Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: June 20, 2006
It has been a few rough years for Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise. After opening the series with two stellar titles in the late '90s, the three that followed were little more than assembly-line rehashes, each less interesting and impressive than its predecessor. Still, expectations were fairly high for the first next-generation version of the series, 2003's Angel of Darkness. Upon release, it was panned by the press and gamers alike, ending up as one of the biggest disappointments of the last few years. By that point, you couldn't blame someone for having given up on the series.
Luckily, Eidos Interactive refused to do such a thing. Original developer Core Design Ltd. was pulled off of the series, leaving Crystal Dynamics with the task of starting over from scratch. Early press on the title was very positive, and a demo on the Xbox Live Marketplace revealed to me what I had hoped to be true: Lara Croft was back. Tomb Raider: Legend ended up being the first game in the franchise that I bought on the first day. I couldn't believe it - I was actually excited for a Tomb Raider game! Our own Nicolus Baslock gave the Xbox version of the game an 8.5, a score that I find to be dead-on for the console release of the game. Here's an excerpt of his review:
"It's been a long time since I enjoyed playing a Tomb Raider game, and although there were some failings, they can be easily improved upon in the next rendition. Legend is definitely worth a look for everyone, from action/adventure gamers to people who want to see how a troubled franchise finally souped up its old jalopy."
Though a very short experience (roughly seven hours), the majority of the game was very well constructed, resulting in one of the best releases of the year thus far. The console and PC versions of the game were released back in April, but an announced PlayStation Portable version of the game was nowhere to be seen. It surfaced in late June, but some compromises have been made to bring the title to the small screen. The grand scale of the game is still present, though an inconsistent framerate often hurts the experience. More notably, a limited control scheme makes for a messier gameplay experience. Can the addition of PSP-exclusive mini-games make up the difference, or is this an entirely regrettable port?
At its core, Tomb Raider: Legend is the same game it was on the consoles. The exploration and puzzle-solving elements of the title are the most compelling, while the gunplay and vehicle segments still feel a bit tacked on. The biggest difference between the releases comes in the form of the control scheme, which greatly suffers from a lack of a second analog stick. Legend certainly is not the first port to have issues on the PSP, but it is one of the more notable ones. The right analog stick was absolutely essential to the console games, as it freely controlled the camera that trails Lara at all times.
On the PSP, the camera is controlled by holding down the square button and moving the analog stick. Not being able to control the camera while moving greatly affects the speed of the game, as you will often have to move your character and then reposition the camera several times before attempting a major jump. I kept trying to move the camera by tapping the shoulder buttons, which seems much more natural to me. Instead, the buttons are used to fire and aim your weapon. I would have much preferred an auto-aim function, with firing mapped to a face button. It would have made for a better-playing game on the PSP, while making only a small impact on the style of gameplay.
Aside from the hassle of coming to a halt every time you want a new perspective, not being able to freely change the direction of the camera seriously affects how you deal with enemies. For example, I'll run into a room and be shot at immediately. Who is shooting me? Where is this mystery shooter located? If he is to my right, I'll have to come to a stop and adjust the camera before I can lock onto it. In the meantime, Lara is being decimated with bullets; it just doesn't work very well. Facing bosses can be even more of a hassle. The first boss of the game is always moving, and it took me twice as long to defeat him on a PSP as it did on a console.
When standing still, the game looks pretty good. Move in any direction, and the jittery framerate reveals itself. It's pretty bad - occasionally, you'll get a second or two of smooth, polygonal bliss, but it is very rare. I find that a steady so-so framerate is better than one that jumps all over the place, as it can become very distracting in regards to the gameplay. The other big visual difference is with the texturing, which can be a mess in the outdoor levels. Imagine looking forward into a sea of various shades of brown, barely able to make out ledges in the distance. Granted, it will only occasionally give you any issues, but it is certainly worth noting, since the console versions had some very well-done textures.
Rather than release a straight port, Crystal Dynamics came up with a couple of interesting mini-games exclusive to the PSP version of the game. The Tomb Trials pit Lara against the computer or other players online in quick games of skill. Master System is a challenging race to the finish, with all-new short-course levels created just for this mode. Treasure Hunt uses modified versions of levels from the single-player mode, finding Lara in a race against the clock to find hidden artifacts. Finally, the Raid n' Seek mode mixes capture the flag and hide and seek, tasking gamers with hiding their own artifact and finding the one hidden by their opponent.
Master System and Treasure Hunt were both playable offline, and both are decent ways to kill some time. The games are nothing revolutionary, but I wasn't expecting a whole lot. All three games are playable online, which I did not get a chance to try out. I tried several times to connect via my wireless network, and all I saw on the lobby screen was, "Waiting…" My network is working fine otherwise, so I have to conclude that it was either a server error of sorts, or the servers are merely empty. If online play is a deal-breaker for you, I would recommend renting it or somehow trying it out before investing your money.
I struggled a bit with my final evaluation of this title. As noted earlier, I loved the console release but found several major flaws with this handheld version. Still, when putting it all together, the genius of the exploration in the game still shines through. Tomb Raider: Legend deserves to be played, but should only be played on a PSP if you do not have an Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Xbox, or a capable PC. Tomb Raider: Legend may be damaged goods on the PSP, but there's still enough here for a limited recommendation.
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