Tomb Raider II, Level 1: The Great Wall

Lara runs from two boulders, because that's totally apropriate in the first level of the game.I was planning on starting with Lara’s Home, since unlike in TR1, there’s an actual puzzle to solve this time. However, since I hate hedge mazes and everything they stand for, I’m going to pretend Croft Manor doesn’t exist and move on to the first level proper. I’m no longer going to be able to ignore the fact that Lara’s Home has become an actual level by TR3, but let’s deal with one problem at a time.

Fair warning, I compare TR2 with TR1 a lot in this entry, and I know it’s going to be annoying if I keep doing that for the whole playthrough; I don’t plan on it. It just seemed appropriate to bring up these comparisons during the first level in particular.

Level One Going on 47

Lara prepares to run the hell away from some spikes.
“La la la, it’s so fun to prance around in the first level of a game without a care in the world, surely nothing too dangerous will- the bloody hell is that doing here? Winston? WINSTON!!! This is NOT what we discussed!”

Is The Great Wall really the first level of TR2? Because I always feel like there’s been a horrible mistake and I’ve been unceremoniously dumped into the twelfth level of TR19, and someone at Core should probably be fired.

TGW isn’t a bad level by any stretch of the imagination; element-for-element, it outclasses Caves, the first level of TR1, handily. However, while Caves had the slightly gentle, inviting feel of a first level, the first level of TR2 basically starts as though you’re already in the middle of the adventure. That’s partially by design- the way the game is set up, you start the narrative in China, then take a circuitous trip around the world to get an item you need
to enter the final dungeon, then end up back in China. While TGW is technically the first level, thematically it’s part of the last area. It’s not surprising that you feel a little out of place, since you’re covering ground from the beginning of the game and the end at the same time.

Lara looking tough
Lara Croft: Doesn’t need a reason to come after your stuff

It also has to do with the difference in presentation between the two games. In TR1, the opening cutscene both introduced Lara and hinted at her motivation for going after the Atalantean Scion. In TR2, Lara just shows up after the Dagger of Xian in lieu of nothing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that; after all, I do think a large part of Lara’s motivation for doing what she does is Sir Edmund Hillary’s rationale for climbing Everest: “Because it is there.” It’s the allure of challenge, pure and simple. But nevertheless, the lack of any clear motivation on her part contributes to the lack of feeling like we’re at the beginning of a narrative. Has she been planning to add the dagger to her collection for years? Or did she spontaneously decide that this would be a fun way to kill a weekend? We’ll never know.

Another comparison: famously, Lara’s introduction to the Peruvian hub of her TR1 journey involved a set of huge, impressive double doors. There’s nothing comparable in TGW; instead, a helicopter drops Lara in a random location in the general vicinity of the Great Wall itself. When the doors locked behind Lara in TR1, seemingly of their own volition, there was a very strong “this is it: NOW the adventure begins” feeling. TR2 has no such moment, and I find that slightly disappointing.

The Vacation Spot and the Gauntlet of Premature Spiky Death

Our herione does an impressive swan dive
A refreshing swan dive is just what you need to cool off and meditate before the upcoming trap bonanza; it gives you something pleasant to remember as you watch Lara get impaled for the tenth time.

There are two kinds of areas in this level: picturesque, lovely little places that are meant to show you, in no uncertain terms, how much the graphics have improved since the first game (see above), and-

Lara narrowly avoids death by impalement once again.

–sadistic combinations of traps that seem like a direct continuation from The Great Pyramid. The boulders, crumbling floors, swinging blades and whatnot are one thing, but once you reach the area where Lara is continually assaulted by a series of spiked walls, it starts to feel downright excessive. I think there are more bloody spikes in this one level than were present in all of TR1 combined.

Now unlike The Great Pyramid, being able to compartmentalize the traps by saving after you successfully clear each one cuts down the difficulty a lot, so it’s still not obscenely difficult for a first level. Still, why front-load the game with so many darned traps? It’s level one, for crying out loud.

Lara didn't quite get that Jade Dragon
Why…why would anyone put such a pretty Jade Dragon there? I-I don’t understand…

I think the early gauntlet, like just about everything else contained in The Great Wall, is less about the level itself, and more about providing a kind of state of the union address for the franchise at this point in time. “Oh, you think you’ll just be able to waltz right in here, shoot some tiny bats, pick up a few golden idols and sashay on your merry way? Bull-fucking-shit, this is not your mother’s Tomb Raider, maggots! You will outrun 10,000 spikes not five minutes into the game AND YOU WILL LIKE IT, do you understand!?”

I have to say, it’s awfully effective; you certainly know by the end of this level that whatever expectations you have based on the first game can be safely discarded. But it is kind of a drag for those of us who liked “our mother’s Tomb Raider,” really.

The Gold Dragon: Beyond the Impossible

Lara takes on two optional T-Rexes, because someone at Core was feeling cute that day.Speaking of things that are thoroughly excessive to the point where perhaps someone should be sued, there’s the third secret of this level. What. The. Hell.

“Oh, you think secrets are just small medipacks and magnum clips tucked away in hard-to-see alcoves here and there? Nope, sorry, this time around you get giant dinosaurs chilling out under the Great Wall of China, BECAUSE WE FELT LIKE IT. Like, the T-Rex was a major trump card in the first game, but this game is just so badass we can shove not one but two of them in a secret area most people won’t even see, because the rest of the game is just that freakin’ awesome we can afford to waste gems of gameplay like that. Oh, and here, have a grenade launcher -no reason, we just want you to have it.”

I mean, think about it: in The Lost Valley, the situation might have been unrealistic in the extreme, but it wasn’t completely implausible; the idea was that the area was so secluded from the rest of the environment, somehow species that were extinct elsewhere had survived. Here, there is no rhyme or reason; they put dinosaurs under The Great Wall of China just to prove that they will design their levels anyway they damn well feel like it. Furthermore, the fact that it’s a secret creates worry for players who don’t habitually collect all the secrets; if this whole area is considered a secret, well then crap, what the hell else are you missing when you finish a level with only 1 out of 3 found? More dinosaurs? Winston riding a dinosaur bareback? A veritable army of Bacon Laras made out of actual, savory bacon?

Of course, most secrets in the game are nowhere near this epic, meaning this exercise in shock and awe is pretty much a one-time deal. Still, if the intent was to get the player searching frantically for the secrets, based on the idea that one never knows what bizarre
awesomeness lurks at the feet of the Gold Dragon, it was certainly successful.

Lara outpaces a tiger
Unrelated to everything else, I don’t bother to shoot any of the tigers on this level. Except for the two at the very end, they’re easily avoidable, and even if they take a few swipes, as long as I don’t have to use a medipack, what’s the harm? I wish we had the option to leave the wildlife alone more often.

Final note about the dinosaurs: did you know that they can teleport? I mean, you can clearly see where the first dino comes from, but when you pick up the Gold Dragon and turn around, a second one has materialized seemingly from nowhere. Either Pierre DuPont spent some quality time here teaching dinos his teleportation spell, or all T-Rexes have that as an innate ability; hey, you can’t prove otherwise.

Death (Right Before) Venice

Lara holds a henchman at gunpoint
“Look, just because you were born hideously deformed and dumb as a post doesn’t mean you have no choice but to pledge your life to a deranged mob boss. There’s always reality television.”

I confess, part of my dislike of the story of this game might have something to do with the fact that I can never be sure what the hell anyone is saying without checking the scripts at The Tomb Raider Traveler’s Guide to be sure. I can usually figure out what Lara is saying, but the henchman seem to spout mostly unintelligible gibberish.

In this scene, one of Big Bad Marco Bartoli’s thugs manages to sneak up behind Lara, only to fail to kill her because he’s apparently a horrible shot. Now I’m sure Bartoli doesn’t get the cream of the crop for his minions, but…seriously. The dude actually had the drop on her, started shooting her in the back, and she still got away (This is not the last time this will happen in TR2, by the way.) I would like this cutscene a lot more if she had noticed him and dived out of the way BEFORE he started shooting at her.

I really never cared much about the fact that the dude kills himself in the first cutscene, because like all the thugs, he’s a non-character and we’re not really supposed to care. Now that I think about it though, maybe it goes a little way towards justifying the ridiculous body count Lara racks up in this game. Here, she offers to let him get away with his life, and he chooses death, for no particularly compelling reason that we can see. I think the
implication is that these guys are all basically dead already once they decide to follow a lunatic like Bartoli, so what Lara’s doing by killing them is hastening what they’ve already brought on themselves. I don’t know if I like that interpretation, but if you’re willing to look at it that way, it makes all the killing in this game less objectionable.

Finally, I mentioned before that this version of Lara seems really cold to me, and this Lara is ready to shoot a bitch in the headscene is part of the reason why. Sure, “Pardon me, if that was just your way of trying the doors for me,” is the kind of cheeky, sarcastic thing that TR1 Lara would have said, but I think she would have sounded more chipper about it; this Lara sounds like she’s already planning to kill him and sell his organs on the black market. Perhaps it’s a subtle thing, but this Lara strikes me as a completely amoral sociopath with only the thinnest veneer of humanity, and it’s a little disturbing; I like my Lara only 40 percent sociopath, thank you.

Preparing to take a zip
As an aside, I really don’t like these zip lines; they always look completely shoehorned in to an environment where they don’t belong, and it takes me out of the game. Probably my least favorite “improvement” in this installment of the franchise.

Best: Normally I try not to use secrets for this category on the assumption that they’re extras- not all players see them, thus they aren’t essential parts of the level. However, the sunken, dinosaur-infested cavern that houses the Gold Dragon is such a standout in this level, nothing else really compares. Besides, anyone who plays The Great Wall without visiting the cavern would have to be some kind of deranged crazy person- or, err, perhaps a Tomb Runner. Which is a completely different kind of crazy (I kid!)

Worst:
The Guardhouse, better known as that area with the ladder and several spiders you need to shoot. After the gorgeous swan dive to get the Guardhouse key, getting into the actual Guardhouse is kind of a let down; the “puzzles” are barely there, and the spiders make for irritating enemies because they’re so small you can’t see them very well. Just for clarity, I’m including in this section the first room, getting the Rusty Key, and the area the Rusty Key unlocks as part of this section. Really, the whole area between the Guardhouse Key pool and the secret valley I could easily do without.

Rating: Three Uzi Clips Out of FIve

This one was actually really hard to rate; I knew it had to get better than a 2/5, which is what I gave Caves. But a lot of what I like about this level comes down to one secret, and that’s really not what a good Tomb Raider area should be. I decided to go with a three because while it’s solid and attractive, outside of one secret area there just isn’t a whole lot of interesting gameplay. Yes, there’s some challenge due to the traps, but it’s a bit of a one-trick pony with all the spikes.

Lara blowing a T-Rex to bitsStupid Lara Tricks: In honor of a new annotated playthrough, I’m adding a new section: Stupid Lara Tricks, or dumb things you can do in a level that are completely pointless, or even counterproductive to your progression, that I nevertheless enjoy. For this level, my favorite pointless activity is to go after the T-Rexes with the grenade launcher immediately after picking it up to watch them shatter into big green chunks; a waste of ammo, but hey, that’s what “Load Game” is for. For the record, I believe it takes four close-range shells to “asplode” a T-Rex; your mileage may vary. Another trick; if you don’t kill the tigers at the end, try to get them to “nudge” Lara into the door to trigger the ending cutscene, at which point they disappear.

Next: (Death in) Venice, meaning I can reference Thomas Mann and wax poetic about blowing up multiple speedboats at the same time; I have to relish combinations like that on the rare occasions when I get the opportunity.

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