Reviewed: April 27, 2006
Released: April 11, 2006
Lara Croft and I go way back…all the way to the beginning…all the way back to 1996 when she debuted in her first PC title that redefined the action-adventure genre. I was there for the 3DFX remake and all the expansion packs and sequels since then. I’ve written strategy guides for all of her adventures (except Angel of Darkness) that have been used a combined 50 million times around the world. In fact, my original Tomb Raider guide was what inspired Sinjin Solves and eventually Game Chronicles Magazine. So you could say, Lara Croft is responsible for the site you are visiting today.
Over the past decade Lara’s fame has exploded into a worldwide phenomena that is usually reserved for living celebrities. Her fan base is massive, as can be attested by thousands of fan sites and adolescent stalkers who maintain a vigilant search for the elusive “nude code” or the latest magazine photo of real-life Lara models.
Lara’s first eight adventures (I’m including expansion packs) were some of the best adventure games ever made, but somewhere along the way Core Design lost their vision, and in the summer of 2003 Angle of Darkness shipped to anxious Tomb Raider fans around the world. The disappointment was unparalleled and could have destroyed the franchise, but Eidos passed the torch to Crystal Dynamics (Soul Reaver, Legacy of Kain) and charged them to rebuild Lara from the ground up. And that is just what they have done.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend is the crowning achievement of more than three years of dedicated game design. Crystal Dynamics has gone back to what made Lara great with classic “tomb raiding” that includes traps, puzzles, and ancient treasures. Combine that with a fantastic story that spans multiple eras and cultures and you have the stuff that movies are made of.
This is still your daddy’s Tomb Raider, but it’s been revamped for a contemporary audience while still holding massive appeal for the original fans who are now all ten years older. A casual viewing of the gorgeous opening cinematic will have you thinking you picked up a Bond game by mistake, but that’s just the new style. It’s all about high energy and non-stop action.
“Legend” is an appropriate title in that we not only explore the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur, which is apparently much bigger than popular lore would have you believe, but we also explore the legendary history of the Croft family as told through a series of flashback cutscenes and playable levels you get to explore as a younger Lara.
The story is totally captivating and maintained even during the adventure with real-time communications between Lara and her support staff (Zip and Alister) back at the mansion, or possibly in the van parked out back in the alley. Of course the real storytelling is delivered in some of the best cutscenes seen outside of a Square-Enix title. There is a depth of character, both in background and development over the 12-hour adventure that is seldom seen in a video game. You really get inside Lara’s head for this adventure.
When you are given a franchise like Tomb Raider and told to rebuild it, the best place to start is at the core fundamentals that made the original so good. Next-gen game systems and powerful PC’s have lifted most of the constraints imposed by the previous Tomb Raider engines. We all remember those grid-based levels where you could actually count the steps to a piece of treasure.
The world of Tomb Raider: Legend is now a much freer place. Lara can move freely in 360-degrees and go just about anywhere a normal person (with super-human climbing powers) can go. She runs, swims, jumps, rolls, climbs, and swings like an acrobat, and the new control system has been totally tweaked to make this as intuitive as possible. In fact, this might just be the best controlling action game currently available.
With the grid system out of the picture Lara is now free to explore more angular paths. She can turn slightly in mid-jump and grab non-perpendicular ledges. And perhaps the best addition to her movement repertoire is her ability to speed up almost any normal movement by merely tapping the action button in a rhythmic manner. This allows her to climb ladders and ropes faster than ever or shimmy along crumbling ledges before they collapse.
Another nice twist that goes with the new angular jumps and the rapid movements is Lara’s ability to slightly miss a jump or grab requiring a quick tap of the action button to steady your grip. It’s a realistic level of error that makes you pay attention and also makes Lara just a bit more human.
Swimming can be a bit problematic until you get the hang of the controls. You have separate buttons for diving and surfacing and you use these to get to your target depth then you combine the stick with more rhythmic tapping of the action button to swim forward. This is the only part of the game where the camera can actually be a problem.
Lara has a few specialty moves in her backpack of tricks including the legendary handstand as she pulls up onto a ledge or a graceful swan dive that is quite exhilarating when you are jumping off a 300’ cliff. She also does a bit of base-jumping with a portable chute and has a couple of occasions to drive a motorcycle.
The motorcycle bits seemed a bit contrived to me, only because they were so out of place with the rest of the game. You have this really graceful character doing all these amazing things then you are stuck on a poorly animated motorcycle on a multi-rail ride where you simply try to shoot the bad buys, collect health kits, and stay alive until the end of the segment. It was neither fun nor challenging, just something to kill 5-10 minutes between the real adventure.
Another new move is directly related to a new gadget, the Magnetic Grapple, which basically turns Lara into Peter Parker. Anything in the game that can be grappled will glint indicating you can fire your grapple and move the object or swing from it. This is used for both swinging puzzles as well as object manipulation and even a bit of combat.
Lara will find herself in the dark more often than not and her personal light source (PLS) is a great way to illuminate her path. This shoulder-mounted light bobs and swings from side to side creating some ultra-realistic lighting and shadow effects. It has a limited charge but can recharge its battery almost instantly.
There is a lot of combat in Tomb Raider: Legend including an impressive melee system which I can’t remember using a single time during the normal course of the game. Lara is always packing her pistols, which have infinite ammo, and she has a secondary weapon slot that you can use for enemy weapons like machine guns or shotguns. She can also collect and toss grenades for some nice area damage.
You can manually target enemies or simply hold down the target lock button and fire away, or use the stick to flick-switch to a new target. From time to time you will see a visual cue indicating an environmental object you can shoot at, usually with explosive results. This is a great way to take out multiple targets or simply rearrange the landscape for new routes of travel.
The final new gameplay feature in Legend is the “Super Actions”. These are triggered at certain spots during the game and require you to press a button or the directional stick at just the right time to continue an action sequence. There are never more than three inputs required and the timing is pretty forgiving so its hard to lose these, but they do offer up a nice interactive twist on what would otherwise be a standard cutscene.
With so much going on you have to love the simple controls. And while the PC keyboard and mouse combo is functional, you'll likely want to play this game with a gamepad. I used both my Saitek P2500 and my Xbox 360 controller and they both worked equally well. Every command is accessed with a single button press. The D-pad handles toggling your PLS, using a health kit, using the binoculars, or cycling between pistols and secondary weapon.
Enemy AI is pretty simple and even the bosses don’t offer much of a challenge, even on the Hard skill level. The biggest challenge, in fact, is learning how to manipulate the environments to defeat the bosses, since most are immune to conventional weaponry. There are a few places where you can sneak past enemies, but this game favors action over stealth.
For those of you who loved Lara’s mansion, it’s back and bigger than ever. Ask anyone who has played it already and they will likely tell you the mansion is easily their favorite level (and the most challenging) in the entire game. This is the “final exam” for Tomb Raider fans, although you can tackle the mansion anytime after completing the first level.
Not only is the mansion full of secrets, amazing locations, and devious puzzles, you can also visit Lara’s bedroom (a dream come true for many fans) and play “dress up” with all of the costumes you can unlock during the main adventure.
The overall adventure spans numerous locations, both indoors and out. You might find yourself in an ancient tomb in one level and a King Arthur museum the next. You’ll even take a troubling trip to the Himalayas and the crash site where you and your mother crashed so many years ago.
Legend offers multiple skill levels and numerous secrets in the form of bronze, silver, and gold items in each level. Some of these secrets are obvious and others are hidden extremely well. The gold secret in each level is nearly impossible to find without a strategy guide, and some are so complex you have to work at getting them during much of the level, long before you even pick it up.
Each level also offers a Time Trial mode that is unlocked when you complete it during the normal adventure mode. Going back and beating these levels and their par times will earn you new bonuses including some very special costumes – black bikini anyone?
Tomb Raider: Legend is absolutely gorgeous. We start off with a Lara model that probably has more polygons than an entire level of the original game. There is nary a joint seam or hard line on her body. She looks and moves like a real woman whether she is swinging from temple ceilings or strutting into a swanky nightclub in her little black dress.
The level designs are as breathtaking as the locales you get to visit. Bolivia has you rock climbing to a majestic waterfall and river and eventually a temple. Peru starts off in a small town then kicks into a motorcycle chase leading to some ruins you get to explore as both a younger and current day Lara.
Tokyo is one of my favorite levels, despite my fear of heights, which is tested to the limit with dizzying feats of climbing the exterior of a downtown skyscraper and even jumping a motorcycle between buildings. My fear of heights was nearly conquered when I took the 300-foot plunge off a cliff in Ghana before exploring a trap-filled temple powered by an elaborate aqueduct system.
Kazakhstan offered some snowy adventure including a thrilling motorcycle sequence where you have to chase down a military train before infiltrating a secret laboratory, then it’s off to England to find King Arthur’s tomb. More snow and deadly cold water await in Nepal then its back to Bolivia for the exciting conclusion.
The Xbox 360 offers the best visuals for your buck, but the PC can keep up but if you have the latest in video card technology (GeForce 7800 or 7900), which easily costs as much as a 360. With a high-end video card you get some amazing water, lighting, dust particles, and shadow effects, including self-shadowing on Lara. It all runs at resolutions beyond console capabilities, so Tomb Raider: Legend can easily become the showcase title to justify that expensive video card or SLI setup in your computer.
The movies are fantastic quality and rendered with game graphics so you actually see the movie unfold with the weapons you currently have in your inventory. In fact, every item you carry is modeled and individually animated on your character, so when Lara shakes her hips those grenades on her belt swivel for the ride.
The music is perfect thanks to a wonderful score by Troels Folmann that blends into the background creating just the right mood for the stunning visuals. It really helps to sell the moment in scenes like Lara reaching the top of the cliff overlooking the massive waterfalls of Ghana, or when she has an emotional “reunion” with her mother.
In all, there is about five hours of original music, much of which is divided into micro-scores that are cued to various actions allowing it to overlap so you can actually compose your own soundtrack by the way you play the game. It’s truly an adaptive soundtrack.
The sound design is just as impressive. Consider this. The original Tomb Raider had a single sound for footsteps and we all remember those almost-sexual grunts and groans as Lara clambered over rocks. In Legend, Lara can have anywhere from 300-600 sound effects going on all at once.
A single footstep sound might consist of three or more individual effects and those are treated for the type of surface and environmental effects like reverb. Plus, if you listen closely you can hear Lara’s gear rattling around, but even more importantly is when that gear is used up and gone you don’t hear it anymore. And you won’t just see Lara dripping wet when she climbs out of the water – you’ll hear her drip.
The sound package is complemented with a fantastic Dolby Digital mix that creates a movie-like experience. The low-frequency effects will send your sub-woofer into overdrive allowing you to feel those rolling boulders and crumbling temples right along with Lara. The rest of the 3D mix really immerses you in the environment and allows you to pick out enemy locations by their sounds. You definitely want to have a good 3D sound card for this game and some nice surround speakers with a sub.
Last but certainly not least is the amazing voice acting. I didn’t recognize a single voice during the credits but this game doesn’t need “star power” with perfect casting and flawless acting. Lara, Zip, Alister, and the rest of the supporting cast sound just like their appearances would have you believe they should sound. The dialogue is witty and fun, and the scripted story is rooted in just enough factual history that you might start to believe the “Legend”.
You can play Tomb Raider: Legend several ways. You can play it for fun, you can play it to get all the secrets, and you can play it to “complete it”. Playing for fun will take 10-12 hours while going for all the secrets will take 12-15 hours. A typical level for me usually lasted between 60-90 minutes and I was going for all the secrets.
There is also a Time Trial mode that tests your ability to race through the levels in hopes of beating the par time. This time can range from 4-27 minutes depending on the level and usually requires you to avoid combat and make perfect jumps and climbs.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend is like coming home again. Crystal Dynamics has taken a Legend and made it their own by returning Lara to her tomb raiding roots while simultaneously taking her into the next generation of technology.
Whether this is your first or ninth adventure with Lara, it is one you won’t soon forget. With perfect controls, intuitive gameplay, stunning graphics, majestic music, and a totally engaging story, this is the type of adventure game Legends are made of.