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Lara Croft: The Evolution

by Meagan Marie on Dec 07, 2010 at 11:20 AM

Love her or hate her, in the late ‘90s you couldn’t ignore Lara Croft. The buxom beauty vaulted to cyber-stardom among a sea of male protagonists. It’s hard to deny that the phenomenon of Lara’s success was inextricably tied to her physical presentation – her nature as a projection of both power and sexual fantasies. There was no overlooking the cinched waistline and impossible curves, the inflated lips and elongated legs, or the excessive flexibility and effortless grace. Some embraced Lara as an inspiration for these very reasons. Others shunned her as a chauvinistic objectification.

Through eight console iterations, Lara Croft’s visage has continued to evolve – constantly straddling the line between fantasy and reality, idealism and believability. With Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider reboot, the studio is looking to cut Lara Croft from an entirely new cloth. We look back at official art over the past fifteen years and detail the metamorphosis of Lady Lara.

Tomb Raider
Year: 1996
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PC, Mac

Lara Croft’s iconic look was set in stone with the release of Tomb Raider in 1996. Her distinctive face was dominated by wide brown eyes, thick, angular brows, and swollen lips. Lara’s hair has become a pillar of her identity throughout the years – stray auburn strands framing her face – but the look wasn’t fully realized in the first console release. Although her trademark braid was present in official art and renders, it was implied in the game itself. The in-game model had hair chopped at the nape of her neck, as the braid proved too difficult to realize in play.

Lara’s exaggerated stats – widely accepted as 34D/24/35 (at 5 ft. 9 in.) – created a memorable silhouette. Perched atop a pair of towering legs, Lara’s demure waist supported an unnaturally oversized bust. Croft’s ensemble aptly drew attention to her curvaceous physique. A cotton/lycra leotard clung to Lara like a second skin, straining against her augmented assets. Complemented with brown canvas shorts that left little to the imagination, Lara’s complete ensemble provided Core (and players) incentive to get creative with camera angles.

Bulky black holsters were accented with an unusually large brass buckle, which according to The Art of Tomb Raider, was enlarged to mask an awkward polygon juncture. A pair of rugged combat boots, brown knapsack, and fingerless gloves topped off the look. With the addition of Lara’s ever-present twin pistols, an icon was born.

Tomb Raider II
Year: 1997
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation, PC, Mac

Not wanting to drastically alter a formula that had proven so successful, Lara Croft remained much the same in her 1997 follow-up. Slight adjustments to Lara’s face were made – her eyes more vivid and framed by thicker lashes – although they were often hidden behind her unique red shades.

Lara also seemed to develop a wider emotional spectrum. The official art documented a predisposition for bearing her teeth in a sneer or slightly unnerving grin. Croft was also gifted long locks in Tomb Raider 2 via an in-game braid.

In Tomb Raider, Lara’s original ensemble suited her just fine for excursions in every climate. Returning for seconds, however, Lara’s wardrobe diversified to reflect different locales. In addition to her blue leotard, Lara donned a fitted bomber jacket, clingy Sola wetsuit, and skimpy blue robe. Chances are that most Tomb Raider fans remember that particular encounter – the shower and shotgun make it hard to forget.

Tomb Raider III
Year: 1998
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation, PC, Mac

Lara’s third adventure found her uncovering secrets in India, Nevada, the South Pacific, and more. Continuing the trend of annual releases, Croft again had little time to evolve from a physical standpoint other than slight improvements to in-game graphics and renders – added polygons continuing to round out her once humorously pointy “curves.” Instead of a visual overhaul, Core opted to continue diversifying her ensembles and equipment.

Lara barred her midriff for the first time in the South Pacific, sporting a white athletic bra and green shorts. Her core remained exposed as she infiltrated Area 51, donning blue camouflage pants and a grey crop top. In this particular look, Lara sported a naval piercing. Other outfits included a skin-tight catsuit and environment appropriate Arctic gear, each ensemble boasting slightly different boots and holsters.

With Lara’s popularity snowballing, Core took more risks promoting Lara in the third game – openly embracing her sex appeal. Provocative photos of Lara smoking a cigar ran aside gratuitous cleavage shots, a slew of sexy implied nudes, and slinky evening attire.

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation
Year: 1999
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC, Mac

Another year, another Tomb Raider title. In Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Lara Croft gave up her globetrotting ways for a single adventure in the arid deserts of Egypt. This eliminated the need for more than one ensemble, and as such Lara spent the game in her classic (and increasingly mundane) outfit.

A flashback to a teenage Lara Croft provided a splash of diversity, showcasing the pint-sized adventurer in pigtails, green shorts, a white crop top, and matching camouflage vest. Despite being a teen, Lara wasn’t missing her trademark curves.


Early adopters and fans of Tomb Raider usually note The Last Revelation as where their interest in the franchise began to wane, perhaps because yearly releases resulted in a plateau of both visuals and mechanics.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles
Year: 2000
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC, Mac

Presumed Dead, Lara Croft looked unusually well for a ghost in Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Told through the eyes of reminiscing friends, four unique adventures required as many outfits for Lara. Traversing through Rome had her in the traditional raiding garb, although a brief cameo of an elegant opera dress kicked off the encounter. A trip to Russia clothed Lara in a black and white jumpsuit – a dark knit cap atop her head.

Teenage Lara returned for a brief adventure, and Core got a bit risqué in a voyeuristic scene of Lara nearly changing. Lara’s final destination had her negotiating through a high-tech tower in her black catsuit, this time upgraded with communications equipment and slick shades.

Five years with five consecutive releases again resulted in little change to Lara’s physical presentation, although hints of a darker and more aggressive disposition were evident in key art. Perhaps it was a precursor to what was on the horizon.

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness
Year: 2003
Developer: Core Design
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 2, PC, Mac

Angel of Darkness was a massively ambitious endeavor. Marking Tomb Raider’s graduation from PlayStation-era consoles, Core used the opportunity to implement a complete visual overhaul.

Departing from annual releases, Core took three years to develop and publish Angel of Darkness, using that time to redefine Lara through a more somber lens.  Technical advancements allowed for an increasingly realistic looking Croft, as did Core’s decision to step away from outlandishly exaggerated features. Lara’s new look included a slightly narrower face, although it continued to house wide eyes and large lips. Playing off the shifting theme, Lara’s eyes were darker – rimmed in charcoal and significantly less luminous than in past iterations. Her braided whip of hair was also lower and looser, as if hastily constructed. As for Lara’s physique, more realistic proportions were rendered in over 5000 polygons, as opposed to the 350 utilized in the original Tomb Raider.

Taking place in modern locations such as Paris and Prague, Angel of Darkness saw Lara as a fugitive framed for murder and her understated ensembles reflected that fact. Lara’s traditional outfit became a relic of the past, with her instead stepping into a dark crop top and deep green camo shorts for the bulk of her journey. Lara also donned a similar variant with pants, a wetsuit, and a civilian outfit of faded denim jeans, a matching jacket, and dark shades. Updated and significantly more utilitarian equipment lent a lot to the believability of Lara’s presentation, with her guns, holsters, boots, and backpack all redesigned.

Lara’s new presentation wasn’t ill received so much as the unresponsive controls and buggy play. Despite the obvious ambition, Angel of Darkness was marred from a technical standpoint. Often referred to as unfinished, Angel of Darkness marked the end of Core’s reign over Lara Croft.

Tomb Raider: Legend
Year: 2006
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox, PlayStation 2, PSP, GameCube, PC

Despite the enterprising attitude, Angel of Darkness didn’t usher in a new and modern era for the Tomb Raider franchise. As such, U.S. developer Crystal Dynamics inherited the property, crafting a new title for a slew of platforms including the Xbox 360. Crystal waited three years before debuting a new Lara to the world, releasing Legend in 2006.

Lara’s direction under Crystal continued the trend of rooting her in reality – items were designed with purpose rather than for simple aesthetics. Her clothing, gear, and weapons appeared tailored to her outlandish lifestyle, and in that sense, were practical. Lara lost her archaic braid in favor of a simpler ponytail, and her reconstructed face boasted hints of makeup, more naturally shaped eyebrows, and softer lips – although Crystal opted to retain the classic M shape of her mouth. 

Lara’s body was also refined. While still maintaining idealistic proportions, her silhouette was more in line with that of an athlete than a pin-up model. Lara’s default outfit highlighted improved muscle tone with large expanses of bare skin, still paying tribute to her hip-hugging legacy.  The shorts and crop top were joined by other ensembles, such as a stylish motorbike jacket, practical winter attire, and an infamous cocktail dress.

Crystal maintained other important elements of Lara’s identity, including her holsters, twin pistols, backpack, and combat boots – all modified, however, to fit the new scope of the game. Lara boasted new equipment, too, such as a row of grenades along the small of her back, a flashlight, binoculars, and a rappel device. Lara was becoming increasingly utilitarian, without sacrificing her sex appeal. 

Lara’s upgraded appearance didn’t go to waste. Crystal whipped up a slew of unlockable outfits for Lara to romp around in, including the ever-popular black bikini.

Tomb Raider: Underworld
Year: 2008
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PC, Nintendo Wii

Developed for current generation hardware, Tomb Raider: Underworld offered Crystal Dynamics a chance to continue pushing Lara’s physical presentation. Having found solid footing with Legend (and Anniversary), nuance became key in Lara’s most recent adventure. Again embracing a more proportional build, Lara’s muscles became even more defined – especially in her arms, abdomen, and thighs. Lara’s face took a stronger appearance, too, more striking with defined cheekbones, thick black eyeliner, and glossed lips.

Lara’s outfit again gravitated toward athletic gear – comprised of a lycra-like fabric and breathable mesh housed in a design one wouldn’t be surprised to find at retail. Other Underworld ensembles such as Lara’s cheeky wetsuit may have been less practical, but generally speaking her outfits continued to trend toward believability. Until you checked out the unlockable roster, that is.

Underworld offered Crystal a chance to make Lara’s interactions with the environment even more involved. Lara would remain wet for a time after swimming, and become caked in mud as she explored. At 32,000 polygons, Lara looked pretty sharp, even when messy.

In the fifteen years since her debut, Lara Croft has transformed from a cartoon-like amalgamation of tropes and fantasies to that of a more grounded and athletic adventurer – even if she has remained fantasy fodder.

What does the future hold for Lara Croft? The debut of a brand-new Lara has wiped the slate clean for Crystal. Check back Thursday for an extensive look at the new Lara Croft.