April 17, 2006

Review: Tomb Raider: Legend (Xbox 360)

Lara Croft is a joke to most gamers. Once the busty babe of our collective dreams, Croft was exploited and overused in almost-yearly sequels, each worse than the last. The final straw was 2003’s Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, a game so woefully bad and buggy that it seemed to have been shipped before completion. Facing financial and critical ruin, publisher Eidos entrusted the future of the franchise to Crystal Dynamics, a developer with its own history of so-so games. What could possibly come from this union?

The answer is Tomb Raider: Legend, the first great Tomb Raider game in over eight years. A fresh start is exactly what this series needed, away from the shoddy sequels and action movies it was once associated with. Legend finds Lara croft raiding tombs yet again, in an all-new adventure that includes flashbacks to her youth. Young Lara was involved in a plane crash, which was then followed by a supernatural artifact swallowing up her mother. Traumatized and a bit curious, modern-day Lara uses her family’s immense wealth to find out just what happened and why.

In a shocking turn of events, Lara Croft is not the star of Tomb Raider: Legend; in fact, the true star is the gameplay; specifically the platform and exploration elements. I had a blast climbing, jumping, and flipping through the huge, cleverly designed environments. Typically, the franchise has been known for requiring pinpoint accuracy with every leap, but Legend offers a more forgiving experience. Even if a missed jump leads to a painful death, there are plenty of automatic checkpoints, meaning you generally won’t lose more than a minute of gameplay. This encourages players to explore without fear, leading to a much more enjoyable experience.

Puzzle solving is second-most important aspect of the game, and it also shines. As Lara, gamers must move objects and follow clues to progress forward. One constant in many of these puzzles is the use of the magnetic grappling hook, which is activated with the X button. The hook proves vitally important in all aspects of the game, especially movement. Another neat segment of the game seems inspired by Resident Evil 4; during some cut scenes, you’ll be prompted to press a specific button or move the analog stick in a particular direction. If you succeed, the scene continues. If not, Lara dies and you do it again. Don’t be deceived; keep your controller in hand at all times!

What doesn’t work is the gunplay, which is a necessary evil in a game like this. If I had my way, Lara would be a pacifist, using her dual pistols only to bust up environmental hazards. Unfortunately, such is not the case, as there are often several random baddies to combat (usually all at once). Lara also has grenades at her disposal, as well as the ability to pick up discarded weapons from her opponents. Aiming is a nightmare from nearly any distance, and you’ll have to get off about ten to fifteen shots for a kill with your pistols. Motorcycle segments serve as breaks in the action, but typically include shooting at Jeeps and bikes, which is only marginally better than shooting at dudes and tigers.

Tomb Raider: Legend on the Xbox 360 is one sharp looking game. Aside from some last-gen looking models, the high-resolution environments are incredibly detailed, featuring some of the best lighting and shadows of any game. The visual style reminds me heavily of Perfect Dark Zero, which had neat texturing that was often a bit too shiny. Overall, I’m very impressed by the graphics; some of the views really are breathtaking. Unfortunately, this gussied-up port comes at a cost, as frame-rate issues are frequently evident. It never affects gameplay, but you have to wonder if an additional week or two of development could have eliminated these issues.

The audio in the game is quite stellar, from the voice work to the dynamic soundtrack. Lara’s sharp wit is well served by her British accent, with dialogue that surprisingly isn’t cringe-worthy. Zip and Alister assist Lara via her headset, providing her with useful tips and background information about the environments. The interaction between the three characters is essential to the plot, and certainly worth paying attention to. Legend features a dynamic soundtrack that picks up during tense situations, which is helpful when approaching an area packed with enemies.

For all that Tomb Raider: Legend offers, what it doesn’t offer is a lengthy adventure. With just eight missions, the game can be completed in less than seven hours. While this does not kill the game, it might make you consider a rental in place of a purchase. Players can also explore Croft Manor for hidden secrets, as well as replay completed levels for extra achievement points. When all is said and done, the game still feels too short, and would have been greatly benefited by the inclusion of at least two additional missions.

Despite the length of the game, Tomb Raider: Legend is still highly recommended. Crystal Dynamics has done the impossible by making Tomb Raider an exciting and relevant franchise again. It may not be groundbreaking, but the combination of exploration and puzzle-solving makes for a wondrous time. If they can improve the combat and frame-rate issues, the next game could be truly incredible. I’m truly excited for the next Tomb Raider game… I haven’t been able to say that for almost a decade.

Grade: B


Anonymous said...

Correction: Shenmue was the first to use QTE button presses, not RE4 man!

Otherwise, this stuff is quality. Can't wait to open up a magazine like GI and see your mug in the staff section.

Andrew Hayward said...

Ah, word. Good call. I didn't play enough of Shenmue to have to branded into my brain.

Thanks thanks!