Tomb Raider 1-3 Remastered’s modern controls are an absolute travesty

Readers, consider this is a public service announcement for (deep breath) Tomb Raider I-III Remastered Trilogy Starring Lara Croft. Do not, for the love of all that’s ancient and holy, play this game with its newly-added modern control scheme. The original tank controls are by far and away the best (and only real) option for going back and experiencing Lara’s OG adventures from the late 90s, and I’m not just saying that out of nostalgia. The modern controls are bad, plain and simple, and are as much an enemy to Tomb Raider’s incredibly precise mode of 3D platforming as the tigers and wolves that stalk its trap-filled catacombs. They are utterly maddening, and the antithesis of everything Tomb Raider stands for. I implore you, do not go anywhere near them, for your own sake as well as Lara’s.

In truth, I’d probably say that anyone who’s curious about this old Tomb Raider collection, but never played them originally, shouldn’t go anywhere near it at all. Go and play Crystal Dynamics’ more recent trilogy from 2013 instead, or better yet, 2008’s excellent and underrated Tomb Raider Underworld. You’ll have a much better time, I promise. 90s Tomb Raider, is a whole different kettle of fish, and one that even I had a hard time digesting in the cold light of 2024.

Lara swims in a lake while a tiger prowls the perimeter in a forest in Tomb Raider 2
I think I’ll just live in the lake from now on, to be honest. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Aspyr

It’s not that its platforming is now so old and fusty that it feels like one of Lara’s museum pieces from another era – though there is an element of that. Rather, it’s the inevitable friction of trying to haul Lara around in just the four main cardinal directions, because walking around in curves isn’t really how things work here. Once I’d weaned myself off reaching for the analogue stick on my controller, I found that controlling Lara via the d-pad was infinitely better. Not only was she easier to move about, but it drastically reduced the margin for error.

That’s partly because the 90s Tomb Raiders are really games about invisible grids. Their levels were all built around this interlocking web of squares and right angles, and the chasm-like jumps and run-ups that you have to perform were all measured out with pixel perfect precision. It was a grid that was ultimately tailor made for its tank controls, and the modern control scheme shatters that framework so completely that I’m honestly surprised anyone allowed it past QA.

Each game’s tutorial, a dedicated space in the game’s menu screen called Lara’s Home, makes this abundantly clear. Well, as clear as it can when it’s breezily telling you to ‘press the jump button’ or ‘use the action button’ without ever telling you what those buttons are, until you look it up in the control menu. In Tomb Raider 1, the first room you come to is Lara’s music room, though given the ratio of instruments to the all-encompassing gymnasium crash mat taking up 90% of the floor space, I’d say it’s more workout space than music room. Anyway, as you approach the crash mat, Lara’s voiceover tells you it’s time to do some tumbling, and that you should try pressing jump followed by a direction button to try out all the different ways she can flip through the air.

Lara stands on a giant crash mat inside her music room in the original Tomb Raider

Lara stands at the edge of a vault box in a large ballroom in the original Tomb Raider

Ah, yes, that classic ‘jump’ button, which is different depending on whether you opt for tank or modern controls. THAT one… Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Aspyr

With tank controls, this process all feels very familiar. Press jump and forward and Lara will spring forth, back straight, arms swinging and knees lightly bent. Press right or left and Lara will somersault stylishly from side to side, wheeling her legs up and over to land with perfect form. Press back and she’ll backflip and somersault behind. All of these motions are fixed movements, carefully calibrated to let Lara travel a set distance, no more, no less, and certainly with no wiggling about trying to second-guess where she’s going to land.

Attempt these moves with the modern controls, however, and… they just… don’t work. You can jump forward, but try doing a somersault or backflip and Lara will merely lurch round and perform the same jump forward motion again. I thought I was going mad. Had something broken? Was I not pressing the right combination of buttons? The ‘Change Control’ menu seemed to imply that you’d be able to use the d-pad to perform these actions, but even trying that didn’t make a jot of difference.

That wasn’t even the half of it. When you arrive in Lara’s big ballroom-cum-school gymnasium, where oversized vaulting boxes apparently go to die, she’ll carefully explain how to walk around tighter pathways, and how to do a little backstep to get the perfect run-up for one of her large flying jumps. Again, the latter is a precise, defined movement, and this simple down tab on the d-pad is integral to pulling off some of the very tight platforming sequences in the game proper. It’s designed to perfectly line you up against the back of a wall, giving you just the right amount of room to hurl yourself forward and grab that far-off ledge. But once again, tapping back with the modern control scheme merely turns Lara around. No hop. Nothing. Just a wheeling tank lady who to any unknowing bystander would look as though she’s lost all sense of motor control.

Lara Croft stands in a room of platforms all at different heights in the original Tomb Raider
This room was death, I tell you. DEATH. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Aspyr

It’s one thing trying to get your head around these controls in the safety of Lara’s own home, but another entirely when you’re faced with a vertical room of tiny square platforms, some of which may or may not crumble underfoot, in the actual game. For science, I tried using the modern control scheme in Tomb Raider’s opening caves level, and when I got that first big platforming challenge, I could not do it. It was quite hard even using the tank controls, if I’m being honest, but the modern controls made it impossible.

It was only when I was fighting a tiger in Tomb Raider 2 that I blundered into the solution. I was persisting with its modern controls, and as I held down left trigger to aim, I tapped the analogue stick backwards for a moment and, lo and behold, Lara did an honest to goodness backstep. I couldn’t believe it! When the tiger was dead, I tried it again, but Lara simply turned round as she’d done every time before that. I unholstered Lara’s guns again and yep, it turned out that, only with my arms out straight, pistols in hand, could I accurately perform a backstep. The same held true for attempting a side somersault and backflip, too. Magnificent work, everyone. A modern control scheme that not only adds new buttons to the mix, but one that doesn’t tell you a thing about how it actually works. A very slow clap to all involved.

I will persist with this remaster trilogy, but man alive, what a bumbled execution. Thing is, even after working out how to implement those more precision moves in Lara’s athletic arsensal, I still don’t think the modern controls are fit for purpose for this style of Tomb Raider game. Developers Aspyr said last month that they mainly took inspiration from Legend, Anniversary and Underworld in coming with them, and I can understand the desire to make it work for people those who have only ever played modern 3D action games in the vein of Uncharted and, you know, modern-day Tomb Raider.

A comparison between the new and old visuals of Tomb Raider 1-3 Remastered Trilogy, featuring Lara standing in front of a nook made out of skulls
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Aspyr

Lara stands in front of a temple inside a cave in the original Tomb Raider

Lara stands in front of a temple inside a cave in the original Tomb Raider, with fancier updated graphics

It’s nice that you can toggle between both visual styles with just one button, but I do prefer the weird lighting and rougher textures of the original in retrospect. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Aspyr

But booting up Underworld this week put old and new Tomb Raider into quite stark perspective for me. This is a game that’s still very much in that proto-Uncharted mould – where late 00s platforming isn’t so much about performing precise gymnastics under tight environmental constraints, but having the game smooth things over behind the scenes to make you look cool. Underworld’s Lara isn’t someone who needs a run-up to do big jumps. She can wind her way through tombs in neat circles and turn on a dime, with an accompanying camera that can glide where it needs to assist with any navigational challenges. It’s a game whose control scheme has been built around that high degree of movement, but Tomb Raiders 1-3 can barely hold onto the same ledge by comparison, let alone pull themselves up and backwards handstand into the same neat finishing position. In trying to graft these new controls onto such old bones, it feels like Aspyr have fundamentally misunderstood the brief of what this remaster is about.

If they really wanted to make these games fit for a modern audience, then perhaps they should have added an auto-save function, or at the very least not hid its manual save four menu layers deep. I died around 30 minutes into Tomb Raider 2 and had to start the entire game again because I hadn’t thought to save. The updated graphics are all right, but the more I played, the more I found myself toggling back to the old visual style. The original graphics, with their stodgy frame rate and big chunky polygons, just have much more character and texture – they are distinctly old Tomb Raider, whereas the new, glossier 60fps models feel a little too polished, mobile-like and squeaky clean for me. That’s very much a personal thing, though, and I’m glad there’s the option to switch between them in real-time with just a tap of a button for that childlike wow factor.

But its broken modern controls are very much not a personal preference thing. They are universally terrible, and have utterly failed in their remit to bring these games up to date for a 2024 audience. Arguably, PC players would be much better off just buying the original games for £6 a pop on Steam, because outside of the (also extremely hidden) photo mode (press in both analogue sticks, FYI) and fancier graphics in this new collection, there’s not really that much here to warrant spending the extra cash. Heck, you don’t even get any resolution options with this trilogy, and the extras menu simply consists of a EULA and a credits sequence for each game. I kid you not. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been this disappointed in a remaster collection (and I’ve seen a few barebones ports in my time), but cor, if you do decide to take the plunge, do yourself a favour: tank it up immediately, and never touch its modern controls ever again.

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