Welcome travellers! Strap on your backpack and enjoy the first of a new series of articles exploring the many varied environments explored by our dear Miss Croft during her twenty years of Tomb Raiding.
Today, we’ll be trekking into the sun-baked, parched deserts and other arid lands of Egypt, Nevada, and Syria as seen through the eyes of Tomb Raider (1996), Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998), Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999), Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007), and Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015/16).
Egypt again? It’s nothing but Pyramids and sand…
Au contraire, Movie Lara! Many people, when they think of archaeology, automatically picture the Sphinx and Pyramids rising out of the sand, or Howard Carter peering through the newly-opened plaster walls into Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Therefore it isn’t surprising that some of the Tomb Raider franchise’s most iconic moments can be found in Egypt.
Egypt featured prominently in 1996’s Tomb Raider, and the re-imagined Tomb Raider: Anniversary ten years later. It was also the setting for all but the tutorial level of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. These levels, both the imagined and those based on genuine locations, contain, for many fans, the features that are quintessentially Tomb Raider – devious traps and mummified undead enemies, cunning ancient puzzles and mystical artefacts.
Tomb Raider’s Egyptian levels had plenty of atmosphere and traps to keep us on our toes…
The Egyptian levels in both Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider: Anniversary saw Lara hunting for the third and final Scion fragment. These levels were some of the hardest of their respective games, with plenty of traps, timed runs, and some bad-ass enemies. Mummified big cats, Atlantean centaurs, and winged Atlantean mutants galloped, loped, and flew at us from every turn, but we also had to contend with crocodiles and black panthers (because… reasons). Both incarnations of these Egyptian levels managed to capture a true sense of isolation, with environments that felt dry, dusty, and forgotten. Nathan McCree (with Marten Iveson) and Troels Folmann, for Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider: Anniversary respectively, brought a haunting, lonely beauty to the levels’ atmospheres.
But then, Tomb Raider: Anniversary’s Egypt had its moments, too!
The collectibles and important items mined Egyptian mythology for inspiration, for example the Eye of Horus artefact (one of four objects that Lara had to collect in the Obelisk of Khamoon level of both Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider: Anniversary). Both incarnations of these levels also made extensive use of Egyptian art, hieroglyphics, and motifs. These entirely fictional locations were also set semi- or wholly-underground. This made Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider: Anniversary’s ‘desert’ levels feel mildly claustrophobic at times.
He who walked abroad with the Jackal at the dawn of man…
1999 saw the launch of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. Barring an initial flashback training level set in Cambodia, the entire game was set in a single country – namely, Egypt. However, The Last Revelation was anything but monotone in its level design.
Archetypal desert terrain – rolling sand dunes and wind-blasted ruins – featured prominently in the main outdoor areas, such as those set in the Valley of the Kings/KV5, Karnak, and Giza. These levels largely discarded the enclosed character of Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider: Anniversary’s Egypt levels in favour of rambling, open spaces where we felt exposed to the sun and winds (or eerie supernatural thunderstorms – take your pick!). Roaming jackals, bats, scorpions, and the occasional crocodile also served to keep us on our toes!
Just some of the beautiful and varied environments of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation
The game also made clever use of ancient Greek architecture during the Alexandria chapter, such as the Coastal Ruins, Temple of Poseidon, and Lost Library levels. It also took care to emulate the intricate Islamic geometric decorations and Moorish architecture of old Cairo in the City of the Dead, Chambers of Tulun, and Citadel-based levels. This cultural diversity and layering reminded us of Egypt’s vast history and the many influences that have made their mark upon the country over the centuries. Yet again, the ambient sounds and musical cues of these places played a vital role in bringing these places to life, courtesy of Peter Connelly in his Tomb Raider-franchise debut.
From the haunted streets of old Cairo and the jeep-ride across the Valley of the Kings, to the rambling ruins of Karnak and Alexandria, The Last Revelation placed a lot of emphasis on real places that we could actually visit – and imagined a whole world of hidden stories and mysteries lurking beneath the surface. In many ways, Lara Croft came home as an archaeologist-adventurer by digging beneath the Sphinx, scrambling around the Pyramids, and delving where so many real-life archaeologists had gone before. Anyone who expected The Last Revelation to be nothing but wall-to-wall Pyramids and mummies was pleasantly surprised by the sheer variety on offer!
Of course, desert locations in Tomb Raider aren’t confined to Egypt. In Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft, we took a brief jaunt to the sun-baked state of Nevada, USA. Although three out of the four levels were set in a military base (Area 51 and its environs), the first was set in the open lands surrounding the base – Lara’s objective being to steal a quad bike and jump her way right over the electrified security fence. As you do…
Instead of endless golden sands, Nevada featured the terrain of the Mojave Desert – with wind-sculpted sandstone outcrops, gravel, steep-sided canyons, and patchy scrub. The graphics of the time, although limited, still managed to accurately capture the textures and colours of this arid environment. Nathan McCree and Marten Iveson’s sound design was again instrumental (no pun intended) in capturing the desert’s character – from chirping crickets, hissing rattlesnakes, and cawing vultures, to waterfalls echoing in the steep canyons. Many players will have fond, if frustrating, memories of backtracking up and down one such canyon in order to acquire a TNT detonator. Everybody can remember jumping out of their skin the first time that stealth bomber made a low pass over Lara’s head!
Duck! Don’t be daft, that’s a stealth bomber!
Though comparatively short, this Nevada desert level brilliantly captured a unique environment and is stamped indelibly on players’ memories.
On the trail of the Prophet
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, players got to experience yet another version of desert terrain, namely the mountains on Syria’s north-western border with Turkey.
Brief but beautiful – Syria in Rise of the Tomb Raider
Although Rise’s Syria level was arguably shorter than fans would have liked, it certainly did not lack for beauty or atmosphere. The dusty road and breath-taking panorama over the valley were gorgeously realised in terms of colouration, ambiance, and sound, and contrasted well with the interior of the Prophet’s tomb and its central water-based puzzle. Finding this sparkling oasis with its rampant greenery and softly-sparkling rainbow in the middle of all the dust and rocks was refreshing to say the least! The entrance architecture harkened back to Petra in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but on a far grander scale and with much more vegetation; players were left wondering what lay further along the canyon or behind the many waterfalls cascading down its sides. The sound design and music were provided by Tomb Raider newcomer, Bobby Tahouri. In terms of sheer environmental beauty, this is one location fans would definitely want to revisit and explore more of in the future.
What memories do you have of these levels? We’d love to hear them over in the Survivor Reborn forums!
Written by J. R. Milward.
All screenshots and images courtesy of J. R. Milward.
- Thanks to Stella’s Tomb Raider Site and her savegame resources.
Globetrotter: Desert Storm by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.