It’s been a while since the name Tomb Raider was associated with quality. From the two underwhelming and at times downright embarrasing movies to a string of just plain bad games, Lara Croft went from a genre defining gaming icon to a vapid sex symbol peddling mediocrity. The last game, Angel of Darkness, is widely considered as one of the all-time flops of the last few years, and it’s attempt at making the franchise darker and more combat oriented by taking Lara out of the tombs and on the run (and not to mention the absurdly out of proportion figure) not only didn’t resonate with gamers in general, but completely turned off fans of the series as well.
Three years have passed and now gaming’s original hottie is back, looking a little less ridiculous and a lot more fun. While putting development in the hands of Crystal Dynamics may have been considered risky, bringing in series creator Toby Gard to help bring Lara back to her roots was a stroke of genius. with his guidance, Tomb Raider: Legend has shed the baggage of the recent past and shines forth as a proper inheritor of the puzzle-platforming adventure genre that the first two games put on the map.
While I am sure the Xbox360 version has incredible next-gen shaders and textural upgrades, Legend is certainly no slouch for eye-candy on the Xbox. The environments are, quite simply, beautiful. From lush tropical jungle ruins to the frozen mountain terrain of the Himalayas, to the rooftops of Japan, each level looks incredible.
Lara herself looks pretty good,too. Naturally, she retains certain ample assets, but they don’t look quite as out of proportion to the rest of her body as previous incarnations have depicted her. Each level brings a different outfit, including a flashback level that has her decked out in her original gear from the first game. Most importantly, her movement is much more fluid and acrobaticWeapons and gear appear on the model when aquired, a nice touch that gives a direct visual cue to her inventory. Other character models are more than adequately executed and the occasional fantastical creature bosses are a sight to behold.
Music has always been a strong part of the Tomb Raider games, and Legend is no exception. Ever-present but never obtrusive, Legend’s soundtrack nicely conveys a sense of wonder in the puzzle tombs as well as an appropriate sense of peril in the battle and boss segments. Voice acting is top notch, with every major character represented distinctly and with character. Ambient sounds combine seamlessly with the lush visuals of the environments, bringing a level of immersion previously unavailable in the series.
Tomb Raider: Legend picks up a few tricks from another recently revived puzzle/platforming franchise in terms of handling and controls: Prince of Persia. Able to roam more freely in her environments, Lara’s moves are much more acrobatic and fluid, and like Prince of Persia, lend an air of grace to the feel of the controls. Jumps will almost always connect due to some auto-correction, however don’t always assume they connect well, as a sloppy jump will prompt you to press the Y button to regain your balance or fall. When shimmying across ledges or swing on ropes, movement can be sped up by rythmically moving the thumbstick in time with the motion, a really nice effect and lends a great feeling of control. Weapon control can be a bit all over the place until you figure out how to effectively use the triggers to auto-lock and switch auto-locked opponents, and even then you might get tripped up by some quirky camera issues.There are also a couple of levels that have you riding a motorcycle in what pretty much amounts to a rail shooting game as the controls are pretty bare-bones and give more of a floating feel than an actual driving sensation.
Tomb Raider: Legend adheres to the concept of quality over quantity, and while the game is rather short- clocking in at roughly eight hours- the ride is a blast while it lasts. Lara is portrayed as a modern-day Indiana Jones, and the story is presented in a style that is reminescent of the pulp serials of old. The story is engaging and well paced, and even digs into Lara’s past on a couple of occasions. In fact, the game starts off with a flashback to a much younger Lara as she experiences a plane crash in the Himalayas, starting a chain of events that leads to her mother’s death. It’s a great start and really lends the main character a depth of emotion previously unseen in this franchise.
Naturally, the main plot device is an ancient artifact (magical sword) that has been split into several pieces and strewn all over the world. This gives Lara her excuse to travel to exotic locales such as the Peruvian jungle and the Himalayan mountains, lending each level a fun and unique theme. One level even has Lara hopping the tops of Tokyo skyscrapers on a racing bike. Each level is punctuated by well scripted and executed cinematics, but don’t get too used to sitting back and watching as many of them segue right into a ‘Dragon’s Lair’-esque sequence of well timed button cues. And if you ever grow weary of the main story, you can always pop into Croft Manor for a self contained little gathering quest.
The gameplay of Tomb Raider: Legend is divided into two parts: action and puzzles. The game executes both quite well for the most part with few missteps here and there. Action segments are primarily made up of shoot-em up gunplay and platforming, with the occasional rail-shooter motorcycle level. The platforming rarely gets old as the level design contributes quite a bit of variety, but by the end of the game you do start to notice some repitition of earlier conventions. The puzzle solving sections are well designed and often difficult to figure out. Some of the puzzles even make good uses of the game’s physics engine, such as the one level where you have to use a lever to launch boxes up onto a platform. The mix between action and puzzles is very balanced, and you never really have the chance to get tired of one before it switches things up.
As stated before, Tomb Raider: Legend is short. Don’t be surprised if you finish the main game with a 90% completion rate after only 6 or 7 hours. The difficulty level can be ramped up and earlier levels can be revisited for those who like to collect all of the extra goodies like costumes and game data, but if you have already done the puzzles it sort of takes the thrill out of replaying the game. It is certainly a fun romp while it lasts but players will be more likely to be pining for the next installment rather than taking Legend for another spin.