Review: Gaming's most famous boobs ? er, adventurer ? bounces back beautifully.
Poor Lara Croft. Once the darling of the gaming world, her bright shining star slowly lost its luster thanks to painfully deteriorating sequels (culminating in the forgettable Angel of Darkness) and two tepid movies. With Lara barely hanging onto life support, publisher Eidos had to take radical steps to revive the franchise. As a result, Lara's creator Core was given the boot (a move that was long overdue) and the reins were handed over to Crystal Dynamics, developer of the famed Legacy of Kain series. Crystal Dynamics was in a very unenviable position; they essentially had only one chance to try and win back a jaded and skeptical fanbase, otherwise the likelihood of Lara being forever buried in her beloved tombs was high indeed. So did they do it?
Three words: Lara's back, baby. Boo-yah!
I'm happy to report that Tomb Raider: Legend has not only revived the franchise with resounding success, but is also one of the best in the series. It gets back to the basics of what made Lara's adventures so fun in the first place ? raiding tombs, exploring exotic locales and giving gamers an action adventure to remember. This is all thanks to Crystal Dynamics' careful analysis of the series, where they obviously did their homework and tossed the bad stuff while enhancing the good.
The first and most obvious improvement is with the graphics. While not the prettiest game on the Xbox, it still looks darn impressive with nice water effects and highly detailed distinct map designs (in contrast to the old ?every tomb is made of blue blocks? design). Lara especially looks incredible; she still has Barbie-like proportions but this has been toned down somewhat to make her appear more realistic. Sadly, this means her boobs have shrunk slightly (boo!) but they're still quite, um, prominent. Most impressive is the level of character detail; there is nary a sharp angle on her and you can clearly see the buckles on her belt and backpack, the creases in her clothes and well-defined muscles. Her hair moves realistically and her skin glistens whenever she gets wet. She doesn't look quite as good as the Dead or Alive ladies but she wouldn't look out of place mingling with them either.
Lara's obviously been hitting the gym because her repertoire of acrobatic moves has improved substantially, coupled with fluid and realistic animation. She can perform a slow ? and dare I say it, sexy ? handstand back flip when climbing up from a ledge, along with a variety of graceful flips, rolls and tumbles that would impress an Olympic gymnast. Most of these new moves are more aesthetic than practical but it's certainly entertaining to watch her bounce around like a Cirque du Soleil performer on crack.
Her more useful moves include creeping hand-over-hand on precariously narrow ledges, leaping across large gaps, swinging like a gymnast around horizontal poles, jumping from rope to rope, and even leaping from one fragile ice stalactite to another. You quickly learn to appreciate her athleticism because most of the game is spent jumping, climbing or leaping across one hazard or another ? in other words, doing all the cool acrobatic things Lara is known for.
Thankfully, the controls have been dramatically improved and are a lot smoother and more intuitive. The clunky ?grid? system of Angel of Darkness is toast; now, all you have to do is run and jump rather than fiddle with getting into the proper position. Her swimming controls are also much better, making underwater dives something to look forward to rather than dread.
Crystal Dynamics also breathes new life into the classic exploration and puzzle solving gameplay. Exploring the huge maps and peaking into every crack and crevice is not only fun, but rewarding as well. Each level is filled with several treasures that unlock bonus content like character bios, concept art, new outfits, pistol upgrades and so on.
The inane puzzles of the past are mercifully gone, so you won't have to endure that ridiculous ?find a switch to open a door way the hell on the other side of the map? nonsense. Everything you need to solve a puzzle is in the same room, so it's just a matter of figuring out what you're supposed to do. The fun puzzles are clever, intuitive and are all physics-based, which means you might have to move a crate to climb up onto a ledge, jump to a pole, swing onto a rope, and grab a lever that pulls down with your weight, for example. Some puzzles might have you grating your teeth in frustration but once you figure it out, you will enjoy that ?eureka!? moment of discovery that motivates you to find the next one as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, you have some new tricks to help you solve the puzzles. Lara is equipped with the most modern technology, including a wireless headset to communicate with her team, a bright LED flashlight and a pair of binoculars with R.A.D., or Remote Analysis and Display mode. By using R.A.D., interactive objects are highlighted and identified as breakable, explosive, moveable or a mechanism; and since interactive objects are required to solve a puzzle or indicate where you need to go, this is a huge asset. R.A.D. mode also works like night vision, a very useful tool to locate the ledges, poles and ropes you will need to traverse dark underground tombs. And if you are stuck on a ledge with no idea where to go, Lara herself often gives you hint by turning her head to look at another nearby object she can grab onto.
Another handy piece of equipment is your Magnetic Grapple, a Batman-like grappling cable that attaches to interactive metallic objects. You can use the grapple to pull objects towards you (like a metal raft) or to hook onto something so you can swing across a hazard.
Despite all of the jumping, climbing and swinging, it just wouldn't be Tomb Raider without blowing away some evil grave-robbing ass. There is much less combat in Legend than in previous games, but there's still plenty to satisfy the most die-hard fan. Enemies are mainly human, with a small sprinkling of animals. Speaking of which, you can now expect realistic animals attacking you, so you won't have to contend with dinosaurs or other silly B-grade movie monsters lurking in the dark. The new target lock system works great, allowing Lara to strafe and dodge while remaining locked onto an enemy. Her new moves also allow her to perform melee attacks like slide kicks (which knocks baddies down) and jumping off of enemies' heads, which stuns them and activates a brief bullet-time mode where the action slows down and Lara's damage level increases.
In addition to her trusty dual pistols, Lara can pick up and use any weapon, including SMG's, assault rifles and a grenade launcher. She can also toss grenades but their bounciness makes accurate throws more of a crapshoot than anything else (this despite the target lock system). As well, the environments usually have interactive objects that she can shoot to help thin out the crowd. For example, at one point you can shoot a stone pillar that collapses and crushes nearby enemies; at other times, you can blast the requisite explosive barrel for a less elegant but equally effective result.
There are also extended sequences where Lara zips along on a motorcycle, blasting enemies on bikes and trucks while avoiding ugly collisions with trees and rocks. These sequences are quite exciting ? especially when you come across a ramp and catch major air ? although the motorcycle handling is a bit twitchy.
But enough of the gameplay; what of the story? The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks that helps explain what motivated Lara to become the Tomb Raider. Along the way she meets with some nasty enemies and even nastier boss fights. The story unfolds like a summer blockbuster and grabs your interest, thanks mainly to the excellent voice acting led by British actress Keeley Hawes as Lara. Unlike most games, there is not a bad performance to be found, so kudos to the cast for their outstanding work.
One cool and unexpected thing about the cutscenes is that they are interactive. During certain cutscenes, an icon will pop up on the screen corresponding to a face button on your controller. Hit the button in time and Lara will perform an action to avoid an unpleasant situation; take too long or hit the wrong button and you will have the morbid pleasure of watching Lara meet a violent and painful demise. The first time this happened I was caught completely off guard and Lara ended up getting smooshed. Oops. It can also be difficult to tell when cutscenes end and the game starts up again, which can leave you vulnerable to attacks. So needless to say, you need to pay attention at all times.
The story takes Lara all over the globe, ranging from the lush jungles of South America and Africa to the harsh tundra of Kazakhstan. The great looking environments are all distinct with their own unique designs and are absolutely huge
, streaming in real-time like Grand Theft Auto with no loading pauses. The most impressive level is Nepal, where you start on a small outcropping and must work your way across fragile ice ledges and large yawning crevasses. After reaching a high point, I looked back to where I started and saw that it was now nothing but a tiny postage stamp hundreds of feet below me. Looking around, I saw beautiful snow covered mountains for what seemed like miles ? a very nice effect that not only makes you feel as if you are actually there, but impresses you with the sheer scale of the map.
If there is one glaring fault about the game, it has to be its short length. The eight levels will only take you about 12 hours to complete, half that time if you don't bother looking for the hidden treasures. Of course, quality is always better than quantity and on that front, Crystal Dynamics probably made the right choice by not over-extending Lara's welcome.
To help enhance replayability, gamers are challenged to find all of the hidden treasures and complete the Time Trials, where they must finish the levels within a certain time limit to unlock more bonus content. Gamers can also explore Lara's massive mansion, which is filled with hidden treasures, secret passages and challenging puzzles. Her exercise room in particular will have you working your brain in overtime as you try to figure out how to reach the treasures teasingly just out of reach. Exploring Croft Manor is surprisingly challenging and just as fun as the rest of the game ? except that you don't have to worry about falling to your death or avoiding bullets.
The game's other shortcomings are minor but notable. Lara runs way too slow; it's more of a lazy jog than a run. Most of the time this doesn't pose a problem but in certain boss fights, her sluggish speed makes things more difficult than they should be. Her flashlight also has the annoying habit of winking out after a couple of minutes, where it requires about 10 seconds to recharge. Though not nearly as bad as Master Chief's useless two-second flashlight, it is still a needless annoyance that distracts from the enjoyable gameplay; why not just have a flashlight that stays on all the time? Lara also seems to be a ventriloquist because her mouth doesn't move when she's talking in-game.
The camera is a vast improvement over the previous edition but it can still be a source of frustration at times. Most of the time you have full freedom to rotate the camera to any angle you like (and some angles are better than others to highlight some, uh, interesting graphical features) but when you are hanging off a ledge, camera movements suddenly become severely restricted. As a result, you often can't see where you're supposed to go and although Lara sometimes gives you a hint by looking in the right direction, other times she doesn't, leaving you guessing and being forced to make a leap of faith.
And despite the fun gameplay and valiant attempts to enhance replayability, this is really not something you'll play more than a few times ? and only then if you absolutely must unlock everything. You'll thoroughly enjoy it while it lasts, but once you're done there's really little incentive to pick it up again.