Lara Croft hasn’t had the best of times in recent years. The Tomb Raider series found itself slowly declining in popularity, following a handful of games that failed to capture the magic possessed by the original titles.
Not only that, but when Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series arrived in 2007 it quickly took the crown as gamers ‘tomb and treasure’ game of choice.
Now, developers Crystal Dynamics have gone back to the drawing board to bring Lara Croft and her escapades back to their former glory.
Hers was the face that launched a thousand PlayStation’s, in actual fact it was several million worldwide. But while the franchise also appeared on the lowly Saturn it was the PlayStation version that catapulted Lara into the mainstream consciousness on a level not seen since a certain Italian plumber, or blue hedghog bounded onto our screens.
As the video game industry started to grow up it needed a new icon and Lara fitted the bill better than any other character, pushing Sonic and Mario into the shadows as her popularity exploded. Many best-selling sequels and a marketing push that has included two films and a string of Lucozade commercials soon followed and all seemed rosy for gaming’s first lady. Nothing could possibly go wrong could it?
Unfortunately, 2002’s dire Angel of Darkness nearly killed off the franchise and has left Lara in limbo ever since. Even the original development team, Core Design has been stripped of their prized franchise and the reins and responsibilities passed on to Crystal Dynamics. Handing such a well known and thoroughly British (she was just recently named in the short list to find Britain’s most loved design icon) franchise over to a US developer whose CV was a bit of a mixed bag (which included the great Soul Reaver and the not so great Gex) seemed like the final nail in the coffin.
But rejoice one and all, for Lara has completed a glorious resurrection thanks to her new creators. Whether you have been an avid follower of her previous works or new to the Tomb Raiding profession you are likely to find this a unique and thrilling adventure. Crystal Dynamics have done a remarkable job of crafting a game that firmly keeps hold of the spirit of adventure that first brought Lara to the forefront of gaming while at the same time bringing it kicking and screaming into the present. There are no misguided attempts to shoe-horn Lara’s gymnastic exploration into an urban setting and there are no signs of playable sidekicks with ridiculously macho-sounding names.
There has even been time spent on creating an interesting story this time around and a genuine attempt at character development. There are glimpses into Lara’s past which explain why she has developed such a keen interest in exploring dank tombs and has a love of historical artefacts. It’s pleasing to see Lara’s background being explored and fleshed out like this, and coupled with her refined looks and superb animation along with some great voice acting by Keeley Hawes (from BBC1’s Spooks) means Lara has never been more appealing.
But probably the biggest sigh of relief comes from the design of the levels, which actually include tombs this time. To say they’re the best in the series is an understatement; Legend features some intricately designed levels that more than compliment Lara’s expanded move-set and there is a lot of variety between them, not just in looks, but also the types of puzzles found in each one. The traditional block puzzles make a welcome return and are joined by some more lateral puzzles which, while not as lateral or finely constructed as God of War’s, are nicely integrated into the levels and there are very few that look out of place. There aren’t any that will really stretch your brain further than a few minutes but Crystal Dynamics have done well to create a lot of variety and its good to see they haven’t taken the easy route that simple switch puzzles would have provided, although they still make an appearance.
The diverse environments you come across during Lara’s adventure set her apart from the opposition. Newcomers like God of War and old favourite Prince of Persia have taken the genre a long way since her last appearance with a lot of emphasis on finely balanced controls and combat systems; Lara compares favourably in terms of control and level design but unfortunately falls slightly flat when it comes to combat. While it’s by no means terrible (considering third-person gun combat has still yet to be convincingly pulled off) but it is over complicated and clumsy in places. The targeting system has a fit when there are multiple enemies nearby and frequently selects a distant enemy despite having one standing next to you peppering you with bullets.
Considering combat isn’t the main element and enemy placement is generally pretty good you shouldn’t find this ruins your overall experience, and is in no doubt an improvement from past games. What grates even more though is the inclusion of a couple of bike sections that are both unnecessary and utterly frustrating. They are incredibly unfair and having to repeat these multiple times because of faults with the game could be enough to put you off playing any further. It feels like these were made by a totally different team entirely just to pad out the game’s still respectable ten hours of play. Hopefully Crystal Dynamics will ditch them for the sequel and focus their efforts on prolonging the game in a more constructive way.
If you can overlook these issues (and that’s not particularly hard) Lara’s return not only compliments what has been seen before but evolves the series beyond measure. Fans will love some of the little touches included; Croft Manor is once again present and provides a chance to practise Lara’s different moves in your own time. If the next game irons out the poorer aspects of Legend and continues to innovate then the franchise will once again be amongst the elite. As it stands, Tomb Raider: Legend falls short of being one of this generations best games but it still ranks as a must-have whichever system you own.