Tomb Raider: Legend

Year: 2006
Platform: Xbox, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Genre: Action/adventure
Review Date: 9/28/06
Rating: ****

While I'm still a bit bitter about the way Eidos treated Core Design after the under-appreciated "Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness" (2003) came out, Crystal Dynamics has managed to rescue and revive the troubled franchise with stunning results. They've effectively taken all of the fun aspects of the previous games and distilled them into a compact and elegantly simple gaming experience. "Tomb Raider: Legend" effectively hits the restart button on the series, and while the game is instantly familiar on the surface, the established history and continuity has been disregarded and re-invented. Depending on your perspective, this could be good or bad. I stopped caring about Lara's history after "Tomb Raider 2" (1997), and even though I enjoyed "Angel Of Darkness," I didn't like the treatment of Lara's character and the direction the series was going. "Legend" brings back the Lara that we all fell in love with in the first place - a beautiful, smart, and resourceful archeologist with admiration and respect for history, as well as a tough as nails adventurer who can handle herself quite well in a firefight. While she can be a bit rough and extreme at times, she's always likable, engaging, and someone that you can identify with and truly care for. "Angel Of Darkness" had the unfortunate affect of alienating Lara from her core audience with her brooding and vengeful persona.

In Lara's new rewritten history, her mother was killed in Nepal after a plane crash. Her father spent his final years researching unorthodox and unpopular theories, convinced that his wife was still alive somewhere. Lara got the archeology bug sometime in her teens, and now spends her time as a freelance globe-trotting adventurer with the aid of her vast family inheritance. The game begins in Bolivia as Lara is tracking down an ancient stone dais, and runs into some heavily armed competition in the form of an American named James Rutland. He drops some clues about one of Lara's former colleagues, which leads her on an incredible journey to discover and understand the events behind her mother's death.

The first thing you notice about the game is how incredibly beautiful it looks. The difference in presentation between "Legend" and "Angel Of Darkness" is astonishing, even though they were both made for the same generation of hardware. Lara herself has been re-imagined a bit and has a much more athletic build as well as a more refined look. She looks great and her wardrobe is wonderful, although her breasts continue to be ridiculous. Lara's character animations are superb and her idle cycles are delightful. Everything about her presentation in this game is fun and exciting, and her character is a sheer joy to play. The voice acting is extremely good, and Keeley Hawes really brings Lara to life with her incredible performance. To compliment her vocal emoting, the animators have also done a great job with Lara's body language, which very effectively conveys wonder, anger, fear, sadness, charm, sophistication, and environmental reactions. The storytelling is overall very good, and the game ends with one of the most emotionally intense climaxes I've seen. Very impressive.

Unfortunately, the second thing you notice about the game is Lara's two annoying sidekicks, Zip and Alistair. They're constantly chattering over Lara's headset and making irritating and inappropriate comments. While they do offer some good clues and advice from time to time, I really wish they could be turned off or tuned out. Perhaps a "speak only when spoken to" policy would work, like the help system in "Primal" (2003). Thankfully, they become less chatty as the game proceeds, and even Lara gets annoyed by their witticisms at times. Another unfortunate aspect about these guys is that even when they have something useful to say, the background audio usually drowns them out (like during a boss battle, for instance).

As far as gameplay goes, "Legend" is extremely streamlined, bringing back memories of the original "Tomb Raider" (1996). There's no inventory screen, and all of Lara's accessories can be accessed by a single press on the D-pad. This keeps the action uninterrupted and the screen free from clutter, and my only complaint would be that it's too easy to accidentally use health items. Speaking of health packs, Lara can only carry three at a time. At first I was very angry with this limitation, since I tend to hoard health packs and in the past I've needed to have at least twenty in reserve to deal with various challenges. Fortunately, the game's moderately easy difficulty eliminates the need for such rationing, and it's relatively simple to keep Lara out of harm's way. While you can't save your progress at arbitrary times, an abundant checkpoint system ensures that you won't have to rewind too far in case you take a bad step. I applaud the difficulty level of the game, which makes it accessible to new players and allows people to proceed at their own pace. I like to take my time and thoroughly explore the splendor of my surroundings, and "Legend" allows you to do that without being penalized. The gameplay eliminates the frustration and desperation of the earlier games, and you'll never have to race the clock, backtrack huge levels, or get stuck in a level and not know what to do. While I kind of miss some of those huge and complicated levels of yesteryear, I certainly don't miss the anger and frustration they caused me.

While most of the game involves running and jumping, there are a couple of motorcycle levels that mix up the action a bit. They are fast, fun, and relatively simple, but not particularly compelling. Additionally, fans of "Shenmue" (1999) will be delighted that Lara gets to drive a forklift through one level. At one point, Lara wanders through a tacky King Arthur tourist attraction, which is very reminiscent of the "chamber of horrors" attraction in "Silent Hill 3" (2003). The game also takes some gameplay and presentation tips from "Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time" (2003) and "God Of War" (2005). The music score has more of a new age feel to it than previous TR games, but it sets the tone appropriately and nicely complements the pace of the action.

Combat is simple and straight-forward, and definitely secondary to exploration and puzzle solving. Lara has her signature infinite ammo twin pistols back, which is pretty much all you'll ever need. Some of the other weapons are pretty neat, but have very little advantage over her default pistols. Thankfully, Lara has very few encounters with aggressive wildlife, so you're not required to indiscriminately slaughter everything that moves. Jaguars and leopards are the only animal threats that Lara has to contend with, and I was surprised that no Yeti's or mummies showed up. The only complaint I have about the combat is that Lara's silhouette often completely obscures any targets that she's locked onto, which makes shooting a bit frustrating and unsatisfying since you can't tell if she's hitting anything.

The difficulty peaks about two thirds of the way through the game, but then surprisingly ramps back down in the final quarter. The only trouble I had was with a boss monster that required the use of Lara's grappling hook. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the hook to connect, which caused me a couple hours of intense frustration and controller accusations. Speaking of controllers, I personally prefer playing with "The Duke" on the Xbox, but while playing this game I discovered that it's impossible for me to press up or down on the D-pad without left also registering. Because of that, I had to switch to the S controller for the remainder of the game. (this might explain some of the problems I have with high precision fighting games...)

Getting back to basics, Croft Manor also makes its triumphant return to the series. While it's not as challenging and completely over-the-top as her mansion in "Tomb Raider 3" (1998), it still provides a wonderful distraction and has a number of delightful secrets to discover. Other secrets and unlockables include alternate outfits, cheat codes, production content, and access to the game's cinematic cut scenes. Unlocking these gives the game some replay value and provides a greater challenge. While most people complained that the game was too easy and too short, I found it to be just about right for someone with my skill level and attention span. I tend to lose interest after twenty hours of gameplay, and "Legend" took me about sixteen hours to finish.

Overall, "Tomb Raider: Legend" is an excellent and enjoyable game with an utterly delightful protagonist. It refines and redefines the core gameplay of the series while faithfully honoring and respecting its spirit. For the first time since "Tomb Raider 2," I'm actually looking forward to the next chapter in Lara Croft's adventures.

Memorable quote: "From this moment on, consider your every breath a gift from me."