Most people tend to forget that Tomb Raider is as much a PC franchise as it is a console series, as the original game launched in 1996 on both the PC and the PlayStation. In fact, the original Tomb Raider, along with Quake, helped kick-start the 3D revolution by providing an excellent game that looked unbelievable when running on the fledgling 3D PC hardware of the time. Now, 10 years after the original game was released, Eidos is preparing the long-awaited return of the franchise with Tomb Raider: Legend, and we got a chance to get our hands on a late version of the PC game to see Lara Croft come back to her roots.
Legend is the first Tomb Raider game in three years (not counting mobile versions). That's because the franchise sort of ran out of gas creatively after a few too many sequels delivered in rapid succession, not to mention that last Tomb Raider movie. With Legend, Eidos and developer Crystal Dynamics are looking to bring the franchise back after a well-needed rest and with some much-needed new technology. The original Tomb Raider engine that was recycled for all those previous sequels has finally been put to rest. This is Lara Croft for the next-generation of consoles, and it won't be surprising to hear that the PC version looks awfully similar to the Xbox 360 version (provided you have the hardware for it). Frankly, it's not too surprising about the similarities between the PC and Xbox 360 version, as the PC version (at this stage) feels very much like a port of its console brethren. The main menu feels better geared for a gamepad rather than a mouse and a keyboard, but at least the gameplay controls conform to the mouse/keyboard settings used for most third-person action games, so it doesn't take too long to get used to controlling Lara in the world.
The good news is that this is vintage Tomb Raider gameplay from the get go. We played through the game's opening level, set in Bolivia, with Lara on the hunt for an ancient relic when she suddenly encounters armed mercenaries. As expected, the gameplay is a sharp blend of puzzle-solving, platforming, and action, as you will have Lara climb, leap, and shimmy her way around a mountainous environment while occasionally pulling out her guns to blast enemies. The opening level serves as a nice tutorial level, slowly easing in new concepts, such as the grappling hook, and giving you opportunities to practice them in a relatively safe environment. Before too long, you'll have Lara doing some impressive acrobatic moves as she leaps from ledge to ledge or dangles one-handed from a precipice. About the only issue that may crop up at times is the camera, which tends to be an issue in third-person action games. Still, with some practice, you'll get a handle on it in little time.
To break up the puzzle solving and platforming, Lara will battle a variety of foes, both human and animal. For example, we ran into both heavily armed mercenaries and hungry tigers. Most of the time, Lara can rely on her default, trademark pistols, but she can also recover weapons from fallen enemies, which can provide some additional firepower. The downside is that these weapons, such as a carbine and a submachine gun, have limited amounts of ammo, while Lara's pistols essentially have unlimited ammo, so it's something of a trade-off. Combat is as easy as locking onto a target (the default key is "G") and blazing away. You can dodge and dance around to make the enemy miss, as well as jump and leap about to get some distance from an enemy that's too close, such as that tiger that likes to keep knocking you down before you can draw a bead on it. There are numerous health packs in the game to restore Lara's health, and the game relies on a checkpoint save system, so when you die (and trust us, you will die a lot while navigating some of the game's more brutal environments), you'll instantly fall back to the previous checkpoint. Not to worry, though, because the game does support manual saves, as well.
The environments certainly look pretty, and the visuals are obviously strong, especially if you have a fairly advanced 3D card to take advantage of some of the more sophisticated graphical effects, such as depth of field, which blurs details in the distance. The larger environments show these effects off to good effect. Legend doesn't go for photorealism, but it has rather more of a deliberately animated look. Still, there's no arguing that Lara's never looked better. She also sounds good, too, thanks to the voice work provided by the lovely English actress Keeley Hawes (best known to American television fans as Zoe on MI-5).
While there's no multiplayer gameplay in Legend, there are lots of various console-style extras, such as outfits, weapon upgrades, and more, which you can unlock depending on your performance in the game. For example, there are plenty of collectibles in a level, which you can try and find to max out your score. Another extra is that you'll be able to explore Croft Manor, Lara's home, which looks exactly like it did in Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movies, complete with the distinguished English butler and the tech geek in his glass office. Complete a level in the game, and you unlock a new area of the manor to explore.
We had fun playing through the first levels of the game, and we can safely say that Legend is the first PC version of Tomb Raider that we've looked forward to for quite a while. By updating the graphics engine to modern standards, Eidos and Crystal Dynamics have a game that won't look instantly dated on the PC, like some of the more recent Tomb Raider games have looked when they came out. Meanwhile, like we noted, Lara's never looked better, and the gameplay remains a strong blend of action and puzzle-solving. Tomb Raider: Legend will ship for the PC early next month, alongside all the other versions of the game.