It’s hard to believe that it has been twelve whole years since Tomb Raider: Legend. Eagerly awaiting the revival of an icon lost in the mess that was two terrible-to-mediocre films, and the troubled Angel of Darkness, I remember being blown-away by this short trailer.
Crystal Dynamics – one of my favourite developers thanks to Soul Reaver – picked up the ball and ran with it. The title indicated a developer not lacking in confidence, but did Legend live up to its own hype?
Legend was billed as a ‘short, sharp thrill ride’ by Eidos exec Ian Livingstone: something to get TR back on track. Short? Yes. It had built-in speed-runs and everything! Sharp? Well, when you’re coming back from Angel of Darkness, the bar is pretty low. Thrill-ride, though? Not so much, unfortunately. It felt oddly old fashioned, even twelve years ago. Now it feels very much like one of the dusty relics Lara would leave behind in a random tomb somewhere in favour of the good stuff.
Legend was the first reboot of the TR series, scrapping Lara’s backstory, history and many character traits in favour of something more mainstream: a daughter robbed of her loving parents, on a mysterious quest to find closure. I’m not a fan of this familial focus and never have been. It’s totally at odds with the character I had known and loved, but I was willing to look past this for two reasons:
First, Crystal drafted in the fantastic Keeley Hawes to voice Lara. If you’re not familiar with Keeley’s work outside of TR you really must watch Line of Duty: the woman is a national treasure and Legend was privileged to have had her.
Second, I was also a fan of the causal loop/temporal paradox element to the story, something that felt like a throwback to Soul Reaver and its ideas surrounding the inevitability of fate.
The customisation options were a little divisive in the fan community. ‘Barbie Raider’ was a term thrown around but, *whisper it*, I actually liked the ability to choose Lara’s outfits. Now, the bikinis should have been nowhere near this title, especially when certain people involved (hello Mr. Gard) had expressed issues with the T’n’A aspect of the marketing of the classics, but thought that Legend‘s options were fiiiiine. But some of the ensembles were really nice. I particularly liked some of the colour variations/being able to wear the Kazakh outfit without a jacket etc.
It’s a shame, though, that certain other ‘inspirations’ were taken from what was common in gaming at the time.
The feeling of isolation is gone, replaced by constant chatter in your ear from your ‘friends’ Zip and Alastair. When their comms are knocked-out in a level late in the game, the atmosphere is instantly improved without all the bantz and ‘woo-hoo’ing. Uncharted could pull this off because the cast was so well written, but Legend‘s writing isn’t strong enough to make me like them. I genuinely couldn’t understand why Lara kept them around.
Legend is also chock-full of Quick Time Events. In RE4, Leon needed QTEs because the control scheme didn’t allow him to do backflips in open gameplay. Lara could already jump, duck, and shoot. The player should have been trusted to complete these rudimentary actions under pressure.
So, the atmosphere and difficulty synonymous with the series were gone, and the result was that it didn’t feel like a Tomb Raider game to me. Now I know that feelings are really nebulous things, but it’s important when dealing with a series with a heritage. Just as when IO made Hitman an action-adventure game with a B-movie feel rather than the stealth gameplay its foundations were built upon, or when Mortal Kombat went 3D, Legend wasn’t consistent enough with what came before and which drew me to Tomb Raider.
It was clear that Legend‘s entire purpose was to cast a wide net, to upset as few people as possible with accessible and forgiving gameplay. For example, in addition to QTEs (which still remain with the series!!) we got shiny objects and flashing icons hinting at interactivity, white ledges indicating what can be grabbed. Lara even auto-grabs when jumping. And the auto-grab doesn’t always work because the game thinks too much for itself, attempting to interpret your intentions instead of relying on a solid set of rules. The game decides how far Lara needs to jump based on the specific jump it thinks she is trying to make, and grabs only when it thinks she needs to grab. The number of times I fell to my death despite rubbing the ledge I needed to grab with Lara’s forehead…
Combat features heavily. Now, combat in the original games was less about shooting the enemy and more about your mobility: Lara auto-aimed and you held a button down to fire. The skill was in running, jumping, and rolling away from enemies to exploit their weaknesses. Legend neutered Lara. She can do all the flips in the world but they’re useless. Her jumps when shooting barely cover distance. Add to that Matrix-style bullet time which had been done so much better elsewhere (Max Payne, Enter The Matrix): It felt derivative.
Boss battles are also pretty regular occurrences. They all fit the same formula though of “do X three times to advance”. This was a hangover from Soul Reaver where the boss fights fit the same pattern.
The sea-serpent boss was the stand-out, but the others were a chore.
We got two motorcycle sections to play through as a bit of a diversion. As terrible as The Matrix Reloaded was, I did love the freeway scene with Trinity riding a Ducati. The motorcycle sections in Legend were a real guilty pleasure for me, even though the bike handled like one of those shopping trolleys with a duff wheel that I always seem to get.
The better levels focused on platforming and puzzle solving rather than combat. Physics puzzles, including seesaws and toppling heavy objects, were a welcome addition to the series. Fetching keys was out though, which was a shame. Yes, the idea of ancient keys surviving might be a little silly, but replacing keys and locks with puzzles with constant pressure pads and boxes/balls to put on top of them doesn’t make the game any more sophisticated. A bit of both for variety would have been beneficial.
Platforming shifted largely away from running and jumping to climbing up ledges on walls. A minor change, but one that I felt was a particular concession to Uncharted‘s gameplay style.The best level for me was the one set in England, searching for King Arthur’s Tomb.
It’s a bit camp in places, and the secret tomb entrance wasn’t really well hidden (it’s behind a thin layer of brick!!), but the sense of descending deep underground, uncovering a mystery, while navigating traps galore? This is the template the rest of the game should have followed.
So does Legend hold up today? It’s pretty well made. There are shiny graphics, some nice puzzles… but the combat isn’t strong enough to warrant so much of it. It has some great sights such as the Ghanaian waterfall, Nepalese temples and tunnelling into King Arthur’s tomb. There are some nice physics puzzles too, which was a first for the series. You could say that it got the series ‘back on track’ if your criteria is a competently made game. But there’s little to be excited about here, and I don’t feel like it has aged well.
Did I enjoy it? Sure. But when it comes to Tomb Raider, I’m not looking for ‘short, sharp thrill-rides’. I want something I can get my teeth into. This is one Legend worth forgetting.
Legendarily Safe by Matt Taylor / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work here.
Written by Matt Taylor. Edited by J. R. Milward.