Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: November 14, 2006
"If you can't beat them, join them," seems to be the design mantra behind Tomb Raider: Legend. Crystal Dynamics' efforts to turn the series around from its dated, rehashed feel works well enough, and though it's rough in a few areas and doesn't do anything particularly new, the combination of fluid control, spiffy visuals, and great audio work makes it worth a look, especially for fans who put up with the last several installments in the franchise.
The chronology in the Tomb Raider universe is all over the place, so rather than try to weave a new story into the existing ones, Crystal Dynamics starts anew and makes the story their own. From playable flashbacks of Lara's childhood and early years to the teaser cliffhanger ending, you get to see something from every stage of the buxom adventurer's life so far, and beyond. While the story feels a bit jumpy, and sometimes really exists merely to justify globetrotting to another exotic locale, the solid voice work and few remarkable characters have some lasting appeal. We'll have to see how well they shape up in the inevitable sequel.
Finishing a game without finishing the story is nothing new to this developer, though, as they've done it in virtually every iteration of their other blockbuster franchise, featuring a couple of guys you might have heard of, Kain and Raziel. Much like that series, Legend starts a story that builds up appropriately and climaxes, introduces a sweet new weapon, ties itself to a greater mythos (Arthurian Legend, in this case), presents a flashy fight at the end, poses some big unanswered questions, annnnd … roll credits.
Actually, I wish they'd taken a few more cues from the Soul Reaver/Legacy of Kain games, namely in the combat department. In those titles, you could find all sorts of ways to dispatch your foes, from environmental hazards to torching to impaling to pushing them off a cliff. Legend relies much more on the modern form of duking it out: gun play. However, it doesn't do much with it, offers a paltry selection of weapons and inventory, and just lacks the flair it could have had.
Some would argue (even I have before) that the gun play is just a break from the engaging puzzles and exploration elements, but combat was actually spiced up with some nifty bullet-time acrobatics and dodge moves akin to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, but doesn't put the punch behind it that it needs. In Soul Reaver, you had to fight to refill the soul meter. In Prince of Persia, you had to fight to keep the sand in the dagger at full capacity. In Legend, you're really only shooting to get past some brain-dead obstacles. Environmental hazards present themselves in the form of explosive canisters and the odd instance of deformable terrain (collapse a ceiling or pillar on top of fools), but they're so clearly marked, it takes the guesswork and spontaneity out of things. Half of the time, they don't even work unless you somehow lure the enemies over to the hazard in question.
The handholding doesn't end there, either. One thing that makes the game almost too easy, but was also a necessary evil due to the design, is that any object with which you can interact in some way glows in the environment. In fact, you can put on a special pair of scanner goggles a la Metroid Prime to make finding them even easier. The problem is that doing so completely interrupts doing anything else. You can't move, shoot or duck while scanning, and the info you get from scanning usually isn't terribly useful anyway. Canisters obviously blow up. Giant gears are part of some bigger machine. You don't need the twin twits back at HQ, Zip and Alistair, to spew what you already know into your earpiece.
The magnetic grappling zip line, motorcycles, and Lara's other gadgets can only be used where mandated by the game, so don't get any grand notions of Spider-Manning your way around the levels with the grapple. Heck, the thing often won't grab things it's supposed to grab unless you position the camera just right.
It's mostly run-of-the-mill adventure game camera problem fare, particularly with getting too crowded indoors, but it's disappointing that the developers put so much care and detail into the characters and environments, and then hand you a camera that makes looking around cumbersome. In firefights, I'd randomly lock on to someone 50 feet away rather than the guy right next to me because I didn't manually wrangle the camera to "see" the correct threat. Many times, the grapple won't grab objects that are off-screen. More than once, I couldn't judge where to jump from a ledge because the camera simply wouldn't turn the right way. Guess, jump, and reload from last checkpoint if you guessed wrong. In fact, the camera and sometimes-iffy jumps killed me more often than the bad guys.
Considering all of the other things Tomb Raider: Legend borrows, I'm surprised they didn't go after the Prince of Persia camera scheme, where you can manually adjust it with one thumbstick or click a button to get a wider view environment cam. I went back and played Sands of Time again after finishing Legend to make sure I wasn't dreaming, and I was right. This camera needs work.
The vehicle segments control a little stiffly, but they work well enough. It might have been more exciting to just commit to making it an on-rails segment where Lara steers and you man the firearms, or vice versa. Trying to do both at once and still find any of the interesting alternate paths waters down each element rather than making any of them stand out. The motorcycle chases reminded me of a mission from GTA: San Andreas, where Big Smoke is driving and Carl tries to take out the pursuers. Smoke did some crazy stunts during the chase, making it feel more like living a John Woo moment than a Paul W.S. Anderson snooze-fest.
When you get done exploring the diverse handful of levels and admiring their atmospheric and lush visuals (despite the occasional frame rate lag), you can return to explore Croft Manor, where you can change outfits, try out the gym, and search for hidden relics in the house. Too bad you have to unlock so much of this stuff, because running around in the gym feels like so many areas in Sands of Time; it would give players a better crash course in the game's acrobatics and moves than just dropping you into the story-driven action. It wouldn't be such a big deal if they hadn't completely revamped how the game plays – though for the better, I must add. The tutorial should be up front, please, not after I've fallen and broken all of my bones 15 times.
Another quibble with the controls is that it requires some finger origami to crouch, move, and pivot the camera at the same time. I suspect that in other versions of the game, the crouch button was assigned to some finger other than the right thumb, which you need constantly to remain aware of the environment. Switching aiming styles too quickly will drop a grenade at your feet, and trying to be stealthy is a joke. However, the game tries to help you out in other areas, with mixed results. For instance, Lara makes an effort to grab a ledge when you make a bad jump, but other times, she jumped right through a rope and plummeted to her doom rather than grabbing it.
Legend also gets on board with the interactive cut scenes, as seen in Resident Evil 4 and Indigo Prophecy, but I wasn't as happy with how they worked here. Sometimes you could sit back and watch a normal, passive sequence; other times, you had to be on the edge of your seat waiting for the split-second cue to hit the correct button or risk being annihilated, but there wasn't much indication which kind you were about to watch. It's not very forgiving, and usually I died as many times as there were button presses until I memorized what was coming. By and large, things do work. They could have used some polish is all.
The sights and sounds are top-notch, particularly the voice acting. Sometimes there's a bit too much chatter during missions, or a glitch where one scripted conversation would get interrupted by or overlap with a cut scene, making it difficult to follow what's going on. Still, the actors certainly delivered, and the well-written and –paced music is fantastic, too.
Once you finish missions, you can go back and replay them to look for more artifacts (bronze, silver, and gold, depending on how difficult they are to find) or to beat time trials. Once you figure out the tricky puzzles the first time, blowing through levels on subsequent visits is more of a tourist exercise, so it's good that they look and sound as nice as they do. Jacking up the difficulty doesn't do too terribly much for the game, since the bulk of the challenge is in learning said puzzles the first time through.
Tomb Raider: Legend is pretty short and not terribly deep so you could finish everything in a weekend, but it's certainly a great return to form for Lady Croft and a satisfying adventure for both the series faithful and noobs alike. Despite a few rough edges, I can say something I haven't been able to say in nearly a decade: I'm actually looking forward to the next Tomb Raider game.
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