The older Tomb Raider games were popular in their own way, likely because of their common appeal of a sassy and peculiarly proportioned femme fatale who explores ruins with great athleticism that far more than compensates for her lack of practical gear. However, this advantage would wear away over time.
After all, if they were judged with present-day bias, they did not age well. Difficult controls and terrible cameras made them difficult to enjoy, yet its original developers, Core Design, never figured out what they were doing wrong.
Tomb Raider: Legend would be the first entry in the franchise that is designed by another developer, specifically Crystal Dynamics. Although Crystal Dynamics has a mixed track record, it has proven itself by creating games that are at least technically sound, namely the Soul Reaver series.
As a result, Legend does have controls that are far more intuitive and convenient than those seen in the earlier games. Legend also has a story that seems to be a divergence from the original canon, which may discomfort purist fans that would prefer a narrative sequel, but in the eyes of others, it was perhaps a timely reset.
One of the biggest problems that the previous game had and which Core Design never addressed properly was the camera, which was often not helpful.
In Legend, the camera is at worst just an occasional nuisance. There are times in the game where the default camera view, as selected by Crystal Dynamics' programmers, is hardly conducive to the gameplay. For example, a camera view may show the lateral distance between two poles, but it fails to show the lengths of the poles, which are perpendicular to the screen and may well have different lengths.
Fortunately, the camera view in Legends is not as unwittingly creepy as its predecessors, which often took angles that would please players who have a penchant for hourglass-figured fictitious characters.
That is not to say that the camera view in Legend is not enamoured with Lara Craft. Indeed, more often than not, it moves and reorients to show Lara Croft leaping and jumping from platform to platform with athletic gusto. Unfortunately, this happens in real-time, when the player needs to see where Lara is going instead of how she is doing.
(On the other hand, the camera does snap back quickly to a more convenient orientation after Lara has firmly grabbed onto something.)
The most important design that the camera has is that the player can control its orientation. This can be used to work around the sillier of the default camera orientations. There is also a hotkey to automatically force the camera to look at Lara's back and beyond her.
Lara has a handy pair of hi-tech binoculars. With it, she can not only survey her surroundings, but also analyse objects for structural weaknesses, among other information such as which objects can be pushed or shot to bits.
Of course, this is nothing new in video games, but that there are several calm moments in Tomb Raider: Legend that allow the player to take a breather and do reconnaissance is something that is rarely done in the series.
Like in the previous games, Lara Croft is a consummate acrobat, as can be deduced from the massive gym in her manor. Lara can sprint, jump, climb and vault, much like she could in previous games. There are also a lot of pushing and pulling of rocks.
By default, the directional controls are dependent on Lara's facing. In previous games, this was a major problem, as the camera is not always oriented according to Lara's facing. In Legend, this is not as much of an issue anymore, due to its much better camera designs.
The best designs of Lara's movement are the context-sensitive reach-outs that she makes when she jumps from platform to platform. Her arms reach out to grab the next ledge or handle; this is generally a reliable indicator that she is capable of making the jump. If she does not, there is not anything that she can possibly grab and she will fall.
Fortunately, which edges and objects that Lara can grab onto are usually easy to recognize, due to distinct visual designs for these. However, there are some minor issues with crevices and ledges on rocky surfaces, because they use the same textures as the rest of the surfaces.
One can argue that Tomb Raider: Legend does nothing truly new, for the abovementioned designs have been seen in competently designed games with 3D platforming, such as the Sands of Time trilogy of Prince of Persia and even Crystal Dynamics' Soul Reaver franchise. On the other hand, it is a tremendous improvement over its predecessors in the Tomb Raider series.
Legend is also a lot more forgiving than most other 3D platformers. Even if Lara appears to have failed to grab a ledge, she might catch the next nearest one in reach automatically. However, the player only has a few seconds to tap a button for Lara to strengthen her grip or fall.
There are nuances in Lara's movement when she is on her two feet, though most of these are merely there for novelty's sake.
For example, Lara can perform a fantastic series of jumps depending on how furiously the player jams away at the jump button. This series of jumps very much resembles a gymnast's performance, which is perhaps understandable as Crystal Dynamics has hired some athletes for the motion-captured animations. Unfortunately, they are not very practical in-game.
Of more practical use are the series of rolls that Lara makes when the player taps away at the roll button. This allows Lara to maintain the momentum of a somersault, which is handy when attempting to move down a heavily trapped corridor.
Some of the gymnastic moves are also implemented for purposes of convenience. For example, when Lara is already swinging around a pole, the player can have her switch directions without losing any momentum, such as via the Tkatchev move. The player does not need to have Lara stop and start swinging again.
Like in the previous games, Lara can do flips while holding guns and shooting them. Previous games could get away with these unbelievable maneuvers with their less-than-present-day graphics, but not so for Legend. As much as the developers try to have her aiming them in believable manners, her arms are sometimes oriented in awkward ways, which suggests limitations in the animations.
Lara can climb vertical surfaces, but climbing is more perilous in Legend than in previous games. This is mainly because there are many uncertain grips that she has to make, some of which require her to hop from a perch. This often results in an unsteady grab, which will require the player to press a button quickly to steady her grip.
When her grip is more certain, the player can perform a minor mini-game of sorts that has the player tapping buttons in time with her animations to accelerate her climbing and shimmying.
In the previous games, Lara can only perform the breaststroke when swimming. In Legend, if she is close to the water's surface, her swimming animations switch over to freestyle, which is a lot faster than the breaststroke. However, the player will have to tap the swim button repeatedly, which can at times seem unnecessary.
Although Lara may have forgone practical tools like pitons, she does have a grapple that she can use to make swings with. It is also used in certain puzzles, usually for the purpose of yanking down and toppling things with.
Overall, Lara's movement is incredibly entertaining in Legend and is far improved over its predecessors.
Following the tradition of the series, Lara Croft has a health bar that denotes how close she is to death's door. Dropping from considerable heights and taking gunshots inflict damage on her, understandably enough, but as long as the bar is not empty, Lara's abilities are not diminished in any way.
The bar can be refilled by consuming medical kits, some of which are found in unlikely places. This is perhaps a form of homage to the earlier games, but otherwise, most of the medical kits are located at more believable places, such as the camps of mercenaries or among their corpses. Lara Croft can only carry three medical kits, which is likely intended for purposes of gameplay balance.
COMBAT & ENEMIES:
Like in previous games, Lara Croft can lock onto enemies automatically, thus allowing the player to focus on dodging enemies. She will automatically pick the nearest enemy when entering battle, and will continue to target him/her/it, unless the player has her switching targets, which can be done with a tap of a button.
However, Crystal Dynamics has implemented the drawback of decreasing her accuracy when she shoots on the move, especially when she engages faraway targets.
There is a convenient visual indicator that informs the player whether Lara is capable of hitting her enemies or not. If the cursor that indicates which enemy is being targeted is red, the player can hit it.
Range is the main factor for this, and it will take a while for the player to learn at which range Lara is best using her guns at. Of course, getting into the faces of enemies and jumping over them and shooting their backs is viable, like in the previous games, but this only works for some of the time, specifically when she is not greatly outnumbered by enemies from various ranges.
Speaking of jumping, as mentioned earlier, Lara can do flips while shooting the heck out of enemies. However, she can only do this with certain weapons, such as her pair of pistols and the submachinegun.
The assault rifle and shotgun can still be used while she flips around, but they have noticeably decreased rate of fire when she is jumping about instead of running along on the ground. The same can also be said about the grenade launcher and hand grenades.
Curiously, the recoil from these much more cumbersome weapons does not appear to affect her athletic skills by much.
Lara has a few close combat moves, the first of which is a painful kick that she delivers to enemies that are close enough. This is done instead of shooting, so it does save some ammunition. However, the time needed for the animation may put off some players from opting for it over shooting.
Some of her acrobatic moves turn into something else when she performs them in range of a humanoid enemy. These context-sensitive moves include a slide that replaces the usual roll and is intended to trip unwary enemy soldiers.
She also has some moves for disarming human enemies with, but it is usually more practical to just shoot them to death.
Most enemies are unable to match Lara's agility. This makes individual enemies all but helpless as the player has Lara twirling above them and putting bullets on their heads, shoulders or backs (in the case of angry animals). However, there are many scenarios where there are multiple enemies to deal with, such as a squad of enemy soldiers. For these, the player has to learn to make better use of cover.
Interestingly, Lara often encounters hostile animals indoors, where she cannot make full use of her agility. As fit as she is, she cannot outrun them either.
Fortunately, they do not appear to have the ability to pounce on her or knock her down, so the player at least can maintain Lara's mobility in order to get her to somewhere safer, namely a ledge that they cannot reach.
However, the animals are given the opportunity to knock Lara down if she is trying to climb onto something. Most of the animals are also scripted such that they will hide if they cannot get to Lara, which makes them more challenging to deal with than their dumb predecessors.
Lara has to face human enemies too. They generally prefer to fire from behind cover, rarely moving about if they can draw a bead from their guns to Lara. Some of them have shields, which protect them from anything weaker than the grenade launcher.
There are bosses, but most of them are pattern-based opponents that can be figured out quickly if the player is observant enough. (Interestingly, one of the boss fights can be circumvented if Lara is heavily armed with grenades.)
The difficulty options that the player can pick when starting a new game merely affects the durability and damage output of enemies. They are not any different from so many typical difficulty options that are found in other games.
There is an option for first-person aiming, but this option is ultimately impractical as Lara becomes immobile while doing so, which is not desirable.
Not to be left out of the fad of slow-motion combat, Tomb Raider: Legend has "focus" mode, which the player can trigger to slow down everything except Lara's ability to aim.
Overall, the combat in this game is neither memorable nor refreshing. It is functional, but it is generally just there as fodder in between set-pieces or platforming sections.
COLLECTIBLES & UNLOCKABLES:
Throughout the levels in the game, the player may come across bronze, silver and golden items that are tucked away in hard-to-reach and/or hidden nooks and crannies. They require effort and curiosity on the part of the player to be obtained (unless the player refers to walkthroughs, of course), but getting them grants unlockable content that can be entertaining.
Due to the limited game-saving system (which uses checkpoints), any collectibles that the player misses the first time around when playing a level is forfeit. The player will need to replay the level to get any that had been overlooked.
Collecting bronze and silver items grants upgrades to Lara's more reliable weapons, namely her pistols. This can be handy if the player wants to stave off getting the golden items for another playthrough, if only because they allow the player to blow through opponents more quickly if he/she is not inclined to use any other weapon.
Interestingly, there are only upgrades for the pistols, but not any other weapon.
Getting the bronze items unlock the profiles for the characters and artwork of locales in the game. These may seem like the inclusion of conceptual materials that were devised during the development of the game, so they would not seem like they have much value.
Certain other content can only be contained by completing levels within par times. These are told to the player via the menu selection screens. These other pieces of content concern cheats that can be activated.
Considering that these cheats are not unlocked by collecting precious items, the player can unlock them first to help him/her get the collectibles more easily.
Interestingly, one of these cheats involves the display of health counters for enemies. These could have been available by default.
There are costumes for Lara, which have to be obtained by collecting items, beating the time trials or simply completing levels. Most of them are just there for eye candy, especially the hardest ones to get.
The system of collectibles also happens to highlight one of the most interesting levels in the game: Lara's own family manor. Unlike in the previous games, it more than just a training level in Legend. It acts as a scoreboard that shows the player's achievements, namely how many bronze, silver and golden artifacts that the player has collected. It also has some tricky and surprisingly in-depth puzzles, some of which Lara would remark on.
Some players may appreciate these puzzles, as they do not generally put Lara in danger.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of the collectibles is the solutions to obtain them. Many of them are worked into puzzles that the player must solve in order to progress further into a level, so if the player is not observant enough (or not informed by guides), he/she may well forfeit some collectibles in his/her hurry to finish a level.
For example, a collectible may only be reachable by manipulating ancient mechanisms to partially open a gate in order to create a platform to it. If the player had not done so, the ancient mechanisms may go all the way and get locked in place.
QUICK-TIME EVENTS AND VEHICLE CHASES:
Perhaps in an attempt to inject some variety into the gameplay, Crystal Dynamics has included quick-time events and vehicular chases in addition to the traditional platforming and combat.
Players that are averse to quick-time events (QTEs) may discover that Legend's are surprisingly forgiving. There is a checkpoint before a sequence of QTEs, and sometimes a few in the midst of particularly long sequences. The openings for the inputs are also rather wide.
Yet, though the QTEs in Tomb Raider: Legend may be far easier than most, one would wonder why the game even bothered having them when in-game cutscenes could have sufficed.
The vehicle chases have Lara shooting away at enemies, who are also on vehicles, with one of her pistols. Oddly enough, she can collect and use medical kits even in these sequences, but this is probably so in order to balance against the difficulty of dodging attacks while she is riding something.
Unfortunately, the potential thrill of these high-speed chases is held back by settings that reduce their visual designs to an extent that is convenient for the developer. For example, one of the chases occurs in a dusty plain that handily limits draw distances.
That is not to say that all vehicular sequences are chases. One of them, which involves a slow vehicle, is instrumental to a puzzle – which happens to be quite frustrating because it is so different from puzzle-solving that involves Lara herself. On the other hand, the player is rewarded with a rampage using said vehicle.
WRITING & CHARACTER DESIGNS:
Lara has always been the star of the series, and it is the same for Legend. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Lara has most of the lines in the game, as well as the most models and textures.
More importantly, where the previous games appear to have Lara turning into a brooding person, Legend reveals a more vulnerable side of her by filling in a hole in her past that the previous games have not ventured much into.
Consequently, Lara is the most interesting character in the game, fittingly of course. Unfortunately, the entertainment value of the other characters pales in comparison to that of Lara herself. They are just not as memorable and appreciable, such as Lara's tech-savvy friend whose name would probably be forgotten by most players.
The villains may be a bit easier to remember, but only because they have actual roles in the gameplay than just being by-standers in Lara's personal saga.
For better or worse, most of the game's graphical designs are focused on Lara. What is certain though, is that most of them are quite impressive.
The impressiveness of Lara's motion-captured gymnastic moves has been mentioned earlier. That most of them are impractical in-game can seem like a lot of largesse on the part of the developers, however.
Compared to the animations for her gymnastic moves, the animations and postures for her gun-aiming and –shooting animations are less believable. This can be seen in how her upper torso appears to have momentum that is separate from her legs and hips, especially when she is using the bigger guns.
Amusingly enough, effects such as shining sheen-like decals for models only appear on Lara and a select few other characters. These are nothing new in video games of course, but some players may just want to dip Lara into water and have her come out just to watch the sheen and the particle effects of dripping water.
Following the tradition of the series, Legend has Lara trotting the globe. Each chapter of the game has Lara entering a locale in a different country, thus giving the game-maker an excuse to give different looks to different sets of levels.
Some of the locales can be splendorous, such as a waterfall. The game deliberately takes control of the camera just to provide glorious angles and panning of these places. Up-close though, the player would be reminded that Tomb Raider: Legend is not exactly cutting-edge in terms of graphics. There can only be so many polygons that Crystal Dynamics can pack into the environs after all.
Lara still sounds like the sassy lady that she has always been, which would be pleasing to long-time fans of the older Tomb Raider games. The other characters are voiced by talents that are not slouches either, but as they are not in the spotlight as much as Lara is, their aural presence would not be as keenly remembered as Lara's own voice actress.
Most of the weapons in the game sound believable, but are otherwise not memorable. There may be some fun to be had from the only fantastical weapon in the game, especially its alternate form that is a form of homage to a Crystal Dynamics property.
The sound effects that are associated with the environment have an important role in the gameplay. They are often used to denote changes in the environment as the player manipulates puzzles, though in-game cutscenes and the camera's panning may seem to render these unnecessary.
The music for Legend does include the series' trademark melody that was once used for the main menus. However, perhaps not surprisingly, it plays second fiddle to the newer soundtracks that had been composed by Troel Brun Folmann, who at the time worked at Crystal Dynamics.
He is not particularly high-profile in the video game industry. However, people who have played obscure games such as Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown may recall that he can give otherwise mundane-looking games surprisingly good ambience. Tomb Raider: Legend looks far from mundane, and it so happens that his touch would make the game seem all the more epic and wondrous.
Tomb Raider: Legend hardly does anything new that had not been seen in 3D platforming at the time. Its combat gameplay, though functional, was not refreshing either. It also has some elements that are so starkly different from its core gameplay, namely its QTE sequences and vehicular chases.
It also has some designs that may seem frivolous, such as the impressive motion-captured animations for Lara Croft's gymnastic moves, most of which are impractical in-game.
However, if one was to compare it to its flawed predecessors, Legend is far more well-designed and user-friendly. Lara Croft, who still remains as the franchise's main selling point and poster-girl, is represented as a more vulnerable heroine in this game, which can be pleasing to those who had been looking for depth in her character.