Rekindling an old flame.
Believe it or not, it was almost ten years ago that Lara Croft first vaulted her way into our hearts. Her Barbie figure and posh British accent were nice, but it was her nimble, acrobatic grace and Annie Oakley pistol that really made her famous. And lost in those impressive tatas were the real stars in Lara’s debut: the tombs she raided. These fantastic architectural spaces helped Tomb Raider invent a new genre of third-person 3D games with interactive environments. In 1996, it marked a quantum leap forward in game design. It was brilliant, revolutionary, and one of the easiest “A” grades we ever awarded.
[image1]Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. Eidos became obsessed with making a celebrity out of Lara rather than creating a series of good games. Just like a real Hollywood actress, her name started getting top-billing, her boobs got bigger and bigger and they tried to cover up her age with extreme makeup. Tombs disappeared in favor of oil derricks while raiding gave way to gunplay.
Tomb Raider: Legend marks the first time we get a new developer’s take on the series. Crystal Dynamics, best known for Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver lines, has done a decent job steering Lara back towards her roots, but doesn’t quite get all the way back to the source.
This time around, the discovery of a strange relic prompts Lara to delve into her past, where she uncovers a link between the disappearance of her mother and the death of a friend. It’s not Shakespeare, but it gets Lara back in the tombs where she belongs.
With some of the most ambitious levels since the original game, the huge temples our heroine raids are beautiful and inspiring. Solving their riddles never feels like a chore, because just exploring them is a reward in itself, so much so that when you get to the ends of the best ones, you’ll find yourself disappointed that you have to leave.
Sadly, getting to said ends doesn’t take long because the tombs are still completely linear, a fact made abundantly clear since the puzzles and obstacles between you and your treasures are so easy to solve. You move objects onto switches, find the right levers, and figure out how to climb up to the top of this or that giant chamber. Needless to say, there’s room for improvement. Also, with all her skills, Lara should probably be able to climb something in more than just one way, especially when she gets stymied by barriers that hardly look impassable.
[image2]Part of the fun of climbing and flipping through these environments are the climbing and flipping mechanics themselves. Lara has always been a joy to control thanks to the ease with which she performs her graceful acrobatics, and Legend is no exception. Flipping, jumping, swinging, twisting and vaulting are as simple as not falling off a log. Oddly, Lara’s ability to “chimney,” a staple of rock climbing, has gone missing. Swimming, on the other hand, is as easy as drowning, which will happen to you often enough. In a bizarre control scheme, Lara swims like a submarine. Moving the control stick only moves her in a flat plane, while you need to use unlikely face buttons to control her ascent and decent.
Lara can perform any of her fancy moves while simultaneously shooting, but the gunplay is a little thin. If you lock-on, shoot, and jump around, you’ll never meet your match in a gun fight. You'll certainly meet plenty of wannabes, though, because there are a ton of bad guys. That's not a great combo. Besides, what are all these dudes doing in these secluded tombs? It just took you 45 minutes of solving puzzles and dodging traps to get there...did they just waltz in the back door? Any Indiana Jones fan will tell you that the bad guys wait outside the tomb so they can take your hard-earned artifacts without breaking a sweat or a henchman’s back.
The game really falls apart when it comes to the few motorcycle levels. With bad control, bad physics, and just plain old bad gameplay, this stuff should have been cut from the game entirely.
Which, unfortunately, would have shortened an already short game. It will take a decent gamer only about 10-12 hours until they're done with the tomb tour, at which point Lara suddenly becomes an awkward date. With no multiplayer, there’s little left to do or say other than explore the game’s huge number of unlockables, mostly in the form of new outfits and game art.
[image3] The best of these is Croft Manor, which is unlocked when you beat the first level. While less interesting than an ancient tomb, Lara’s mansion has plenty of secrets to uncover in any order you choose because it isn’t linear. As you gain various abilities and tools in your tomb raidings, you’ll be able to come back to the manor and access new areas. It’s a good addition.
Much like her gameplay, Lara looks very much the same, with a cartoonish silhouette, features and lips that make even Angelina Jolie’s pale by comparison. The Xbox version runs the smoothest, while the PS2 and Xbox 360 versions tend to stutter a bit when you pan the camera around. The 360 version is clearly the sharpest of the bunch with some especially nice water effects, but it is also clearly a port of the last-gen version, with some obviously recycled textures. It looks inconsistent, whereas the textures of the last-gen versions at least match.
The sound is well done, if occasionally irritating. Lara still sports her sexy upper-class accent, the voice actors for her friends and enemies are capable enough, and the environmental noises are spot-on. The music is usually muted, allowing you to explore those awesome tombs in peace… almost. It seems Lara suffers from bad cell phone etiquette, and her friends back at the mansion are always on her headset. Nothing spoils the mood of discovering a hundred-foot tall ancient statue as having some jerk blurt in your ear “Whoa! Cool!” I know it’s cool. I’m looking right at it.
Ten years later, Lara’s not showing her age at all…but while my aunt Sadie loves to hear that, in this case it’s not entirely a compliment. Tomb Raider: Legend does bring back many of the things that made the original such a great game, but it also fails to improve on them in any significant way. Feel free to take Lara out for the weekend, but don’t go looking for a long-term relationship.