By dankempster 10 Comments
I've long been a Tomb Raider fan. It's a love affair that I've reiterated many times over the years, so I'll keep this version of events fairly brief. I was introduced to the series by my parents all the way back in 1998, when they bought a PlayStation along with copies of the first two games in the series. Since then I've been smitten with the franchise, sticking by it through the highs and the lows. There's just something about the way these games structure their adventures, the elegant blend of exploration, puzzle-solving and light combat, that scratches some indefinable itch within my gaming mind. Whenever somebody even mentions a Tomb Raider game, I suddenly find myself wanting to play one - a fact that has directly led to this blog being written. When fellow Giant Bomber Sparky_Buzzsaw picked up Tomb Raider: Legend and blogged about it last week, it wasn't long before the bug had gripped me and I was blowing the dust off my own copy of the game.
It's been a long time since I last played Tomb Raider: Legend. I'm pretty sure that I played the game for the first time during the summer of 2006, and came away from it feeling mighty satisfied - at least, that's the impression given by the review I wrote at the time. But as I was soon to discover, in the five-and-a-half intervening years, my memories of Legend had become faded with age, and buried under the opinions of more recent titles in the series (most notably Anniversary, which I'll touch on later). Re-playing the game on my trusty PS2 over the last few days, with more experienced hands and through more scrutinous eyes, has revealed this Legend to be not so legendary after all.
The first problem that caught my attention were noticeable drops in frame-rate during many of the game's most hectic action sequences. I don't remember encountering these at all in 2006, but it must have been there, because nothing about the game has changed in the interim. Then again, I was a much less critical gamer back in those days, so I can kind of understand why it might not have stuck in my mind. At the time, I was doing all of my PS2 gaming on a compact 8-inch LCD screen - visual fidelity wasn't exactly my highest priority. I remember Legend as being a damned gorgeous game, and in a lot of ways it still is (especially with regards to its character models and environments). It's just a shame that this noticeable issue has soured that memory somewhat.
One thing I remembered Legend fondly for was its apparent refusal to treat its heroine as a sex object, something for the stereotypical male gamer to ogle at in cut-scenes. In my mind's eye, Legend had addressed this by making Lara Croft more realistically proportioned, and by covering her up somewhat - a huge leap forward from the titillation that was associated with Lara's character back in the PS1 days. Returning to it now has completely shattered that perception, though. Sure, Lara isn't quite as well-endowed in Legend, but the game still seeks to flaunt her curves at every opportunity. The neckline of her default tomb-raiding outfit plunges much lower than you'd expect it to, the dress that features in the game's Tokyo level seems to be defying every basic law of physics in actually staying on her body, and one of the most demanding unlocks is a bikini outfit. I repeat - one of the game's highest rewards is getting to see this. How, as a sixteen-year-old lad, I didn't notice any of this is mind-boggling, and it completely debunks my memories of Legend as being a genuine attempt to take Lara's character more seriously.
Ignoring my complaints about the game's aesthetics and the clear sexualisation of Lara, there are a wealth of other minor niggles that have conspired to sully my original memories of the game - some erratic checkpointing, camera control issues, a middling story that's told with about as much indifference as it deserves, a surprising dearth of proper puzzles... None of these things amounts to much individually, but when collected together, they really start to impact the overall package, and consequently tarnish my idealised memories of first playing Legend. Add them to the main problem I had with Legend even when first playing it (an incredibly short campaign), and at times I'm almost left wondering if the game has any redeeming features.
I don't want to give the impression that Legend is a bad game, because it really isn't, and of course it has plenty of redeeming features. In spite of the complaints I've levelled at it above, it's still a solid action-adventure game and, in the context of its original release, a huge leap forward for the franchise in terms of its gameplay mechanics and presentation. I really like the environment traversal, which for the first time in the series' ten-year history finally nailed the feel of Lara's athleticism and felt challenging without ever being too unforgiving. A lot of people give the game stick for its combat, which relies heavily on lock-on targeting and lacks any real depth, but it really doesn't bother me. I've always held the belief that combat is auxiliary to the tomb-raiding experience, and I think the simplistic nature of the gunplay in Legend reflects that perfectly. Also worth mentioning is the game's voice-work, especially Keeley Hawes' performance as Lara. The previous actress responsible for Lara's voice (Jonell Elliott) really didn't sit well with me, stripping her of her quintessential British-ness and replacing it with something generic and sultry. Hawes recaptures that achetypal British vibe of Lara's earliest outings, which is consistently great to hear. It may not be as great as I thought it was, but it's still a good game - maybe not worthy of the four stars I bestowed on it all those years ago, but definitely a solid three-star adventure.
I recognise that the Tomb Raider franchise is far from critically acclaimed, and as a result a lot of my fondest memories are probably tied to my love of the series than any excellence inherent in the games themselves. Towards the end of last year I re-visited another another Tomb Raider title I had fond memories of - The Last Revelation on the original PlayStation. Much like Legend, I found that my faded memories of the game didn't quite match up with the imperfect reality of what I was playing. At this point, part of me wants to return to Anniversary and continue my path through the Crystal Dynamics trilogy, but another part of me is reluctant to do so for fear of the same thing happening with what is undoubtedly my favourite game in the franchise to date. I'm quietly confident it will live up to my expectations, as a lot of the things I remember about that game are things which remedy the complaints I've made about Legend above - a longer campaign, better-structured puzzles, no frame-rate issues (as far as I can remember), and a default outfit for Lara that doesn't show any cleavage at all.
As I said above, I don't want to give the impression I didn't enjoy Tomb Raider: Legend. I've had a lot of fun with it over the last four days. It's just unfortunate that it didn't quite meet the standards my nostalgic mind put in place for it. In any case, returning to the series has got me interested to see what Crystal Dynamics do with the upcoming series reboot. Not necessarily in a way that could be described as either positive or negative - as much as I see potential for the game to take the series in brave, meaningful new directions, I see just as much potential for the shift in focus to rob the series of what makes it unique and special. Re-visiting Legend has provided me with a great refresher of what I love most about Tomb Raider, and I'll be following the upcoming game's progression over the coming months with cautious optimism. Thanks very much for reading guys, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (PS2)