Reviewed: July 7, 2006
Released: June 20, 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.
Tomb Raider; Legend for the PSP proves that while it's possible to take a PS2 game and cram it into a handheld, you probably always shouldn't, at least without a bit of platform-specific customization. Buzz Monkey was in charge of the PSP translation, and while the game made the journey fully intact, the sacrifices in graphics, control, and overall gameplay are far too great to make this a viable handheld game.
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. While the console controls excelled in allowing you to explore all of these nuances to the gameplay, the PSP and its lack of a second analog stick create numerous problems that only the most patient of gamers will ever overcome.
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.
Overall control is extremely difficult on the PSP since movement is based on the current camera angle. Those used to controlling by steering the camera are out of luck. You now must hold down the square button to shift the analog pad into a free-look mode. This means that it is impossible to move Lara and the camera at the same time creating an endless chore of tweaking the camera before moving then realigning the camera and moving again.
To make matters worse is that the camera now tries to track you and anticipate the best angle of the action, so you might be in mid-jump and the camera pivots or changes, which in turn screws up your trajectory causing you to miss a jump and die.
Swimming was already hard enough on the console and now it is almost a sure thing you will drowned on countless occasions on the PSP. 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.
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), which was fantastic on the console, is now only a dull flicker that does little to illuminate your way. In what is already an impossibly dark PSP game to begin with, there is no hope for artificial lighting.
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.
The lack of available buttons on the PSP means your D-pad is used to cycle through more options that it had to on the console, so instead of having instant access to your PLS or binoculars you might have to hit left or right several times to highlight it first. It’s just another annoyance you’ll have to tolerate to play Legend on the PSP.
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.
Tomb Raider: Legend was gorgeous on the PC and 360 and held its own on the Xbox and PS2, but the PSP has far too many visual sacrifices. There are dozens of outstanding games on the PSP, so I can only assume no effort was put into translating the images to the handheld system, especially where lighting is concerned. Half of the screenshots I had for this game were unusable and most of the ones you do see I had to manually increase the brightness and contrast so you could actually see something.
Legend is dark…way too dark for about 80% of the entire adventure. You’ll long for the outdoor levels and curse the indoor and nighttime missions. The PLS is all but worthless in lighting your way or revealing anything. I found I had to use my binoculars and their night vision mode even see the most basic of objects. Even cranking the brightness to the max cannot shine a light on the gameplay.
Most of the time I was relying purely on instinct and the fact I had already played the game three times before on the console. It’s kind of like walking around your house at night in the dark. You know your way around well enough to navigate, but it’s a poor way to play a video game.
You’ll fare a bit better if you play in a totally dark room and plug your PSP into the wall for that AC-boost of extra screen brightness, but don’t even try to play this game outdoors or in well-lit interiors.
Special effects are drastically cut back so we have none of the exquisite lighting and shadows, and a lot of the other effects like particles and volumetric smoke and dust are either reduced or gone entirely.
And despite all of these sacrifices in overall quality, the PSP seems unable to keep up with the demands of the game. All too often the framerate will dip into dangerous territory causing fatal moments of imprecision during swings, jumps, and other dangerous feats of adventuring. Death by camera and death by framerate were more dangerous than anything else in this game.
The character model for Lara has been taken down a notch in overall detail including both polygons and textures. She still looks good in motion, but all those subtle details we were drooling over on the 360 are gone and we now have character design like looks like her last PS2 adventure.
Those breathtaking levels we played on the console are all but invisible on the PSP, or at least the ones that aren’t outside and in the daylight. It’s a shame really, because you get to visit some really interesting locales. The movies are still quite good, even on the small screen, including the energetic opening movie and plenty of between-mission cutscenes.
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 with all sorts of environmental noises like waterfalls and giant stone mechanisms grinding away, plus there are all the sound of you interacting with the level; gunfire, magnetic cable, explosions, etc. And even more important, you can hear it all without headphones. This is one of the loudest PSP games ever made.
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.
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. Collecting these statues is more for personal satisfaction since there are no achievement points or other way to boast your accomplishments to the rest of the world.
Each level also offers a Time Trial mode that is unlocked when you complete it during the normal adventure mode. Par times can range from 4-27 minutes depending on the level and usually requires you to avoid combat and make perfect jumps and climbs. Be warned that the darkness of the PSP version greatly reduces your ability to race through levels unless you have your route all but memorized.
Going back and beating these levels and their par times will earn you new bonuses including some very special costumes – black bikini anyone? It was a tempting offer on the console but the painful gameplay and dull graphics quickly quell any desire to replay this game, assuming you even finish it the first time.
The best thing going for the PSP version of Legend is its exclusive multiplayer modes. It’s a shame that these aren’t available on the console version where you can actually find players and the game is actually playable. It took some extreme searching to find another player who had Legend – there is no game sharing or Internet play.
The online modes, called Tomb Trials are really cool in premise. You go up against another player in short specially designed tombs, either racing to the finish or participating in a scavenger hunt for rare artifacts. You can also play these trials alone, as practice or to best your previous times. Theses smaller levels offer much smoother framerates and better gameplay than the primary game.
You won’t find a bigger Lara Croft fan than me, so it pains me greatly to say that Legend on the PSP is quite simply – “not fun to play”. It’s a fantastic console game that regrettably required too many sacrifices to get it onto the handheld. I applaud the addition of the multiplayer modes while at the same time cursing the fact I can’t play them on the console.
The dark graphics, muddy textures, troublesome camera, and awkward gadget interface combine to create more gameplay problems than the novel concept of playing Lara on the PSP can overcome. If the PSP is your only game system then you can begrudgingly suffer through it, otherwise, this is an adventure best left to the big platforms.