Ah, Tomb Raider II.
Our second time out with Lara motherfuckin’ Croft. Our second world spanning, gun-toting, mystical artifact snatching adventure. Tomb Raider II takes us to China and Venice, it has us in boats and snowmobiles, it has Lara unabashedly shooting men in the face!
Like, just the full on murdering of fellow human beings. Lara Croft is a vicious killing machine the likes of which mortal man has never seen! Somewhere out there, Kratos from God of War is quaking in his boots at the thought of the damage wrought by Lara Croft in Tomb Raider II.
So let’s just swan dive right into it, shall we? Or, as it usually goes with Tomb Raider games, try to swan dive but end up just plummeting with a scream. Hopefully into water.
Tomb Raider II, like Tomb Raider before it, opens with a cutscene that those of us hammering on the X button to artificially speed up the process of loading the game are bound to miss.
It’s ancient China. Emperor Qin Shihuang has gained the ability to take the form of a giant, fire breathing dragon. The Dagger of Xian has granted him the power when it was plunged into his heart. Victory seemed imminent until a monk crept under the dragon and pulled the dagger out. The Emperor died a horrible death and there was peace once again! Huzzah! To prevent another from gaining the powers of the dragon, a group of monks took the dagger to the Temple of Xian at the Great Wall. The dagger was locked up and over the hundreds of years that passed, was relegated to myth.
Until Lara Croft hits the scene in 1997 that is!
She’s on the trail of the dagger to see if it really is just a myth when she stumbles upon a cult hoping to use the dagger to bring about the all-powerful dragon once again. The cult is lead by Marco Bartoli, and after Lara navigates a series of horrifying traps in the Great Wall, kills two T-Rexes, and then watches one of the cultists poison himself, she’s off to Venice.
While in Venice, Lara guns down man after man on her pursuit for… knowledge? Maybe? These early Tomb Raider games never really make it clear why Lara’s doing the things she’s doing. At face value, Tomb Raider II’s message is the joys of bloodlust. Which I’m not denying, I’m just looking for a little clearer story in the next!
Anyways, Lara kills a bunch of men in Venice, then she ends up on an offshore oil rig where she finds out that Marco has been digging through the sunken wreckage of his father’s cruise ship for a relic known as the Seraph. Apparently Marco’s family and the monks that have guarded the dagger have been at war for many years and the monks are the ones that sunk the ship to stop Marco’s father from using the Seraph.
Lara descends in the ocean in a divers suit (her first ever costume change!) and begins her own search through the sunken ship. Of course she finds it. With the dangerous artifact in her possession, she ascends back to the oil rig and hijacks a plane. That she ends up crashing into the Tibetan mountains because the plane is low on fuel and she didn’t think to check that on an oil rig.
Clumsy, Lara. Really clumsy.
While in the Tibetan mountains, Lara is aided in battle against hordes of Italian mercenaries by the remaining monks. She accesses the catacombs under the monks’ monastery and while she’s down there, instead of killing men, she kills yetis. And a giant bird thing. Both of which have got to be on the endangered animals list! I mean, they’re so endangered they’re not even real, that’s got to count for something! After the giant bird is annihilated, Lara gets the Talion, the key to the dagger’s tomb.
Some grand theft auto later, Lara is back at the Great Wall of China and heads again into the caverns containing the locked doorway. Inserting the Talion key she makes her way to the dagger only to fall down a trapdoor right in front of it.
Clumsy again, Lara. Really clumsy.
This slip up allows Bartoli to secure the prize. Lara ends up watching Bartoli claim the dagger and then carry out the necessary ceremony, involving really only one step: plunging the dagger into his heart to gain the powers of the dragon.
From here… shit gets weird. Think the Atlantis levels of the first Tomb Raider but instead of organic machines, there’s weird physics in an ethereal dream reality. This area is known as the Floating Islands and Bartoli is here in his permanent dragon form. Good thing Lara has her trusty shotgun and her cold-blooded killer attitude to deal with him! She incapacitates him with bullets, then rips the dagger out of his chest. Which kills him because the dagger has to go in your heart, which makes me wonder why in the hell anyone would ever want to be this dragon?
The tomb collapses around Lara but she manages to escape just as an explosion seals the area forever. But wait? Wasn’t she in the Great Wall of China? Won’t someone notice if the Great Wall explodes? Apparently not because she returns to England for a well deserved rest. There’s a little more manslaughter when the last of Bartolis’ men track her down to kill her, but then there’s some well deserved rest!
Tomb Raider II ends on Lara about to disrobe for a shower. She turns to the camera to break the fourth wall and says: “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” before shooting the screen and killing… us? I guess?
Overall, I’m not as big a fan of this story as I was of the story in the first Tomb Raider. The Chinese lore is great and honestly, no Lara Croft adventure is complete without some sort of mystical/supernatural element, so the travelling to the Floating Islands was an awesome cap. But in between the levels filled with Chinese lore or taking place in China we get a whole lot of stuff I just don’t care about. The Venice levels, the oil rig levels, the underwater levels? They just don’t do it for me.
I want forgotten and crumbling ancient cities filled with nothing but mysteries, not guys with machetes and attack dogs! I want to feel like I’ve discovered something that no one has seen in three thousand years, not make my way around Venice in a speed boat! Now, you will see in later retrospectives that I don’t mind urban environments in my Lara Croft games. The Tokyo level in Legend is one of my favourites, but the difference there is that it’s not the whole bloody game!
Lara must have killed hundreds of men in Tomb Raider II! And there comes a point after your two hundredth human kill when you just long for the quiet and reflective nature of a long forgotten tomb in the Andes mountains, or hell, even a non-human monster that explodes after you’ve pumped enough bullets into it! Pretty much anything but the sad thump sound of a human corpse falling to the ground and then rummaging through said corpse’s pockets.
Like any good sequel, Tomb Raider II ups the ante, improves on some of the lacking aspects, all while trying to keep what people loved about the first game intact. So the exploring aspect is here (though we’ve moved from hidden tombs), and it’s complete with going a little off the beaten trail to find secrets. And the running-and-gunning? You better believe that’s still here! And even more prominent than it was in the last one. Along with tigers, birds, and yetis, you will be killing a lot of people in Tomb Raider II.
So what’s improved in the second game? The biggest one has got to be that they added in ladders! LADDERS!
If you’re not as excited by ladders as I am, there’s more. They dull in comparison, but they are there.
Like secrets! Secrets now require going a little less linearly through the levels to discover them, which opens up the world a little bit more. They’re also a lot bigger. In the first game, you’d find a single box of shotgun ammo at a time. In Tomb Raider II you’ll find caches of ammo that actually let you use the shotgun instead of obsessively hoarding it for bosses! Here’s a pro-tip (twenty years after the fact, but pro-tip nonetheless), shoot all the glass you come upon. Not only is it just as satisfying as you think, the wanton destruction usually leads to a secret!
The guns and ammo you’ll find remain the same from Tomb Raider, but you’ve now got an infinite supply of flares in your inventory. The first game didn’t need flares because everywhere you went was pretty well lit, using the limitations of the draw distance to create some striking atmospheres but not necessarily realistic ones. Tomb Raider II is flexing a few more muscles in terms of hardware and you’ll find many a dark place that will call for a flare. You can also throw them over edges to see how far a drop down something is and you can hold them in your hand as you climb around so they’re not a hindrance at all.
There’s also the ability to drive vehicles, which is just as clunky as you’d imagine, but it’s something that could never have been done in the first game so it’s fun to do here. Innovation and all that! And compared to lining Lara up for some of her jumps, the snowmobile level handles like a dream!
Now, improvements to gameplay are great, but how’s the actual playing of the game?
Hard as tits! Harder tits than Tomb Raider! And that first game is hard!
The first level alone is out to destroy you. Just knock you down and kick you in the teeth. And then stab you in the gut. Then shoot you in the face. Then rip out your soul and toss your damned corpse into the sun. Honesty time, I could never even get past the first level as a kid. In the first level you have booby traps, precisely timed jumps, animal attacks, and even more dinosaurs.
Yeah. More T-Rexes. They’re out of the way, in an area that contains a secret so they’re off the linear progression, and they’re definitely just a nod to the most iconic moment from the first game. Just be sure you rush past the two of them and tuck yourself into the nook that holds the secret or you’re screwed.
Honestly, how the hell did anyone ever beat this game? These levels are some of the most confusing, unfair death traps I’ve ever seen! The level that has you jumping through vents while avoiding deadly fans–who thought of this madness?! And the level that starts you under the goddamn ocean and you have to follow the subtlest trail of debris into an area that has air? If you don’t know that, you’ll die. And what a cheap fucking death it is!
Then there are the gun bits. The first Tomb Raider had mostly animals and, near the end, weirdo exploding mutant monsters. Tomb Raider II takes us in the opposite direction with a few animals and weirdo mythical monsters, but mostly you’re killing people. Just flat out murdering wave after wave of dudes. So many dudes that the streets of Venice will run red with the blood of those you mercilessly strike down!
And these dudes deserve it because they’ll just come at you like the fucking Terminator! Walking straight into gun fire, either shooting guns themselves or swinging blunt objects. They’re impossible to avoid and if they’re walking straight at you, they hit you almost as much as you hit them. They will take out shit tonnes of your health: constantly. But the game compensates by having them drop health packs and ammo. Which I like because having a human have some bandages on them makes more sense than finding those things in a tomb that hasn’t been opened in thousands of years.
Tomb Raider II also compensates its harder difficulty by getting rid of the limited save states in level. In the first game, each level had seven purple crystals scattered throughout that you could save at a single time. They were strategically placed either before or after difficult parts, but they were limited and could prove to be a real pain in the ass. But that’s not the case in the sequel! Now, simply go to your menu, open your passport, and save whenever you want. Fuck yeah.
Way back when, people complained this made the game too easy. But wayer back with the first game, they complained that the limited save spots were too hard. Proving again and again that you can never please video game fans because they are the most insidious fans, second only to comic fans. But I like it! I’ll go so far as to say I love it! Video games should present a challenge, but they should also be as fair and balanced as possible to keep the frustration to fun level never leaning too far into frustration. It’s all about balance. And I think having the ability to save whenever balances out how fucking hard the game is in general.
I’m ready to make that a definitive declaration nearly twenty years after this game’s release!
Unlike the first Tomb Raider game that was a mostly humanless world of caves and forgotten tombs, Tomb Raider II takes place in a lot of cities and industrial areas. All of which are crawling with boxy men that you kill without batting an eye. That’s (yet another) a big huzzah for manslaughter!
Of the levels that we see in Tomb Raider II, I’m not a fan. The Great Wall of China is an intriguing location, and the streets of Venice are beautiful (or as beautiful as they can be on the PS1) but taking the Tomb Raider out of tombs kind of defeats her purpose, doesn’t it? Taking Lara out of the mysterious tombs of forgotten kings and gods gives me less to be interested in. I love myths, I love history, and they’re gone from Tomb Raider II, replaced with more running-and-gunning, which is arguably the worst part of these early Tomb Raider games for myself.
C’mon game. I just wanna ‘splore. ‘Splorin’s fun!
But that’s not the only 180 this game takes in terms of setting. Whereas Tomb Raider was a very vertical game, Tomb Raider II is less so, but with more horizontally to explore. With the upgrade to the engine they used to develop the game, Tomb Raider II got to be wider.
Tomb Raider II also got to be wetter. Lara spends quite a big chuck of this game in a skin diving suit as she explores a few watery locales. At one point she grabs onto a mini personal submarine and descends into the sea. Don’t ask me how she survives because she doesn’t have an oxygen tank with her and pressures and what not, but down she goes! I’m still not a fan of where she ends up when she’s down there (here’s a hint, a dingy industrial looking level filled with people), but kudos for the idea!
Remember how everything was pointy and looked the damn same in Tomb Raider? Good news everyone! Background characters are still a freaky jumble of rectangles, mouths still don’t move while talking, and places do fall into very similar patterns, but Lara’s boobs are a little more boob shaped this time around!
That’s in-game and everything! So what if human bodies that aren’t Lara are made out of haphazardly contained rectangles? There’s no longer a danger you’ll lose an eye on her chest. That’s got to make her life marginally easier. At the very least she’s not wearing through bras as quickly as she was when they were a sharp point!
Okay, seriously though, as much as you can still rag on the Tomb Raider II graphics, they were impressive for the day. This was the end of 1997 and they were for the first Playstation. 3D gaming (especially on a console) was still in its infancy. This all blew our minds as much as Tomb Raider had a year before. But going back to look at all these games one after another twenty years later? While each game offers improvements to the core gameplay, they all look and play the same.
Let me paint you a context picture. Like all sequels to wildly successful first games, Tomb Raider II was put to a tight deadline to get it out before the next Christmas season. Tomb Raider had a six person team and three years. Tomb Raider II had around a fifteen person team but they had less than a year. Because of this the development team used a tweak-and-adjust approach to the first game’s engine to avoid building from the ground up in the sequel.
The things like minor camera issues and polygon glitches were fixed to improve gameplay; along with dynamic lighting, a more flexible control system, and large outdoor areas to create a better (or just different depending on who you ask) atmosphere. So using the same engine kind of feels like Lara got more detail and a few wicked little vehicles, but other details had to be spread out to make everything fit. So Lara is rounded and looks a little more like a person, but background characters are still rectangle men with no faces. The outdoor areas of Venice look bright and beautiful, but indoors anywhere else looks dreary and undetailed.
I will say that the dynamic lighting is always great. The first game was super bright no matter where you went, with the draw distances being what cast the shadows until you approached them. Here in Tomb Raider II are actual shadows that need to be lit with an outside light source. This one detail is so small but adds so much to the overall atmosphere.
Nathan McCree returns to do the music of Tomb Raider II. Compared to the first game, Tomb Raider II plays around with its music a little more. The music that’ll play in the background is still sparse, with most of the soundtrack having brief sound clips no longer than twenty seconds play depending on the circumstance. Finding a secret will get you the classic Tomb Raider secret noise, stumbling into danger will get you a quick burst of strings to tell you urgency is required.
But where as the first game took place exclusively in natural areas, the second game is the complete opposite. So while you’re in the very few natural areas throughout the game, the music has taken a sharp turn into ambient music as opposed to the more cue-like music the first game had. There’s no frantic plucking stings to denote urgency, or ethereal, hymnal chants to evoke the feeling of having found something untouched for thousands of years after walking into a certain room. Instead there’s more of a droning, background type music to the areas.
The areas of industry and urban development are where the more “song-like” songs play. The ones that feel more cued than ambient. The best example is while Lara is in Venice and classic strings play. It fits the environment nicely, but it also feels like you’re being slapped with the fact that this is a game.
Nathan McCree is the original composer though, so it’s not like it completely misses the mark. The reprises of the original game’s opening theme are probably the best idea McCree had throughout. There are three songs throughout that reuse it: “Cradle to Grave”, “Lara Plays in the Snow”, and “Tibetan Chant”.
“The Cradle to Grave” is a gentler version, with calm guitar underneath and the more piercing original theme overtop it. Is it a wind instrument that plays the original? I honestly have no idea what it’s supposed to be. The “Tibetan Chant” is a male choir and reminds me greatly of the first game’s main screen. “Lara Plays in the Snow” is probably my favourite piece of the game. It’s got a rocking beat with an intense overlay of strings and bass, and then the original theme is squeezed in for good measure.
I personally don’t think it’s as iconic as the first game’s soundtrack was, but it’s not bad, just different. And clocking in at just over fifteen minutes longer than Tomb Raider’s complete soundtrack at 36 minutes total, Tomb Raider II’s soundtrack is still definitely worth a listen!
I personally think Tomb Raider II misses its mark.
The game offers you the option to save whenever you want, which is great, but it also ups the difficulty on dispatching enemies and getting through the environment. That first level alone will scare off more than enough people!
The verticality of the first game has been replaced by a wider, flatter world, and that world is full of industry and people. Where’s the feeling of mystery and awe in shooting a dude in the face compared to walking into an ancient tomb that no one has entered in thousands of years? The answer is that there isn’t! The atmosphere is a running and gunning action movie, which, like I’ve said quite a few times throughout, isn’t necessarily bad, just shockingly different.
The story is decently entertaining though, as is the music. The graphics on Lara have improved and the dynamic lighting still astounds me. There are good things to be had in Tomb Raider II, if you’re willing to look for them. And you should be since you’re a tomb raider and all!
Tomb Raider III is next, in which Lara learns a few more tricks but mostly just goes through costume change after costume change.