The Basics: Tomb Raider is considered by many to be the game that helped take videogames mainstream. Mixing a little Indiana Jones and Mario created a gameplay experience that spoke volumes to players of all ages and genders. It probably helped that players spent hours staring not at Harrison Ford's rear end, but rather the shapely behind of Ms. Lara Croft.
In the beginning there were magazine covers and gaming awards, but the last Tomb Raider adventure was such a bore that no one from Eidos could be bothered to man its demo station at E3. The issue was never with the quality of charismatic Lara Croft's breasts, but rather the adventures she starred in.
But like the artifacts Lara chases after, everything old will again be new: original Tomb Raider designer Toby Gard is back on board. Could his insight into Lara Croft combined with the fresh blood of a new studio, Crystal Dynamics, see a return to the glory days of Tomb Raider?
What do we think? Thanks to the power of Xbox Live Marketplace everyone can get a sneak peek at the Tomb Raider adventure that goes on sale next week. First, let us state how happy we are to see Lara return to her roots of exploration, platforming, puzzle solving, and shooting generic male characters.
The first thing that jumped out at us was the beautiful graphics. True, there may be a so-so texture there or a stiff animation over there… but as a whole the game looks wonderful. Special effects such as dusty hallways, murky waters, and dripping wet Lara Croft skin textures combine to help raise the immersion factor to a solid ten while playing.
This immersion is cemented by the clever dialog woven into the gameplay experience. In fact it was while watching the first cutscene with Lara leaping from ledge-to-ledge that we found ourselves getting that Prince of Persia-feeling in the back of our necks. Only here the environments feel more organic and less like something you'd find in a videogame.
The inclusion of realistic physics fits the series like a glove from what we've seen in the demo. We're not yet sold on the controls for moving boxes around though. Unlike the grid-based system of Tomb Raider's past, Legend allows you to move objects around fluidly. Sounds great on paper, but we often found ourselves fighting both the camera and the box in a straight line.
New gizmos and gadgets include health packs you don't have to stop and bend over to pick up, a personal area light, a water-proof PDA that serves as your mission briefer, binoculars that identify puzzle hints, and a magnetic grappling hook.
Puzzling is the use of the grappling hook. The device can be used at any time on foot by hitting the X button, but when you need a quick boost while jumping over a bottomless pit you press the A button while in the air. Control issues like this and the binocular (LB/RB graphics but LT/RT text) seem odd to us, but never actually got in the way of playing.
Shooting generic male characters who all look alike (even Lara jokes about this) with lock-on gunplay has returned. New additions include the ability to run with guns drawn, swivel from target to target, and shoot down pieces of the environment. An over-the-shoulder aiming mode is included, but is fundamentally broken both by the inability to move and highly inaccurate guns.
One of the best compliments we can give this new Tomb Raider is that it just feels right. We got the feeling that someone mined the past editions for the essence of raiding a tomb and polished up that experience for a 21st century game. It doesn't reinvent the wheel; it just reminds you how much fun the wheel could be when done right.