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Retrospective: Tomb Raider III

Survivor Reborn is back with another entry in our Retrospective list! Today, we take you back to 1998 and the game that tested even the hardiest players’ patience – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft.

SR TR3 cover 01

In 1998, the world got its first look at Google, President Bill Clinton was impeached for having an inappropriate relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, and the French football team kicked their way to World Cup victory. Titanic sunk all opposition at the box office, and we were happily winding away peaceful Sunday afternoons listening to Metallica, Aerosmith, and Shania Twain. The world couldn’t get enough of Tomb Raider, and especially Lara Croft. Then in November, gamers around the world got their hands on the latest and greatest Tomb Raider game yet – Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft.

Globe-trottin’, gun-slingin’, raidin’ gal

Lara Croft’s third outing launched on the 21st (North America) and 23rd of November (worldwide), on Windows, the PlayStation, and Mac OS. The game upped the anti significantly in terms of graphics, gameplay difficulty, and sheer scale. It consisted of twenty-one levels spread across six locations. Uniquely, the game offered players a choice of play order: Once they had completed the opening levels in India, they could choose what order to tackle the subsequent three locations – Nevada, South Pacific, or London. This order was not just a gimmick; the players would have all of their weapons, ammunition, and most items permanently confiscated in Nevada’s High Security Compound level, which meant that a player’s choice of level order had a significant impact upon how well-equipped they were when it came to the final, decisive location, Antarctica. Due to the toughness and number of enemies in these final levels, savvy players soon learned to tackle Nevada first, so their precious arsenal wouldn’t suffer the maximum penalty!

Tomb Raider III’s story, however, was not disrupted by this element of player choice. Lara began her journey in a remote ruined temple in the Indian jungle, in search of the ‘unique’ Infada Stone artefact. These levels were certainly enjoyable enough, for all they were fairly standard Tomb Raider fare. However, in the ensuing FMV cutscene, Lara met with Dr. Mark Willard. He informed her that the Infada Stone was not unique as she believed; it was in fact one of four powerful artefacts carved from meteoric rock that had fallen to Earth in Antarctica millions of years ago. Dr. Willard revealed that, many centuries ago, a lost Polynesian tribe stumbled across the meteor and worshipped the stone for its unique properties. They carved four pieces of the stone into powerful artefacts – The Ora Dagger, the Eye of Isis, the Infada Stone, and Element 115 (or at least, that’s what researchers in Area 51 later dubbed it, and they wear white lab coats and carry clipboards, so they know what they’re talking about). The Polynesian settlers also built a great city around the meteor crater cavern. However, the city was later abandoned and its people fled Antarctica due to the terrifying effects of the meteoric stone’s power – leaving the four artefacts behind.

South Pacific 01

Not on the menu: Lara learns about the artefacts’ past

Then, in the 1800s, a group of sailors on the HMS Beagle made landfall near the ruined Antarctic city. They discovered the crater cavern and stole the four artefacts. The artefacts were subsequently scattered across the world – sold off, lost, or stolen – as the men died one by one. Dr. Willard learned all of this upon discovering one of the sailor’s journals, and the ruined city itself, via the RX Tech Mining company during a drilling operation in Antarctica.

Dr. Willard’s men failed to acquire the Infada Stone (though Lara had bumped into them during her own search). Impressed by Lara’s skills, he offered the commission to find the other three artefacts to her – if she was interested. That was all the incentive Lara needed.

TR3 artefacts

Shiny stuff!

Upon recovering all four artefacts – one from Area 51 in Nevada, one from a South Pacific island, and one from a cosmetics entrepreneur in London – Lara headed to Dr. Willard’s research base in Antarctica. Dr. Willard had become fascinated by the stone’s ability to mutate Hox genes, and thus give rise to new – and horrifying – body forms. Dr. Willard wanted to use the four artefacts to access the main meteor fragment still in the crater. However, Lara had seen enough of the stone’s effects to understand why the Polynesians had fled, and why Dr. Willard had to be stopped. D. Willard stole the artefacts from Lara, who then tracked him down through the ruined city and to the crater itself. There, she witnessed Dr. Willard mutate into a grotesque spider-like creature – which she promptly destroyed before making her escape. Sharp-eyed players would note that she made sure to take the four hard-won artefacts with her…

Meteor cavern 01

What IS it about mad scientists and green glowing things?!

Maximum settings

The team at Core Design returned more or less unchanged, and fresh from the gruelling business of Tomb Raider II, to produce Tomb Raider III. Nathan McCree once again produced the sound and music, alongside Martin Iveson. Vicky Arnold returned to write the story, and Judith Gibbins once more donned the role of Lara Croft (she would also lend her voice to Sophia Leigh, the cosmetics entrepreneur and keeper of the Eye of Isis artefact).

Tomb Raider III pulled out all the stops in terms of graphical quality and gameplay for the time. The game benefited from yet more improvements to graphics, which now included smoke, fog, steaming breath in cold environments, and weather effects like rain and snow. Improved lighting dynamics allowed the use of coloured environmental lighting, and water surfaces now rippled whereas before they had been confined to animated 2D textures. The game introduced lethal quicksand, schools of deadly, invulnerable piranha, and freezing water that would quickly kill Lara if she did not get back onto dry land. We also got our hands on no fewer than four new vehicles – the Underwater Propulsion Vehicle (UPV), the kayak, the quad bike, and dinghy (the latter two borrowing the same basic controls as the snowmobile and motorboat from Tomb Raider II).

On the PlayStation, the game’s save system returned to the use of blue save crystals that the player had to find and hoard throughout the game. On the PC, these blue save crystals were replaced with green health crystals, and the player could save wherever and as many times as they liked. This made the PlayStation version a much more demanding experience for the player.

TR3 montage 01

Tomb Raider III benefited from diverse and vibrant environmental design

Lara herself received less attention in terms of graphical improvements; although she sported many new outfits – including a leather catsuit, crop-top and shorts, urban camo trousers, and cold-weather gear – her model remained essentially unchanged from the previous game. However, she could now crouch, crawl, sprint (and perform a diving roll), and swing on overhead monkey-bars. All of these new moves could be practised in the largest and most extravagant Croft Manor training level players had ever seen; it even included a racetrack for a little out-of-hours quad bike practice! A modicum of stealth was also introduced to her gameplay; for the first time, by walking or crawling, and remaining out of sight, Lara could avoid alerting enemies to her presence. This wasn’t a very important factor in-game, but is a noteworthy milestone nonetheless. The game also rewarded players who collected every one of its secrets with a bonus level, All Hallows.

Talk to the Hand

Like its predecessors, Tomb Raider III enjoyed a mini-game sequel – Tomb Raider: The Lost Artifact. In March 2000, players got the chance to play six additional levels in which Lara tracked down a fifth meteoric artefact, the Hand of Rathmore. The game took us from Dr. Willard’s Scottish abode to Paris, with a nice jaunt through the as-yet-unfinished Channel Tunnel in between. The game also reunited us with Sophia Leigh, presumed electrocuted to death at the end of Tomb Raider III’s London levels (proving that good villains don’t die – they just get annoyed and come back for seconds).

Lost Artifact box art

You take the high road and I’ll sneak down into Willard’s lair!

Lara, Lara, everywhere

By 1998, the strain of creating a brand new Tomb Raider game every year was beginning to show in the developers. Core Design and Eidos employees lived, breathed, and ate Tomb Raider practically every day for months on end in order to meet deadlines and gamer expectations. Lara Croft herself had become one of the most widely-recognised characters in popular culture. Her image was everywhere, and was used to sell everything from sports drinks to sports cars. The game itself was almost a secondary consideration, at least as far as financial investment was concerned, but still the pressure was on to continue churning out block-buster titles like clockwork.

Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft marked a milestone for the franchise in terms of achievement and challenge. The game scored well in reviews amongst critics and fans alike (for example, IGN gave it a score between 7.7 and 8 out of 10). By 2009, it had sold 6.5 million units worldwide. It was universally considered the most graphically-refined, most action-packed, and most challenging of the series so far. In fact, some fans criticised it for being a tad too difficult at times! However, commentators also noted that the game, whilst being impeccably solid, did not demonstrate the kind of ground-breaking innovation that had characterised the franchise’s first instalment (but then, neither had Tomb Raider II).

Today, fans of the franchise often cite Tomb Raider III as a high point both as a playable title and for marking the pinnacle of the media’s initial love-affair with Lara Croft. The game – with all its combat, puzzles, and secrets – is still one of the toughest challenges in the franchise. Even today, its vibrant colours, varied environments dripping with atmosphere, sound design, and gameplay make it extremely enjoyable to play.

What are your fondest – and not-so fond – memories of Tomb Raider III? Why not head on over to the Survivor Reborn forums and discuss!


Written by J. R. Milward.

Images courtesy of J. R. Milward and Stella’s Tomb Raider site.



Creative Commons Licence
Retrospective: Tomb Raider III 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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