Joystiq Review: Tomb Raider: Legend (Xbox 360)

There are moments in our gaming pasts that stand out with clarity from the mass of bygone levels, saves, high scores and kill counts. One of mine is a first date of epic proportions, one which launched a thousand clones and broke a million hearts. It was my first date with Lara.

Lady Croft and I have a lot in common. The novelty of playing as a girl who looks great and sounds normal grabbed me back in 1996 and hasn't let me go since.

A decade later, in Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara still looks the part; she hasn't put on a pound, though her poly count's up. As I put the disc in, her iconic face stares at me. This revamped Lara looks more human, more real, less like a creature from some stylised midnight fantasy. Her face is soft, her lips slightly curled in a welcoming smile -- her eyes measure me up. It's been a while.

I've not spent much time with her, these past few years. Disappointed in our recent adventures together, I pulled the "it's not you, it's me" line and flirted with a medley of characters -- from Master Chief to Joanna Dark -- who owe much of their existence to Lady Croft's legacy. But when she called asking me for help, I jumped at the chance. She's changed, after all.

Jump, Jump, Left, Left, Grapple

Lara's back. Running around a deserted ruin is a comfortable, familiar experience. The lady herself is smoother -- almost plasticky -- and beautifully shaded, her ponytail swinging as I move her lithe body around poles, ledges and ropes. The environments are lushly detailed, well-lit and textured, and I occasionally stop what I'm doing to have a look around. The HUD fades away, and the screen is frequently clear. The game runs smoothly, though the framerate stutters once or twice in larger environments.

Controlling Lara feels like second nature; helpful prompts pop up, making the manual redundant. Mis-presses aren't fatal -- most of the time. The camera is movable and the controls respond quickly, with well-timed vibration which is especially noticeable during tense moments.

With high-tech binoculars that help identify key items, figuring out puzzles is straightforward, although there are aimless moments. Some challenges rely on spotting one glinting item in a large area, or positioning blocks in a certain way, which can be frustrating. The in-game PDA provides objectives, but they rarely help -- throwing the grapple at everything generally works.

The hi-tech binoculars show what's fragile or movable

Various bronze, silver and gold rewards are strewn throughout the levels, with Xbox Live achievements linked to their collection. There are moments when rewards are visible but seemingly impossible to reach -- patience is key, but it's easier to come back later.

A Fate Worse Than Healthpacks

Death is the worst that can happen, but luckily there are frequent checkpoints -- dying means repeating a jump or three, not restarting an entire level. The generous healthpacks mean that it mostly happens when plunging clumsily from a tall building.

It's usually easy to plot the best course across a room, although sometimes the camera is stubborn. An interesting hybrid of cut-scenes and Dance Dance Revolution results in slow-motion cinematics; large icons flash on the screen, corresponding to timed button presses. Fail to react quickly and it's back to the start -- they're mercifully short, for the error-prone among us. This isn't new -- we've seen it in Resident Evil 4 -- but it's nicely interactive.

Of course, life isn't all running and jumping. There are enemies to shoot -- Lara survives frantic firefights quite easily, cutting through an endless stream of identical men, no questions asked. Grenades and marked destructible scenery provide some variety, but encounters are usually tedious rather than adrenaline-filled. One can simply mash the fire button and indiscriminately toss grenades to win just about any firefight. There's a lack of finesse here that most FPS fans will scoff at.

The occasional level bosses require a little more cunning and skill. The balance seems just right between impossible frustration and a walk in the park -- on medium difficulty, most bosses take a few tries, but once the strategy's clear they become easy.

Another change in pace occurs when Lara encounters a motorbike and starts tearing up the scenery. The motorbike sections are fairly repetitive, peppered with checkpoints, health packs and enemies. It's a useful way to get from A to B, but a tedious one.

After a few levels, I get a feeling of déja vu -- haven't I done this run, jump, shoot routine before a thousand times? Are the enemies and artifacts I'm tracking down any different from those of the past? There's no real novelty in this outing, but the gameplay's smoothness and the ever-dangling microrewards (next checkpoint, next reward, next level) keep me going. Original or not, exploring Bolivian ruins and Kazakhstani laboratories is just plain fun.

Hours of enjoyment?

Each level takes up to an hour to complete first time, which makes for seven to nine hours' total gameplay. There's more to Tomb Raider: Legend, though; if you're shooting for achievements, try the tricky 'time trial' mode. Collecting silver and gold rewards is also a reason to replay.

Finally, there's a set of extras, the most impressive of which is Croft Manor. You can visit Lara's home and explore the formidable surroundings, practice in the gym and try on outfits. It's worth doing for the rewards, but it's also a relaxing distraction -- they say an Englishman's home is his castle, and that's almost literally the case here.

Conclusion

Tomb Raider: Legend is a refreshing return to the Lara of old; you won't regret picking Lady Croft up again, and she won't reprimand you for not calling. The Xbox 360 version is differentiated from the other formats by an added graphical sheen and Xbox Live Achievements. The gameplay is as engrossing as Tomb Raider ever was, with a moderately interesting plot, decent voice acting and intuitive controls, although the motorbike sequences are a low point.

The game's strength -- it's Tomb Raider -- turns into a weakness -- it's another Tomb Raider. Nothing new to see here, move along. Push-button cut-scenes and the explorable Croft Manor give the game some class, but at a time where multiplayer is becoming king, Lara shows her age. It's over quickly, and you might not want a second date; renting for a weekend will show you much, if not all, of what Tomb Raider: Legend has to offer.

Overall Rating: 7.0/10

This article was originally published on Joystiq.