Tomb Raider: Legend
Founding father Toby Gard makes a (much needed?) return to the Tomb Raider development process and series veterans Core have been replaced by Crystal Dynamics to inject some fresh verve into a one-time standout franchise in serious danger of spiralling into quality implosion. So, does the resultant Tomb Raider: Legend emerge as a reprieve for the lovely Lara and a reawakening for faithful fans, or is it merely another denizen of impending doom?
Tomb Raider: Legend arrives as the seventh series iteration to have hit consoles, and it's imbued with a grounded series familiarity that's been sadly lacking since 1997's Tomb Raider 2. Moreover, Legend almost immediately feels much more centred and focused on that singularly most important Tomb Raider facet that's been seemingly lost across the evolution of the series: the raiding of tombs and collection of precious artefacts. Those particular elements are in evidence throughout Tomb Raider: Legend, and the whole game is held together by an engaging storyline that expands on Lara Croft's personal history and offers players a tantalising glimpse at the vulnerable side of one of gaming's most iconic action characters.
Legend's presentation certainly adheres to the next-generation format and, from the moment the beautifully produced montage title sequence plays out by way of introduction, it's obvious that considerable development effort was lovingly applied to the game. Environments are varied, intriguing, and instantly appealing, and players are sure to find themselves inadvertently ignoring Lara for a few moments in order sweep the game camera around and revel in the array of thrilling caverns, eerie ice caves, and breathtaking skylines. Lara (bearing the full burden of a decade's gathered expectancy) is rendered with grace and subtlety and she's animated wonderfully from start to finish. She also displays a convincing weight of movement that helps further solidify her overall believability, particularly amid automatically implemented slow-motion somersaults above the heads of bullet-riddled enemies. Aurally, the silky tones of English actress Keeley Hawes are perfectly cast for Lara's comforting 'lady of the manor' demeanour; though there are one or two moments during the game when Lara abruptly shirks the veil of decency in favour of a notably darker attitude - which provides welcome layers to her character. Game music, atmospherics, and sound effects are also excellent in terms of moving the player effortlessly between frantic action and creeping tension.
Gameplay in Tomb Raider: Legend is thoroughly intuitive for much of the game, and Lara's thick catalogue of signature moves - including the use of a newly introduced retractable grappling hook - are all performed with a satisfying immediacy and agility. There are also Shenmue-esque cut scenes scattered across Legend, which involve on-screen button prompts and the demand for speedy finger dexterity from the player, lest Lara suffer a wealth of sticky ends (all of which can be unlocked and played through as a gaff video collection). The only control criticism to be levelled at Legend arises during the oddly ill-fitting motorcycle chase sequences, which are meant to stagger the pace of the game's more gentle puzzle solving. However, players are more than likely to feel temporarily disconnected from the overall experience during these segues, as Lara's thundering Ducati tears across mountain trails and rocky wastelands while she mundanely shoots vehicular bad guys, rides over medical pick-ups, and launches across yawning chasms. Boss encounters are also perhaps a little disappointing when compared to the game's usually high standards, and it's likely that nothing blocking player progress will do so for very long. Those tiny increments of negative comment aside, the overall immersion garnered by Legend's explorative aspects is certainly well worth pursuing.
Tomb Raider: Legend does not contain any form of on-line component and, considering the single-player nature of the ongoing series, it is difficult to see how Live multiplayer could have been integrated. The game's central single-player campaign provides around 12 hours of solid game time, which is dependent on how many hidden artefacts players are prepared to search for during each level. To further increase longevity, there are also three separate tiers of difficulty to further test prowess - and the game certainly makes enough impact to warrant another play through. Collected artefacts unlock extra game-related assets including individual character biographies, concept art, in-game costumes for Lara (which can be freely worn), and even pistol upgrades. The artefacts also open Time Trial modes for each completed level, where players can rush Lara through again against the clock - without concerns on careful searching - for the sake of little more than harvesting pointlessly addictive Xbox 360 achievement points.
Successfully energising a tired and stale gaming franchise, which has dulled steadily beneath the glare of the critical and consumer spotlight, is an amazing feat in itself. Six previous console incarnations of Tomb Raider and a steeply plunging quality line that descended to the appallingly bad Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, means that Legend was labelled as a dud-in-waiting before it even reached its release date. However, the fact that Tomb Raider: Legend is a wonderfully crafted videogame that chooses to retrace fonder times should shame the critics into waves of apology. Frowning at the game's relative lack of invention or its predictable sequel-friendly ending is not the order of the day here, whereas openly applauding because a worthy but lost franchise has got back on track most certainly is.