Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend
With the release of Tomb Raider back in 1996, Core Design struck gold and gave the gaming industry its first true action heroine, Lara Croft - even if her gender and ample bosom arguably contributed far more to its success than any actual merit of the gameplay itself. Following the remarkable success of the first game, Core followed up with a sequel every year, with the law of diminishing returns ensuring that each subsequent instalment was inferior to its predecessors, until, following a three-year break after the half-hearted Tomb Raider: Chronicles, the Derby-based studio released the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, a supposed drastic reimagining that, in reality, shambled on to the scene as an unfinished, buggy mess. The Angel of Darkness was so bad that publisher Eidos Interactive yanked development duties away from Core (an embarrassing situation, beyond any doubt) and handed them over to Crystal Dynamics, the US-based developer of the Legacy of Kain franchise. Tomb Raider: Legend, their first effort featuring the buxom adventurer, was eventually released in Spring 2006, three years after Core’s final offering. The result: the best Tomb Raider game in years and arguably the first truly great instalment in the franchise.
Crystal Dynamics have wisely struck a balance between reinventing the game from the ground up and leaving enough of the original format to make it instantly familiar to those that have played its predecessors. One of the biggest criticisms of the various sequels was that they made the “Tomb” in Tomb Raider something of a joke, with Lara travelling to seemingly every location except actual tombs. Crystal Dynamics have rectified this, and, while there are certainly some diverse locations on display, including a trip to the skyscrapers of Tokyo at night, the bulk of the game takes place in various underground caverns and mausoleums. Including the fairly brief final boss fight, there are a total of eight different locations, most of them fairly sprawling although never daunting in their scale, with an estimated total of 10-15 hours of gameplay (according to the timer, I finished it in 9 hours and 36 minutes).
It’s all over rather quickly, therefore, and I certainly found myself wishing it had gone on for a little longer, although various hidden goodies, which can be picked up to unlock bonus costumes and weapon upgrades, as well as a time trial option, do encourage you to replay the game. At the same time, Legend seems far less impenetrable than, say, Tomb Raider III, which eventually turned into giant sprawling level after giant sprawling level of tedium. It also helps that Legend’s gameplay feels far more concentrated than many of its predecessors, with a focus on puzzles that can be completed using items already at your disposal rather than having to trek across huge levels to find an obscure button that will open a random door. Indeed, very few puzzles even require you to leave the room in which they are located, meaning that accomplishing your immediate objective is always within your grasp, thereby encouraging you to keep playing rather than simply giving up. The puzzles are also very logical, and indeed many even seem a little too straightforward, given that Lara or her various associates will often offer handy hints as to what needs to be done.
Crystal Dynamics have also reined in the frustration factor inherent in the constant deaths and restarts incurred during the previous games - a combination of their cumbersome controls and the games’ demandingly exact grid-based movement system. Previously, even a simple jump from one block to another would be fraught with danger, as, chances were that you would line Lara up slightly wrong and end up missing your target. Legend is far more forgiving, in the sense that, provided you aim in the general vicinity of where you intend to go, chances are that Lara will automatically adjust her trajectory mid-jump and land where you want her. On the PC version, accuracy is also much-aided by finally allowing players to use the traditional mouse-and-keyboard combination favoured by every action game for years (this function was also present in The Angel of Darkness, although it did little to improve playability due to that game’s clunky movement). As a result, Legend is infinitely smoother and more natural to control than any of its predecessors, meaning that gamers can actually play the game instead of wrangling with its basic mechanics.
A considerable amount of effort has also been invested in the story, which is of a more personal nature, given that it involves the fate of Lara’s dead parents (the storyline has been modified somewhat since the first game to tie in better with the two film adaptations, although there are still some key differences between these two strands of the franchise) and a group of fellow explorers, many of whom came to a sticky end during a grave-digging jaunt in Paraíso. The various in-game cut-scenes are highly effective, with Lara ably voiced by actress Keeley Hawes (who played Zoe in the first three seasons of Spooks). Her banter with her various assistants, who keep in contact with her via a headset, is often quite funny, although there are a few clunkers, and, on occasions in which a particularly tricky puzzle requires multiple attempts (which are, admittedly, laudably few in number), the continued repetition of the same zingers becomes a little tiresome. Graphically, the game is also very impressive, with only a handful of blocky textures, which the art direction and level design do an admirable job of concealing the fact that the game is ultimately still based around jumping from one square block of ground to the next.
Where the gameplay is a little less impressive is in terms of its combat. It all feels a bit perfunctory, with very little possible variation beyond simply jumping about and pumping enemies with lead before they can finish you off. At Medium difficulty, the game is fairly generous in terms of doling out ammo and health packs (you can carry up to three at a time), while guns are limited to only a few variations (in addition to the now-standard pistols, you can carry only one other weapon at a time). It is possible to jump on top of human enemies to knock them down, which causes the game to enter into slow motion, allowing you to more precisely execute them, although the occasions on which this can be done (and indeed when this is actually worthwhile) are relatively few. The various bosses, meanwhile, which conclude most of the levels, can initially seem a little daunting, but are generally fairly straightforward once you work out the central puzzle, with very few of them requiring much in the way of dodging and acrobatics. A handful of motorcycle chases also tend to be a little frustrating, given that their controls are much more clunky than the game proper (the mouse, annoyingly, can’t be used for steering).
Tomb Raider: Legend is ultimately a highly enjoyable game. It may not be particularly lengthy or taxing, but it is a beautifully-presented adventure with slick controls, an engaging plot and some fun puzzles. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it certainly salvages an aging franchise, breathing life into a series that I had otherwise given up on.