Lara Croft exploded on to the gaming scene in 1996 with the original Tomb Raider. At the time, it was a very unique and challenging game, combining action based third person gameplay with puzzle and adventure elements. After this success, it wasn't long until Lara became a gaming icon in the same breath of names such as Duke Nukem and Mario. Of course, it wasn't just the gameplay that propelled the character of Lara Croft to the top of the gaming world, her "image" helped that process too.
However, what started out as a fresh title gradually became a very stale one. With Tomb Raider 1 through to 6 (The Angel of Darkness) being released in a 7 year span, very little but level design was changed throughout the years. In the later installments, the series lacked any originality or appeal for mainstream gamers outside of the devoted Tomb Raider fan base. It was time for Eidos and Core Designs to go their separate ways, and it was time Lara was brought into the new generation of gaming. With a 3 year wait since the last TR hit retail shelves, this time of change has finally arrived with Tomb Raider Legend.
As the story goes, Lara is off doing a normal relic retrieval mission when she bumps into her unsettled past. Despite what she believed, a friend who was once thought dead after an artifact gathering expedition gone wrong is proven to have survived after all, and Lara is determined to uncover the truth. During the process, Lara also learns the truth about her mother's death, and how it all ties together. While some areas are a little cliche, particularly the characters, this is certainly one of the more in depth storyline attempts in the Tomb Raider series, and it comes together reasonably well.
Although Legend, being developed by Crystal Dynamics, is the first game in the series that wasn't developed by Core Designs, it retains much of what made the original TR titles so impressive gameplay wise. For instance, the balance of action and puzzle solving in Legend is well done and feels very similar to the classic TR titles in this regard. There are times where you will be in an all out gun battle, and times where you will spend reasonably lengthy periods jumping, climbing, clinging and sliding around your environment. You will also face the classic mixture of enemies from animals, to humans and super natural forces, and you will have access to weapons fans of the series will be very familiar with, including the dual pistols. You will also be able to control a few vehicles in Legend, new and old, but this is somewhat expected as most TR's in the past had some degree of vehicle control.
On top of this, the same checkpoint save system found in the TR series remains in Legend, and although I really don't like checkpoint saving systems for PC games, there is almost always a checkpoint in vital areas so you rarely ever have to go back far if you die in a tough part of the game. Even though Legend is an entirely new game, it still remains loyal to the Tomb Raider feel down to the finest details - basically, fans of the series will hit the ground running when it comes to Legend.
However, that's not to say Legend hasn't seen some massive improvements over its predecessors. While the core gameplay feels much like TR's of the past, the arrival of a totally new engine has really allowed the developers to let loose on the environmental interaction, as seen best with the puzzle based gameplay in Legend. Rather than simply jumping from ledge to ledge to flip a switch somewhere, Legend uses real world physics based on weight and size to design many of its puzzles. For instance, you may need to jam a trap with a large rock, or counter balance weights to open a door. On top of this, Lara now has access to a grappling hook which allows you to not only swing over otherwise impossible areas to cross, but it is commonly used to move objects around in puzzles from a distance, adding a new element to solving some of the game's more complicated moments. While I'm sure there are a lot of people savvier than myself with Tomb Raider style gameplay, there were times in Legend that I really had to think and plan a puzzle out before attempting it. That, to me, says wonders about the level of detail that went into Legend's gameplay.
Another aspect which has really improved over previous titles is the level design. Before, the levels in TR had to be designed around Lara's abilities. While this is still the case with Legend, Lara can now do a whole lot more, so the level design can be far more dynamic. Outside of the traditional ledge jumping, Lara now has the ability to use swing ropes and other vertical and horizontal structures, and as mentioned before, a grappling hook is now available which can be used for swinging long distances, or it can be used to bring objects - such as a suspended platform - closer to you. All in all, the improved options available for moving Lara around her environment means there are far less restrictions in level design needed, and it really shines through gameplay wise.
And while the structure of levels benefit greatly from the new engine, so does the actual content of the levels. Although the game is indeed called Tomb Raider, in Legend like a few TR's of the past, you won't be restricted to just tombs in Lara's adventures. This time around, Lara goes pretty much all over the globe - South America, Africa, a few places in Europe and even Japan. While the dark and mysterious tomb theme remains very strong in Legend, some of the levels are pretty much the exact opposite - for instance, the Japan level is entirely played out in Tokyo buildings, and while incorporating Lara's abilities into a setting so different may seem like a huge gamble, that particular level is actually done rather well and proves just how well this game has been designed.
On top of all these new additions to the game, you will also have the ability to perform extra tasks to fully complete Legend 100%. These tasks include defeating a level you have already completed in a set period of time, dubbed Time Attack, and collecting objects throughout each level. These objects are usually categorized as either Bronze, Silver or Gold, and each level has 10 or so to collect in total, including the "Craft Manor" level, which, as with the previous TR games, is Lara's mansion that you can explore. This time around it is a very large, very feature filled household with gym, gigantic pool and all. These new and old elements to the series aren't exactly groundbreaking, but they do offer nice alternatives to the standard gameplay if you want more than just the basic single player missions.
However, not all new additions are quite as impressive. One new aspect of the gameplay in Legend is occasionally you will be required to "play out" a cut scene. Basically, what happens is Lara gets into a pickle of some sort during a cut scene, and it is up to you to save her. The game does this by displaying a direction on the screen that you have to press in a very short amount of time. Failure to press the correct direction at the correct time means Lara dies, and you have to do it again. Each one of these cut scenes have about 4 or so direction presses required until you get out of trouble.
The concept seems sound enough, but they're really nothing more than annoying distractions. While I'm sure some gamers can storm through these without having to do them over and over again, I often found myself repeating the same cut scene 4 times - one for each required direction press - as the window is very small between being too early or too late with the press. Once you go through it a few times and memorize each required direction, it's dead easy, but it sure does seem like a waste of time. A better idea, perhaps, would have been to randomize the directions each time, which would have meant you couldn't just simply memorize the sequence, but ultimately I think they could have just been dropped from the final version completely without any significant loss to the overall game.
Visually, Legend is about as good a PC game has ever looked. Outside of the highly detailed model of Lara, the environments you will visit are nothing short of spectacularly stunning. Whether it's solving a puzzle inside an ancient South American tomb, or combating militants on the ledges of a Japanese sky scraper, you will be very impressed when it comes to the graphics. The textures are all very high in resolution and the lighting is sensational. Occasionally I did see a quirk here and there to do with modeling and texturing, but nothing that detracts significantly from what is a visually pleasing experience.
However, great graphics like these come with a catch, and that's the performance side of things. On an A64 4000+, 1GB, X1900XTX PC, I experienced less than perfect performance at a resolution of 1280x1024 with no anti aliasing. This was with the feature "Next Generation Content" turned on, which significantly improves the game's visuals compared to when it is turned off. Whilst off, the game still looks good and the frame rate was rock solid, but the visual splendor experienced with this option on is so great, it is worth a few sluggish moments - just don't expect the game to be playable with this option enabled on system's less powerful than the one mentioned above. It must be said though, this is a "Nvidia selected" game, so perhaps the higher end Geforce videocards fair better than the Radeon ones, although I'm going to bet that nothing short of an SLI/Crossfire setup will get you flawless gameplay at max settings with Tomb Raider Legend.
On top of this, while the game does make efficient use of the keyboard and mouse regarding button placement, an analog game pad is probably going to be the best option. Since the game does utilize an auto aiming system, the concise movements of a mouse are not really needed, and the convenient layout of most analog control pads tips the scales as far as I'm concerned. This isn't a huge problem as a lot of PC gamers do have analog game pads, but I'm personally weary of PC games that are best when using a game pad, because you just never know if your pad is going to be supported properly. I used a Logitech Rumblepad 2, and outside of not having force feedback for some reason, a few button placements were off, which required a bit of re-configuration, after which I still couldn't fix the odd placements of "enter" and "back" when accessing menu's. In this day and age, particularly for games that are best suited for game pads, every PC game should have complete control over what function is linked to what button, for both in-game and menu's, which Legend fails to do. Also, having inbuilt config files for popular game pads like the Rumblepad 2 shouldn't be out of the question, either.
Unfortunately, no matter which control method you use, Legend seems to occasionally suffer from camera angle quirks. While most of the time you have a perfectly fine third person view, when you're in tight spaces or, in general, indoor environments, it is common to see camera angles which make movement quite difficult. While you can modify the camera, rotation is obviously limited by objects such as walls and roofs. It isn't a huge problem, but there have definitely been times where I died jumping in a blind direction thanks to the poor camera. It's a good thing the checkpoint saving/reloading system is so thorough, because otherwise this could have been a rather big issue.
Tomb Raider Legend is really a great example of a series gone right. While you'd think the Tomb Raider style of gameplay would have expired by now, Legend really rejuvenates the series back into the realms of play-ability. You can expect to see the same classic mixture of puzzle solving and action, but with a nice degree of environmental interaction thrown in as well, all played out in a brand new engine with settings and locations that are rendered in stunning detail to say the least. Some games suffer with a new engine, but Legend really, really excels. Unfortunately, though, unless you have a very high end PC, you won't get the full visual experience this game has to offer without unacceptable frame rates, and, as with all Tomb Raider's, Legend is certainly an acquired taste - if you are or were a fan of the series, even only a small one, you will absolutely love Legend, but if you weren't overly bothered with the series before at all, you may see little more than the same game with a few cosmetic enhancements.