If you've been following our previous coverage of Tomb Raider: Legend, you'll know that we've been very much looking forward to getting our hands on something other than a demo of the game and spending some quality time with it. Our wish was granted earlier this week when we took delivery of a near-finished Xbox 360 version of the game, and we've subsequently played through the first four of its dozen or so levels in order to get a feel for its storyline (which we won't be spoiling for you) and for some of the very different environments that you'll get to explore. Specifically, we've played through the first level set in Bolivia in its entirety for the first time, visited Peru both in the present day and in a playable flashback level, and pitted Lara's skills against those of the Yakuza in Tokyo.
Since this is the first time that we've had the opportunity to spend any length of time with the Xbox 360 version of Tomb Raider: Legend, it'll likely come as no surprise to you that the first thing we noticed was simply how good it looks. The Bolivian environment in which Lara's adventure gets underway is one that we've seen on other platforms previously, but even on a regular 4:3 TV the improved visuals were difficult to ignore. As in previous Tomb Raider game environments, even the most organic locales have no shortage of right angles and perfectly straight edges to facilitate Lara's climbing and acrobatics, but the difference is that in Tomb Raider: Legend their appearance rarely detracts from the overall look of the game. Normal-mapping techniques and great lighting make even the most geometrically sound rock formations look like the work of Mother Nature on the Xbox 360, and you'll find that the results are more impressive still if you're in a position to take advantage of the game's high-definition and widescreen options. Of particular note is the water in the game, which looks almost as impressive in puddles and small pools as it does in fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls.
Although we'd played through portions of the Bolivia and Peru levels before, having the opportunity to do so again made it clear that the game's visuals isn't the only area that's benefited from some developer love in the last month or two. Areas that were devoid of enemies the last time we played, for example, were now home to vicious jaguars, and we also had a lot of fun searching for the bronze, silver, and gold secret items that are now hidden throughout every level. The bronze through gold naming of the secret items is a reference to how difficult they'll be to find, so while many of the bronze secrets are difficult to miss during the course of just playing through a level, you'll definitely need to explore and stray from the most obvious path in order to locate the silver and gold ones. Besides adding an additional layer of challenge to the game, the secret items on the Xbox 360 will be one of a few different ways that you can earn achievement points, along with beating the game on different difficulty settings, and playing through individual levels against the clock. It's conceivable that the secret items we collected might also have contributed to the number of bonus features we unlocked at the end of each level, which included art galleries, movies, and different outfits for Lara.
On the default difficulty setting, none of the four levels that we played through on this occasion posed much of a challenge, though that's certainly not a criticism given that the first two are basically just action-packed tutorials. The most obvious explanation for the ease with which we were able to get through the first four levels is the large number of first-aid kits that we found, combined with the fact that Lara is able to carry three of them simultaneously for use later. Again, this isn't a criticism, because given that the game's gymnastics and puzzles are unlikely to change according to your chosen difficulty level, it stands to reason that the main differences between the easiest and hardest settings will be the strength of enemies and the number of first-aid and ammo pickups available. The game will also become progressively more difficult as you get further into it, of course.
Besides the presence of first aid kits, features that all of the levels we played had in common included plenty of gunplay (Lara's guns have a very limited range, so most of this is up close and personal), puzzles involving weight-activated floor switches, and traps and "super action" sequences that sometimes managed to kill us the first time we encountered them and were taken by surprise, but which weren't nearly as effective the second time around. Floors collapsing under Lara's feet, for example, require very quick thinking the first time you step onto them, but if you die and try again moments later, you'll know exactly what's coming and can plan accordingly.
You won't just be exploring tombs and ancient ruins in Tomb Raider: Legend, of course, and although the only modern level we've played thus far is the one set in Tokyo, a quick look at the list of achievements that can be earned playing the Xbox 360 game revealed the names of some other destinations in which Lara might choose to wear heels instead of hiking boots. The good news is that although levels like Tokyo look very different to those set in ancient underground cities, the gameplay, at least based on our experiences thus far, really isn't any different. You might find yourself scaling a skyscraper instead of a statue, or defending yourself from a big guard dog instead of a big cat, but the emphasis is still very much on exploration, puzzle-solving, and combat, though not necessarily in that order.
The only areas of Tomb Raider: Legend that we know will stray from that formula are the vehicle-based portions of the game, which we got a taste of in both Peru and Japan. Both of those levels see Lara climbing onto a motorcycle for a short time, and we can report that the handling characteristics of said rides lean toward accessibility rather than realism, which is good news for any of you who dislike or have little experience with racing games. The longer of the two motorcycle sequences that we played took place in Peru, and tasked us with shooting at enemy bikers while racing through a desert and using a combination of ramps and exploding barrels to overcome obstacles in our path. The chase wasn't particularly challenging on the default difficulty setting, but it made for a nice change of pace, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves underground and on foot again.
To tell you much more about our experiences with the near-finished Xbox 360 version of Tomb Raider: Legend thus far would be to risk spoiling the game for you. We're still hopeful that Crystal Dynamics' first Tomb Raider game will mark a return to form for the series, and all we'll tell you about the story is that we can't wait to see where it's going next. We'll bring you more nonspoiler information on Tomb Raider: Legend in the coming weeks.