Tomb Raider: Legend (2006)
This is the first videogame I've played since I finished off the very cool Max Payne 2 a couple of years ago. I'd been jonesing to play a game for some time now, and almost played Half-Life several months ago before something new and shiny (this game!) came my way. I'd played a few of the earlier games in the Tomb Raider series, in which the law of diminishing returns kicked in quite quickly, but this one was meant to be quite good. Tomb Raider: Legend also presented me with the perfect opportunity to make use of my new X-Box 360 gamepad, which I must say is easily the best gamepad I've ever used - it feels solid, fits snugly into your palms, and the buttons and analog sticks are within easy reach and feel nice and responsive. Admittedly, I haven't used any other gamepads in a while, so my opinion on gamepads is far from authoritative.
Anyway, onto the game. As with the other Tomb Raider games, this one features the impossibly buxom Lara Croft in a third person action adventure game featuring lots of running, jumping, swinging, swimming, and of course, shooting. There's also a reasonably interesting and entertaining story involving King Arthur, Excalibur, Lara's mum who disappeared years ago under mysterious circumstances, and an old friend thought left for dead, all of which are connected together. In addition to a stronger story (or... any story at all), the storytelling aspects of the game are quite improved from the old games, with more interesting 'camera' work, decent writing, and strong voice acting (particularly Keeley Hawes, who plays Lara). Also of note are the graphics, which are terrific. The character models are detailed and the acrobatic animation is smooth, but best of all are the lush and detailed environments. Oh, and the music is pretty good as well, as are the sound effects. All in all, the production values are top-notch, and really help to draw you into the game.
For once in these games, the storyline and the actual game content jibe to a reasonable degree. The level design actually makes some sense now; instead of weird, randomly designed areas, the environments are now somewhat believable. This also results in the levels being shorter than in the earlier games, but as far as I'm concerned this is a good thing, since I found the levels in those games to be interminable. The game is well paced, with cutscenes or chatter between Lara and her support team back at her mansion (tech geek and archeology/history buff) popping up regularly to prevent tedium from setting in. The environments are varied enough to never feel repetitive.
The gameplay is also much improved, with smooth and responsive controls and a far more forgiving jump system - gone are the days of frustrating millimetre precise aligning and timing! All of that running and jumping and swinging over chasms stuff is actually a lot of fun, and the controls are intuitive and allow for some quite impressive acrobatics. Also of note are the puzzles, which are also a lot better than the old games - they are logical (as far as puzzles involving rolling giant rocks onto pressure pads can be logical) and fit in with the environments being depicted, unlike the random nonsensical puzzles of old. The action segments are the weakest gameplay element here, but they're still reasonably good. Much of it involves just running at enemies while holding the shoot button down, but there are some nifty moves that can be pulled off, such as the bullet time 'leaps' that allow you to take out a whole bunch of enemies whilst in mid-air! There's not much variety in the weapons, and the grenades are next to useless. Overall, the action is reasonably entertaining but not stellar. There are some cool boss battles as well that combine puzzle solving and action; these are not too tough, but I prefer that to frustrating (or cheap!) bosses.
There are a couple of mini-game type elements which are fun. One is an interactive cut-scene that kicks in mid game where some action sequence takes place and instructions (for button presses) are given onscreen that you have to respond to quickly, so that Lara takes appropriate action. These look cool, and failing to press the buttons correctly or in time often leads to some amusing death animations. The other mini-game is driving - you get to drive around on bikes while shooting other bikers and jumping off ramps. These aren't major, but they're nice touches that break the routine and are quite fun. Another thing worth mentioning are the incredibly fast load times - while this is system specific, it seems faster than almost any game I can recall, and I don't have loads of RAM - other games that I've tried out take way longer to load.
The game is relatively short and isn't overly difficult (autosave points are sprinkled throughout the levels quite regularly). I took around 15 hours to finish it, but I imagine a good player making a concerted effort would do it in under 10. To some this would be too short, but it fits in nicely with my available free time. In addition, there's some replayability in terms of having lots of stuff to unlock by finding all of the secret items and completing levels within pre-defined time limits. There's also a 'bonus' level of sorts - Croft Manor - that's full of puzzles to solve.
On the negative side, there are some pretty annoying elements. One is the camera, which has a habit of whirling around at inopportune moments; since the controls are camera relative, this means that the direction you were holding at the moment the camera turned ends up pointing Lara in the wrong direction. A lot of diving into chasms happens as a result. Another camera problem is the 'look' button which allows you to examine your surroundings. Unfortunately it doesn't always let you get a clear view. In fact, more often than not, it has the unfortunate habit of zooming in on Lara, which is quite embarrassing when someone else happens to be around because it looks like you're ogling her 'digital assets'! Another source of frustration for me was points where I got stuck without a clue what to do next. Yes, I confess, looked at an online walkthrough, and the solutions were usually annoyingly simple but also kinda obscure. There're also a few annoying bugs in the game that stop things dead in their tracks. The biggest bummer has to be the ending - the game ends on a cliffhanger, and it's quite unsatisfying. I was shocked to see the end credits start to roll, and my first thought was "it's over?"
Tomb Raider: Legend is easily the best Tomb Raider game, and is a darn fine game in its own right. I was surprised at how good everything was, because the previous game in this series is apparently absolutely terrible. This game is good in all departments. I hesitate to say it's great only because I haven't played any of its contemporaries (like Prince of Persia) so I'm not really able to reach a definitive conclusion. In any case, it was fun and just the type of thing to ease me back into gaming. Up next, Half-Life 2. Oh yeah!