Last year was the 15th anniversary of Tomb Raider II, and I wrote an article on how I regard it to be my favourite entry to the series.
This time, it’s nearing to the 15th anniversary (21st November 1998) of its sequel, Tomb Raider III, and I thought it’d be fitting to post the final entry of what I think was the last ‘good’ classic Tomb Raider, although not without its own faults regardless.
I received TR III in Christmas of 1998. I had a subscription to GamesMaster magazine since my birthday in February ’98, so if you had something like that, you’d be up to date with what new releases were coming.
As E3 came and went, they did a feature on the games being shown, and I saw that Tomb Raider III was announced and being released towards Christmas, so it was another time with Lara Croft.
I remember reading the previews towards the release, how there’d be different paths to take in each level, how you could choose your own order of levels. Also, of how Lara could crawl, sprint and climb on monkey bars, armed with a knife to pry out objects stuck in a wall.
After all the waiting, on Christmas of 1998, it finally arrived.
The story of TR III involves the meteorite that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and fragments of an artefact that were related to this.
Soon after taking the first artefact from India, Lara is offered work by a Dr Willard, who offers her to collect the other three artefacts across the world, with which she accepts.
The locations are expanded this time, with an orientation on action and less so on tombs.
If you haven’t played the game as yet, I’ll leave the final area for you to discover.
After you finish India, you can choose what order you’d like to complete the game in. If you want to do Nevada first, then South Pacific and London, then it’s up to you.
With the exception of Nevada, each location houses four levels, while Nevada has three, which much variation to set each area apart from the others, and ends with a boss event at the end.
The enemies in this instalment are less alike to Bane, and vary from animals, to tribesmen, mutants, and security personnel.
Like the monks in TR II, some help you on your way, and even some animals are no longer a threat, although a monkey is able to steal a key or even a gun from your inventory, so watch out for them. Inmates in one of the Nevada levels can help you take out a guard due to your weapons being taken, another tradition of the classic series being carried on, albeit for the final time.
I mentioned in the Metal Gear Solid article that stealth appeared for the first time in the series, and in Nevada especially, it’s purely by choice. You have to try and avoid the guards in order to avoid them from setting an alarm or fatal lasers, but it’s not game over if you’re spotted. You simply have to take them out as fast as you can.
Lara’s Home makes a final appearance for the series, with Winston becoming a bullseye for target practice so you can practice with the pistols.
The iconic freezer also returns, so you can treat yourself and Winston to that once more.
A racetrack has also been added to Lara’s Home. By carrying out some tasks, you will obtain a racetrack key, which will enable you to practice your times on a quad-bike, but unfortunately Winston won’t be cheering you on with his grunts on the sidelines.
With every year, the graphics are tuned up. They can be mostly seen this time when Lara is accidentally engulfed in flames, and when a jump into the water is taken. There’s also new lighting effects which add to the environments well, but there is one jarring effect of all of this, which is the fog in the South Pacific levels. You’d expect the effect of fog to move, to lift and set as you run through it, but here, it just stays in an inanimate position, looking out of place. There’s also more detail on the weather, so in India, you’ll have light rain, or in another area, snow will be falling.
For the final time, Nathan McCree’s music is throughout the game, adding new instruments to the tracks and giving the game that extra level of atmosphere that was ahead of its time. The music will still make you nervous when you’re near a boulder, and when you finally obtain your weapons, the music gives you that well-deserved sense of accomplishment after crawling through vents and avoiding barbed wire.
With Lara’s added moves, comes new weapons, or re-skinned ones. You get a fully-fledged rocket launcher, and the grenade launcher remains, albeit with bouncy grenades this time, which I wasn’t and still not keen on, as you can’t aim it too well. The M16 is replaced by the MP5, which allows for a slightly faster time to aim and fire, but doesn’t add too much to the inventory. The best upgrade is the Desert Eagle, which Lara holds with one hand, and is easily the most powerful weapon alongside the Rocket Launcher.
Vehicles also make a return, with 5 being a quad-bike, a dinghy, an underwater contraption, a mine cart, and finally, the kayak. All of these control well, but the kayak deserves special mention later on.
Saves also make a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario this time, by bringing back the crystals of the first game, but instead of using one right away, you can collect them in your inventory, and use them when needed. Depending on the level you’re at, they can be plentiful, or unforgivingly sparse, so make sure you only use them when really needed. This adds to the difficulty level of the overall game I feel as well, Core Design refined every area to make sure that it was more challenging, and what better way than saving your progress.
So with all these improvements to Lara, the graphics, and the ability of choice, why isn’t this the favourite entry for me you ask, if it improves upon the previous game?
Well, in some regards, there’s some truth, but the main point of why, is the same reason why I just gave up on completing it a few months after I had it for Christmas.
It is incredibly difficult. There hasn’t been many games where I repeated the same level or area so many times.
Even though you have a choice of the 3 areas, they’re all ranked in difficulty, and the order you choose the levels, you’re either going to have a relatively fun time, or you’re going to struggle by the third area.
After playing the game so many times in the last 15 years, it comes down to this:
India is a good starting point, for the first 10 minutes. Then you’re not completely sure where to go. Once you see some monkeys, they also decide to steal some of your inventory, so it’s not the best opening levels out of the three games. The next level is very long, involving collecting some keys, and wondering when to best use the save crystals. But the second half of this, plus the other two levels, do make it a fun location.
South Pacific is the beginner and easy area, with some welcome returning enemies that holds a tradition since the first game. You also have to avoid swamps and tribesmen, and overall, the easiest of the locations to choose from, with some beautiful graphics as soon as you start the first level.
But the kayak needs to be discussed. As soon as you try to control the kayak in the third level, you are going to need something close to take out on. A bottle of Jameson’s or a stress ball can do wonders. The controls on this are the most awkward and slow I’ve ever tried. It’s incredible how you aim the analogue stick to the right, yet Lara thinks you want to paddle back. You also just need to mash the buttons just to get out of the thing too, and if you fall from a great height, you either lose a massive amount of health, or you simply die. You also can’t complete the level without using it too, so you’ve got no choice in the matter.
Nevada is the intermediate area, but it is a favourite of mine, especially the first level. It gives you the real sense of exploring, and discovering areas that add to the fun, alongside driving the quad bike again. The second level is when you lose your weapons, and it’s around the same length as getting your pistols back as it was in ‘Natla’s Mines’ in the first game, but it’s not as difficult as it seems.
London though, is the expert location, and the least favourite of mine. You start on the rooftops near to St Paul’s Cathedral, and this is where the graphics really shine. Albeit on the Playstation version, the frame-rate drops to something ridiculous in some areas. You will be spending your time in these four levels much more than any other, with massive backtracks and running through an abandoned tube station to figure out just what you’re missing. But to be fair, the final stage with the boss is a fun time, and it’s smart in how you approach the boss in obtaining the artefact.
Secrets also make a return, but instead of small dragons scattered throughout, they are item pickups, which could be anything from a weapon, to a medipack. There’s also a reward if you pick up every single secret in the game, but it does feel like it was just tacked on, and it doesn’t really add anything.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I had read articles where you could choose your routes in each level, and as this is true in some levels, it’s not present in all. A level in India where you drive the quad bike, you have a choice where you can leap off and find the secrets, or simply stay on the quad bike and leap across pits still.
As I played through the game in August to October and read through some articles on the development, it feels as though this was a game that was rushed to meet the Christmas deadline, with routes being cut out, and tools such as a knife being deleted, although a video of Lara using this can be seen here (2:48 mark) :
The high difficulty did put me off eventually, stopping midway through Aldywich (the underground train station level for London). When I decided to come back to it for this retrospective, it came to the final area and with its second and third stages, I had to take a month break. Incredibly frustrating, especially with the mine cart section, but eventually, coming back to it with a fresh mind resulted in the game finally being completed.
This would be the final game that would give me the sense that it was ‘Tomb Raider’. The voice actress for Lara, Judith Gibbins, being replaced, and Nathan McCree’s iconic themes being removed, instead of built upon. The next game was the start of the series taking a nosedive for me, and I wouldn’t enjoy another Tomb Raider game until it was taken over by Crystal Dynamics.
Perhaps that’s for another article sometime.
With its faults on the unforgiving difficulty and levels that don’t really give you the sense of being in a ‘tomb’, its still a game that I come back to, and after finally finishing it after 15 years, that sense of accomplishment is still great to have.
The cut scenes also deserve special mention, with emphasis on action taking centre stage again here, and you somehow don’t realise they’re talking without their mouths opening, just nodding furiously. But the acting from all keeps you immersed in the story.
All in all, this is a trilogy that has its ups and downs, but overall, introduced Lara to the world, and even today, these games are still played. It was the Call of Duty of its time, where every sequel was put out every year like a conveyor belt to please the investors, and Core Design simply didn’t have time to make a game they were truly proud of. By the time it came to Angel of Darkness, it cost them dearly.
It’s great to see people play a classic Tomb Raider game for the first time, and its even better when you watch them experience it. Alonzorion’s video series of his play through of TR III is a great watch for example, and the reactions of some levels are great to hear. Link here.
This third entry did some genuine improvements that helped the game, but the high difficulty is something that you should be prepared for going into this. The improvements in the graphics were also great to see, but i’m sure if another year was given to its development, it would have been highly regarded even to this day.
But overall, if you want to play a game that was at the peak of the classic franchise, Tomb Raider III will show you just that.
Just be prepared for the kayak.