Change is good. Here's why...
When the PS2 launched way, way back at the turn of the century, there were certain titles that we all expected to grace the console’s launch ceremony. Gran Turismo 3, Wipeout Fusion and Metal Gear Solid 2 all made it onto the market within a year of Sony’s sophomore console’s launch. Yet, strangely, one of the PlayStation’s biggest names seemed to have been overlooked; one Miss Croft missed out on the celebrations. We had to wait almost three years for the lovely Lara to make her PS2 debut in the form of Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness, and I think I speak for most of us when I say we felt cheated. AOD was shoddy, awkward and clearly rushed (there was no excuse for this – the game had been in production for almost half a decade!).
It looked like Lara, like the rest of PlayStation’s mascots who hadn’t fared so well on the new generation console, had been irreversibly broken. The archaic formula and methodical pacing of the series didn’t have any place in the 21st century. So when Tomb Raider: Legend was announced I did my best to ignore the hype. I had no faith at all in new developers Crystal Dynamics. Being a ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ kind of person, I felt they were flogging a dead horse. Lara had let me down, and I didn’t think she would be able to compensate for it.
I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. Tomb Raider: Legend is not only a return to form for the series, it’s also the best Tomb Raider yet. The product of around three years of careful crafting, Legend is the Tomb Raider game previous developers Core were afraid to make. Not only does it mess with the classic TR formula, it crushes it under its heel. And that’s a very good thing.
Tomb Raider: Legend abandons the cliffhanger ending of AOD in favour of an original story. This time around, Lara’s doing some research into the death of her mother. Before long, old pals from university and the legend of King Arthur all become intertwined with the focus of Lara’s quest. I won’t say too much, as it’s better to experience the plot first-hand. While it always falls just short of being believable, Legend’s story is nonetheless exciting and is sure to keep interested gamers playing through to the final moments.
Legend plays superbly, and that’s largely down to the completely reworked controls and gameplay mechanics. Jumping is no longer a chore; instead of having to line Lara up with the relevant ledge, the controls now feel tight and reliable enough to allow the player to make such jumps instinctively. Gone are the painstakingly slow, pixel-perfect jump moments. Lara is finally the confident, acrobatic adventurer we always knew she was. She can swing round poles, climb ropes and use a magnetic grapple, too. Granted, it may borrow from Ubisoft’s Prince Of Persia series, but the end result is a unique and well implemented gameplay system. As flashy as it all sounds, all these actions are accessible through one or two button presses, making Legend a joy to play without ever getting too complicated.
While exploration is certainly better this time round, combat feels a little lacklustre. The system is implemented well; the shoulder buttons fire whatever weapon Lara’s holding, while you can jump and roll for cover. To mix things up, there are a number of different weapons Lara can use (although she can only hold two at a time) and grenades. The age-old inventory has been done away with too, in favour of a slick interface controlled by the directional buttons. This way, you can switch weapons and heal yourself instantaneously, without interrupting the flow of combat. Unfortunately, the pitiful variety of enemies and generic feel of the weapons mean that Legend’s combat system feels a little weaker than the sum of its well thought out parts. Combat is a small part of the game though, so it shouldn’t trouble anybody too much.
Graphically, Legend is a sight to behold. Even though the PS2 hardware is right at the end of its shelf life, it’s still capable of producing amazing results. Lara looks the best she’s ever looked, and the myriad environments the story forces her through are all beautifully rendered. From the dense jungle and underground ruins of Ghana, to snowy Kazakhstan and the rooftops of Tokyo, the variety of the locales is just as impressive as their appearance. You’ll even get to explore an abandoned theme park in Cornwall. The animations are seamless and the HUD is clear. Aesthetically, Legend delivers everything you’d expect from a good action adventure game.
The sound is pretty impressive, too. All the music is very well suited to the locations and themes of Legend, and is so seamlessly integrated into the game that at times it affects you without you realising it. The sound effects are well implemented and the voice acting also stands out. Lara and her acquaintances are all very well-acted and, in Lara’s case, she’s regained the quintessential British-ness of the earlier Tomb Raider games. It all adds up to one very immersive experience that makes Legend very hard to put down.
Unfortunately this highlights another of the game’s problems; its brevity. Legend is a brilliant action adventure game, but like many others in its genre it’s simply too short. You’ll be lucky to clock up ten hours on your first playthrough. Granted, there are secrets to be found, and artwork and outfits to unlock. But even taking those into account, the game’s lifespan amounts to a matter of weeks rather than months. Players who know they can put this issue aside will love Legend, but those of you waiting for something to tide you over till next year should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, Tomb Raider: Legend is a very impressive action adventure game, and it looks like there’s life in the old girl yet.