Tomb Raider: Legend

It's just a job after all, isn't it? Some people deliver the post, I jump over rivers and fight tigers.--Lara Croft

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tomb Raider: Legend
Official Site
Released April 2006 (PC, PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos Interactive

Comments

I have never understood the Tomb Raider mania. At first I thought it was just the boobies, as I didn't find Lara attractive at all. But it was too damn popular for too long to be just that (those).

It reminds me of the games I played when I was 8 - 10 years old. By modern standards they often absolutely stink, and a contemporary equivalent would never get a second chance. But when you're young you just don't care, and keep on playing. I still think Tomb Raider was that game for many: lousy controls, lousy camera, but players were too mesmerized by the shiny new 3Dfx/PS1 graphics and some other big assets to stop playing, and got over it.

Or maybe I'm just rambling. Great review, Fly.

The simple appeal for me, a teenager at the time, could be distilled to this formula: Indiana Jones + guns. I honestly didn't care about the gender issue.

6 hours?

It took me 15 and I loved every minute of it. Definitely my kind of game. I like diversity and with the platforming, puzzles, driving, interactive cut-scenes à la RE4, gunplay and fighting this game delivered. Gameplay mechanics and controls were spot on and there was a lot of attention to detail all across the game, from the subtleties in Lara's animations to the way the environment reacts to you. The puzzles actually required more than 500ms of thinking and made a great use of physics, unlike a lot of games where it's only there for show.

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.

I don't understand this. There isn't much reason to complete this level as much as the other levels because...? You were paid to complete the others or something? Sure there isn't much of a cinematic and the end but some of the better puzzles and platforming are in this one.

Sure I like innovation just like the next guy but I don't mind a game that lacks in that department if it's successful at what it tries to accomplish, and I think this game does that flawlessly.

Got to agreen with Green on this one. The game certainly doesn't push the envelope, but Tomb Raider: Legends is exactly what it claims to be. The fluidity of the animation, beautiful environments, and fun puzzles made this the most fun I've had with Lara since her debut.

Mr.Green wrote:

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.

I don't understand this. There isn't much reason to complete this level as much as the other levels because...? You were paid to complete the others or something? Sure there isn't much of a cinematic and the end but some of the better puzzles and platforming are in this one.

Sure I like innovation just like the next guy but I don't mind a game that lacks in that department if it's successful at what it tries to accomplish, and I think this game does that flawlessly.[/quote]

The Manor level struck me as an almost throwaway add-on, and I would have much preferred more content that actually advanced the story. I didn't think it was that impressive.

I'm not saying Legends was a bad game. I wouldn't by any means describe it as flawless, but I did enjoy it. It just gave me a very been there, done that feeling that I don't think bodes well for the future of the series. I understand why the developers took such a cautious, conservative approach, especially after the Angel of Darkness fiasco, but I think that they passed up a golden opportunity to really advance the franchise.

The Manor level stuck me as an almost throwaway add-on, and I would have much preferred more content that actually advanced the story. I didn't think it was that impressive.

Well yeah, The Story. Fair enough, but I have to admit that I don't really play games for their stories, I have movies and books for that, so you really have to consider that whenever you hear me rambling about a game. I thought that adding this big open-ended level you can go to at any time was pretty innovative actually, and like I said some of the harder platforming elements and some of the most clever puzzles are in this level, but I'm not sure how much of that you had time to play, much less solve in 6 hours.

Don't get me wrong, I think you wrote a nice review and I respect your opinion. It's just that your completely wrong and I thought I'd let you know.

Fair enough.

The six hours figure cited in the review applies to the story only. I spent maybe an additional hour in Croft Manor. I could have added more time to the story portion if I'd made an effort to collect more of the hidden trinkets, but as implied in the review, I'm not much of a collector.

Mr. Green's right. The Manor is the best level. I spent two of my eight hours there. This speaks volumes about how unnecessary combat is in these games. Especially when the combat is so boring, just like in PoP.

While I'm complaining, why are context sensivitive RE4 moments popping up that force me to hit the correct button to jump, grapple, and do other things that the standard control scheme is completely capable of doing? This confuses me to no end. The purpose of these moments in RE4 was to allow Leon to perform actions that the controller was not set up for. It makes sense. So in Tomb Raider, why not just let me use the jump button to jump off the falling block?

booty wrote:

The simple appeal for me, a teenager at the time, could be distilled to this formula: Indiana Jones + guns. I honestly didn't care about the gender issue.

I have to agree wholeheartedly (except I wasn't a teenager at the time). Her gender (or physique) didn't matter; it was the exploration aspect of it, the new use of 3d, the Indiana Jones feel (despite Lucas Arts early attempts with some good adventure games, there was no exploration feel to them). I still remember how wowed I was watching Lara run down that first icy corridor after my Voodoo card was installed (I got it just for that game, and waited to really start the game until I had the card).

Legends sounds interesting, and if its favorably compared to the original, that's good enough for me. Innovation can come later, or from another game. Still, I'll wait until the price drops considerably before buying 6-15hrs worth of gameplay.

This speaks volumes about how unnecessary combat is in these games. Especially when the combat is so boring, just like in PoP.

The problem with the combat in this one, to me at least, was that it was a bit on the easy side. There were mechanics you could use to make it interesting but you weren't required to. I liked running up to them then jump over them and either kick or jump again to trigger the slow-mo and then fill them with bullets while doing a backflip. There were a few other moves like that you could pull off but you could also simply hold the lock-on trigger and shoot them, and that is boring. Also, I think the combat changes the pace a little and I like that as well.

While I'm complaining, why are context sensivitive RE4 moments popping up that force me to hit the correct button to jump, grapple, and do other things that the standard control scheme is completely capable of doing? This confuses me to no end. The purpose of these moments in RE4 was to allow Leon to perform actions that the controller was not set up for. It makes sense. So in Tomb Raider, why not just let me use the jump button to jump off the falling block?

It did use the button that was the closest to the action she had to perform. It made you hit A when she had to jump, X when she had to use the grapple, B when she had to dodge something or crouch and Y when she had to shoot on something.

Mr.Green wrote:

It did use the button that was the closest to the action she had to perform. It made you hit A when she had to jump, X when she had to use the grapple, B when she had to dodge something or crouch and Y when she had to shoot on something.

It's not that the controls during these sequences bother me, its the sequences themselves. For the most part she is doing things she is capable of without a special cutscene. When they take the control away from the player to start up the Dragon's Lair mode I'd much rather tackle the same pitfalls like I did the rest of the level, with all my controls intact.

I don't know how to express this. Dragon's Lair is not fun.

It's an interactive cutscene but it's still a cutscene and they can't leave the control to the player. Dragon Lair was 20 years ago and the whole game was made of this. Of course this is fun in small doses, and I think it makes the cutscenes more interesting than passive ones.

The Fly wrote:

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.

To be fair, it is not like those games were the first to come up with the ideas that you mentioned. The only one that I would consider original is Metroids scan visor. The original tomb Raider had physics-based puzzles. If I remember correctly Laura always filled chasms to raise floating bridges.

Nevertheless this is the first tomb raider game I have played through since the original. I thought it was a very enjoyable game with some minor camera related control issues.

How about aiming issues, especially with the serpent? I feel like bashing my controller through the wall doing this crap.

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MaxShrek wrote:

How about aiming issues, especially with the serpent? I feel like bashing my controller through the wall doing this crap.

Aiming issues?

The serpent boss fight was easily yhe worst of the game but everything else I felt played quite well.

I still fondly remember Tomb Raider 1, though none of the other ones every kept my attention and I stopped buying them after TR2.

I think the magic of the first one was not Lara, but the fact that the game focused on exploring tombs, a theme that was later watered down in some of the followups with their city street and building locations. Though the series may have stagnated, I'm pretty sure TR1 was the first game to let me fight a towering 3D T-rex and it was a memorable moment.

I have TR: Legends awaiting a bit of attention. After some many years away from the series, I'm hoping that it brings back some of the original's magic.