. So forgive me if my assessment of the game doesn’t jive with popular opinion, I actually kind of enjoyed the game.