IGN Review of Tomb Raider: Legend
Videogame fans had almost given up hope. After a string of lackluster sequels, it seemed like the Tomb Raider series had caved in on itself. There it sat, buried underneath layers of mediocrity. It almost became like one of its own fabled artifacts - something you might see, someday, if fate decided to bless you with a little luck.
Turns out Lady Luck likes games, because she saw it fit to drag Lara Croft out of her hole. Her return in Tomb Raider Legend marks a definite return to grace for the series. It delivers everything that gamers want in a Tomb Raider game, namely puzzles, action and exploration. What's more, most every aspect of the game comes with an impressive degree of refinement. Legend even has certain things, like a genuine sense of adventure that even great games tend to lack.
But not all is well. At least not when it comes to the PSP version. While everything described above remains true for the handheld port, the polish and fluidity of the console versions simply isn't there. Legend now feels rough in parts, and violently bumpy in others. Worse, the drop in performance actually affects gameplay, making it impossible to ignore. This is especially true during combat and the driving sequences, already two of the weakest aspects of the game. Things get increasingly frustrating when the game requires finesse on the part of the player. It only takes a drop of so many frames during an important sequence for premature death to occur. Not fun.
Having said that, Legend still has the intrinsic charm of the original. It has an air of exploration and playfulness that will hopefully come to define Lara Croft's reemergence as a videogame icon. Like the original, this charm deals almost exclusively with control. It's honestly the most important aspect in any game, and fortunately, it's one of Legend's highlights. You can jump over a small river just easily as you swan dive from a 20-story cliff. You can execute a series of back flips and summersaults into a mid-air summersault finish. And yes, Laura can swim when the situation calls for it. She can dive into lakes and pools to search for artifacts or other hidden treasures.
True, these moves have been Laura's forte since her first appearance in the mid 90s. Only now, it's entirely different. Lara feels nimble, not at all like the cumbersome character of the past. Exploring vast jungles in Africa or slinking your way through a rooftop in Tokyo now plays out with an impressive degree of class. It's something that's readily apparent even on the PSP, even if there's a huge drop in performance from the Xbox and PS2 versions. Shimmying along ledges and leaping between cliffs is just as fun and intuitive here as it is in latter Prince of Persia games. Laura can't run along walls or reverse time, but she certainly holds her own against the good prince.
Good thing, too, since all of these moves come in handy when dealing with the myriad obstacles in the game. The first, and most abundant, are environmental. You will often see a door or artifact you need to reach, but how to get there? By scaling a 200-foot wall, then leaping from a series of crumbling ledges and finally navigating an ancient trap of spinning blades, that's how. And just to emphasize the point, it all feels natural. Choppy and a little slow, yes, but it's nonetheless fun.
Then there's combat. Instead of just blasting people (and beasts) you can now kick, push and stomp on enemies. And certain moves, such as the stomp, trigger a "concentration mode" that multiplies your damage output. It looks very much like the bullet-time effect made popular by the Max Payne series. It's not a new effect, but it lends combat a cool, somewhat distinct flair.
And, of course, you can still unleash a hailstorm of bullets while flipping forwards, backwards and side to side. You can also pick up machine guns, shotguns and other weapons from mercenaries you kill along the way. You can only carry one at a time, but it helps keep things fresh.
When not cutting through mercenaries and wild animals, or simply swinging from vines, you will need to solve puzzles. Each of these makes sense, logically speaking, so you won't spend time deciphering ancient symbols for no reason. Instead, you'll use Croft's abilities (even her weight) to manipulate the environment. You'll need to build makeshift catapults to fling items and work ancient mechanisms to open doors and gates. When pushing your way through a modern city, you'll even get to play with funky machinery that wouldn't seem out of place in a sci-fi flick. None of these puzzles feels out of place or arbitrary. They all have a real-world purpose established by the game world.
That takes care of the similarities, in terms of content, between Legend on PSP and Legend for consoles. Interestingly, there are a few differences. The handheld version simply has more stuff in it. Strange, but true, all of you PSP fans score the most complete version of the game. The roughest, sure, but also the only one with a cool multiplayer mode. The game calls it Tomb Trials, and it just happens to be a very worthwhile addition. This mode splits between a few basic game types: one lets you race through a tomb with another player to see who makes it out first, while the other is a timed scavenger hunt for artifacts.
Both these modes condense the entire Tomb Raider experience into quick, two to five minute segments. And they're hard - damn difficult, in fact. There's no time for miscalculated jumps here. If you miss a ledge or lose your footing, it's over. You may as well start over because those few seconds will prohibit you from finishing the obstacle course on time. You can play all of these Tomb Trials alone, too, as a test of skill. Interestingly, these sequences perform far better than any other aspect of the game. If the whole game ran as smoothly as the multiplayer levels, Legend on PSP would have next to zero complaints against it.
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