Tomb Raider: Legend proves that the old girl's still got some life left in her after all.
The plot of Tomb Raider: Legend is certainly the best storyline the series has seen so far, involving Lara not just in a quest for mythical relics from mankind's past, but for answers to questions from her own past, as well. The discovery of a stone dais in Bolivia triggers memories of her mother's disappearance, and the search for clues to the dais' significance puts her at odds with the pompous son of a wealthy American political dynasty, and with an old friend. Lara gets support via radio from her assistants, the computer expert Zip and the bookish young scholar Alister, and while they don't usually have much to say that's particularly useful, their frequent banter with Lara does help alleviate the feeling of isolation that one sometimes experienced in earlier games. Lara's adventure takes her to a wonderfully diverse range of places ancient and modern, from crumbling temples to a Tokyo skyscraper to a British roadside tourist trap where yea, verily, cheesily narrated animatronic tableaux doth regale you with tales of King Arthur. The key problem with the story is that it ends all too soon and all too abruptly. There's a turning point at the game's conclusion, but not a resolution, and while it answers certain questions, it raises a host of new ones. Obviously the story will be continued in the next Tomb Raider, but some may find this game's ending a bit unsatisfying.
Lara definitely controls much better in this game than she has in the past. Despite her athletic prowess, she's often felt downright cumbersome to steer around, but here the controls are as tight and responsive as you could hope. In addition to her classic arsenal of moves like leaping great distances, swinging on ropes, and hanging from ledges--you know, all the stuff you'd expect an archaeologist to be able to do--Lara now has a nifty new grapple gadget, which can be used both to swing from metal objects and to maneuver them around when the situation calls for it. It's a relatively minor addition, but a very cool one nonetheless. There may be times when it's not immediately clear how to get from where you are to where you want to be, but Lara Croft is a very lucky girl, and there's always some ledge or rope or other environmental feature she can exploit to progress on her journey. Figuring out how to do that is part of the fun of Tomb Raider: Legend. Thankfully, Lara seems to have refined some of her skills, as the game is a bit more forgiving than earlier titles in terms of helping you make that death-defying leap, even if you weren't precisely aimed at where you were trying to go. This means that figuring out what to do, rather than fighting with unresponsive controls or a lousy camera to actually do it, is the source of the challenge.
Exploring the environments has always been one of the great pleasures of the Tomb Raider series, and it certainly is a joy here. The levels are richly detailed and outstandingly designed. There's a real sense of wonder to be had in experiences like navigating through the narrow, deadly corridors of a South American ruin only to emerge into a vast chamber filled with crumbling statues or grandiose contraptions. Surviving to get to these places can be a bit tricky sometimes, as you'll have to avoid the whirling blades or poisonous gas or crushing walls that stand in your way, but there's always a way to do it, and it's usually pretty apparent what it is. When Lara gets herself into situations that are especially perilous, the game sometimes shifts into an interactive cutscene in which you must match the button presses indicated on-screen or witness Lara meeting her demise in spectacular ways. The technique isn't new, as anyone who has played Resident Evil 4 will know, but these scenes do give the game a bit more cinematic flair.
In true Tomb Raider fashion, Lara will frequently encounter puzzles in her journeys, though the puzzles in this game are generally on a smaller scale than those in earlier games. That's not necessarily a bad thing; one could say that the puzzles in this game are more focused than those in previous titles, which often required you to do things like pull levers in many different rooms to open up a central door. In this game, the puzzles are typically limited to a relatively small area; everything you need to open the door in front of you is usually right there in the room with you. If you're unsure of just what elements of your surroundings play a part in the puzzle, Lara's binoculars leave no doubt, highlighting everything that can be used, moved or broken. Some may feel that this makes solutions a little too obvious, though of course you're never required to use the binoculars if you don't want to. The puzzles are usually moderately engaging, especially because they take place in such captivating locations, but they generally have so few elements that, even if the solution isn't immediately apparent, a little bit of trial-and-error experimentation will make things clear.
Lara is also still equipped with her famous dual pistols, and the game gives her an excuse to use them every now and then as she meets up with generic goons, predatory animals, and powerful bosses. The game introduces you to all kinds of stylish moves Lara can use when fighting enemies, including a few that allow her to slow time down and deal more damage. The combat is so basic, however, that these techniques aren't really necessary. They're there if looking cool while pumping people full of lead is important to you, but using the game's lock-on function and wailing on the fire button is enough to get through most situations, especially considering that the game is very, very generous with health packs, and should you die, the checkpoint system makes sure you're not set back far at all. Lara can also pick up other, more powerful guns from fallen foes, which do help you dispatch enemies more quickly but don't make the combat any more compelling. The combat is more of an interesting little diversion in this game than anything else, which does at least keep the focus squarely on the game's strengths: the joys of making your way through the environments and solving the puzzles. The few times combat does become more involving are during the game's boss battles, all of which are like puzzles in and of themselves. Lara will face human enemies equipped with powerful artifacts, a huge sea monster, and an ancient, malignant spirit. The challenge in these situations comes not so much from a demand on your reflexes and combat skills as from finding the enemy's weakness and exploiting it, which can be very satisfying.
If the combat is just a diversion, the game's two motorcycle stages, which require so little involvement from you it's silly, are just a bit of tedium. But there are only two of them and they're over with rather quickly, so they don't really blemish the overall experience. They just don't contribute much to it, either.
The game is impressive to look at, both from a technical and an artistic standpoint. The environments are full of little incidental details like dust motes and crumbling rock walls that go a long way towards making them feel authentic. Particularly impressive is the game's use of light and shadow; walking into a chamber and seeing Lara's silhouette dramatically projected on the wall in front of her really helps sell the overall experience. Lara herself has long been a source of controversy, and for better or worse, in Legend her outfits are as skimpy and her assets are as outrageous as ever. (It's especially humorous watching her absurdly curvaceous frame waddle around in high heels at a cocktail party.) It's definitely for the better, though, that she is very well animated, running and leaping and swinging with grace. The mercenaries and other disposable foes you encounter aren't nearly as detailed as Lara, but that's okay. You'll rarely get a close look at them anyway.
The game's sound is equally impressive. Most of the time there's no music, which is fine. The whistling of wind in the caverns, the clanking of gears, and the whirring of blades are more than enough accompaniment to the on-screen happenings. When music does kick in, whether it's ambient and soothing or sounds like something out of an action film, it fits the mood nicely. More noteworthy is the game's voice work. The actors aren't always given the greatest dialogue to work with, but each of them nonetheless brings considerable personality to their characters, which makes the story at least a bit more absorbing than it really has any right to be.
Most players should find that Legend takes them around eight to ten hours to complete. After that, the game offers numerous other things you can do, like explore every nook and cranny of each level to find a bunch of hidden bronze, silver, and gold rewards, or race through the levels to complete a series of time trials. Whether or not these things interest you depends on whether you want to revisit the game's locales and whether you're motivated by the prospect of unlocking extras like design models, alternate outfits, and character bios. As fascinating as it can be to learn that Zip, in addition to being a computer whiz, is also a world-class chef, most players probably won't feel too motivated to play the game much once the adventure reaches its all-too-abrupt conclusion.
Tomb Raider: Legend is a significant improvement on the most recent games in the ongoing saga of Lara Croft. It has a level of polish that the earlier games were lacking, and that refinement helps to make the game a whole lot more fun. It may not last as long as you would like, but at least it can be said that this is the first Tomb Raider in quite some time that leaves you genuinely looking forward to the next one. Some may have despaired for Lara Croft's future, but Legend proves that the old girl's still got some life left in her after all.