Review: Princess of Persia...?
The original Tomb Raider was a fluke. At least, that's what many believe is the case, and it's hard to argue the viewpoint. Toby Gard's baby brought epic adventure gaming to the 3D era and created a genuine gaming icon, but once he left Core Design, the developer saw fit to simply rehash the original rather than demonstrate any sort of ambition. They were still some fine adventure games but as the PlayStation era moved along, Tomb Raider became outclassed by more modernized games that were infinitely more playable than the clunky, boxy control schemes of Lara Croft. Angel of Darkness was simply too late; Core did at least try to reinvent the series but clearly seemed out of their league. As such, Eidos took a drastic step, stripping away Tomb Raider from the company that created it, and placing it in the hands of Legacy of Kain developer Crystal Dynamics. The result is Tomb Raider: Legend, a game that truly pushes the Reset button in an attempt to restore the glory the franchise once had a decade ago.
The plot of Legend has been well concealed by Eidos, which is a surprising move seeing it's never been about the story but about the actual raiding of tombs. In other words, it's not like anyone was on the edge of their seats hoping for details. Anyway, Legend is truly about Lara Croft, who is seeking to unravel the mystery of her mother's death in a Bolivian temple that contains a strange stone dais that coincidentally is responsible for it all. And aside from a short flashback stage that adds some backstory (and perhaps an excuse to show Lara in her old-school outfit), that's the main goal of TR: Legend. But it's not quite that cut and dried, as everything winds up tying in to one of England's most popular myths; that of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the sword in the stone, Excalibur. There's plenty of surprising and not-so-surprising plot twists to keep things going, though in classic Tomb Raider fashion, the real storytellers are the huge tombs you have to navigate through to reach your goal.
So while the story does prove to be interesting (if you're into that sort of thing), that wasn't the reason for Tomb Raider's fall. It was how it played. In the past, handling Lara was next to impossible, and so many unnecessary deaths occurred due to the awful, cumbersome control scheme that was great in 1996 but not in the year 2006. That's why Crystal Dynamics was handed the ball; they know how to make a 3D control scheme that works. It all starts with handling Lara; in the past her handling was tied to a grid system of sorts, lacking fluid movement. That's all changed, and this time you can run her around levels naturally, in true 3D as well. No longer is lining up for a jump is a chore, and thus you can get back to the business of playing the game. With that out of the way, Legend opens itself up to being a truly enjoyable adventure experience. Most of her moves are familiar, such as leaping from platform to platform, shimmying across ledges, moving boxes around to reach higher ledges, stopping traps, or activating stuff, and these remain the very base element of the game; you'll use these tactics frequently.
But there's plenty of new stuff. Borrowing a page from Prince of Persia, you can swing from pole to pole, or swing around to reach a ledge or a rope. In a smart move, Lara will automatically land correctly long as you're in the right spot, so you can be off a tad and still survive, though sometimes you have to hit Y quickly if she doesn't have both hands secured. As a matter of fact, Lara tips you off when looking for a place to move towards, as she'll aim for that direction when you're in the right spot. It's very nice to have and the result is far less stupid deaths which have plagued the series since the beginning. Though there are plenty of those if you make a mistake and miss a ledge, don't move in time, or simply fail to properly handle an environmental trap. To go along with this Lara's got a brand new item, a magnetic grapple that functions in two ways; one lets you swing over to reach far ledges as a makeshift rope, and also to draw otherwise impossible to reach objects.
Combat has always been 'there' in Tomb Raider, generally in the exterminating of animals that would look to make a grave for Ms. Croft. There's occasionally been some human battles but kept at a minimum until Angel of Darkness went overboard on it. In Tomb Raider: Legend there's plenty of battling, but it serves as a breakup to exploring, and generally not very difficult. Lara's default pistols have unlimited ammo, but there's rifles and shotguns lying around off dead enemies, so weapon variety is somewhat smallish. Also there's some grenades lying around for cross-room destruction. Gunplay is decent; not spectacular, and the targeting system needs a little bit of work, as it tends to target enemies far away rather than the one in front of you. The AI isn't very bright either regardless of difficulty level. There's a certain 'Stormtrooper' vibe going on when you watch the enemies shoot at you. However the boss battles tend to be pretty strong; aside from the very first boss fight, each one has a special required tactic in order to win...one doesn't even allow you to damage it, as instead you have to solve a puzzle while avoiding it.
Because of course, puzzles are always the most vital aspect of Tomb Raider. Though not every single level is a tomb, they all require plenty of thought and effort in order to solve them. Most are typical, like hitting switches, using the boxes, and figuring out how to stop traps or in some cases, start them. But in Legend, it's also about figuring out how to reach the puzzles in order to solve them. Many times that grapple gun comes in handy, and even though it tips you off with a nice shiny effect, sometimes they blend right in and thus aren't easy to find. It's not a rare thing to stand there in a huge room and be completely lost until you take some time to look around and piece it together piece by piece. And that's what Tomb Raider is all about. Going along with that, there's also some exploration aside from the main objectives, in the form of rewards. On the 360 they lead to achievements, but even without those, collecting them all in each level unlocks new costumes and other extras. A great deal of them are extremely well hidden and probably won't be found on a normal trek through a stage unless you explore every little nook and cranny.
Not everything is perfect in Tomb Raider: Legend though. The aforementioned combat issue is one thing. Sometimes, the camera can get in the way and block your view of what's going on, leading to a few deaths, but generally just frustration. There's some quick time events like Shenmue and Resident Evil 4, but they're short, easy, and never change from game to game, so if you screw up (not likely) it's all the same again and again. Also, the 2 times Lara hops on a motorcycle, expect boredom, as they're really not much fun because they lack excitement ? there's not many places where you can just hit the gas and go and instead dodge obstacles and kill enemies. Finally, the game ends very quickly and takes the Halo 2 route of leaving you hanging. Sure it's great that finally there's reason to anticipate another Tomb Raider...cliffhangers stink. Yes, there's time trials to complete, plenty of exploring to be had, and the awesome Croft Manor stage where you can freely run around in and solve its own puzzles, but beating the game in 7 hours on the default is a bit of a downer since the previous games usually were in the 15-20 hour range, though indeed, the replay value is very high.
However one must judge a game on what it has rather than what it doesn't have, and thus Tomb Raider: Legend gets high marks because it gets the job done. This is the game Tomb Raider has always needed to be; it's still an adventure game but it's designed like an action game, and an enjoyable one at that; even in those moments where you have to move quick to avoid death, playing the game is a pleasure with few moments of tedium and frustration unless the camera acts up. Crystal Dynamics has taken the reigns and give Eidos good reason to keep the franchise in their hands in the future. It's easy to compare the rebirth of Tomb Raider with the rebirth of Resident Evil; both franchises have been down in the dumps until recently, and while Legend doesn't quite reach the same heights as Resident Evil 4, the fact that TR: Legend is a great game rather than a mediocre one is good enough to consider this series truly back from the dead.
Visually, while this Xbox 360 version of Legend is based on the core PS2 code, Crystal Dynamics has spent plenty of time making this a truly next-generation game from this standpoint. It's a little dark, but that can be solved by fiddling with the options. But the first time you take a gander at a huge temple, with dozens of notable landmarks, great textures, and some beautiful art, you can see how much time was spent making sure this was a true 360 game and not a half-baked port. Lara herself has been given a much-publicized makeover, and looks less like a freaky set of polygons and more like a real, live woman, and along with that comes dozens of cool new animations for all the new moves. Most of the enemies are nondescript and recycled with no memorable features to them. There's not even that many natural enemies, as you see the same jaguar and sometimes a dog but that's about it. There's some problems though; the camera hassles are one, but also the frame-rate dips here and there; not horribly bad but sometimes you can notice the choppiness.
Along with the beefed up story, there's plenty of voice acting to tell the tale, and it's worthy. Lara herself has a very nice and proper British voice, and her buddies Zip and Alistair are equally great; one American and one British, and the trio has plenty of strangely amusing moments, mostly revolving around Lara's penchant for taking risks or their arguing about the reality of the myths presented in the game. Of course, if you die, you can hear Lara screaming to her death; if you like that sort of thing in some disturbing way (and this is someone who got sick enjoyment out of having her jump to death in the original game's St. Francis' Folly level). The dull combat is added to by weak sounding weaponry; a grenade explosion should be loud and brutal, but it sounds like a lawnmower running over a Pepsi can in terms of force, while gunfire sounds like everyone has a semi-silencer equipped. There's a bit more music this time around compared to classic Tomb Raider but it generally exists as a backdrop to the action.