It is hard to fathom that our lovely Lara Croft is pushing ten years. Most of you may remember her first outing back in 1996 on the original Playstation console, alongside Shigeru Miyamoto’s classic Mario 64, Tomb Raider really redefined the 3D genre with massive levels and brilliant camera work. Unfortunately ever since then the games have gotten progressively worse; in fact TR publisher Eidos actually fired the original designer Core after Lara’s last title Angel of Darkness for the PS2. Taking the reigns now is Legacy of Kain developer Crystal Dynamics who really seem to have a knack for creating truly atmospheric levels and great camera work. Have they returned Lara to her glory days or simply added another tragedy in the Tomb Raider lineage? Read on to find out why Eidos’ decision to replace Core has paid off in spades.
For starters new designer Crystal D spent over a year researching the original series and listening to its fans about what made the series so damn good in the first place. They even went as far as to bring aboard original TR designer Toby Gard as a consultant. You may remember him from his last title for Xbox Galleon. Obviously Crystal D came to the realization that fans wanted massive areas to explore, tons of puzzles to solve, great story, oh and of course the ability to make Lara perform fantastic acrobatic maneuvers without having to struggle with her tank-like control scheme. The end result is quite possibly the finest game crafted by the California based studio and easily the best and most definitive TR game to date.
The biggest task by far was taking the invisible grid gameplay and revamping it to make Lara’s movement more fluid. Crystal D has done an amazing job of taking the core design (no pun intended) and crafting a more responsive control scheme while still retaining that TR feel. Executing jumps and dainty maneuvers no longer feel like a task nor are you required to perform perfectly times three-step jumps that plagued the previous titles. Yes the game is more forgiving this time around, in fact it border lines a bit on the easy side compared to previous titles, but the end result is worth it because of the much improved control scheme. Lara also has a bevy of new moves she can perform, for instance tapping the jump button twice will cause her to flip forward, and if you continue to press the button in succession she will break into a forward somersault motion. This is also possible with her new dodge button that doubles as a sort of stealth mode when not moving. The only downside here is that it is assigned to a face button so camera movement in stealth mode can be a pain.
The combat has also been given a much needed face lift. You can now lock-on to enemies by simply pulling the left trigger. You can even cycle between several targets by flicking the right thumb stick in the desired direction. This makes taking out enemies much more enjoyable than previous games, which is good considering Legend certainly has a lot more gunplay then any title in the past. Lara also has access to several weapons; in fact she can confiscate any weapon that an enemy leaves behind. Add this to grenades and you have one explosive woman ready for action. There are also several moves she can perform when engaging in combat, for instance you can launch yourself off an enemy’s head and go into a pseudo Matrix style slow-mo and take out several enemies before you even hit the ground. There are also several hand-to-hand moves and of course the grappling hook which you can use to bring enemies down to your level.
Speaking of the grappling hook this is one of the largest new additions to the franchise. It adds an entirely new element to the overall game. Lara can use it to bring platforms closer to her, grab enemies and bring them within range of melee attacks, and even grapple certain environmental object to remove or simply toss them out of the way. This adds an entirely new layer to the puzzle elements as well, I don’t know how many times I got stuck in a puzzle only to realize that I simply needed to grapple a certain object. It is a nice addition and Crystal D has implemented it well into the mix.
The entire game spans a massive eight levels all unique in their own way, from the abandoned King Arthur’s Tomb amusement park to the rooftops of Tokyo the level design is damn near flawless. You will find many familiar indoor and outdoor levels all with incredible environmental effects and vibrant attention to detail, especially in the Xbox 360 version. The water is simply stunning and when Lara surfaces from it she actually looks like she is soaked. It’s the smaller details like this that truly separate it from the other versions. While there certainly could have been a lot more detail added, the 360 version is simply the same engine with added effects and a higher resolution, it really is worth the extra ten bucks of you do own the system. There are a few minor complaints, for starters there are some frame rate issues associated with the game, nothing game breaking, but noticeable none the less. I also cannot understand why the enemy’s bodies disappear. Does the console really need the extra memory to process something else? While neither of these should sway you from purchasing this excellent game they are worth mentioning.
Lara’s mansion has also made a comeback in this iteration and instead of simply being a side distraction there are now several puzzles and items to be found spread across the wealthy adventurer’s domain. In fact you can collect some of the bronze, silver, and gold artifacts inside the mansion, and if you are playing on the 360 and are an achievement whore like myself, you will find yourself venturing into this area more often than not. There are also an abundance of secrets to find, including the aforementioned artifacts you can also unlock time trials for each of the levels upon completion. This is also for the achievement buffs as each one gives you a new set of points upon completion. There is also a cut-scene theatre that allows you to view all the in-game cinemas as well as a collection of outfits to play dress up with when you go back through the game. Top this off with three different difficulty settings and you have an adventure that is more than worth your hard earned cash.
It is still hard to believe that this is the seventh iteration of the franchise and even more hard to believe that it took this long to re-invent the franchise. Crystal D has taken the baton and ran all the way with it while still keeping avid fans, myself included, happy along the way. If they continue to deliver this caliber of game I really don’t think the fans will miss Core Design too much. For a series that has disappointed its fans for so long it is nice to finally see a revolution, and if any game character ever deserved a makeover it certainly would be Lara Croft. With a revamped control scheme, massive levels to explore, and tons of secrets to unlock Tomb Raider Legend will keep avid gamers busy for a very long time to come. Highly recommended for fans of the series and anyone who truly enjoys the adventure genre.