Evil Angels & Double Denim | Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness at 15
Back in an era when “next gen” actually meant something, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was a hubristically ambitious attempt to update and reinvent the Tomb Raider formula. Marking the sizable shift between PS1 and PS2, the game sought to not only update the series’ visual and mechanical design, but also the storytelling. Fancy new graphics and gameplay, a jump to a new console and a serious attempt to give fans a new experience in a popular (but very formulaic) series? What could go wrong? Hype, an unworkable time frame and an out of control budget that’s what.
In a way this game managed to arrive just in time to be too early for a couple trends. Firstly the grim’n’gritty reboot. The game starts with Lara in a stormy Paris, hands bloody, memory missing and her mentor’s murdered body in front of her. The deadpan charming psychopath Lara of old is largely missing, replaced by a more driven, impatient and dangerous mercenary version of the character. While it all looks a tad emo from today’s perspective, it’s hard to deny that it was actually a fairly logical progression of the character. Sadly between the vast amount of cut content and the two sequels which never emerged, the characterisation feels wholly incomplete, dissatisfying and akin to poorly written fan-fic. Lazy as the trend now seems of Batman Begins-ifying a character, it was an interesting and natural direction to take Lara. It’s a pity we’ll never see it fully realised as the direction the two subsequent reboots have taken are of a significantly sunnier Lara and an overall safer direction for the character.
The second trend Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness just missed out on was the modern patch culture. If this game was released now there would be nowhere near the critical eviscerating which this received on release because it’d have been patched to within an inch of its life post launch. In terms of buggy-ness, the released game was probably somewhere in between Assassin’s Creed Unity and Arkham Knight; perfectly playable and for the most part functional but with a noticeable lack of polish and some irksome and bizarre bugs that have no place being in the final product of something so expensive. It’s interesting to imagine the kinds of messes a large chunk of modern Triple A releases would be like were they produced and shipped in the same era as Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. Which is not to excuse Eidos forcing an incomplete product to market but merely noticing how forgiving a wide access to always on broadband has made us as customers and critics.
The overhaul of the entire engine meant a much greater focus on indoor “real world” spaces – like the memorable incursion into the Louvre after dark – rather than wide, grid-based outdoor locales. This did lead to one spending more time than expected of the first half of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness in French nightclubs and pawn shops and less, well, raiding of tombs, but the novelty was nice and there is a certain thrill to finding secret tombs buried below established cities rather than just hidden behind a waterfall deep in the jungle. There was also admirable attempts at varied gun-play and hand-to-hand mechanics. The stealth wasn’t great and the lack of ever being able to dual wield pistols felt like mechanics that should have been prioritised and not left last minute and sacrificed on the altar of the rushed release. Still, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness features by far the deepest and most varied combat of the series until the present reboot iteration.
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One feature that *was* finished though was the absurd jiggle physics present on Lara’s utterly preposterous breasts. Maintaining a cup size consistent with when Lara’s character model was an exaggerated stick figure with a cartoon hourglass shape was a mistake on this more – otherwise – realistically proportioned and designed Lara. Her bosoms are quite frankly obnoxious. They sway and bounce wildly at the slightest provocation as if she were trying to stealthily transport two full-to-bursting water balloons under her, visibly straining, tank top. Were real world weight and momentum at play here, Lara would likely be flung violently to the ground if a quick turn were executed too hastily, provided of course the sheer weight of her chest hadn’t already rendered her spine useless. But I digress.
Not all the fresh ideas were winners. On paper the thought of there being a second playable character was big and exciting news. In reality, Kurtis (even that name is just, urgh) was functionally every male videogame protagonist who has ever been; weird weapon or not. Introducing this Emo Nathan Drake via a sequence of him disarming Lara like a weird two-person sexual-harassment performance-art piece was, in hindsight, spectacularly tone deaf given that Lara was one of the only mainstream female leads and one refreshingly free of sexual exploitation in the narratives she drove. One can only assume this was their weak and hilariously wide of the mark attempt to engage with the female portions of their fan base with some proto-Twilight, creepy damaged loner bad boy action all the while missing that Lara’s self-determined confidence and competence was probably the main draw for those very people.
The fact that this was planned as a trilogy is also a source of deep frustration. So much of the intriguing world-building is ultimately for naught as the explanations and revelations were clearly being saved for sequels. The actual plot, which is only fully laid bare toward the end, involved a secret cabal of alchemists intent on resurrecting the race of Nephilim (what the game’s title is in fact slyly referencing) which lay buried on earth while Kurtis came from a vaguely defined religious organisation meant to stop them. This was only act one and the frustrating vagueness that all of this intriguing setup is buried in – not to mention the tantalising possibility that the endgame of all of this could been Lara Croft vs an apocalypse of fallen angels – is to date the series’ most glaring missed opportunity.
For fans of the series, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness is the Alien 3 of the franchise; objectively an unfinished mess that shouldn’t really have been released and is technically bad but which has so much clear promise, and presented such an intriguing direction to take the property, that retroactively reclaiming it is probably what it will end up best known for…
On a final note, it is also worth noting that Lara’s starting outfit for the first chunk of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness is inexplicably a full denim number. Whether this was supposed to show just how damaged she’d been by her near death experience or if it was just part of the brief, culture-wide mass-stroke that society was having on the fashion front; we’ll never know… C’est la vie.