Who would’ve thunk it? Lara’s back, again, and this time her game doesn’t totally suck! Tomb Raider: Legend from Eidos and Crystal Dynamics is a return to form for a once strong franchise. Now newer gamers can see what all the fuss was about in the mid 1990s. Lara has always walked and talked sexier than any other female game character, and now she fights and swings with the best of men just like she did in 1996 when she first drove 13 year old boys crazy as they tried to find a nude code for her. This isn’t to say Legend is perfect, but it is a giant step forward in the right direction. Tomb Raider: Legend takes the best parts of franchises like Metroid Prime, Prince of Persia, and Indiana Jones and tries its best to meld it all together into one winning formula.
The story begins by giving us a flashback of an adolescent Lara Croft and her mother as they survive a plane crash. The two stumble across an ancient artifact and Lara’s mother disappears after she takes possession of the relic. Fast forward to the present and we now have Croft looking for that same ancient object in order to find out what happened to her mother. To spice up the adventure, along the way she meets up with powerful new foes and past friends long thought dead. Even though Crystal Dynamics tried to think up a compelling plot line, it starts to get lost at times and doesn’t always feel connected. This isn’t necessarily a bad mark against Tomb Raider because the story gets lost in most action adventure games excluding the cream of the crop like Prince of Persia, Indigo Prophecy, and God of War. It’s even less of a problem because the story ultimately takes a back seat to the remarkable environments and refined gameplay. More than any other Tomb Raider, Legend feels like a grand adventure that you want to finish.
Right from the beginning you are thrown into the fire. There are lots of on-screen windows to help players know what to do and how to do it amidst all the action. The help windows show you all of Lara’s new gadgets and weapons too. You have twin pistols with unlimited ammo as your base artillery (you can pick up fallen enemies’ machine guns, shotguns, etc. as secondary weapons), binoculars with remote analysis and display technology (R.A.D.) to help you spy on people and spot objects that should be used in solving puzzles. Lara has a PDA to check her gear, objectives, and mission summaries (helpful for when the story starts to drag), and lastly you have a very cool magnetic grapple which is extremely useful for just about everything from fighting enemies, to grabbing objects, to swinging in levels, to playing a key role in solving most of the many puzzles throughout your venture.
As far as controls go, they definitely feel natural enough, and everything is customizable. There are three ways to aim and shoot (the right trigger fires your weapon, the left trigger locks on to targets when shooting, and clicking in the right analog stick sets up a fine aiming interface. Lara is just a marvel to look at when you add in the fact that while shooting she can slide, jump, dive, and roll with the grace of a gold medalist figure skater.
Without the guns she’s even better, as she has some of the best acrobatic moves ever seen in a game this side of Prince of Persia. Take for example the Peru flashback level which has a young Lara Croft racing against time, traps, puzzles, and the supernatural to save her friends all the while performing some spectacular platforming moves. Or the Japan level where Lara steals a motorcycle, drives it off of a building, and swings from girder to girder with what looks like the greatest of ease right before she fills some goons full of hot lead. The latter illustration also shows off the use of quick time events made most popular by Sega’s very underrated Shenmue series, not to mention more recent games like Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, God of War, and Resident Evil 4.
While I do sing mostly praises for the gameplay fin Tomb Raider, there are some issues. The controls can get a bit touchy with aiming (often hard to select the enemy or stay on the enemy you want), jumping (you’ll have your fair share of deaths from a misjudged jump because the camera swung around when you didn’t want it to), and swinging (same problem as jumping). The biggest problem is with object interactivity though. It’s practically impossible to push an object in a straight line without eventually getting spun around so you end up pulling the object unless you move at a much slower pace than what you want to. Still, in the bigger picture none of these faults should keep you away from giving Legend a try.
Vehicle levels offer a nice change of pace among the many shoot ‘em up boards. Vehicles work surprisingly well with steering and shooting being able to be handled at the same time (it makes one wonder why games like Halo and Far Cry don’t adopt a simpler vehicle control scheme). These sections do have their share of set backs though, most notably the repetitive nature of the boards.
Some nice little touches are that you can skip cinemas from the pause menu (which would be great for a Metal Gear Solid game), and you can unlock features (costumes, cinemas, et cetera) by collecting hidden artifacts throughout each stage. Environments can be interacted with to defeat enemies too. From time to time a Y icon will appear over a stone pillar or flammable barrel which lets gamers know there’s an opportunity to take out multiple foes by pressing said Y button. It’s quite gratifying to send a hail of rubble falling down towards a pair of goons instead of just shooting at them for the fiftieth time. And a lot of shooting you will do. You’ll shoot everything from people, to jaguars, to dogs, to supernatural beings. With all this fighting you’d think that Crystal Dynamics would have made a top notch combat system, but most of it just comes off as simple and run-of-the-mill. It’s pretty much just filler between the platforming acrobatics and amazing environmental puzzles.
Speaking of puzzles, there will literally be moments when you look at a room with a huge environmental puzzle in it and wonder to yourself “How can I possibly make this thing work” or “How in the hell do I get all the way up there”. If a game can make you think things like this about its puzzles and still make them feel natural in their surroundings then you know the developers have done something right.
Graphics are kind of a mixed bag. Character models in cinemas look like they don’t even belong on the Xbox (which drags down the rating considerably), but regular characters in the gameplay look solid. It would’ve been better if Eidos just sprung for CG movies instead of showing the imperfections of the modeling with cinemas using in-game close ups. Animations seem very real like Lara’s jump and one handed reach or her climbing and swimming motions. Environments look impressive with some terrific water effects and lush foliage in the Bolivia and Africa levels. There is a perfect faint glowing bloom appearance to the environments (as opposed to its overuse in the game Fable). Lighting and shadows are also very well done.
The sound effects are serviceable with gamers being able to hear individual shell casings hit the ground, but gun effects as a whole are just average. The music is appropriate and definitely adds to the intense moments of Legend. The voice acting is really where the audio shines with each voice actor sounding as authentic as possible. It’s a shame that most of the actors don’t have anything interesting to say (excluding Lara, Rutland, and Amanda). Most of the characters have single lines of dialogue, often just for comedy, which negates their otherwise strong offering to the title.
Tomb Raider: Legend is a pleasant surprise to all gamers who’ve left this once proud franchise behind. Finally Eidos has given the series the attention it deserves and the fans the experience they’ve been craving, minus the nudity (you can’t have everything). As long as Eidos has learned their lesson (i.e. don’t just crank out Tomb Raider games like mad trying to capitalize on its popularity), it looks as though Lara Croft has found her way back into our gaming homes and hearts. Let’s just hope she stays there this time.