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Retrospective: Tomb Raider II

Welcome back for another dose of Tomb Raider nostalgia. Today, Survivor Reborn takes a look at Lara Croft’s explosive quest for the Dagger of Xian in Tomb Raider II.

SR Tomb Raider II cover 02

Hello again!

On the 31st October 1997, Lara Croft returned to gamers’ screens in Tomb Raider II, sequel to the previous year’s critically-acclaimed Tomb Raider. Core Design and Eidos Interactive once again brought British archaeologist-adventurer Lara Croft to vivid life. The sequel was noticeably bigger and more action-packed than its predecessor, and sported several improvements to the gameplay and graphics.

Something scaly this way comes…

Tomb Raider II repeated the storytelling formula of its predecessor by opening with a gorgeously rendered (for the time) FMV, which set the scene for Lara’s adventure. Vicky Arnold returned from Tomb Raider to write the script, which saw Lara in pursuit of an ancient Chinese artefact, the Dagger of Xian. According to Arnold, the Dagger once belonged to the Emperor of China. The Dagger held the power to transform its bearer into an unstoppable, fire-breathing dragon – if they were brave enough to plunge the Dagger into their own heart! The Emperor’s armies also gained dragon-imbued strength and ferocity, as demonstrated by the Emperor’s General and his glowing, reptilian eyes in the opening FMV. We were also shown how the Emperor was eventually defeated when a warrior-monk stole the Dagger, and then took it back to a secret Temple beneath the Great Wall of China.

In the present-day, Lara Croft is seeking the Dagger of Xian for her own personal collection. However, she has competition. An Italian gang leader named Marco Bartoli is also after the Dagger. He is aided by his devoted followers – the Fiamma Nera (’Black Flame’) – who hope to use the Dagger to gain unstoppable power. Opposing Bartoli, and anyone who seeks to misuse the power of the Dagger, are the warrior-monks of Barkhang Monastery in Tibet.

Lara quickly learned that the Temple of Xian, resting place of the Dagger of Xian, could only be accessed using the Talion – a sort of magic doorknob, as Chris Jones so aptly put it in his Talkthrough Tomb Raider II video. As we delved deeper into the plot, we learned that the Talion was kept locked up beneath Barkhang Monastery, and could only be accessed by a device known as the Seraph (or magic doorknob no. 2). The Seraph, it turned out, was on the bottom of the ocean inside the wreck of the Maria Doria, a sunken cruise liner that once belonged to Marco’s father, Gianni Bartoli. And so our path through the game was laid out for us – get the Seraph to get the Talion, get the Talion to get the Dagger of Xian. Oh, and don’t die.

Venice boat

What could possibly go wrong?

The underlying plot might have been simple, but players were usually too busy dodging, rolling, shooting, and swearing to notice. Tomb Raider II was much more combat-orientated than the first game. From Venice to China, Lara was endlessly harangued by legions of club-, knife-, and gun-wielding enemies (plus some yetis, who didn’t really need any weapons other than the ability to make you curl up and sob from two rooms away). There were also more action set-pieces and more challenging, trap-dodging terrain than in the previous title. Fans praised the fast-paced action, and felt intensely satisfied to reach the end of each level.

Exactly why Bartoli was so obsessed with a legendary Chinese Dagger as a route to power was never made explicitly clear. As Tomb Raider villains go, Bartoli is probably one of the least fleshed-out and one-sided characters of the entire franchise. For that matter, Lara herself was never given a motive to seek the Dagger beyond ‘it’s old and shiny, ergo I want it’. Lara also interacted with a few other characters, such as Brother Chen of Barkhang Monastery and Claudio, a member of the Fiamma Nera. These encounters advanced the plot and allowed Lara to show off her dry wit and deductive capabilities, but they were also very brief – cut short by gunfire and suicide, respectively! However, our enjoyment of the game did not hinge upon convoluted motives and character exploration. For these reasons and more, Tomb Raider II can reasonably be considered one of the most straightforward, if toughest, titles in the franchise.

Tomb Raider II Jade statue 01

Lara encounters yet another ‘sticky’ situation.

Developing Tomb Raider II

Tomb Raider II had a lot to live up to. The original Tomb Raider of the previous year was unprecedented both in its technical achievement and its impact on video game culture. Lara Croft was an instant hit with gamers and non-gamers alike. However, Toby Gard was not impressed with the over-sexualisation of his creation by marketers, and quit Core Design before a sequel could get off the ground. Core Design replaced him with Stuart Atkinson, and plans for a new, explosive Tomb Raider adventure quickly took shape.

Tomb Raider II consisted of eighteen levels spread across five locations, compared to fifteen and four respectively in the original game (not including Croft Manor). However, its development time was considerably shorter. Core Design was able to take advantage of both the existing game engine and a larger team. The game engine was ‘tweaked’ rather than rebuilt from scratch, to permit the inclusion of new moves and effects. For the first time, Lara could operate vehicles – a snowmobile in Tibet, and a motorboat in Venice. Dynamic lighting allowed for the use of flares in dark spaces. Higher polygon counts gave Lara a sleeker, more refined look than in the original, and she now sported a free-hanging braid instead of a static bun. Lara also benefited from additional moves (e.g. more acrobatic flips and ladder-climbing), and several new outfits – a bomber jacket over her classic tank top and shorts, and a Sola wetsuit for the underwater levels. Lara also gained new weaponry, including a M-16 assault rifle, grenade launcher, and harpoon gun for underwater use. In the words of Gavin Rummery, lead programmer at the time, “Tomb Raider II was insane. I was working pretty much twenty-four seven for six months.”

For the first time, Lara also gained an ally in the form of Winston – an elderly but indomitable butler who would trundle around after Lara as she explored the revamped Croft Manor training level. The new manor, although similar in general style and layout to the first, sported new features such as an outdoor hedge maze and assault course. If we grew tired of having Winston follow us, rattling tea tray and all, the sadistic amongst us could lock him in the kitchen’s walk-in freezer.  Ahhh…

Tomb Raider II assault course

More tea, m’lady?

Nathan McCree returned to produce the score and sound effects. Actress Shelley Blond, however, did not return to voice Lara. The role went instead to Derbyshire-born actress Judith Gibbins, who would also lend her vocal talents to Tomb Raider II’s expansion, The Golden Mask, plus Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft, and The Lost Artefact.

Lara’s legacy grows

As GameTap’s 2006 documentary explained, a deal between Eidos Interactive and Sony Computer Entertainment meant that Tomb Raider II – and all future titles up to the year 2000 – would be exclusively released on the PlayStation (plus Windows 95 for the PC, and Mac). Adrian Smith of Core Design cited technological limitations in consoles such as the Sega Saturn as the main reasoning behind the deal, despite the original Tomb Raider being released on both the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. It would prove to be a lucrative financial deal for Sony and for the Tomb Raider franchise.

Lara Croft, already a sensation, gained an even stronger foothold in popular culture with Tomb Raider II. Well-known brands such as car manufacturer SEAT and sports-drink maker Lucozade became licensed to carry Lara Croft’s image – both her computer-generated form and Eidos’ official real-life Lara models – in their advertisements. Eidos Interactive’s official Lara Croft model Rhona Mitra continued to represent the brand from 1997 to 1998, until she was replaced by Nell McAndrew. Lara also famously made an appearance as part of U2’s PopMart tour (U2 would also go on to produce the music video ‘Elevation’ for 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film).

In April 1999, Tomb Raider II was re-released for the PC as part of a larger pack called Tomb Raider II: Golden Mask. This continued the trend set by Tomb Raider and Unfinished Business/Temple of the Cat of publishing smaller mini-games in between the major releases. This pack contained the original Tomb Raider II game plus five completely new levels that comprised a stand-alone game called The Golden Mask. In this new adventure, Lara Croft was on the trail of the Golden Mask of Tornarsuk. The game primarily took place in Alaska – plus a bonus level in Las Vegas – and featured, amongst other places, eerie forested ruins and an abandoned Russian mining facility (hmm, sounds familiar!).

SR Golden Mask

Wrap up warm and don’t forget your lipstick!

Reception and highlights

Tomb Raider II enjoys a lot of favour amongst fans, and boasts some of the franchise’s most memorable moments. Few players can forget racing the motorboat around Venice, not to mention the infamous timed gate and Lara’s last-minute leap to safety. The sinister Opera House, underwater ambiance of the Maria Doria, spider-haunted depths of the Temple of Xian, and the surrealist fever-dream of Floating Islands also stand out proudly for their difficulty and atmosphere. Tomb Raider II contained plenty of dark corners and jump-scares – nobody ever forgets their first yeti or moray eel attack! – but the game balanced these elements with some genuinely challenging puzzles and action-packed combat encounters.

SR Tomb Raider II Venice 01

From the Floating City to the Floating Islands, Tomb Raider II holds many fond memories for fans

The game was also well received by video game critics. Reviews were generally favourable to excellent, with reviewers such as IGN calling it a ‘worthy sequel’. The game was praised for its improvements over the original, although some sources such as GameSpot were right to point out that the majority of these changes were purely cosmetic. Opinions were mixed as to the game’s difficulty. Everybody agreed that Tomb Raider II was challenging and combat-heavy, but whether this was a good or bad thing depended ultimately on your personal preference. The simple point-and-shoot combat system of Tomb Raider was retained, with no changes other than to include new weapons. Similarly, Lara’s repertoire of moves was expanded to include ladder climbing and more refined acrobatics, but the platforming mechanics stayed the same. However, nearly twenty years after its debut, Tomb Raider II is still regarded as a solid and enjoyable sequel to its ground-breaking predecessor, even if it didn’t break any new ground by itself.

Like other titles in the Tomb Raider franchise, Tomb Raider II has been a potent source of inspiration for fan-made artwork, stories, and other media. Some fans have even gone so far as to create custom levels and even re-engineered remakes of the game on other engines. This has been recently exemplified by Nicobass’ astonishing (currently work-in-progress) project with the UE4 engine.

We’d love you to share your Tomb Raider II memories, so head on over to the Survivor Reborn forums and join in the discussion!

Written by J. R. Milward.


Images courtesy of Survivor Reborn, WikiHow, and J.R. Milward’s own collection.


Creative Commons Licence
Retrospective: Tomb Raider II by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

About jrmilward (21 Articles)
Researcher, writer, editor, proofreader, voice actress, science graduate.

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