Legend has it that the fabled Tomb Raider series was doomed to a life of purgatory, after the unfortunate creation of a buggy, rushed but well-meaning mess of a game called "The Angel of Darkness", and the franchise was to remain stagnant for many eons. Alas, a hero named "Crystal Dynamics" emerged, and a mere 3 years after Core Design's unsightly and depressing demise, brought Lara Croft back to life. The name of their triumphant return? The short, but incredibly sweet, Tomb Raider: Legend.
Oh, how I love this game. It got me into the Tomb Raider series way back when it was released in 2006. I'd dabbled in the older entries on the PlayStation but could never beat them (until recently that is. Check out my reviews for them! No shameful self-promotion here!), but Legend piqued my interest in the series and alas, $20 later, I have the entire series on Steam. And what a brilliant way to start again. Tomb Raider: Legend is precisely what Lara Croft needed: a beautiful, seamless and user-friendly transition to the (then) next generation of gaming.
The majority of Tomb Raider's lore is retconned, but the essentials are all here. We still (of course) have Lara Croft, and man, has she recieved a facelift. And a boob job. And a butt job. I'm gay and even I can't stop staring at her. She's still the kickass, no-nonsense, incredibly acrobatic, academic and elegant explorer who we've come to know and love. And the same applies to the gameplay; you still raid tombs, you still discover hidden treasures while globetrotting, and shoot the ♥♥♥♥ out of bad guys and angry cats. All in a beautiful new engine.
Man, this game is pretty. It just looks phenomenal. It has a unique, semi-cartoonish style in terms of character models, but the environments are bursting with detail and realism, and the use of effects like bloom and motion blurs are used just enough not to take away from the experience. Textures are crisp, ragdolls are hilariously bouncy, animations are smoother than jelly, and the detail is immaculate. The first time Lara emerged from water, actually visably wet and her clothes drenched, I was in awe.
It sounds amazing, too. The effort that went into the soundtrack is very admirable. Troels Brun Folmann has crafted a dynamic, unique to each level musical score which only adds to the already excellent atmosphere. Voice acting is also great, a tad unbelievable but very cinematic. Keeley Hawes brings a regal and more mature tone to Lara which I was very glad to hear.
Plot-wise, it's good! I mean, nothing really new or special here. It's the typical "artifact in multiple pieces go around the world to collect them and then something happens when they're all together then boss battle". But there are some lovely villains, there's traitors, there's emotion, there's consistency, and there's enough to keep you interested in what's going on. I don't think as much effort was put in here as in The Angel of Darkness, but it works and it wraps up nicely, hinting at a sequel without resorting to an irritating cliffhanger. That said, the research that Crystal Dynamics did into ancient lore, such as that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, do give the story a lot more depth.
The gameplay itself? Stellar. It feels so incredibly natural when Lara is rope-swinging, vaulting, shimmying, dodging, shooting, pole-climbing, swimming, and even riding a Ducati™ (yes, there's product placement) motorcycle. The levels are incredibly varied, and I don't miss the older blocky engine one iota. Movement and combat is far less restrictive, control is pitch-perfect, and the addition of Lara's grappling hook adds a lot more than one would think to the game. It's very smooth and well done. There's also tons of unlockables, which I absolutely LOVE. What happened to unlockables?! There's (many) costumes, weapon upgrades, art, models, cheats and a video to unlock, and all this encourages replayability.
Which brings me to the few negative points I have about this game. My main gripe is the length: there are only eight levels in Tomb Raider: Legend (nine, if you count Lara's Mansion, which makes a welcome return), and even with the added collectibles and time trials for each level, the game is over quickly, especially for people who don't care about 100% completion. The fact that it's quite easy (regardless of the difficulty setting) also adds to this; the game is constantly providing you with tutorials, even in the sixth level of the game, and you can utilise Lara's magical binoculars to help you solve puzzles (none of which are remotely complex).
The game is also buggy from time to time, mostly in the visual department. I noticed this especially in Kazakhstan, during a motorcycle section in which areas of the map were simply missing or transparent. Turning on "Next-Generation Content" in the video settings adds dynamic lighting and better textures, but kills the framerate (sometimes regardless of your gaming setup) and throws even more glitches into the mix, including misaligned ropes and distorted faces, and even crashing the game on some levels.
One final thing: Lara's new sidekicks bug me, a lot. They just don't shut the hell up. "Watch out Lara!" "Wow Lara, that was great!" "Whoa, I don't like the look of this!". Even Lara herself gets audibly annoyed with them. It's totally nitpicking on my part but I feel it's a valid criticism. Just shut the hell up Zip and Alister! She doesn't need your help!
Do I recommend this game? Absolutely. Legend was the start of something new, a rebirth that Tomb Raider so desperately needed. After Legend came onto the scene, the equally awesome Anniversary, Underworld, Guardian of Light and the 2013 re-imagining followed suit. What an excellent way to get us exploring again!