The original Tomb Raider is one of Those Games. You know, a game that people remember. A game whose main character non-gamers know the name of; one that launched a franchise that cut a unique groove for itself and created its own sub-genre, in a way. However, the series began to flag as sequels became not only repetitive but also lacked quality and strayed too far from their progenitor’s strengths. Legend, which I played through a few weeks ago on a weekend, is a very clear move to reclaim the name of Lara Croft and bring it back to its place of prestige in gaming. Many have hailed it as a successful return with a rare shortcoming here and there. I’m not so sure about that. Entertaining and visually lush, Legend is also flawed and diminutive in the face of its heritage. I see this installment as a proof of concept: Tomb Raider is still an IP with life and possibilities. I do not see it as the revelation some are stretching to tout it as.
If you were gaming when the Playstation came out, back in late 1995, you remember the original Tomb Raider. 3D gaming was finding its feet to start seriously competing with 2D games, becoming something more than a technological novelty. Sony had entered into the tumultuous arena of videogame consoles, standing by the wrestling titans Sega and Nintendo. Sega, as we now know, was busy damning their hardware division, but Nintendo was readying their 64-bit masterpiece, Mario 64, in an effort to come back against the blow of Sega’s Genesis and their new hot, edgier mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. That meant two established IPs, both carrying marketing muscle and immense recognition, were shoring up their ranks and readying their salvos before the Playstation even hit the market. How do you compete? With Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. Sony and Eidos hit the nail right on the head.
You think a blue hedghog is edgy? You think he’s the new mascot for the older generation of gamers, the next generation of gaming? How about a smart, tough, British explorer with dual pistols and an anatomy to stop traffic?* Eidos showed off their screenshots and our jaws dropped. 3D worlds to explore with realistic textures, lighting effects, and fully 3D characters. I remember downloading screenshots on our 28K modem, waiting minutes just to see the interior of a tomb or the beauty of an underground cistern. Sony had its champion to contrast Nintendo’s bright cartoon world of Mario, with its simpler graphics and cheery gameplay (which I also loved, by the way). Fan debates aside, Sony’s newest exclusive title helped to cast the die and set up the dichotomy of the two consoles that, two generations and one new player later, still shapes the directions of both. Hell, it was even responsible for giving the gaming industry enough momentum to break off from the electronics expos and start E3, the first videogame industry expo. Oh, and it was a great game, too.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, the creators, Eidos, got a bit intoxicated by the scent of their own heady success. The series spawned a solid sequel, but ended up taking the shortest path to the lowest point. The movies were dreck, the subsequent games suffered, and Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was a buggy, critical flop, and many in the gaming community branded the series as dead.
But everyone loves a comeback, especially when it’s an old champ. And Eidos, wisely, let that drive their design concept and their marketing angle with Legend, to the point that they dumped Core Design, and hired Crystal Dynamics to get away from the old problems. If they could deliver the goods on some solid tomb raiding, true graphical innovations, and a decent departure from the grid-based play of the originals, they could make it work. And they did. The new game looks great, runs great, and definitely gets back to the basics. The gameplay is no longer based on the grid so obviously and rigidly, and the tombs are there to be raided. However, all is not shiny and golden.
I’ve got the nostalgia, but I bailed on Lara before the series took a real nose-dive (I don’t think I played past the second or third game). So I didn’t get so burned. I’d since moved on to first-person shooters and PC gaming. Lara was old news and nothing indicated I should feel any differently. So maybe that’s why I’m not so willing to forgive some of the stilted and aggravating flaws I found in this latest installment. From a camera system that I found myself fighting and arguing with, to a control scheme that changes its mechanics almost arbitrarily in the midst of the action, to some so-so gun play, to the completely worthless motorcycle chases, this game makes it pretty clear that Tomb Raider‘s still a little unsteady on its new legs.
I’d like to point out here that I’m playing on the PC. And without getting into too much detail, the default control scheme is bizarre. I found myself doing a more than a little re-mapping of the controls, and even after that, I still had to suffer through some aggravating design decisions. The camera would often assume too much about what I would ’want’ to see and what would look cool to see instead of allowing me to see what I wanted or needed to. Often a camera would linger sluggishly on the periphery as the main action blew by off camera and the game telegraphed the instructions to swing to the other side. Also, the camera angle changes the control scheme. Depending on my angle of view, up (W) could make Lara move to the right on a ledge, or right (D) could do that. The annoying part is that the camera is allowed to lazily drift in and out of these notional zones without any clear and immediate indication that this is the case. When you’re a few minutes into an intricate jumping puzzle and you jump right off a cliffside instead of leaping to the next ledge because the camera was one degree off, you get a bit pissed. This really felt like a control scheme in need of refinement, or even an overhaul. There was too much erratic variation and it just felt careless. I wonder whether the console version was better about this. However, this was only one of my main letdowns.
Lara’s newest tool, the grappling hook, is probably the clearest example of the inclusion of ‘invisible wall’ design techniques in this game, which drive me crazy in any commercial release. An invisible wall design (my term) is any element in a game that limits you in a way that is completely unnatural within the context of the game world and breaks not only the reality of the world but also the immersion for the player. Examples of this are: an actual invisible barrier that prevents you from walking or traveling somewhere the designers don’t want you to go, or a tool or item that responds in a way that makes no sense in context, such as a bottle on a table that withstands gunfire when a box breaks apart. As for Lara’s grappling hook, the mechanics are simple: fling the hook and it will attach to something, and then you can either swing on it, or pull it towards you, depending on what it is. The downside is that this allows for all sorts of level design insanity that they clearly couldn’t cope with, so they limited its capabilities severely. Why can Lara attach her grappling hook to this statue and not that one? Why can it attach to a person and not their weapon? Why can’t I aim it where I want? Why is it so difficult to pick the right target when multiple targets are present? All of these questions come down to one thing: it would’ve been too complicated otherwise. And it’s a real shame, because the game mechanic opens up such possibilities for creating expansive non-linear worlds, but Crystal Dynamics obviously wasn’t ready to stray too far from the original. Unfortunately, they stayed true to the surface of the original more than the substance or even the spirit of the original: exploration and discovery. Or to put an even finer point on it: Legends lacks wonder.
The design of the original Tomb Raider arose largely from technical limitations. The PS1 could only push so many polygons, so tombs were a great way to limit the amount required. There was also a high degree of distance fog (remember that?) that actually worked in the context of dank, dark underground exploring. The levels gave a genuine sense of wonder, exploration, and discovery. This is how great design is often done: taking limitations and flipping them over into strengths. Legends doesn’t have these limits, and I think it suffers as a result. Sure, there are some really gorgeous levels and beautiful vistas, but the game is about exploring and acrobatics, with a little gunplay. If I can’t explore the vistas, then why bother teasing me with them? The game felt a bit flat. It relies on things that were cool years ago, instead of getting with the program. In the original game, the player discovered an underground valley with a damn T-Rex! It was mind-blowing at the time. There’s nothing like that here. Sure, there’s a big monster or two, but the wow moments just aren’t there. I remember crawling around on ancient cisterns and figuring out puzzles while beautiful music played. In Legends I feel funneled into overly linear puzzles and restricted to figuring out switch puzzles while dealing with an overly finicky control scheme. Swimming, for example is just silly with buttons for swimming up and down, rather than just using the movement keys. Come on people, you had this perfectly in the first game, why’d you mess with it? With games like Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia doing non-linear stealth acrobatics, and fluid jumping and climbing puzzles with panache, style, and loads of fun, Tomb Raider seems simplistic in comparison. The key word here is non-linear. Catch up here, people.
The series does take advantage of some recent trends/concepts in gaming, one of which is reflex-based mini-games in some of the cut scenes, where you need to tap a directional key on cue or Lara suffers a brutal physics-enhanced ragdoll death. It’s fun, but I get tired of this stuff quickly. However, this is just a personal thing. I prefer games with a bit more latitude, which is where the variation and replayability comes in. However, it helps to keep you immersed in the game and more connected to Lara’s actions, which is a good thing I suppose. She’s also outfitted with a Personal Light Source (PLS), which is a shoulder-mounted light that is actually pretty cool. Unfortunately, the game rarely makes use of it in a way that actually requires it. Most of the time I just used it for convenience’s sake. I would’ve liked some dark caves with no light and maybe a few wolves-growling-in-the-darkness scenarios. But, alas, t’was not to be. They also added a comlink to communicate with your support team back at the mansion. It was certainly more realistic in this way (if she’s that rich, it would make sense) but it cut into Lara’s role as a lone explorer a bit. There was something pure about that “it’s just you and the ancient ruins” feel to the older games. But they did manage to squeeze in some updated retro play in a flashback level, which was nice. They even kept the mansion level, which I found more challenging and interesting than a lot of the other levels, mainly because it was less linear.
The variety of settings was pretty great, however. From jungles to monasteries at the tops of mountains, to skyscrapers, to an abandoned King Arthur tourist trap with semi-functional exhibits, the settings of the levels were pretty inventive and attractive. They were definitely in keeping with the series and they sprang logically from the plot, which was actually pretty good.
The gunfighting was a mixed bag for me. If you got into the rhythm of it, it could feel and look very cool. But in the end, it’s so streamlined with the auto-targeting and the aiming system is so wonky from the camera that it ends up being a bit more arbitrary than I’d like. The system for re-aiming just didn’t feel intuitive to me. However, with the addition of destructible points to take out enemies, there was enough to make it entertaining. However, I miss the back-flip-while-firing move. They should bring that back. It was way cool.
Overall, Tomb Raider: Legends was a decent game. I don’t think it has any real replay value, but it’s fun and pretty, in spite of the aggravations. Also, it’s clearly a launch pad for a sequel, so if you want to get with the new storyline, you should at least get your hands on a used copy. If the team responsible for the sequel can get their act together and join all of us in the contemporary gaming scene, this series could really flourish once again.
*Interesting note: apparently Toby Gard, the creator of the character for Tomb Raider, designed a male character and left the company in protest when they changed him into the now-famous and very sexualized buxom female explorer. In an even more interesting note, he was actually involved in developing Legend.