Lara Croft is my hero. Ever since she first strutted onto the original PlayStation in 1996 with blocky Pamela Anderson-sized breasts, the female Indiana Jones has wooed my heart. Tough and witty, Lara Croft is the premiere goddess of gaming. Lara isn’t just revolutionary as the first real leading lady in franchise gaming (sorry, Samus, your Omega Suit and nondescript story are far too androgynous to make the cut), but she also shepherded truly three-dimensional, exploration-themed adventure.
But then there was Angel of Darkness. After scores of repetitive PSOne sequels (that differed only in difficulty, Lara’s pixel count, and in-game saving methods), Core attempted a series revamp for the PS2’s debut outing. This sixth title was so dreadful—a mismatch of bland murder mystery storytelling and buggy exploration in weird dance clubs—Paramount blamed the failure of the second Tomb Raider film on the game’s abysmal reception. Many thought Lara was down for the count.
But three years later, after swapping in-house developers to Crystal Dynamics, masterminds of the Legacy of Kain series, the franchise bounces back with Tomb Raider: Legend, a return to form of Prince of Persia proportions. Legend is by far the smoothest of all the Tomb Raider titles, wisely abandoning the predictable and tedious gridlock movements and linking the globetrotting levels with engaging storytelling.
Leading up to its release, we knew the gameplay would be new and improved. IGN and other insider hype said so. But what came as a surprise was the caliber of the writing and story, never a real highlight of the franchise. The first brilliant move was the vocal casting of Keeley Hawes as the buxom Croft. The UK native nails every aspect of Lara’s big-ticket persona: her reckless spirit, witty commentaries, and twofold passion for exploration and archaeology. Whether handling poignant dialogue in the search for her missing friend or trading sharp barbs with her GPS/satellite boys, Hawes’ delivery is spot-on. (After using a massive contraption to reveal a ruin behind a waterfall, buddy Zip remarks, “Oh, so that’s where they put the temple.” Lara snaps, “Grand entrances are always impractical, that’s what makes them grand,” all to the tune of exotic ambience.)
Few games match the quality of Legend‘s atmosphere, bolstered by situation-appropriate music—a mighty action theme for the Indiana Jones bits, haunting melodies as you explore vast new ruins—and some of the most breathtaking graphical environments ever rendered… even on the inferior PS2 incarnation. Each location is a wonder, from the cascading waterfalls of Ghana (a momentous backdrop for a trademark Lara cliff dive) to the dusty tumbleweeds of a helter-skelter Peruvian backwaters. The game takes you into the dankest of tombs—like a magnificent ruin and burial grounds underneath a decrepit King Arthur theme park, where the rotting architecture crumbles and breaks underneath even Lara’s delicate footsteps. She also manages some time for motorcycle jumps across Tokyo skyscrapers, an icy climb in the frosty Himalayas on route to a sensual crypt of mammoth pillars, and a bizarre trek through a deadly Kazakhstan factory loaded with electrical booby traps. The places may be disparate, but you’ll find yourself totally immersed and the brisk narrative provides the necessary context to avoid a sense that the game designers just wanted “a real cool Japanese skyscraper level.”
The gameplay itself is almost heaven compared to any previous Tomb Raider incarnation. Her movements are fluid—though not quite so much as those in Prince of Persia—so shimmying, climbing, and tumbling through ruins and nature has never been more organic—or sexier, considering Lara’s new 10,000 polygon count (and no, they’re not all committed to her chest). There are horizontal flagpoles to vault around, stalactites to scale, and crumbling floors to dash across—and everything feels like it was carved out of something real. Though the paths through most levels are pretty linear, with smashed pillars to climb or convenient mountain handholds to provide temple access, the route rarely seems formulaic until long after you’ve discovered it.
Combat isn’t the highlight, but double-fisted gunplay is sprinkled throughout the story. What makes these encounters fun is they provide an awesome opportunity to employ Lara’s incredible flexibility as a gymnast. By repeatedly pressing the jump and roll buttons, Lara performs graceful backflips and triple Axels before reaching her foe(s) and entering a Matrix-esque bullet time finishing opportunity. Just watch out for enemy grenades and Gatling gun attacks, because if you’re not quick on your toes, the fragile Lara will perish quickly. Then again, dying is part of the fun in the Tomb Raider series; though I am a little pissed they didn’t animate various bloody death poses, à la Resident Evil 4, every time you fall onto spikes or get crushed by a massive stone ball.
Some complain that Lady Croft’s latest adventure is too short, and while it does clock in around 10 to 12 hours, true raiders will heavily enjoy the quest to unlock numerous secrets in each level by finding scores of bronze, silver, and gold artifacts. The franchise is all about exploration, and tracking down every last one of these concealed items. (Without online help, this is a ball-busting but thoroughly satisfying quest.) You can also explore the Croft Manor (newly modeled after the movie version), where she keeps a closet full of alternative costumes—all of which can be worn while replaying missions.
Crystal Dynamics really served up a winner for longtime Lara Croft fans. The adventure is short and sweet, but it’s also undeniably fun and rewarding for the tomb-raiding veterans. Ending in a juicy cliffhanger—and one of the greatest retaliatory one-liners ever—I can’t wait to continue Lara’s globetrotting exploits under the gentle guidance of her new makers.