Continuing on from the last week’s part of Tomb Raider III, we’re peeling back the onion of sorts, to the game that I regard as the best entry of the three.
It was Christmas of 1997. I’d read of the sequel coming out from GamesMaster just like TR III, of how Lara would be going outside to different places like Tibet, China, and the deep blue ocean. How she would be able to wear different outfits to fit where she’d be too, and she’d gain a new move; climbing.
This was the sequel to the game that launched Lara Croft to millions of players worldwide only a year before, so pressure was on Core Design to deliver a sequel that was worthy of the name ‘Tomb Raider’.
When Tomb Raider II was released on the 1st November 1997, it was on the list of many christmas lists, mine included.
So once I unwrapped this rectangular present and found the game right there, alongside Crash Bandicoot 2 and Pandemonium 2, I went straight to the Playstation and started the game.
As the intro cinematic shows, long ago, legend has it that if the ‘Dagger of Xian’ is plunged into a heart of someone, they gain a great power that can bring down armies and rein across the land.
An emperor of China had this, but after a final battle that ended in defeat, monks sealed the dagger away in the Great Wall of China, hoping that it would only be reduced to a mythical story.
Fast forward to 1997, three parties are now in a race to obtain the dagger for their own ends.
Lara’s Home is expanded upon from the first game, with the ability to go outside, and the first appearance of the true star of the game: Winston the Butler.
This was when a memory of locking him in the freezer was the highlight of the game for so many players, and is still remembered today. Who’d have known.
Instead of a racetrack, there is a maze, and if Lara finds the goal, there is a race back to the house, with a special room as a reward.
The game is split into six sections, with a total of eighteen levels:
Instead of choosing where you’d like to go after the first location, you are taken on a linear path from beginning to end, which for the story, makes sense. There aren’t locations where they are intermediate or expert, rather each level is tailored to how fun or difficult it is.
The Opera House was the expert level for me, but playing through it again, it could only be The Temple of Xian that takes the top place in frustrations and difficulty.
The tradition of a level with no weapons also appears mid-way through to the game, and it’s the favourite of mine. Why? It hasn’t got the difficulty of Natla’s Mines, and it’s not as long winded as the Nevada Compound, it reaches a balance where it’s fun to avoid the enemies while also making sure you pick up the weapons at the right time.
This game was when humans where also the enemies in full force, rather than being bosses like its predecessor. They’d either try and hit you with batons, shoot you with silencers or shotguns.
Dogs also appeared, with a tradition from the trilogy also making an appearance in the first level for the third secret.
Secrets take the form of dragons this time. If you find all three in a level, your reward can be a weapon, or a selection of ammo or medipacks. There’s 48 in the game, so there’s plenty of time to find them all.
Lara also had the ability to wear different outfits, dependant on where the location was.
Graphics were stepped up in TR II, with less clipping and glitches found in its predecessor. New lighting effects for the weapons were introduced, along with flares that lit up any darkened area you needed to have a better view for.
The improvement that Lara gains, apart from the increased polygons, is climbing.
Instead of trying to run, grab and shimmy across a ledge, ladders are now in full force across all the levels.
There’s also a mid-roll when jumping in the air to help get rid of the enemies that come in droves in a much easier way.
The weapons are all improved, with better models and sounds for each. A grenade launcher makes its first appearance, and for me, its best appearance. Instead of a grenade bouncing in any direction, it’s a simple forward direction, easily obliterating anything when in contact.
Magnums are now replaced with Automatic Pistols, which are slightly improved on the iconic pistols damage-wise, but the ammo is sparse compared to the returning Uzis alongside.
An M16 also appears, which is powerful, but slow to aim and shoot down anything that gets in Lara’s way.
TR II also introduced vehicles to the series for the first time, with a speedboat for Venice, and a snowmobile for Tibet.
The music seemed to reach another level when you mounted one of these, with ‘Venice Violins’ or ‘The Skidoo’ for each.
With this music came Nathan McCree’s iconic music re-appearing, and in full force. There’s music in games or films that dictate how you should feel, it almost forces you to behave in a certain manner. But with TR II especially, it adds to the atmosphere in droves. It gave you the sense that you need to run as fast as you can, or that you’re going to have a great time on this snowmobile mowing enemies down.
Saving is completely different compared to the other two instalments, even making the game less challenging because of it. You could now save anywhere you wanted with an infinite amount. For me, this is the game’s only major fault. It removed that sense of paranoia of what might come next, and made it significantly easier in some respects, as you could save as soon as you completed a puzzle or defeated a large group of enemies, then save five minutes later if you thought there was a challenging area about to occur. I preferred TR III ‘s way of saving, with its ‘best of both worlds’ method being the better option in my opinion.
With 18 levels to run, shoot and climb through, the first level shows China and running across part of the Great Wall. It’s a great introductory level, combining the exploration with action, and a zipline to round it off.
Venice requires some running and jumping to start with, but once the boat is accessible, and the music starts to play, you’ll just be driving around until ‘Venice Violins’ ends, and then racing against the clock in a great finish to the level.
After shooting your way through ‘Bartoli’s Hideout’, ‘Opera House’ is when the challenge ascends. You need to constantly be on the lookout for boulders and fatal fans, with a lot of searching for keys and circuit boards throughout the level. Once you defeat the mini-boss, you get a reward which you can only use for a short time, due to the next level (Offshore Rig) stripping you of weapons. A cheap tease, but you can find it again in a later level.
The underwater sections didn’t, and still don’t appeal to me. There’s only so much swimming and searching for keys you can take, and it wasn’t until the final level of this section that I started to enjoy it. There was an upside down ship called the ‘Maria Doria’ with many puzzles to solve and keys to find, and ‘The Deck’, which was a good end to a rather lacklustre section.
Tibet has always been the favourite location for me. Full of enemies from birds to men with machine guns, even some on snowmobiles armed with guns. The fact you could defeat these and ride them yourself was so much fun, just a pity you couldn’t jump over large chasms unlike the other snowmobile. The AI that would help you also made an appearance for the first time, with the monks in the next level helping you out in the ‘Barkhang Monastary’.
Moving on to the last two levels of Tibet, you come across springboards that take you to different floors of a level, then to a group of yeti’s escaping their prisons. You then spend the last level backtracking some of the previous level, and then finally collecting the ‘Seraph’ while facing off against the ‘Ice King’.
After collecting the ‘Seraph’, you come back to China, back to where Lara faced the disciple of Xian, and onto the last three stages.
I’ll leave the last few for you to discover, but they range from incredibly challenging, to bizarre, to the final two being very fun, and a great epilogue.
Reading magazines of interviews of the original team, and retrospectives given around 2006, this was when the team gave it their all into the sequel to the game that launched Lara Croft. Any ideas scrapped for time or due to not fully utilising the engine at the time, it was put into TR II.
There wasn’t much I found that had been cut from this game compared to TR III, but the only feature I found was the shooting range that made an appearance in III. A voice excerpt was uncovered from a beta discovered a few years ago, which talked of the shooting range (from 2:09).
Reading an old issue of Gamesmaster, there was going to apparently be a squid enemy in the underwater section, but due to the complicity of it, and time constraints, it was cut.
I always remember the previews like this showing level 3 (Bartoli’s Hideout) without the ponytail, and a different sky. The betas that were leaked are of a newer version than the preview above, but it’s still interesting to know what could have been.
But with regards to levels or other weapons, it seems that the focus was purely on making sure the levels decided upon were refined to the best they could be, and they certainly succeeded with that.
So why do I think this is the best of the three?
There wasn’t a time where I was incredibly frustrated or a level where it was difficult just for no reason. It’s enjoyable from start to finish, and when there’s only two levels that come to mind that will take you more time than the others to finish, its still fun to complete, and the accomplishment you feel when you finally finish the game is great.
One thing to mention as well that I’d love to find a reason for, is when Lara picks up something, and it shows to the bottom right, why wasn’t this present in TR III? Having to play ‘Spot the Difference’ in the inventory screen when picking something up got tiresome, yet this was shown to be present in betas sent out for Playstation Magazine demo disks for Area 51.
The acting from all involved is great again, with Judith Gibbins being given her first time to shine as Lara. Her voice for me, is Lara. It’s how she sounds, and fits the character perfectly. There’s even a video on YouTube of the BBC interviewing her, and voicing the first scene in China.
Playthroughs of the game are always being attempted, with speed runs across YouTube being shown, accomplishing incredible times, such as only 3 minutes for ‘Opera House’. The play tester, Alonzorion, who I mentioned in the TR III article has already completed TR II, so his channel is definitely worth a look at how he completed the game.
Overall, it’s a game I still play whenever I can. It was released on the Mac App Store 2 years ago just in time for Christmas, which was well timed for me, and coming back to it brought it all back again.
Everything is on top form here. The level design, the action, the acting, and of course the music to lift the atmosphere to another level, not found until this recent generation’s level of games such as Bioshock Infinite, and Uncharted 3.
Once you start playing it, you’ll find that a fortnight will pass by like a few hours, and once you finish it, you’ll want to look out for the secrets.
And of course, one more lock in the freezer for Winston.