Through its meteoric rise into global pop culture over the past decade, the Tomb Raider series and its *ahem* titular heroine have traveled from the lofty Himalayas to the depths of the ocean. Looking back, it’s obvious now that Core Design and Eidos had absolutely no clue how popular the series would get and where to go with it once it did.
Things quickly expanded, and I’m not just talking about the polygon count of her boobs. Every gimmick, gun and mode of transport was thrown at the player until things got so overwhelming and unrealistic that people stopped caring. Dormant after the alleged death of Lara Croft, her return was to be the PlayStation 2’s next triumph. But an adventure largely bereft of dusty tombs and filled with glitches quickly brought Tomb Raider to the brink—and the movies sure didn’t help, either.
Eidos then turned to their next best in-house team, Crystal Dynamics, and brought Lara Croft co-creator, Toby Gard, back on board to guide the production back to its roots. The results are impressive, and I’m happy to say that Tomb Raider is once again a fun, playable experience. You just know there’s a big “but” coming up.
Back to its roots indeed! Lara is once again squaring off against a power-hungry bitch bent on obtaining real ultimate power via a mythical artifact. The twist this time is that the bitch is her childhood colleague whom she was forced to leave for dead. There’s even a tinge of emotion in the pivotal flashback scene, but the game’s story is largely filled with one-liners between Lara and her sidekicks (the cheeky Brit and the clueless Black Guy).
Unfortunately, the urban environments are back as well, and you’ll spend just as much time “exploring” Yakuza skyscrapers as you will skulking about in tombs. This was detrimental to the glitch-laden Angel of Darkness, but with Legends’ slick gameplay it almost (almost) doesn’t matter where you’re at.
The typical controls (jumping, climbing, sidling and the like) have a familiar yet refined feel and are accompanied by just a few Quick Time events, a la Shenmue. Certain cinematic scenes take away direct control and require well-timed button presses for you to survive. Lara also sports a handy new electromagnetic grapple that lets you latch onto and swing from specific anchors.
Adding more to the gameplay, misaligned jumps require you to quickly hit the Y button or risk falling to your death. Pressing the Y button while moving hand-over-hand or climbing makes Lara move faster. It may only be required for a few time-sensitive scenes, but these are nice touches that let you explore at your own pace. It’s just too bad she doesn’t have a faster run or higher jump, both of which would’ve helped during gunfights.
With the power-mad bitch comes her army of minions, and once the bullets start flying, the gameplay loses much of its refinement and boils down to how many health packs you can find. You see, Lara’s pistols are just accurate enough to hit the broad side of a pyramid. You’ll need to be right on top of these goons to make an impact, and even with a machine gun they seem a little too tough. You’ve got a close-quarters slow-mo move that lets you blast away in mid-air, but with plenty of gunfire and grenades flying between you, it’s more challenging just to reach enemies than it is to kill them.
The targeting system helps keep you focused, but cycling through enemies is a chore, and sometimes the game will lock onto a distant threat instead of the one right next to you. Though rarely seen, I have to give a nod to the return of wild animals. Darting around a corner and running into a wild puma instead of the goons I had expected was one of many surprising moments.
Health packs are graciously plentiful, and though gunfights are more annoying than exciting, they usually give way to expertly crafted exploration and puzzle solving. Yes, there are still block puzzles, but this time around the physics make them feel almost new again. Along with elaborate arcane contraptions you’ll also solve more practical, realistic puzzles. Pushing and pulling is eerily lifelike and using boxes to outsmart crushing and slicing traps continually brings a smile to my face, with an extra smirk of satisfaction thanks to the visuals.
Despite being designed for practically every console, the game looks incredible. Each locale has a ton of visual flare, like thick mist at the base of the Ghana waterfalls and sheets of rain in London. Puffs of debris and dust fly as traps try to crush you; water rushes by in blurring sheets and lighting changes constantly (you’ve even got a flashlight, though it’s more a novelty than an aid). With few action scenes, the game also runs at a constantly smooth framerate, and this time around it’s impossible to wedge the camera inside Lara’s head.
I feel note must be made here of Lara herself. While all the characters (aside from your teammates) look great, special attention has been paid to the star. Redesigned by Toby Gard himself, Lara has a new, more realistic look as opposed to the walking tit-mobile of a caricature she had evolved into. Of course, she’s still got huge, perky breasts and wears far too little clothing to be out in the elements, but she finally looks like a real person (read: supermodel), and her animation remains as silky and sultry as ever. Sound design, too, is top notch with all the crisp sound effects you’d expect and voice acting that stays just above average throughout. The music is fitting as well, and in traditional Tomb Raider form it kicks in at just the right moments.
It’s taken Eidos years to turn the franchise around, but in updating things a lot of its original charm has been lost to the slick modern production. Where progress was once based solely on exploring the world around you, Legend narrows the blinders to a fault. Aside from a handful of lame secret items, the game’s path offers no interesting nooks or diversions to discover; even loose rocks have a specific contextual purpose. And even with unlockable goodies, Croft Manor to explore and a time trial mode, the game is pretty much over after the 8-10 hour story mode.
Yes, Tomb Raider: Legend restores the franchise to playable, enjoyable form, but for fans of the original, this romp is more like watching a new Tomb Raider movie than partaking in a classic Croft adventure.