Few video games, let alone novels, movies or television shows, have managed to shape and define a generation, but the Tomb Raider franchise has. The first time I ever set eyes on Lara was in programming class in early '97 when I should've been learning C coding. Home computers at the time were expensive and so, it wasn't uncommon to see games such as Duke Nukem 3D installed on computers in our labs. And it wasn't uncommon to see deathmatches take place while the teachers droned on and on. But when we glimpsed Tomb Raider on a lonely computer to the side of the class, we couldn't help but all focus on it. A few of us, mid-class, walked over to enquire what it was. The teacher even stopped and had a look for himself. Instead of yelling, he sat down and played for a few minutes. That was the power of Lara and of Tomb Raider. When I first got a PS1, it was for Tomb Raider (Greatest Hits) and the newly released Tomb Raider 2. I had the Lara Croft memory card (still in its original packaging), T-Shirts, posters, calendar and I had even memorized facts about her by heart. On valentine's day one year, I got a cake with Happy Birthday Lara written on it. Creepy, I know.
I remember finishing Tomb Raider 2 over the course of one weekend. 38 hours it took. And quite possibly some of the most hypnotic, brilliant and memorable hours of my life. As much as I'd loved Tomb Raider, the second outing was such a magical game that it eclipsed all other video games I'd ever played and certain set-pieces and levels still live on in my sub-conscience as if I'd done them yesterday. Mario, Luigi and Zelda may have been icons, but Lara was bigger than any one medium could contain. Everyone knew about her. Without her there would be no DOA girls, no Joanna Dark, no strong female leads to rival men. Lara broke the mold but also set the tone for everything we know of video games today. But while the Tomb Raider franchise remained successful, the games slowly waned and never managed to capture the pure magic of the two first games. Angel of Darkness was set to make things right, but we all know how that turned out. And now, after developer changes and a long hiatus, Legend is finally released to make amends for the transgressions committed by the later Croft outings. As a gamer, Legend is easy to recommend; it plays well, has interesting levels that are fun to play over and over and has great visuals. As a long-time fan of the franchise, Legend is akin to the Second Coming; it captures the magic and awe of the first games, feels like a long-lost friend and completely rekindles my obsession with the franchise. Lara's back! And it's oh so nice to see her again.
When you finally get passed the visuals (yes, Tomb Raider Legend looks amazing), you'll realize that for all the changes made to Lara's control mechanics, things feel surprisingly natural. We've used this control scheme before in other games and Legend just makes it more intuitive and flowing. You no longer need to set up jumps by slowly walking to the edge of a platform (for a small jump) or taking a jump back to initiate a long-jump. Things, however nostalgic this may make a few of us, have changed for the better. The left thumbstick controls Lara's movements (slight motion to walk, hard press to run) while the right thumbstick deftly controls the camera. As with most camera-free games, any problems experienced in the view department are generally the user's since Legend's camera is set at the perfect distance from Lara and never hinders any of the action or exploration. Face buttons allow you to crawl, roll, jump and interact with items. All of Lara's old tricks are back as well; she can still dive, leap while locked on to enemies, hand-stand onto platforms and perform slide attacks. She's also learned a few new moves like using a grapple and swinging around poles (a la Prince of Persia). Vehicles return and some levels are geared exclusively towards motorcycle chases. These are a fun distraction, but aren't as well integrated as in previous games (motorboat in Venice for example). For the most part, the controls (shimmying, running, jumping, swinging, shooting, pushing, pulling, etc) are all well handled, but when comparing the Xbox to the Xbox 360, the Xbox's controls feel a little clunkier and the walk/run control sometimes seems suspect. On the 360, you really couldn't ask for better controls.
This new Tomb Raider also features some clever new uses for the D-pad. Up will always use a health pack, Down will allow you to switch weapons, left will turn on Lara's PLS (personal light source - which has its own rechargeable life meter) and right will allow you to use binoculars. Using the binoculars will not only allow you to truly appreciate the small little visuals in Legend, but will also prove useful when the RAD (remote analysis device) lenses are used. These allow you to disseminate what objects in the environment can be moved, etc. This brings us to one of the tiniest complaints against Legend. It's easy and there's a lot of hand-holding throughout. The best thing about the original Tomb Raiders was the satisfaction of sometimes figuring what type of fresh hell the developers were putting us through (slide, jump, back-flip, swing, jump, side-jump, back-flip anyone?). While the levels are still fun, large and completely interactive, they are never as hard to navigate as the originals. And yes, they even through in a few shiver-inducing moments that remind us of that faithful motor-boat jump in Venice.
The core gameplay hasn't changed that much; every level is still about getting Lara from point A to point B. Puzzles generally revolve around environmental obstacles as opposed to switch pulling or key retrieval. This is a great thing. Legend also focuses more on outdoor, open areas and only rarely encloses the action or has it take place within modern trappings (although the Tokyo level is brilliant). And that's really what can be said about the level design overall; it really is brilliant. Having had to play through each level several times, each level still felt fun to replay and revisit. Hunting down the hiding artifacts and relics also proved fun. The amount of unlockables is quite welcomed and even the cheats prove fun and useful. The biggest gripe that I have with Legend is a typical one; it's over far too soon. If the game wasn't as good, it wouldn't really be an issue, but it's a credit to Legend's brilliance that once it's over, you already miss it. My first time through, taking the time to hunt down relics and see the sights, took less than eight hours. But these were amazing eight hours, but after having taken 38 to beat Tomb Raider 2, it felt over far too soon. Let's hope that this was simply a case of Eidos and Crystal Dynamics gauging our response to the new Tomb Raider game to see what had to be tweaked and fixed for the next outing. As it stands; it's all good, just keep it coming, please.
Graphically, Legend on the Xbox is a true achievement. The areas are large, well adorned with small details and all-the-while, the camera and visuals stay smooth and flowing. On the Xbox 360, Tomb Raider may not rival games like Fight Night 3 or Oblivion but it still feels like a firm step within the next-generation of visuals. The textures are impressive and the environments are truly lifelike. So much so that Lara herself, while still looking better than ever, feels like the only thing that isn't realistic. There's a certain amount of gloss missing from the characters in the game that project a cartoon-within-a-picture feel. For all my whining, it's still nice to see Lara and she does look amazing. There's a darker edge to her now, a more mature look (maybe looking less like a game character and more like a true human being) which is quite appealing. Her movements are smooth and little touches like water marks or running mascara really add to the illusion that she's almost human. A small note to 360 owners; before starting the game, you may want to turn up the brightness a bit in the options menu since the 360 version is a lot darker than it needs to be by default.
As with every Tomb Raider game to date, the audio presentation is beyond reproach. The music sets the tone perfectly for the continuing adventures of Lara and is easy to adapt to the ever-changing happenings on the screen. Enemies will trigger a change in the mood at just the right moment and even with my eyes closed, I could probably still tell what's happening at all times on the screen, not an easy feat, but brilliant nonetheless. The voice acting is also well done and Keeley Hawes handles Lara's voice work perfectly. While I still miss the traditional "ugh" and "no, that's not right" urgings from Lara when I bump her into things or err in puzzle manipulation, the new sounding Lara seems, again, more mature, more attuned with her adventures and more realistic.
In the end, Lara Croft Tomb Raider Legends doesn't re-invent the wheel or propel the series into any new, bold direction. What it truly does is anchor the series into the next-generation of gaming and stakes out its next outing by clearly demonstrating that Crystal Dynamics "get's it" and is capable of putting out a Lara Croft game worthy of the Tomb Raider name. Fans of the series need not be afraid to return to the tombs with Lara and newer fans can finally appreciate what all the hoopla is about. As always, it's nice to see Lara and all the work that has been put into making Legend memorable is appreciated. Short but sweet; Tomb Raider Legends is a title that should not be missed.