It's just a job after all, isn't it? Some people deliver the post, I jump over rivers and fight tigers.--Lara Croft
Ten years ago, Tomb Raider changed the landscape of 3D gaming. Its legacy has been one of decreasing relevance, however, and at this point, even a passable game featuring Lara Croft would be a step forward for the franchise. [b]Tomb Raider: Legend[/b] deserves some credit, then, for being exactly that: a title that resurrects the series and offers a brief glimpse at what made the original great. Unfortunately, though, it's too wrapped up in convention to realize the series' full potential.
Tomb Raider made Lara Croft the poster child for a breakthrough genre of technically impressive, fully 3D, third-person action adventure games. Sadly, the increasingly phoned-in sequels that followed, totaling four titles in as many years, left gamers jaded and weary of the series. In 2003, after a nearly three-year hiatus, Lara reappeared in the grittier, more urban-themed Angel of Darkness. Though it aimed to offer the innovation that Tomb Raider fans clamored for, it was roundly vilified for its abandonment of the series' trademark tone, its switch to a frustrating control and camera scheme, and its rushed, bug-filled production.
Tomb Raider's gradual fall from grace didn't diminish its influence, however. Its popular combination of exploration, puzzles, platforming, and basic combat was appropriated, tweaked, refined, and reworked through dozens of later games. Subsequent critically acclaimed releases, like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, God of War, Beyond Good and Evil, and even Ico all drew on obvious Tomb Raider influences. For years, the experience that Tomb Raider offered remained a touchstone for the genre.
So Lara Croft has quite a legacy to contend with. Mercifully, a new developer and another long break appear to have done the series some good. In the hands of Crystal Dynamics and under the tutelage of Lara's original creator, Toby Gard, Legend is, in some respects, a faithful return to Tomb Raider's roots.
Each of the game's brief levels has Lara alternating between climbing, leaping, swimming, or swinging, navigating trap-filled corridors, rearranging blocks and flipping switches, and fighting small bands of enemies. Though its story has Lara making brief forays into urban and industrial locales, for the most part, her adventures are once again confined to tombs and ruins, and the emphasis is primarily on puzzles and platforming. Every so often a cutscene is tossed in to advance the plot, which follows Lara as she collects a group of mysterious artifacts with ties to pivotal events in her past.
In Legend, the ever-capable Lara comes equipped with a flashlight, zoomable binoculars, a retractable grappling cable, and a handful of grenades. As usual, she's packing dual thigh-holstered semi-automatics, but she can also pick up a few other firearms from fallen enemies, including a shotgun, an automatic rifle, and a grenade launcher. She's always got her pistols, but can only carry one other weapon. Unlike in the original games, she doesn't automatically aim at the closest enemy whenever her weapons are drawn, but a lock-on button provides the same effect.
Once in a while Lara encounters hostile wildlife, but the vast majority of her foes are generic, unsophisticated henchmen. They're a fairly predictable, unthreatening bunch, with lousy marksmanship but an annoying fondness for grenades. Lara's damage is represented by a traditional health meter, which she can refill with health packs collected from dead guys. The game encourages you to target destructible parts of the environment and experiment with melee and other tactics, but most of the time it's just as effective to simply dodge grenade blasts while you hold down the trigger and lock Lara's aim on whoever's closest.
Legend brings the Tomb Raider series up to the standards of the genre it helped create, and in the process, it borrows liberally from other games: Metroid's scan visor, Resident Evil 4's cutscene mini-games, Half-Life 2's physics-based puzzles, Max Payne's bullet-time, and even Black's location-based destruction all make appearances, in various but unimpressive forms. Particularly notable is the evidence of the ongoing design convergence between the Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia franchises. Unfortunately, unlike the latter, which brought numerous unique features to the genre with The Sands of Time, Legend offers little refinement or creativity. Lara climbs the same walls, shimmies along the same ledges, and swings from the exact same bars as the Prince, and despite the addition of a simple exercise in timed button presses that allows her to do all of the above with increased speed, much of Legend's platforming feels like a less sophisticated version of the Sands of Time.
Despite this conservative, copycat approach, Legend is still a decently made game, and it manages, by a narrow margin, to fulfill the basic Tomb Raider promise. The locations are adequately exotic, the ancient relics are suitably supernatural, and the puzzles and platforming are just complex and challenging enough to keep things interesting. Combat is mildly entertaining, and a handful of obligatory by-the-numbers boss battles and vehicle sequences offer some variety. The visuals, writing, voice acting, and overall production values are admittedly all up to current gaming standards. In short, Legend is suitably competent in nearly every respect, but there just isn't much that makes the game memorable.
Lara Croft is Tomb Raider's defining feature, and her presence is probably the single thing that saves Legend from mediocrity. Tenacious, intelligent, inquisitive, and even ruthless, she brings an undeniably appealing spark to the game. Despite the fact that she's little more than a caricature, with her action-hero one-liners and cheesecake figure, Lara remains an engaging hero, and it's in the preservation of her personality that Crystal Dynamics' conservative approach is most wisely applied.
Visually, Lara retains much of her abstract appearance, but she's more subtly and believably animated than ever before. She still has her famous physique, of course, though her more prominent polygons have been toned down in favor of a more natural look. As in past titles (and the marketing campaign that accompanied its release) Legend's developers are not above gratuitous camera angles and provocative outfits, ensuring that Lara, admirable yet exploited, remains one of gaming's more controversial female characters.
The most notable feature of Lara's physicality isn't her curvaceousness, though; it's her athleticism. Lara is capable of amazing things. She's breathtakingly adept, and guiding her across cliffsides and over bottomless chasms is a lot of fun. Visually, she climbs, leaps, swings, and moves like the Lara of previous titles, but with a finesse, complexity, and responsiveness befitting a modern platforming character. It's a pity that she's confined to a game that has her performing such tedious, mundane tasks as stacking crates with a forklift to reach ventilation grates, or shoving boxes onto switchplates to open doors.
Legend's relentlessly linear storyline can easily be completed in about six hours. There's a secret-filled Croft Manor level for Lara to explore, but unless you're especially keen on trinket-collecting and trivial unlockables, there's not much reason to spend more time with the title. Ultimately, there's just barely enough content in Legends to allow Crystal Dynamics to assert that they've completed a bonafide game, and then set the stage for the inevitable sequel.
Legend's limited content isn't accounted for in its price, but at present, it's still selling well, which speaks convincingly to the allure of the franchise, regardless of Legend's lack of innovation. It also speaks, unfortunately, to the value of not taking risks in favor of creating a familiar experience.
Legend is an enjoyable game, but unlike the original Tomb Raider, or many of the games it inspired, it does little to advance the genre, series, or medium. Instead, it merely keeps pace, bringing the franchise in line with current expectations. In and of itself, that's not a terrible tragedy, but I wonder, where will Lara be in five years? Sadly, she appears perfectly poised to feature in a series of annual releases that will inevitably wring the charm from the franchise, just like they did a decade ago. We'd better enjoy our six hours with Lara, because it might be the only quality time we get.