As a second generation game of sorts for the Xbox 360, Tomb Raider Legend doesn't really offer any graphical or auditory advantages over first-gen titles like Call of Duty 2 (see my review and multiplayer review) or even Quake 4 (see my review). What it does offer is a nice refresh of the long-somnolent Tomb Raider franchise on the Xbox 360, complete with all the third person perspective, puzzle-solving, Indiana Jones-like plot devices, and, yes, heaving bosoms we've come to expect from the Tomb Raider series. Thanks to the Xbox 360, Lara Croft never looked so good. That said, the title character's, uh, epic proportions are a bit distracting, and not in a good way. I've been playing through the game with my 8-year-old son, and while he pretty clearly doesn't care one way or the other about Croft's assets, which are clearly highlighted in many of the automatic camera angles the game offers, he did have one telling comment about the game's proponent. "We don't usually play a girl in any video games, do we?" he shrugged. No, we don't.
And while Mark might be a bit too young to appreciate what's really going on here, there's another equally consistent quality to women portrayed in video games. They're always disproportional to their real life counterparts. That is, women in video games are built like, well, comic book super heroines, with exaggerated hourglass shapes, anime-like eyes, and pouting lips. The whole thing, frankly, is a bit silly. OK, now that we've gotten the obvious stuff out of the way, is Tomb Raider Legend a good game? Yeah, actually it's a very good game. It's kind of a third person action adventure puzzler with a healthy dollop of violence on the side. All in all, not a bad Tomb Raider title at all, and just in time for the original game's tenth anniversary.
You play Lara Croft, a billionaire tomb raider with a killer British accent, great looks, athletic moves, and intelligence to boot. The story is told in flashback mode, where the current story line occasionally stops so you can pick up with a younger Lara at various stages of her life. As the game opens, adult Lara is mountain climbing in Bolivia on the way to pick up yet another artifact. And then the storyline, combining elements of both the past and present, kicks in. The game progresses through various locales, starting with the archetypical Bolivia level, which is quintessential Tomb Raider. After that, it's off to Peru for some outdoor action, then Tokyo for some high-flying city-based acrobatics, and then a number of other places. I appreciate that the game started with a typical Tomb Raider level but then quickly moved on. The levels and settings are all nicely done and quite varied.
For the most part, game play is excellent. I don't find third person games to be as easy to control as first person shooters, but Tomb Raider's developers obviously spent a lot of time on this aspect of the game. There's nothing frustrating about it, and certainly nothing like the maddening control system in Far Cry Instincts Predator (see my review). Lara has a surprising range of motion and can produce an endless series of gymnastic-like moves that will get you out of any situation. One odd aspect of the game, and this is something I've never seen in other titles, though I'm told it comes up infrequently, is that the cut scenes are almost always interactive. That is, you can't relax when a cut scene comes up because you almost always have to instigate 1 to 3 moves in precise order, during each cut scene. You get helpful reminder graphics telling you which buttons and when, but invariably you screw up the first time around and have to try again.
In one particularly memorable sequence, you find that a bridge between high rises in Tokyo is destroyed, so you grab a motorcycle and jump the gap. As the bike approaches the gap, the game switches into a cut scene in which you see the jump cinematically. But you aren't going to make it, so you have to engage your grapple at exactly the right moment, making for an even more exciting moment.
Most of the game involves running around, getting stuck, and then figuring out what you need to do to get past a certain room. These puzzles can often be frustrating and can involve moving multiple objects around, positioning them correctly, and deftly moving to the right place at the right time. As with the cut scenes, you get reminder graphics in tight spots that hint what you should do or even just give it away entirely. The shooting sequences aren't as compelling as those in Quake 4 or Call of Duty 2 and often seem ancillary to the rest of the action. It's a puzzler adventure first and a shooter second.
The controls in Tomb Raider Legend are well done, though the Xbox 360 controller's weak d-pad is once again a cause of frustration. This control is used to trigger four different tasks: Push left and you toggle a light. Push down and you can select between two firearms. Push up and you can grab some health, if you're carrying any. And push right and you'll get a nice binocular view. Gun fights are almost too easy, especially with an auto-targeting mode you can target. But if you try and shoot any animals, such as dogs or panthers, God help you. You never seem to be able to target animals easily, which I recall was a problem with the original Tomb Raider.
In various portions of the game, you need to swing around on poles, jump chasms, scale rock faces, and even ride a variety of vehicles, including a slick segment in Peru on a motorcycle. All of these actions are handled quite naturally.
Graphics and sound
Both the graphics and sound are first rate. Tomb Raider Legend doesn't look realistic per se, but it wasn't designed to either, and while the water and jungle settings can't touch Far Cry, the overall visual effect is excellent with only occasional jaggies and no frame rate slowdowns. Sound is likewise excellent, with surprisingly good music that wouldn't be out of place in an epic movie. All of the game's speech can be viewed via closed captioning, which I really appreciate.
Aside from a few frustrating puzzles, the biggest disappointment in Tomb Raider Legend is that the game is only playable via a single player mode. There's no multiplayer options at all, not even a co-op mode. In the era of the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, there's no excuse for that. Games without multiplayer components should cost less than their peers. It's just not right.
Overall, Tomb Raider Legend is a fine single player adventure-puzzler with only a few niggling problems. Sadly, the Pamela Anderson teenage fantasy pin-up stuff just detracts from the game, which is generally very good. A lack of multiplayer options and some frustrating puzzles round out the mix, but overall Tomb Raider is a great game, albeit one for adults only.