Version tested: Xbox 360
Almost three years on from the Angel of Darkness debacle, Eidos knew it had a mammoth task on its hands to restore public confidence in a brand that had suffered the most humiliating critical backlash in years. Only Driv3r came anywhere near close in terms of a public mauling, and the indifferent commercial performance of Parallel Lines suggests that consumers aren't as forgiving as publishers might hope. What are the chances of Crystal Dynamics' debut Tomb Raider offering of turning the tide of ill will?
Wisely, the Californian developer has gone for the 'safety first' policy of taking the gameplay back to basics, back to the late '90s vintage when Lara's improbably proportioned torso bestrode every other magazine cover. Almost everything that made AoD a painful, hateful experience has been ditched, with much of the old-style Tomb Raider II-era globe-trotting, Tomb Raiding that so many of us loved brought back to the fore. Right from the opening section of the Bolivia level, it's immediately obvious how much homage to past glories that Legend pays, but this familiarity largely breeds warm, lasting nostalgia, rather than instant contempt.
No one should expect any kind of gameplay revolution here, though, and rightly so. Legend is full-on old-style Lara adventure, complete with its fair share of levers to pull, pressure pads to activate, traps to avoid and neuter, blocks to push and ropes to swing.
I feel stronger now
But (wait!) it's not the tired, cynical retread of the past you might expect, with the obligatory New Gadgets and Equipment(TM) increasing the interaction with the environment like never before. Chief of these is the Metallic Grappling Device, which not only plays its part in many of the puzzles, but also helps as a jump aid to help you swing across huge gaps, and a means of dragging enemies towards you in combat. To avoid the potential frustration of trial and error, all items you can grapple with have "visually distinct surfaces" (i.e. they look shinier than everything else), and once you've attached it, you can then drag it towards you, allowing you to yank pillars, boxes, switches and the like as a means of getting from A to B. Sometimes it's simply to provide a means to block the slicing blades of death from ripping your limbs asunder, other times to give you a means to avoid being roasted alive, or even to weigh something down. In many ways, Legend would be more aptly summed up as Tomb Raider Grapple, such is its reliance on this new gizmo, but it's definitely one of the better new additions. As a result, there's actually far less switch-pushing and pulling during your adventuring, and much more time spent wondering which cunning way you can use your grapple next.
Elsewhere, Lara's also been kitted out with binoculars and a Metroid Prime-style scanner, known as the Remote Analysis Device which allows you to scan the environment and find weak spots, or whether items can be moved or operated in some way - though most of the time it's pretty self-evident anyway. In addition, you also have access to a Silent Hill-esque chest-mounted torch (a - get this - Personal Light Source), which shows off the lovely dynamic lighting effects rather nicely, but - annoyingly - runs out of batteries if you leave it on for more than about a minute and then quickly recharges, begging the question, why not just let you switch it on and off? Why frustrate the player for no reason at all? Game designers, eh? Cuh.
Another item in your 'gear' is a stock of health packs (up to a maximum of three), which you can administer yourself (with a quick push of 'up' on the d-pad) when you're about to die. It's certainly a useful addition but in terms of New Things About Lara, that's about your lot. Sure, the game also tries its hand at new ideas in other areas, such as punctuating the general action at key points with some short 'cinematic' slo-mo action sequences where you have to press a specific button when prompted, but they're hilariously basic, more than a little bit pointless and not worth dwelling on, to be honest. Even less worthy are the game's two motorbike driving/shooting sections, which come across as a feeble attempt at variation, but merely serve to illustrate that Crystal Dynamics should stick to what it is best at.
Aside from silly novelties, though, perhaps the most significant - and welcome -change to the gameplay is that Lara has been set free from the old grid-based control system, which is both a Very Good Thing, and occasionally a Not So Good Thing, as you'll discover. Old hands will notice immediately that her movements definitely feel slicker than ever. Every acrobatic somersault, every ledge shimmy and death-defying leap can now be pulled off with an assurance and a confidence that makes the game instantly feel more responsive and more enjoyable to play. The previous pixel-perfect precision that dogged some of the older games has been replaced by a system that - more often than not - reads the player's intentions. Leaps of faith to and from ropes, for example, work the way you always wanted them to, with a certain amount of invisible 'assistance' from the computer to make sure you connect. No longer does scaling crumbling rock faces and vaulting from one wobbly ledge to another require such a testing degree of "whoops, one pixel out" trial and error, with mis-timed jumps often resulting in a one-handed grasp, where players have to quickly press the Y button to steady themselves. This all makes the game feel a whole lot easier than Tomb Raider veterans might remember. It's certainly more forgiving in many respects, although there are occasions where not having a grid system means you can't just take the required number of steps back and do a run-up like before, but we can't say we missed that approach.
The combat controls certainly make things pretty straightforward for the most part, too, with a simple system that tasks the player with little more than holding down the left trigger to lock-on and fire with the right trigger. Thanks to a combination of generous controls, infinite pistol ammo and some pretty dim enemy AI, the occasions when you're heavily outnumbered pass off without incident at every stage of the game. Enemies obligingly stand around waiting to be killed (sometimes, gasp, moving behind cover), and even the ones that wield riot shields can be dispatched with a single well-placed grenade. As a nod to the past, Legend even throws in a few Leopards (and Pitbulls) throughout the game, but even they can't be bothered to put up a good fight, and the bosses - almost without exception - are unimaginative in the extreme and incredibly easy to dispatch, and only tend to hold you up via some illogical puzzle element. That said, it's just as well the combat amounts to a tiny portion of the overall gameplay - if it was a remotely important part of the experience we'd be more bothered by how utterly useless it is, but we're prepared to be slightly more forgiving than we might be because we enjoyed the main adventuring element.
A special mention has to be made about Legend's sensible checkpointing system. Often the difference between a satisfying game and a hugely frustrating one, Legend gets it right here by stopping short of the hideously forgiving quicksave method, and keeps you wanting more by never forcing the player to redo more than a few minutes of gameplay. But with several 'second chance'-type mechanics, and an unprecedented degree of hints and prompts flashing up to remind you which button to press, most experienced players will romp through the seven main levels in no more than 11-12 hours. While this undoubtedly makes the game feel somewhat shorter than previous epics, the payback is that frustration levels are kept to a minimum as a result, entertainment levels are generally high and you might actually feel compelled to see Legend all the way to the end.
Once around the block
If you do, though, don't expect an awful lot in the replayability stakes. Fair enough, there's the Time Trial mode (which is nothing more than the same level again, against the clock), and the temptation of earning more achievement points through completing these (on the 360, at least), or via the Hard Mode. But the various other unlockables (like costumes, art, pistol upgrades, cheats and the like) are pretty underwhelming compared to, for example, games like Resident Evil 4, and at the end of it, you'll wonder exactly why you spent so much time scooping up all those hard-to-reach artefacts.
But as much as we've laboured the point at how straightforward and easy Tomb Raider Legend is, there are a few memorable moments (towards the end) where it feels like the team completely neglected to adopt the same 'always make it fun' mentality. Inconsistencies creep in. Levels suddenly seem chock full of red herrings. Control prompts fail to appear. Suddenly you'll be running around wondering what the hell you're meant to do. You'll try everything. Shoot everything. Leap off everything 29 times. Grapple everything 134 times. You'll swear 97 times. And then, almost by accident, you'll do something that works. Something you swear you tried the very first time you arrived in the room. Something so simple that you feel shame-faced with stupidity. And then the same thing happens in the next room, and then the easy-as-pie boss stumps you for the same reason. It's crushing. The fact that the exact same things happened to a colleague made us feel slightly less idiotic, but even so, it highlights the fact that there's a fine line between forgiving game design and being frustrated to death by the lack of signposting (that appears in every other instance in the entire game) and presence of numerous red herrings (which haven't appeared anywhere else). Just so you know. Maybe the game's delay was to try and make it more accessible? They so nearly got it right, too.
Assessing Tomb Raider Legend's technical merits is a bit of a cloudy issue. If you're expecting its arrival on the 360 to herald some kind of next-gen dawn for Lara, then you'll be sorely disappointed. Much like so many of the early 360 games, it's an obvious port that's essentially been given the next gen 'treatment', for what that's worth. This means that, yes, it's by far the best-looking console version, but one that bears all the hallmarks of 'last gen' game and level design, albeit with the added benefit of some nice lighting effects, and, of course, high definition resolution. There's also the issue that some levels are far better than others, so the quality actually varies quite significantly between downright bland and delightful. Some of the more traditional Tomb Raiding levels seem to work best, with lush foliage, crumbling ruins and nice water effects to admire. Even the Japan level, stood on the rooftops, works well, but then you'll be wondering what on Earth went wrong with the Russian level, with its sub-GoldenEye surroundings. With only eight levels (including the Croft mansion) in the entire game, it's strange that Crystal Dynamics couldn't pull all the stops out for what is, after all, quite a short game.
But one thing that's simply unacceptable is the sludgy frame rate that seems to follow the game like a bad smell throughout. If the game could be seen to be pushing the mighty 360 beyond its means, then you'd accept that this was a small price to pay. But although the normal mapping, intricate texturing, lighting and particle effects help make this by far the best looking Tomb Raider adventure yet, there's really nothing outstanding or amazing on view to suggest that this should cause the game's frame rate to chug so noticeably for much of the time. It's not as if the levels are exactly epic in scale or ambition. Indeed, for the most part, they're tight, intricate and focused, and there's nothing on the scale of some of the more memorable ones in the original, ten year old Tomb Raider. Not even close.
That said, Lara herself is wonderfully animated, and can now pull off some remarkable acrobatics with grace and style. Climbing, swinging and vaulting around looks incredibly slick, and there's a real sense of foot tingling momentum as you pull off the more improbable feats. However, as detailed and delightful as Lara looks these days, much of the effort invested in her suite of new attacks has been wasted. For example, thanks to the ease of the gun combat, almost all of the new melee moves (slide attack, power kick, aerial attack, grapple attack) are completely redundant, as is the ability to do endless somersaults.
Also, Crystal Dynamics seems to have inherited Core Design's tendency to make all of the enemies look totally generic. So, as great as Lara looks, the baddies you're facing off against look almost identical throughout the game. Yawn. The bosses certainly look quite impressive, but their attack patterns are so limited that any sense of excitement soon dissolves. Overall, there's this lingering sense that the game has been primarily designed with the PS2 in mind, and as such the limitations that places on the game design is really transparent. 360 owners should be advised that they're only getting a shinier version - and one that doesn't even run as smoothly as it should.
Almost nearly there
Panning back to the bigger picture, there's no doubt that Tomb Raider Legend is, overall, a pretty entertaining game that long-term fans of the series will be reasonably satisfied by. The way that Crystal Dynamics has, on its debut for the franchise, managed to recapture a large chunk of what made the game such a hit in the first place is truly commendable. The adventuring, exploration, atmosphere and puzzling essence that we've been hankering after makes a stylish return, and with a control system that's - for the most part - slick and well implemented. After the shock of Angel of Darkness, getting the series anywhere close to being back on track feel like a victory.
But let's be realistic: Legend is not all that it could have been. It's justifiably irksome that the combat is so utterly lame from start to finish, and that there are some truly awful driving sections and pointless slo-mo action sequences that boggle the mind with their spellbinding rubbishness - and were it not for their fleeting appearances, the game could have easily been a disaster. There's no doubt, too, that the game could and should have been much more impressive on a technical level. In 2006, on a machine as powerful as the 360, we should absolutely not have to put up with creaking frame rates and silly clipping issues (where metal jaws can apparently go through giant fish monsters and Lara can walk on air). It's fairly obvious that Legend game wasn't designed for the 360, but even against the best action adventures of recent times (like God of War or the Prince of Persia trilogy) it falls some way short of matching the standard we've become accustomed to in recent years - both on a gameplay and on a technical level.
Tomb Raider Legend is not the stunning return to form we were hoping for, but is certainly a leap in the right direction that clings on by its finger tips to being generally solid, and mostly very entertaining addition to the series. Legend bodes well for future releases, and the Welcome mat may be out for Lara this time, but there's only so long Eidos can trade on past glories.
7 / 10