Tomb Raider: Legend Review

Steve Klinger

Lovely scenery. Get your mind out of the gutter,
I was talking about the temple!

In 1996 developer Core arrived on the scene with with a little game about a female British archaeologist with some larger....assets. The game was met with critical acclaim as one of the first truly great 3-D games, while the inventive gameplay and heroine went over swimmingly with gamers. So went the birth of one of the biggest video game franchises of the 1990s, Tomb Raider. While Lara Croft herself continued to be popular well into the next decade, the game series began to lose its luster and soon the franchise was a shadow of it's former self. Determined to bring the franchise back into the limelight, producer Eidos handed the reigns of the series to Crystal Dynamics, best known for the stellar action-adventure and platforming Legacy of Kain series. With a new development team and and a little cosmetic surgery for Ms. Croft, the series made it's last stand with Tomb Raider: Legend. While Legend doesn't quite restore the series to the top of the action-adventure heap, it does manage to restore Tomb Raider series to it's former glory and has again set the series on the path back to righteousness.

Legend begins with a nine year old Lara and her mother on a plane that crashes in the Himalayas, leaving them as the soul survivors. They take shelter from the elements in a nearby temple, where a precocious Lara accidentally activates an ancient sword artifact and watches in horror as her mother disappears right in front of her eyes. Cut to current day with Lara climbing up a craggy rock face in Bolivia, on her way to the temple at the top where she suspects an artifact similar to the one that took her mother may lie. But Lara isn't the only one with designs on this temple it seems, as armed soldiers are roaming the area in and around the temple. You'll take control of Lara in time to have a quick tutorial of the controls here before continuing on. The controls for the most part are spot on in Legend, and Lara is as agile as ever. You'll find yourself clinging to ledges, jumping from ledge to ledge and doing some impressively acrobatic swinging from poles of various types with ease. It's so effortless that you'll find yourself just playing with how graceful you can pull off a series of maneuvers with Miss. Croft. She's nimble, agile and athletic enough to provide for some incredibly fun platforming puzzles and manages to look good while doing it. Oh yes, Lara is back, and more fun than ever. That said, some sections of the game can get downright frustrating as you'll have to time Lara's jumps near perfectly to clear an obstacle. Not so much a problem during the campaign mode, but it can get extremely frustrating during the Time Trials.

The plot of Legends won't win any awards for originality, but it is pretty coherent and interesting for the most part. It goes a long way to explaining quite a bit of Lara's past and could be considered her origin story. Still, the plot makes too much use of tried and true archetypes and in the end it feels like they took from about five different over-used cliches to make one big rehash with almost no originality to it. Despite what it lacks in originality, it is still serviceable and quite fun. Constantly changing environments help add to the worldly feel of the game as you travel to Bolivia, Africa, England and Kazakhstan, among others. If you go into Legend expecting anything more than a popcorn flick as far as narrative goes, you'll be disappointed. Otherwise, it's a fun if slightly dumb story that manages to keep the game moving and is still somewhat enjoyable.

Combat in Legends is also much improved. Aiming is no longer the chore it was in earlier Tomb Raider titles. With a much improved auto-targeting system, it's easy as butter to jump and flip through the air to avoid enemy fire while you unload you hot lead in the enemies' flesh. But the real standout of combat is the entirely new and improved hand-to-hand combat system. Close distance enough and Lara can do a considerable amount of damage with some cool melee combos. Do a quick jump-kick button combo near an enemy and Lara will launch an awesome kick off the face of her foe and land behind them to finish them off before they even know what just kicked them in the teeth. Doing this also launches Lara into a slow down mode similar to bullet-time for a short amount of time, allowing you to launch a devastating attack combo on multiple foes to take them down with ease. Unlike the earlier titles in the series, combat is so satisfying in Legend that you'll find yourself wishing for more battles. Lara's arsenal includes her trademark dual-pistols, complete with unlimited ammo, her handy-dandy grappling hook that can be used to pull enemies toward her, pull down objects, and pull herself up, and a small cache of grenades. There are also a number of weapons that can be picked up off downed enemies. Weapon switching is handled efficiently by the D-Pad, which can also activate Lara's personal light source (a fancy name for a flashlight, no?). By having all weapons one button press away, the combat is much faster paced than games that require you go into an inventory to switch weapons. Legends is more Gears of War than Resident Evil 4 in that respect, anyway. There are also plenty of environment-specific traps for Lara to use against foes as she treks the earth once again, and for the most part they are quite fun and effective to use. The boss battles in Legend are pretty satisfying and all are unique. Unlike most games where a boss battle means he just takes 2-3 times as many shots to kill, the boss battles in Legend aren't that straight forward. Instead of just gunning down the bosses like you would any other enemy, you'll have to make use of your problem solving skills and figure out how to use the environment against your foe. It's a nice touch and makes the boss battles feel substantial and unique not only from each other, but other games on the market that just have you shoot the boss for a ridiculously long time until he finally goes down like, say, Far Cry Instincts Predator.

An element completely new to the series is the now-famous QTEs or 'quick time events' pioneered by Shenmue and made popular by Resident Evil 4. During certain in game cut-scenes you'll have to manage a series of button presses at the right time to prevent Ms. Croft's untimely death. While the QTEs in Legend break up some of the monotony throughout the game, some people will be less than thrilled about the complexity and length of some of the QTEs in Legend. In fact, Legend combines the length and complexity of Shenmue's QTEs with the 'one miss and you're done' philosophy' of Resident Evil 4 to create some rather frustrating interactive cut-scenes. The one that will give most people trouble is no doubt on the Japan level, but after a couple tries, it's nothing too difficult. Luckily, before most of these QTEs you'll hit a save point, leaving you to try them until you get it right without having to track back through the last 20 minutes of the level.

In another attempt to break up monotony in Legend, unfortunately not quite as successful this time, Lara will take to a motorcycle twice in the game. The controls on the bike are easy enough, although the slide-y nature of the bike back and forth make it harder than it should be to avoid certain obstacles. It almost seems as Lara is tethered to the middle of the screen and can stray only so far away before she'll hit an invisible barrier. While annoying, it doesn't totally ruin gameplay, but definitely limits it during the motorcycle missions. The main problem for these missions is length. While the game itself is rather short and by the end you'll be begging some of the other levels to be much longer, it seems Crystal Dynamics saw a chance to lengthen the game without much effort with the motorcycle missions. It is not uncommon for the motorcycle missions to last up to and even past 20 minutes, depending on how quickly you can dispatch the enemies, as Lara only ever seems to reach her destination only after all hostiles are down. This, in turn, makes the motorcycle missions drag on entirely too long, and with them being a mostly 'one-shot' deal, rather frustrating if you make it to nearly the end only to be fowled up by the odd controls and have to do it all again.

Lara traded in her DDs for some junk in the trunk.

The graphics for Legends, while not legendary, are still quite good. Environmental textures are nice and crisp, although they are lacking some of the detail you'd expect from a next generation title. The lack of detail in the textures is partially made up for by the beautiful art direction of the levels. Each level is very distinct and detailed, with lots of atmosphere that make it feel like a real location, thanks to the lighting among other things. Character models and animations are decent as well and a locked and smooth frame rate make for a sleek overall package, despite the lack of extreme bump mapping and extremely detailed textures we are now used to seeing on the 360. Still, for a port it doesn't look too bad and after a while you won't really care.

The audio hits on all cylinders as well with good sound effects from the weapons and environment, decent ambient noise, and a very eclectic soundtrack that fits the worldliness of the game. Add it all together and you've got a great base for the audio. The voice work is top notch all around as well with all of the characters' voices cast well and the voice acting is on target, especially the actor who voices Lara. She does excellently with the varied emotions Ms. Croft has throughout the game.

Being as Tomb Raider: Legend is a completely single player game that will last from 8 to 12 hours depending, the game isn't exactly stacked with replay value. But with a massive Croft Mansion to explore, which is practically another huge level, complete with it's own puzzles to solve and medals to find, there is a little something to do after beating the campaign. In Croft Manor, as well as all the levels in the game, there are three levels of rewards to find. Finding and collecting enough bronze, silver, and gold rewards will unlock achievements for each. It adds a little something extra to the game and will leave you with something to do once you finish the main campaign. Also, there are time trials to be completed for every level. The time trials basically time you as you complete each level and, if you complete a level under the par time, you'll unlock another achievement. There is one per level and a final 50 point achievement for completing all time trials. Depending on your level of skill, the time trials can add another 5-8 hours of gameplay to Legend and for the most part are challenging but fun. The mission to give the most amount of trouble will no doubt be Japan as some people will have a problem with all the high-flying jumping and catching of ledges Lara must do in a short amount of time. Add in some achievements for completing each level normally, and one large achievement for completing the campaign on hard, and you've got a pretty balanced and fun achievement set. The time trials are a nice touch that adds a little something to the game.

Top notch voice acting, good dialog and stellar, if slightly subtle sound effects combine with a great worldly music soundtrack to make up a great audio package for Tomb Raider: Legend. The actress voicing Lara nails it perfectly. Decent 5.1 mix as well, but the audio in general is good, not great.

Not the most breathtaking game on the Xbox 360, Legend holds it's own. The beautiful art direction is betrayed by a lack of detail in some of the textures which look only slightly better than the PS2 version (at least they made use of the anti-aliasing though). Lara particularly, but all the other characters as well, look decent but still lack the level of detail you'd want in a next-gen soiree with the titular Miss Croft. Some nice lighting effects add some pop to the game though.

For the most part Lara is as agile and nimble as a cat, but occasionally the controls will make certain tasks like jumping from ledge to ledge rather difficult. Overall the controls work great and add some much needed speed to combat and the game in general. The motorcycle missions, on the other hand, could have been cut in half and the game would not suffer for it.

A clean interface and menu system combine with a slick control system and a new and improved combat system combine to make for a very nice package. This is how you make a comeback. Now if only they could tighten up the graphics a little...

Mostly standard stuff, the rewards offer something to go back for and the time trials add some to the replay value to the game and extend it's life beyond just campaign. Most of the achievements can be completed in the first play through though and aren't very original or inventive. On the other hand, they are quite easy to earn so score whores take note. This is 1000 points you can earn in a day of dedicated play.

While Tomb Raider: Legend doesn't manage to quite make it to the upper echelon of the current crop of action-adventure titles out there today, it's definitely a step in the right direction for the franchise. Hopefully now that Crystal Dynamics has overcome the major hurdles the franchise has faced, namely clunky controls and boring and rather frustrating combat, they'll be able to focus more on innovation and story on the next outing after Anniversary hits later this Fall. Hopefully next time they spring for a next-gen engine as well. Imagine Tomb Raider with UE3 graphics...

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