She was voluptuous. She was British. And she was fun to watch.
But when we were first introduced to a young unknown named Lara Croft, it wasn't just her curves that drew the eye. As a character, Lara was not all that fully rounded (okay, in a couple senses she was). Indeed, I believe that I have summed up the extent of her characterization in the first Tomb Raider in the opening sentences of this review. However, it was not simply Lara that made that game a classic. It was not just her that was fun to watch.
Like the original Tomb Raider, Legend, the seventh game in the series, is a game about observation. The new game is a tribute to the legendary status of its predecessors -- particularly because it captures their spirit and understands that the pleasure of raiding tombs is not just about looking at a pretty young thing, but gazing out over vast vistas and examining ancient machines as an observer, explorer, and ultimately a voyeur.
Now that it has become altogether common to see the action genre hybridized with the adventure genre, it is easy to forget that at one time that particular chocolate did not often wrap easily around that particular peanut butter. Additionally, most games which are now classified as both action and adventure really lean much further in favor of action elements, rather than taking the problem- and puzzle-solving elements of the adventure very seriously. Indeed, this series, which made it its hallmark to carefully balance both fell into that selfsame trap as iteration after iteration relied more and more heavily on simple run-and-gun action.
Tomb Raider: Legend returns to the series' strengths by recommitting itself to the puzzle of archaeological adventure rather than the whip-cracking action of the blockbuster. Indeed, to some degree the combat suffers enormously from Eidos' decision to focus our attention on the tomb, rather than the raider. Gun battles are simple lock-on affairs that, while breaking up some of the slower patches, provide the most blah moments of gameplay. Enemy AI is abysmal and boss encounters seem repetitive: once you resolve the trick of weakening one foe, you will find that the same "trick" is the key to every boss battle.
However, where Legend really shines is not those all too brief encounters, but putting Ms. Croft through her physical and mental paces in the well-designed and often awe-inspiring levels. Indeed, though, that may be the simple allure of Lara as a character. While her characterization may be paper thin, these same characteristics do sum up her strengths as s character in a video game.
Like I said, she is voluptuous, but it is her extreme physical attributes and athleticism that drive the platforming gameplay forward and make it such a pleasure to watch. She also has that British accent, which we Americans so often assume indicates some brains. And brains are needed in abundance to resolve some of the mind-bending riddles that are also on display for our intellectual appreciation.
Ultimately, playing this Tomb Raider is all about display and our analysis of it. Perhaps, the most cleverly designed level (the worn-down husk of a cheesy roadside attraction) emphasizes the simple pleasures of superficial voyeurism that treating archeology as an Indiana Jones-like adventure provides.
Legend provides the same thrills and evokes the same fond memories as the Magical Mystery House that you paid seven bucks to tour on the way home from visiting a "real" historical monument. And didn't you enjoy the Magical Mystery House more than the droning tour guide and historical facts anyway?
5 July 2006