Anybody who was a Tomb Raider fan in 2002 will know what a painful time it was. Well – painful and desperately exciting. Gamers around the world were eagerly awaiting the release of (deep breath) Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Angel of Darkness, the franchise’s PS2 debut and a game that was supposed to radically re-invigorate the popular series. A couple of years earlier, the famed adventurer had been buried alive (presumed dead) under a heap of Egyptian rubble, and The Angel of Darkness was to mark her return to civilisation – darker, deeply troubled, and a shadow of her former self.
The developers Core Design had long been teasing this ‘next generation’ Tomb Raider title, at one point hinting that it might not even be called Tomb Raider at all. All we had to go on was an appetite-whetting concept trailer as a bonus feature on the Tomb Raider Chronicles disc – an unlockable that was included as a reward for those players who managed to locate all of the game’s golden roses. The video showed an edgier-looking Lara being pursued through the gloomy backstreets of Paris, before taking on a stealthy invasion of the Louvre museum. (At one point, Lara sadistically grinned as she immobilised a hapless security guard with a spray can…)
In addition to this seedier, more adult premise was the promise of a whole new gameplay experience. Lara’s skills were intended to develop more organically throughout the story, so if for example you spent most of your time scaling walls and shimmying ladders, then you would find that your particular Lara would become progressively better at climbing, thus able to reach areas of the game that were closed off to the more ‘combative’ players. Moreover, RPG elements were expected to be at the fore; Lara would meet a host of new and exciting characters, and the way she responded to these people would dictate how the story unfolded. As in, would you rather insult the decorous and misunderstood Madame Carvier? Then good luck getting the all-important notebook! And so on.
As such, anticipation was at fever pitch as we raced through 2002 towards the Christmas release window. I remember being seriously obsessed about this game at the time; I was literally counting down the days. November 15th was triple-circled on my calendar, and I’d bought a PlayStation 2 specifically for The Angel of Darkness. Colour me ready.
And then came the awful news that nobody wanted to hear – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Angel of Darkness was to be delayed. Until February 2003. I cannot express how devastating this was. It was the equivalent of having Christmas cancelled right after you’d hung up your stocking. I went into a long and petty teenage sulk, taking zero solace from the more level-headed forum members who said things like, “Well, if it means we get a better game then I don’t mind waiting.” No – NOOOOOOO! Not good enough!! Bring me The Angel of Darknesss NOW, peasant! #Norappy.
Still, I endured the loooooong wait until February 2003, passing the time with the original Devil May Cry and a rather strange driving game called Midnight Club: Street Racing. I’d paid my dues. I’d been good. I’d waited calmly.
“The Angel of Darkness delayed!” came the fresh announcement from Gamespot on January 22nd 2003. “Eidos announces that the next game in its Tomb Raider series has been delayed until April.” Continued gameplay enhancement was cited as the reason for the further postponement of my pleasure, and it sounded so cruel and sadistic somehow. As in, “we already have this beautiful game – we just don’t want to give it to you!” (Of course we now know that this was far from the reality of what was happening, but it was hard not to feel this way at the time.)
Now let me do some condensing here – the delays to The Angel of Darkness kept coming. The April date soon became June, and then the June date – for us Europeans – became “sometime soon, we hope.” I could be wrong, but I don’t think we ever got an official European release date after that. In my case, I was just told to wait for the phone call from Game, which turned out to be July 2nd 2003. Gamers in America were able to play The Angel of Darkness as of June 20th, so I spent most of my free time chatting to players on the forums in a desperate attempt to squeeze every last tidbit of Lara Croft goodness – long before the days of YouTube, and my teenage incarnation seemingly had no aversion to spoilers; I wanted to know the location of every last chocolate bar! So when I finally sat down with the game a couple of weeks later, it’s fair to say that my friends and family didn’t see very much of me. I was immersed.
But was the long and excruciating wait worth it? It’s hard to say. I think The Angel of Darkness is a great game and I will passionately defend it to anybody. It’s gorgeous to look at. It’s beautifully animated. The storyline is one of the richest and most intriguing that I have ever encountered in a video game. Yes it is bug-riddled and most of the promised new features are either missing or are bare-bones only. As such, the version of The Angel of Darkness that we have today is probably only 50 per cent (75 per cent at most) of the game that was supposed to be released. It’s clear that the hellish development process and publisher pressure had forced the team to strip everything back in order to deliver something that was playable and acceptable.
And I don’t begrudge them for that. What does upset me, though, is how often this title is ignored; so many people would rather pretend that The Angel of Darkness didn’t happen. It’s largely considered the first proper “failure” of the Tomb Raider franchise, but when you consider the scale of the problems that the team was facing and then look at what they were able to deliver in spite of all this – well, it’s probably the most successful failure I’ve ever experienced. Yes the game is dated by today’s standards, but most titles from that era are. The reality is, you can still pick up The Angel of Darkness and play it all the way through and have a great ride, slow-mo bugs and all. True, much of my relationship with this game has been eye-wateringly painful, but none of this torment occurred during my actual play-time; it happened during those dark nights on the Tomb Raider Chronicles forums, or whilst flicking through PC Gamer to read that yet another delay had been imposed. Imagine being hit with that news and then having to sit your GCSE Biology mock. Send sympathy.
How do you look back on The Angel of Darkness? Did you take the delays in your stride, or did you need therapy? What did you think of the game when you finally got to play it? Let me know in the comments below.
For further reading, check out my interview with Peter Connelly, who composed the music for The Angel of Darkness.