They don't make them like this any more, thank goodness. Within the first ten minutes of Tomb Raider III, we had suffocated in quicksand, drowned in a flooded tunnel, been eaten by piranhas, crushed by a spiked wall and we'd run out of ideas about what to try next. We were lost within sight of the entrance.
This is the hardest Tomb Raider in existence - simply because it hates you with a burning passion. The zeros and ones that make up this game's insides are zealots. If it was Lara who hated you with such vehement aggression, it might all make sense. (Look at what you've put her through. Look at what Core put her through.)
However, she's the same arthritic doll of the fi rst two Tomb Raiders. Instead, it's Lara's world that does the loathing. It seems to despise Lara's stiff-legged vitality and seeks to crush it at all times.
Actually, to call TRIII 'hard' is inaccurate, because that implies it's a fair challenge. Instead, it's unforgiving. Both death and success - the latter taking the form of weapons, supplies and the way forward - lurk unsigned, disguised in the open like tins without labels.
So both death and success frequently come as a surprise, usually stumbled upon entirely by accident. By squeezing out the player's skill this way, each one is devalued. Even the happy little chime that means you've found a secret - one of the previous games' most satisfying elements - is bittersweet.
It's likely to signify that you still haven't found where you're supposed to be going, when you thought you'd finally worked it out.
The funny thing is, you acclimatise to it. In the same way that the game slowly creeps into focus (despite levels that look like the shadows on the blotches of a plague victim, or the really big pixels in CSI just before they enhance the picture and read the killer's number plate), Tomb Raider III relentlessly asserts itself until you learn to do what it wants you to do.
Take it slow, accept you're lost in a whole world of hurt and there's pleasure to be had here. This is not a romp. This is not Indiana Jones, no sir. This is a death march. This is The Deer Hunter.
Why is it so different from the first two games? Two reasons. Firstly, by the end of the 1990s, linearity was a dirty word. And what could be more linear than a tomb? Core Design were aware of the fashionable clamour for open worlds and player choice.
Secondly, Core seemed determined - almost aggressively so - to follow trends rather than set them, despite having kicked off the biggest trend in decades. The original Tomb Raider pioneered 3D, but that spirit (and Croft's creator Toby Gard) was gone by Christmas 1998.
Lara moves like she's on a Zimmer frame, even when imitators had gone fluid years before. For some reason, the Dual Shock's analogue sticks are to Lara what kryptonite is to Superman, and she wouldn't go near them. Yet the awkward, D-pad-only movement and sub-YouTube camera work forces you to slow the pace even further, which actually helps. Tomb Raider is not good at action. It's good at exploration.
TRIII has rainy jungles and a brilliantly spooky Londonbased section, plus dusty Nevada gorges and grand vistas of the Antarctic and South
Pacific. Oh, and Area 51. And a bonus level set in a cathedral, which was called All Hallows, if you get all the secrets. Which you won't. You pass two on the game's first slope.
GOING TITS UP
Perhaps Core's lack of vision allowed them to mistake the undirected, Lara-hating design of TRIII for 'player freedom'. Or perhaps Core were only (whisper it) good once, back in 1996. After the original game, we received yearly sequels with no meaningful improvements made; a disastrous PS2 debut as inept as it was late; and the abject failure of Circle Studios, the company set up by Core's founders after Angel Of Darkness cost them their jobs.