Written by  :  Ace of Sevens (4474)
Written on  :  Jun 03, 2007
Platform  :  Xbox 360
Rating  :  3.86 Stars3.86 Stars3.86 Stars3.86 Stars3.86 Stars

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Pulls a once beloved series back from the brink

The Good

Tomb Raider: Legend is the seventh main Tomb Raider game and there were a bunch of side games as well. Keeping a series fresh this far in is quite difficult and very few franchises have managed it. In fact, the series was widely considered to have gone off the tracks around the third installment, but here it pulls it back by keeping the elements that worked and dumping lots that didn't.

One of the elements that hadn't been working was character designs. Lara, with her odd joints, large, immobile breasts, waist about as thick as her calves and awkward animation never seemed to me to be a woman so much as a wooden marionette: a grotesque parody of femininity. The character designs of Legend are still quite stylized. I wouldn't say any of the characters look like real people. It's more of a 3D cartoon, but the animation and facial expressions now suggest emotional depth like the previous system didn't. And Lara, while her body isn't exactly natural, at least reacts to gravity and has a waist that looks like it could hold some organs.

The cast has been entirely replaced here. Keeley Hayes of the MI-6 show plays the lead with just the right mix of British wit, steely determination and pathos. The rest of the cast are veteran voice actors and it shows. While the material isn't terribly difficult for the most part, this is top-notch game acting.

The ultimate weapon has been broken into X number of pieces and scattered around the world. You must gather all the pieces, one per level, to keep the bad guy from getting them or get them away from the bad guys, then use the assembled weapon to fight said bad guy. This has been the plot to dozen of games in several genres, including the last game I reviewed: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus complete with the tragic parent-death, but here it works, largely because the actors and animators do such a great job selling the characters the characters. A good sense of camaraderie and betrayal along with a few attractive women and a few flashy set-pieces can go a log way to making a paint-by-numbers plot work. In keeping with this, the cutscenes are appropriately epic. Every boss fight and even the conversations seem like they are from one of the better summer blockbusters.

The controls for Tomb Raider were originally based essentially on the available buttons on the digital controllers for Saturn and PlayStation. Each new installment added a couple new moves, but it never really took advantage of modern controllers or rethought the whole scheme into something more workable. Here, the series redoes the control scheme from scratch and finally takes proper advantage of the analogue stick. Lara moves in the direction you push. There's no more back and forth punctuated by very slow turns, pixel-perfect jumps, etc and movable objects can now be put anywhere, rather than having to be rotated and dragged in increments. The most exciting addition is the grappling hook with can be used not only for swinging, but for moving objects you can't reach, which makes for some unique puzzles. All this is backed by a relatively accurate physics model which makes for some great physics-based puzzles, such as the makeshift catapult in the first level.

The control improvements really show in the combat. In earlier games, combat consisted of locking on to a bad guy and jumping back and forth like a crack-headed ferret while he takes a dozen shots to go down, unless the bad guy is a bear or something: then it's essentially the same, only it takes more shots and he doesn't shoot back. This is still the case to some degree, but things are drastically improved. I remembered in an earlier installment, I snuck up behind a guy who was on the edge of the dock facing the water and I wanted to just kick him into the harbor and be done with it, but the game didn't give me option. Now, you can kick enemies up into the air, do a Scorpion move with the grappling hook, blow up environmental hazards, hop into turrets and even do a slo-mo rebound off their chests while riddling them, plus there are grenades.

While it doesn't look as good as many games native to Xbox 360, Tomb Raider: Legend looks very nice. The textures and models are highly detailed and it's filled with great lighting effects and other effects, like Lara's hair, which has gone far beyond the simple jointed ponytail of Tomb Raider 2 and now hangs loose with appropriate physics in some levels.

The Bad

Like a lot of games that have tried to open themselves up to a wider audience, Tomb Raider: Legend errs on the side of being far too easy. Difficulty only affects the combat sections of the game, which are never very difficult. I blew through the whole game on medium in about six hours and most of that time was taken up figuring out the puzzles. All of the new stuff in combat isn't really necessary unless you're playing on hard mode and barely even then. I'm not sure dying is even possible in easy mode (except from falls) unless you do it on purpose. Medium should have been easy, hard should have been medium and there should have been a mode that anyone who'd played a game before won't just blow through in a couple evenings.

On a related note, I'm not fond of the vehicle segments. There was clearly an effort to make them accessible to people who don't play driving games, but it went way too far. The brake/accelerate are digital, so there's no concept of controlling your speed. There really are no tricky turns, tight passages, etc, so this isn't crippling, but it means all you do is hold down the accelerator and avoid hitting anything. It's somewhat forgiving even of that. There are enemies, but all you have to do is hold down the trigger whenever they appear and make sure to use a health pack occasionally and keep driving as usual. You don't even need to pay attention to their positions.

The checkpoints are always right before cutscenes. You can't just press a button to skip them, either. In order to get past a cutscene, you must pause, then select "skip cutscene" from the menu. It's poor interface design.

I'm not sure if this next item is another bad interface decision or just a missing feature, but as far as I can tell, you are only allowed to save mid-level your first time through the game. Once you've beaten it, the continue function just brings you to a list of levels rather than back to where you left off.

If you closely at the pretty graphics, you'll see the cracks in the design. Lara's shadow doesn't always quite touch her feet. In several cases, small, mobile objects start off suspended in the air until you interact with them, like the paint cans on the scaffolding in Tokyo. The various plants on the ground look great sitting there, but pass right through Lara's legs rather than bending out of the way and when you dive or surface, it takes the camera a second or so to switch between the regular and underwater rendering modes.

The default brightness is way too dark. If your TV is properly calibrated, you won't be able to see anything in the cool sepia flashback in Peru since you don't have your chest light there. Luckily, you can turn it up.

While this won't affect most of you, the surround sound implementation is a bit glitchy. Frequently, when I was firing a gun, it came out of the rear speakers, even though Lara was in front of the camera and it should have been from the front, leaving me spinning around trying to find the guy behind me who was shooting, who did not actually exist.

The achievements leave something to be desired. You get points for beating the game, beating the time trials and collecting the collectables, basically, your standard goals. They lack the inspiration of something like Crackdown or Gears of War.

I remember the first Tomb Raider game being controversial because you killed a lot of animals. This is still the case and it's as nonsensical as ever. For instance, I was in a temple of a pre-Incan civilization in Bolivia when I was attacked by a Jaguar. I had evaded several death traps and swum through a deep underwater passage to get there? Cats are nimble, but generally don't like getting wet, so what's he doing in here? If the combat actually dressed up the platforming and puzzle solving like it's presumably was supposed to, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but it's not challenging enough to be anything more than a distraction.

Similarly, Lara seems to be rather ruthless for a blue-blooded archaeologist/explorer. By my estimates, she killed considerably more people in Kazakhstan alone than the Bride killed in both Kill Bill movies combined. How do the villains keep finding mercenaries willing to take the job? Lara isn't a trained assassin/superspy/career soldier like James Bond or the Tenchu crew or Master Chief. It doesn't make any sense for her character to be a stone-cold killer, but she keeps up in body counts and this is just ignored by the narrative.

The Bottom Line

This is the best Tomb Raider game by far. It's odd the way various influences collapse upon each other. Tomb Raider itself was originally somewhere between a female Indiana Jones and a 3D Prince of Persia. Then, the Prince of Persia and Indiana Jones games came to 3D and borrowed quite a bit back and Tomb Raider came to the movies and turned out like some sort of modern take on Indy. Now, the new Prince of Persia games and the movie adaptation have had their influences poured back into Tomb Raider. The result has been fairly refined, though at a few points I got confused and tried to use the Prince of Persia controls, which have several differences. The game is short and easy, but it's still easy to justify the purchase at the prices this has been going for lately. What there is is plenty of fun. My complaints about the violence are really a complaint about video games as a whole, so that shouldn't dissuade you. While it's far from the greatest game ever, it's certainly the best this series has produced and shows a lot of potential for future growth.