Tomb Raider has been in good hands for the last decade or so, thanks to the steady hand of Crystal Dynamics. Before they took over, though, the series had become a disaster, and Angel of Darkness was its trainwreck.
Angel of Darkness was a darker take on Tomb Raider. But when the game bombed, an ambitious trilogy (and more!) of stories was scrapped, forcing the series to disappear, before it was ultimately shuffled to another developer for rebooting.
Yes, that actually happened.
The original Tomb Raider was a genuine revelation, and Lara Croft quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. It was unsurprising, then, for sequels to start popping out like hotcakes. There was Tomb Raider in 1996, Tomb Raider 2 in 1997, Tomb Raider 3 in 1998, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation in 1999 and Tomb Raider: Chronicles in 2000. By the last one, the formula had grown awfully stale.
While Chronicles was in development, another team was tasked with rebooting the series for the next-generation of consoles — PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox.
That game would become Angel of Darkness.
Here’s how the announcement for the game described it:
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness is classic Lara as both hunter and hunted relying on her ingenuity, athleticism and a new edge that has arisen from her dark inner demons. However, this time she faces more evolved characters and situations, calling for more involved decision-making. Lara now has the ability to interact with characters and the choice of which path to take. Upgrading her trademark style and look and dropping her into a bombshell scenario calls for a new resourcefulness making her a stronger and more complex heroine.
Adrian Smith, Operations Director at Core Design says, “Our vision is to take the player somewhere dark, a place they might not necessarily wish to go, but a place they will have to venture if they are to bring Lara back. Lara will have some tough moral choices to make. It’s no longer a clear-cut case of good versus evil – this is a more complex tale, which will ask more complex questions of the player. It will be a new experience for people who have played Tomb Raider in the past.”
Since it was the early 2000s, they even bragged about the polygon count for Lara Croft. 5000 vs 500? Sold!
Bur moral choices? Interacting with characters? This was a drastic departure from the cave explorations of the previous games and far more ambitious.
There aren’t many postmortem interviews about the game’s development, but the few that exist suggest Angel of Darkness was troubled, from start to finish. The game was announced for a release in “late 2002” but delayed until June 2003. Even then, as you read about the game, it seems a miracle it shipped at all.
Per an EDGE report from 2011, the Angel of Darkness team was in over their heads. When Chronicles wrapped, development staff started migrating over, expecting to find a “next-gen” Tomb Raider in full swing. Instead, it was a mess, from technology to design. It was scrapped, and the game was now a full year behind.
Apparently, there were plans to make the game episodic, but these were also tossed out when it was determined an episodic game might weird people out. The result? The game was effectively cut in half, leaving the story in shambles.
Per a GameSpot preview, underscoring the storytelling ambitions:
To be sure, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness is still very early in development. Smith says that Core has been working on the game for nearly a year and a half and that it won’t be ready until the holiday season later this year. Interestingly enough, The Angel of Darkness will be the first of 10 chapters of a “book” that Core hopes will be covered by the next three or four Tomb Raider games, since there are still a lot of ideas brewing among the designers, so says Smith.
Obviously, things were scaled back when the reaction to the game was so poor. It’s hard to know how much could have been salvaged if the developers had been given more time to smooth out the edges, as poor planning and technical problems seemed to hamper the game the whole way through. Again, per EDGE:
“The other main reason for the delay in my opinion was the tech side of things,” explains [lead programmer Richard] Morton. “The PS2 hardware was still proving tricky to optimise and get the best results out of it. We were designing and building levels and characters without any real restriction on polygon budgets or memory limits, which obviously came back to bite us in the arse. Levels were shrunk and characters were dropped.”
Just months before the game shipped, a public demo for the game resulted in the developers loudly swearing on-stage, as the audience awkwardly looked on.
When it was eventually released, the reviews were scathing.
Kristan Reed at Eurogamer pulled zero punches:
Anyone intending to buy AOD should go into it with their eyes wide open. You’re going to get stuck, regularly, without remorse. And the main reason you’ll get stuck is the terribly unresponsive controls’ unholy alliance with the drunken camera that render the proliferation of tediously precise jump puzzles much more of a challenge than they should be. Core claims there’s 50 hours of gameplay in AOD, and it’s probably right – it takes five times as long to get anything done.
As a died in the wool Lara fan, it pains me to see the painful decline of a once great franchise. It would be perhaps harsh to dismiss AOD as a disaster, because real patience and persistence will reap a degree of rewards and satisfaction. The sad fact is, though, those who care passionately about the brand will be gutted that Core has failed to progress one of the most exciting and compelling 32-bit franchises. The real tragedy is that in gameplay terms it’s a marked backward step for Tomb Raider and the damage this half baked, unfinished travesty of a game will do to the brand equity is incalculable. Sad to say it, AOD is indeed DOA for anyone but the most devoted Laraphile.
Years later, fans would attempt to “fix” the game’s problems themselves.
You can download some of the more popular mods over here.
There’s a small but dedicated community surrounding Angel of Darkness these days, especially around one of the game’s characters, Kurtis Trent. There were plans for Trent to have his own spin-off, but, well, guess how that turned out?
The KTEB, for example, is a website dedicated to keeping those fans in touch:
We have never been quite liked for one reason or another. Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness wasn’t well received either, and as fans of the game and of Kurtis Trent, we carried the game’s baggage as a plus.
In any case, we’re proud of everything we’ve done so far. To let it all go would mean to throw away years of hard work provided by all members of the community. Also, KTBEers exist even today — old fans, new fans — and they deserve a place that recognises them.
When Crystal Dynamics was handed the reigns to Tomb Raider, it immediately distanced itself from Angel of Darkness, saying the new games would be different.
Per a GameSpot interview for 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend:
GameSpot: One of the huge draws in Tomb Raider are the environments. Where will Lara journey?
Riley Cooper: Lara will visit a huge waterfall in West Africa where she will solve an ancient puzzle. This is an example of how we have gone away from blocks and switches to larger, more dynamic scenes. All events which pan out during the game are caused by the gamer. Occasionally the world will surprise you, but most of time Lara is the one pushing the action. Tomb Raider Legend is about going back to the tombs. Unfortunately in The Angel Of Darkness players spent two hours and never left the abandoned streets of Paris. We identified that as maybe a mistake. It is Tomb Raider after all, and within two minutes you’re in the thick of it.
The proposed sequel to Angel of Darkness, The Lost Dominion, obviously never came to be. There was a fan-driven attempt to independently produce the sequel, but the last update for the project was June 2013. It seems to be dead.
Tomb Raider, however, is not. Rise of the Tomb Raider launched on Xbox One last spring, and it just came to PC. A PS4 version is due to arrive later this year, and it’s a hell of a game. These days, Lara Croft has a bright future ahead of her.