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"Tomb Raider" Through the Technical Ages: 1996-2003

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Tomb Raider II promotional image from Core Design.

Tomb Raider II promotional image from Core Design.

In the Beginning...

The original Tomb Raider game launched in 1996. When it was originally released, Core Design and Eidos Interactive had only hoped that the game would go on to be as successful as it would. It was the first series to have a female protagonist in an action/adventure game.

During the three years it took to develop and publish the first installment in the franchise, Core had initially planned for a male character to be the star of the game with a female character as a second choice. However, to save on having to do double the work for the cut scenes in the game, it was decided that a female character would be the main character. Toby Gard, who is accredited with the creation of Lara, has cited the success of the two female fighters in Virtua Fighter (Sarah Bryant and Pai Chan respectively) as an influence into the decision to scrap the male character.

In fact, Lara Croft's original name was Lara Cruz but was later changed to Lara Croft after it became apparent that being English was such a large part of her character. When Shelley Blond was recording the voice of Lara, she was instructed to use a more Bond-like approach to the character. This included leaving emotion and inflection out of Lara's voice to give her a firmer, more controlled sound.

Tomb Raider was also the first game to push the limits and insist upon an interactive three-dimensional environment, despite initially having some trouble figuring out how to do so. Part of what helped to make the game so successful was the exclusivity contract with Sega for the Saturn. This allowed Core Design to work out the bugs for Sony's PlayStation version that had been in simultaneous development. This was also the only game in the series released for the Sega Saturn as the Dreamcast is its successor.

Lara's home is revealed to be a manor that is under construction and serves as the game's training area to allow players to become used to the controls and the interactive environment set up. This is the only area Lara's outfit appears different in the game. In her home, she wears a sports bra and sweatpants. The front of Croft Manor was based on the studio that Core Design was working in, which was called Derby Studios.

In another long list of firsts, Tomb Raider was also the first game to have purely atmospheric and trigger-cued music instead of an overlaying, constant music throughout the game. The only constant sounds heard are footsteps, grunts, and groans from Lara, and environmental factors such as animals and waterfalls or fire. This is mostly due in part to the composer, Nathan McCree, allotting too little time to the project and composing tracks without any thought as to where they would fit into the game. When it was finally applied, it was decided that the music McCree composed was better utilized in specific scenarios as trigger-cued music instead of an overlying soundtrack. As for the main theme, a melody starring a solo oboe was used and has been the basis of most of the other themes.

Screenshot from the first level of Tomb Raider, the Caves, taken by myself via Steam.

Screenshot from the first level of Tomb Raider, the Caves, taken by myself via Steam.

Tomb Raider II: Starring Lara Croft

Before Tomb Raider had even launched, the sequel was already in the conceptual stages. As the first game was produced, additional concepts and suggestions continued to be pitched until there were simply too many to fit into one game. Instead, some were put into the first game and the rest were held back for what would become the foundation of Tomb Raider II: Starring Lara Croft. And even though Toby Gard left the project, the rest of the team decided that too much had been invested into Lara to just put the series to rest.

The deadline for this game's production was less than a year after the first and created some difficulty in getting Shelley Blond to reprise her role as Lara's voice due to other commitments at the time. Instead, she allowed Core to continue to use the monosyllable recordings of her (like grunts, groans, sighs, etc.) while Judith Gibbins recorded all of the speaking parts. On the other hand, this deadline also helped to double the design team as well as reuse the game engine from the previous game while working out the glitches and building upon this engine to include more expansive areas in each level.

While the game was being designed, there was also some minor work done to Lara's character. Her hair was improved into a free-flowing plait and smoother features. She reprised her now iconic outfit of a sea foam green tank top and brown khaki shorts but also gained some new outfits to add another layer to the immersive game play. She would wear a half-body wet suit for the underwater/oceanic levels and a bomber jacket for the Tibetan levels.

After the success of the first game, Lara became an icon of many sorts. Some commended her as a role model for women while others began to overly sexualize her due to her very feminine physique. Some risque mods began surfacing online that removed Lara's clothes for the first game and, though anything but delighted by this, Core Design responded by including a shower scene and placing Lara in a bathrobe for the final level. A cease and desist letter was served to the original host of the "Nude Raider" creator but Lara's status as a sex symbol was already attained and, as such, was capitalized upon by Core. In my opinion, this helps sway her character in the realm of feminism by giving her more power over how she's portrayed rather than leaving it up to others to portray her. This includes a vast array of wallpapers and promotional images released for Tomb Raider III and some of the more feminine evening wear Lara is seen wearing in Tomb Raider: Chronicles and the hints of a romance in Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. All of this helped to add a further James-Bond-like dimension to her character as a woman who is always in control of who she is and how she's portrayed/received.

The concept of riding vehicles was also introduced into the game via a motorboat in Italy and a snowmobile in Tibet. This introduced a fun way to break up the puzzles and shooting sequences.

Nathan McCree once again composed the soundtrack and was given more time to the project, so he took the opportunity to plan out where the music could be applied within the game as well as becoming more involved with its development.

Sony signed an exclusivity contract for the franchise a month before Tomb Raider II was released. This would apply to the rest of the series until Tomb Raider: Legend. And in 2014, Microsoft signed a timed-exclusive contract for Rise of the Tomb Raider—much to the dismay of fans loyal to the series who felt that it was unfairly changing the direction of the series after nearly 20 years.

Croft Manor makes another appearance and still serves as an introductory level. Though it has changed a bit from the previous game. It's no longer under construction and there are more areas to explore including an outside obstacle course and a hedge maze which contains a button that will unlock Lara's treasure room. The Manor also serves as the final level for the game and involves Lara defending her home from some thugs who are pretty mad at her for killing Marco Bartolli and making off with the Dagger of Xian.

The obstacle course was an inventive way to introduce the new gameplay dynamics that includes climbing ladders and performing a mid-air roll while jumping to do a quick turnaround. The hedge maze serves as a timed run to get into Lara's treasure room after pressing the button located in the center of the maze. Once pressed, you have roughly 70 seconds to make it from the maze to the newly unlocked door before it closes again. Once inside, you can unlock it from inside the treasure room to have access to it for the duration of your time there. As there's no save function within Croft Manor, it will reset upon exiting or dying.

A screenshot from a cutscene in Tomb Raider II, originally uploaded by user: Wagnike 2. Also on the Tomb Raider wikia page.

A screenshot from a cutscene in Tomb Raider II, originally uploaded by user: Wagnike 2. Also on the Tomb Raider wikia page.

Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft

After the success of Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II, the developing team wanted to take a break to really focus on the series and prepare it for a next generation console launch. To honor this, a new team was brought in to develop the next game while the original team was given a break from the series and allowed to develop their ideas further for a future endeavor. It was originally planned that the new team would work on a spin-off to the franchise called The Further Adventures of Lara Croft.

But as the storyline and development progressed, it became clear that it was too big of a project to not be considered a sequel. The lead programmer, Martin Gibbins, focused on upgrading the game engine to make it a more action-oriented game with more combative game play. Nevertheless, it did bring more of the puzzle-solving mechanisms back from Tomb Raider as opposed to the shooting-oriented style of Tomb Raider II. The idea of hand-to-hand combat was also discussed but ultimately decided against as it would require reanimating the enemies. A specialist was hired to ad more realistic behaviors to the enemies such as hiding in shadows or leaving Lara's line of fire if she gets the upper-hand.

The ability to avoid enemies was also added to Tomb Raider III, inspired by the stealth element in Rare's Golden Eye. This was also the first attempt at making the Tomb Raider games open world. There were now multiple ways to get to the level exit as well as the option to choose how the middle three sections would be played.

Tomb Raider III contains five different locations: India, Nevada, the South Pacific, London, and Antarctica. These locations were decided upon before the plot line had even been established. There are four levels to each location, other than Nevada which contains three levels instead. There's also a bonus level for finding all of the secrets in the game, which revisits the London location. Lara's outfit changes for each section as well, expanding even more so on her wardrobe.

Vehicles returned once again in Tomb Raider III. This time, they added some environmentally specific vehicles such as the kayak, mine cart, and underwater propulsion unit (which, thankfully, is voluntary as it's the most difficult mode of transportation in the game). The idea of a boat returns in the form of an inflatable raft that serves for navigating through various waterfalls. And Croft Manor is updated with a quad bike/four wheeler in the racetrack, which is covered a bit more below.

The developers also added new weather effects such as rain and snow while also improving the dynamic lighting and adding ripple effects to water. More realistic fire, explosions, and smoke also found their way into the game. The technical aspects of the game were built around the PlayStation's capabilities due to the exclusivity contract with Sony. The PC version is just the same version with upgraded graphics.

The development of Tomb Raider III took approximately 11 months, most of which was spent integrating the new ideas into the game's engine. After the project was completed, it was revealed that approximately 80% of the code was entirely scrapped and rewritten.

Judith Gibbins once again reprised her role of Lara Croft and Nathan McCree once again composed the music for the soundtrack.

Part of Lara's treasure room in Tomb Raider III, uploaded by user Blackpill from the Tomb Raider wikia.

Part of Lara's treasure room in Tomb Raider III, uploaded by user Blackpill from the Tomb Raider wikia.

Croft Manor continues to be the training ground for players both new to the series and those returning from previous installments. Along with all of the technical and graphical upgrades to the series, Tomb Raider III included the most improvement to the way that Lara interacts with the environment this far. The ability to crawl through spaces or duck out of the way of traps, monkey swing across monkey bars or vines, as well as sprinting. This last feature also received a status bar of its own, similar to the health bar and the bar that appears while Lara is holding her breath under water. The sprinting feature has a limited duration and takes a few seconds to recharge after it's been depleted as well. And, at the end of a sprint, Lara can roll forward for that extra boost of distance and speed.

Similar to the treasure room in Tomb Raider II, her treasure room is once again hidden behind a timed door. This time, however, the switch to open the door is hidden behind a bookshelf that must be moved with another switch attached to the diving board off of the gym. That switch is not timed, but the switch inside of that door is. Once pulled, there's just barely enough time to sprint and roll through it before it slides closed once again. Inside, the room is full of Easter eggs from the previous two games as well as the next two and even an inside joke between Core Design employees. Out of all the games' treasure rooms, this one is my personal favorite. It's the most fun to get in to.

Speaking of fun, there's also a giant fish tank in the basement of Croft Manor. This is the second hidden room in the manor this time and also contains the racetrack key where you can practice riding a quad bike/four-wheeler around a track instead of wandering around the hedge maze from Tomb Raider II. In order to unlock the aquarium, you have to move some boxes around the attic, climb up the fireplace in the library off of the music room, move some more boxes around, and then pull a switch for another timed run to the aquarium. Once inside, you'll be able to swim in the aquarium (which appears to be salt water based fish) and obtain the racetrack key.

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation

Development on the fourth installment began the same year that third was released. Due to working on so many projects back to back, the development team began to become sick and tired of seeing Lara Croft every single day. They secretly worked on a storyline that would end with her death. It wasn't until development was too far along to scrap the storyline that the CEO found out.

It received mostly positive reviews but the team's fatigue was felt in the final version of the game with it feeling rushed and as if the designers were just going through the motions despite the extensive research that was put into the Egyptian landscapes. Core even designed a level based on Tutankhamen's Tomb in association with The Times.

Despite still having an exclusivity contract with Sony, The Last Revelation was designed with the PC in mind to give them more freedom in designing the game. They added some new features such as climbing up and down poles—and being able to jump from them, as well as swinging from ropes to be able to cross extremely large gaps and shimmy around corners while hanging from ledges or climbing ladders. It's also the first game to feature the ability to add laser sights to some weapons such as the crossbow and the revolver. Some weapons also have multiple types of ammo that can be changed in the inventory screen.

Lara also has noticeably less outfits in this installment. Similar to Tomb Raider, she only has her typical "Tomb Raider outfit" and young Lara's outfit.

This is also the first installment in the series where Croft Manor is noticeably absent. To compensate for this, the first level of the game serves as the tutorial and will walk you through both the old controls as well as the new additions. It's also the first time that young Lara is introduced. The first level starts off with 16-year-old Lara following her mentor, Werner Von Croy, around Angkor Wat while looking for the Iris (which is seen in Lara's treasure room in Tomb Raider III). Lara's backpack also originates from Angkor Wat, where she pulled it off of a skeleton while opening a door to progress through the ruins. The second level is set up as a race against Von Croy to test your skills as an advanced training level.

At the end of this level, Lara watches helplessly as Von Croy slips and is caught by his foot on a ledge while the tomb collapses around him. Though she wants to save him, she's forced to leave to save herself. This nicely mirrors how the developers decided to wrap up their top-secret mission to kill Lara. A newly freed Von Croy is the one that is forced to watch helplessly as his pupil is buried alive within a tomb and he's forced to flee to save himself.

From there on, the game is less linear than the other three and features several different routes to the end of each level as well as several different ways to solving most of the puzzles. There's also the ability to backtrack between levels if something was forgotten in a certain area before progressing to the level exit. Some areas even require a revisit to progress the story and solve puzzles. This adds more game play hours than the previous installments. The puzzles are also more inventive, even including a life-sized game of Senet in the Tomb of Semerkhet.

A screenshot of Lara in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, uploaded by user Wagnike2 on Tomb Raider wikia.

A screenshot of Lara in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, uploaded by user Wagnike2 on Tomb Raider wikia.

The vehicle selection is more similar to Tomb Raider II with only two opportunities to hop on anything throughout the game. The first is during a chase scene, which requires Lara to use a Jeep to follow the bad guys around. Although the level does require you to get out of the Jeep frequently to explore or solve the various roadblocks that are put up in your way. The second vehicle is about halfway through the game and takes the form of a motorcycle. Even more so than the Jeep, the game requires you to hop on and off of the motorcycle quite frequently, to the point of interrupting an otherwise seamless ride. While the idea is inventive, it's generally agreed upon by fans that having to get on and off/in and out of both vehicles very greatly distracts from the novelty of them and makes them more of an annoyance than the previous vehicles in the former games.

In spite of the disappointing vehicles, there is the addition of a level that's entirely on a moving train and requires careful maneuvering to navigate it around the obvious dangers of a moving train and Von Croy's hired help lurking about.

So while the developing team may have felt tired and drained, they still delivered a very solid game for the fourth installment. Judith Gibbins also did not return as the voice of Lara and was, instead, replaced by Jonell Elliot. Nathan McCree was replaced by Peter Connelly, who shared the entire soundtrack on his SoundCloud account with some unreleased bonus content.

Tomb Raider Chronicles

Since there was a demand to continuously push out the Tomb Raider games one year after another and their previous attempt to kill Lara had been unsuccessful, the development team was even less thrilled to be working on the fifth installment. This time, there was no upgrade to the game engine and it functions essentially the same as The Last Revelation. And little thought was put into the overall game with designers commenting that they had only continued to work on the project because no one else would take on the project and that they needed to collect a paycheck.

And, though she's uncredited, Jonell Elliott returned as the voice of Lara Croft. Peter Connelly once again composed the soundtrack and released this soundtrack as well in 2012 along with some unreleased bonus material on his SoundCloud.

There are a few additions to gameplay such as being able to chloroform enemies as a stealth element, walking across tightropes, and swinging on horizontal bars. A grappling gun is introduced to carry over the rope-swinging mechanics from the previous installment.

Similar to Tomb Raider III, the game is composed of four different locations that each contain three or four levels each. Unlike Tomb Raider III, there is no cohesive story line for Chronicles. Instead it's a retelling of her old adventures by her butler, Winston, and some associates of hers. It's revealed that Von Croy is excavating the ruins in Egypt. This means that the fifth game takes place just a few days after the fourth.

The first location is in Rome, Italy, where Lara is searching for the Philosopher's Stone. While the second is set in Russia while she hunts for the Spear of Destiny—and even goes to the depths of the ocean in a deep sea diver's suit. The third story takes place while Lara is a teenager once more and is set in Ireland. This is the most difficult section, in my personal opinion, as Lara has no access to the normal weapons that she does as an adult and instead must rely on her wits to keep herself alive. More of Lara Croft and Von Croy's relationship is revealed in the fourth set of levels. Her main objective here is to steal the Iris that she believes Von Croy stole from her.

Lara in the deep sea diving suit from the Russia levels in Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Uploaded by user Wagnike2 on Tomb Raider wikia.

Lara in the deep sea diving suit from the Russia levels in Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Uploaded by user Wagnike2 on Tomb Raider wikia.

Vehicles are also absent from this installment, unless you'd like to count the deep sea diver's suit.

Once the fourth adventure is completed, the game is finished and wraps up with a cut scene of present-day Von Croy at the excavation. A small boy drags Von Croy over to some rubble, where Von Croy lifts Lara's backpack and declares that they've found her. Lara is presumed to be alive from there.

Though the stories are inventive and interesting, it received very mixed reviews from critics. And it has one of the lowest sales within the franchise and was the worst selling game until Tomb Raider: Anniversary was released.

Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness

Since the Last Revelation and Chronicles pushed the PlayStation to its technical limit, it was decided that the next installment would be for next generation consoles. In an effort to reinvent Lara and give the series some fresh life, it was also decided that this one would be a little darker than the other games. Development began in 2000 around the time of Chronicles with a new team working on Angel of Darkness while the regular team worked on the development of Chronicles. When that was completed and had launched, both teams came together for the completion of the new game. Unfortunately, the new team had been having trouble with coming up with a concrete story line and had already changed everything once already by the time Chronicles was released.

Murti Schofield was brought in to remedy this issue and helped write both the story and script, including creating a secondary character that could be the focus of a spin-off series. So the next few years were spent trying to reinvent Lara Croft and Tomb Raider by both the development team and Core Design. While the team was busy researching secret societies, artifacts, and Latin, Core attempted to further flesh out the character of Lara Croft by writing a back story into a multi-chapter book.

Lara's model was entirely rebuilt by basing her movements off of actual people, serving as a prototype for the motion-capture movements currently used in games. This allowed for them to incorporate hand-to-hand combat movements throughout the series. Overall, however, many of the team members expressed being drastically unprepared for the complications that designing on the PlayStation 2 brought with it. This contributed to the many glitches and graphical issues that plagued the game upon release.

Some new moves were added to the basics that carried over from the previous games. The new moves included more stealth options for taking out enemies without raising alarm, flattening herself out against a wall to avoid alarm systems, and peering around corners to see what's there before blindly charging out into danger. She also gained the ability to army crawl under smaller crawlspaces, hop a small distance, and jump much farther than she normally does. This helped to break up her standard jumps that were the average jumps for the last five games and was a welcome change. Despite these improvements, it's been noted that Lara herself moves rather sluggishly—almost as if her model is too weighted for her environment or she's constantly wading through waist-deep water.

Even the instruction manual wasn't spared from mishaps: it incorrectly states that you can change the controls for the game at any time during your playthrough. But this is noticeably absent from the in-game options menu. This proved to be rather frustrating to some players as the controls were almost entirely redesigned from the previous installments. They required some getting used to.

The idea that Lara needs to improve her skills as you play through the game is originally introduced here. She gains bonuses to strength and stamina. This is also the first, and only, time that Lara has a stamina meter for climbing. If it depletes before she reaches her destination, she'll simply let go and fall. It does immediately refill once she touches the ground--provided that she survives the fall.

This is the first game in which her traditional Tomb Raider attire is noticeably absent. Instead, she begins the game wearing a black midriff shirt, a jean jacket, a pair of jeans, and boots. The second outfit is the same black midriff shirt, which is revealed to be sleeveless, an olive green army style vest, and camouflage pants that are tucked into the her boots. The third is this same black midriff shirt and camouflage shorts and boots. She does still have a backpack that might be an upgraded version of her former backpack, but probably wasn't meant to be similar, and she only has this for the second and third outfits and not for her street clothes.

Jonell Elliott reprised her role once again as the voice of Lara Croft for the final time.

A screenshot of Lara in the Louvre, originally posted by user: Animé Dan.

A screenshot of Lara in the Louvre, originally posted by user: Animé Dan.

The soundtrack for Angel of Darkness was the biggest in the series to date. Peter Connelly and Martin Iveson composed the soundtrack together while the London Symphony Orchestra performed it. Once again, Connelly released the soundtrack in 2012 for the 10th anniversary on SoundCloud.

An unreleased bonus cut scene titled "Dead Shaman Scene" was remastered and released as part of the 20 year anniversary celebration of the series in 2016 on the official Tomb Raider YouTube channel here. This scene details how Lara managed to stay alive after the events of the Last Revelation as well as add a little bit more of a mystical edge to her personality by giving her a Shamanic guide to act as her mentor.

Combined Full Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness Soundtrack

The storyline itself, despite all of the technical issues that were found later, is rather interesting—despite the fact that a lot of it was cut due to the rushed programming. Instead of spending the majority of the game exploring ruins and tombs, most of it is set in urban settings or withing laboratories. The only ruins/tomb she enters are an underground excavation that she must break into to investigate.

There's also the option to learn more of the story line and gain either bonuses or hindrances to her progress by talking to various NPCs (or: Non-Playable Characters). This was an attempt at bringing a more role-playing element to the series. The play also assumes control of another character for the first time. Kurtis Trent, originally presumed to be an antagonist to Lara, is revealed to be an ally and becomes a playable character later in the game with a heavy emphasis on combat during his play through. Overall, he functions very similarly to Lara but does move slower than her, which can be frustrating.

Werner Von Croy makes another appearance, albeit briefly, in this installment. He invites Lara over due to a discovery on a secret society he's been looking into. She agrees and meets him in his apartment in Paris, France. The story line begins with his murder, which Lara is being framed for, though she was unconscious when it occurred. As a result, she must avoid the police and talking with some NPCs will draw their attention to her. This is where the element of stealth comes into play. As she's working to clear her name, killing the police is not an option and the game will end if you're caught and you'll have to start that section over again.

Progressing through the game requires you to collect clues hidden within the Obscura Paintings to uncover the next location for the Periapt Shards. These are used to destroy any immortal being which, in this case, is a Nephilim. Traditionally, Nephilim are the offspring of humans and fallen angels. In Angel of Darkness, the last one alive goes by the name Pieter van Eckhardt. With the help of Kurtis Trent, the lone survivor of the society called Lux Veritatis that had originally sealed Eckhardt away, Lara manages to gather the tools to defeat him. There's an implied romance between Kurtis and Lara, which has inspired many different fan fictions and resulted in a kiss between the two in the Tomb Raider comics.

In the end, it's revealed that at some point Kurtis and a few other characters that had helped Lara along the way, was another Nephilim who had been manipulating both Eckhardt and Lara. He offers to make her immortal as well, but she refuses and destroys him in the end. Lara leaves with the aid of Kurtis' weapon and it is implied that he's still alive. He was supposed to return in the future installments of the Angel of Darkness trilogy as well as his own spin-off series. So it's safe to assume that Kurtis was alive and well and probably just tied up somewhere during the final battle.

What Happened Next?

Due to the backlash from both critics and fans, the Angel of Darkness trilogy and any spin-off ideas were scrapped entirely and Eidos removed the Tomb Raider franchise from Core Design and gave it to another subsidiary studio, Crystal Dynamics.

This has been agreed upon as the best decision for the franchise as the teams that worked on the original six Tomb Raider games were burnt out from all of the back to back projects surrounding the franchise. They had also expressed being grossly under prepared for the complexity that the PlayStation 2 brought with it.

The Angel of Darkness had one of the highest anticipations as well as a very aggressive campaign that helped to provide it with strong initial sales—but that soon gave way to the negative and mixed, at best, reviews. After selling 2.5 million copies, it's still one of the lowest selling games within the franchise despite a small, strong fan appreciation for the ingenuity and direction the series was headed. Even now, some still long for a remake or a remaster for the current generation console.

Overall, the end of Core's run with Tomb Raider was a result of mixed over-ambition and poor execution stemming from being both over-worked and under-prepared. If there had been more of a break between each of these, Core might have continued to develop the Tomb Raider games, and we may have had the pleasure of seeing Lara both inside and outside of the tombs. Instead, all of the PlayStation 2 releases from Crystal Dynamics were spent trying to recapture Lara's fan base and re-establish her among her peers.

But that will be covered in another article, which will include Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and Tomb Raider: Underworld.

© 2017 Gaylen Cook


Zia Uddin from UK on October 19, 2018:

Well written article, quite enjoyed reading it. The first Tomb Raider was my favourite, it had the feeling and the music was great which added to the imagination of the tombs. Angel of Darkness didn't feel like a Tomb Raider game and the storyline was boring, so that's the worst game in the series.