A Look Back at Lara Croft’s Last Rebirth
Just a few weeks ago, Lara Croft–the original artifact-stealing queen–made a grand return after several years of lying dormant and allowing her male counterpart–a certain Nathan Drake–to rush in and steal her thunder. For the latest iteration in the old franchise, Crystal Dynamics opted to reboot the character entirely, as well as the series itself. But it wasn’t the first time Lara Croft had been put through the creative grinder in order to rejuvenate the franchise; the last time it happened was back in 2006 with Tomb Raider Legend, a game that although not rebooting the character, changed the whole direction for the series. With the most recent title storming the charts and winning the hearts of players everywhere, I decided I’d take a look at the last major turning point for the series and see where it went right, wrong and how it has, or hasn’t, withstood the test of time since.
After a mediocre response to Angel of Darkness–the last game before Legend became a reality–and dwindling popularity, publisher Eidos took the series away from then-developers Core Design and handed things over to Crystal Dynamics, who are still in charge of the series to this day. In their hands, the series received a major overhaul in pretty much all areas, and signalled a major reboot for Tomb Raider that brought it back from the ashes, but was it actually a good game? The answer is a resounding yes, back then and even now.
Tomb Raider Legend saw a young Lara Croft witness her mother be ostensibly killed as a young child, before returning to the site many years later to uncover the truth, taking her on a journey across the globe in search of Excalibur–a sword linked to the legend of King Arthur–all whilst fending off the advances of a shady group also interested in the sword and ultimately Avalon–the mythical resting place of King Arthur and supposed location of Lara’s mother.
Story-wise, Legend did a fairly good job of resurrecting the Tomb Raider franchise. It wasn’t Legend’s primary focus, or at least it didn’t seem that way, but it provided a good sense of connectivity between the game’s globe-spanning levels,, as well as providing a genuinely compelling narrative that felt new but had the more traditional mythological elements that the older titles had. It wasn’t spectacular by any means, but Crystal Dynamics were aiming for a title that brought new life into the series and it needed a narrative that wasn’t just salad dressing for the gameplay, and it succeeded in that regard.
That being said, however, one of my principal faults with the title back then and now is just how short the game is. With just eight levels in the game, and some fairly short like the Japan mission, Legend seriously suffered. It was even possible to complete the game in one sitting if you ignored the collectibles and that’s bad even by today’s standards where games are often short and able to be completed in a few hours. Legend had so much going for it but so little time to experience it all.
Nevertheless, Legend’s levels were memorable on-the-whole. I’m sure anybody that played the game will remember the Japan level fondly for its neon lights and unique cityscape environment, or the Cornwall level for its carnival-like exterior and dark, musty-old-tomb interior full of King Arthur mythology. Or even just being able to explore the Croft mansion and discovering hidden collectibles, changing Lara into many a skimpy outfit (seriously, even the winter clothing seemed like too little) or taking a run at the obstacle course and seeing how quickly you could defeat it. Legend may have been far too short but with that it did have, it made sure it left a lasting impression on you.
That same impression also extended to its excellent gameplay mechanics, made even stronger by the fact that Angel of Darkness had such poor controls. Controlling Lara was a dream, whether swinging across platforms or otherwise. The same, unfortunately, couldn’t be said for the limited and clunky me-lee combat, not to mention the far-too-simplistic gunplay, or the unnecessary vehicle sections, but fortunately they couldn’t be classed as terrible. Flawed, yes, but not terrible.
Back then the improved gameplay mechanics worked well, especially new inclusions such as the grapple hook, but even today they stand tall–including against the sublime controls employed by the latest Tomb Raider. The platforming aspects of the title in particular have aged well considering such fierce improvements in the area that have occurred in the last seven years, and it showed that what works the most about Tomb Raider is the platforming, not the combat, which fortunately the game chose to focus on.
With Legend, Crystal Dynamics managed to find somewhat of a balance between the adventuring and the shooting, and the former was the one to take precedence–as evident by Legend’s aforementioned clunky combat systems. What people expect from a Tomb Raider game is a tidy story interwoven with vast, puzzling tombs full of secrets and peril. You can give or take the story at times but the other elements are almost required. While this year’s title focused on the combat more than the platforming (fortunately with stronger combat), Legend took the opposite stance in a way that I can still appreciate it for all these years later.
Tomb Raider Legend was initially an old-gen title that released so close to the opening of the next-gen that it eventually saw a release on the Xbox 360, and then later on the PS3 as part of a HD trilogy. Even so, Legend looks old. It looked fairly good when it first released and inevitably so on the Xbox 360 version, but with seven years separating then and now, it’s not surprising to see that it hasn’t aged well in that regard. Even titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that looked stunning back in the day look like last-gen titles nowadays when compared to the latest releases. I hadn’t quite expected the game to look so aged when I re-played it recently, even though the outcome was inevitable, but fortunately the same cannot be said of the game’s audio.
Lara Croft is, at heart, a confident, sassy woman who requires a voice actor capable of embodying those aspects of her character to make her feel true to form. For Tomb Raider Legend, Crystal Dynamics hired British actress Keeley Hawes to step into the shoes of Ms Croft, and she did a fine job even compared to some of the voice acting standards set by today’s releases. She perfected Lara’s confidence, displayed more of her humanity during the game’s occasional ‘serious moments’ and overall, gave Lara more life than she had arguably had in the franchise prior to Legend–another aspect of Legend’s rebooting process that majorly succeeded.
Tomb Raider has been a tricky and troubled franchise ever since its conception. For every right it’s achieved, a huge wrong lurked around the corner that threatened to drag it down into the dirt–and after Angel of Darkness, the wrongs wrapped themselves around the rights and strangled the life out of the series. But Legend symbolised a rebirth of Lara Croft; a valiant attempt to gasp for air and refill its lungs with something fresh and strong, and it was a success.
Fast-forward seven years and here we are at another gargantuan step for the series as it prepares to enter a new era in its life; one dominated by change in an effort to make Lara Croft relevant again. This year’s Tomb Raider took Lara back to her very roots in an attempt to build the character back up from scratch with a vision yet to be determined. Legend, on the other hand, already had the foundations set in stone and instead chose to rejuvenate everything else around the central character. Both ultimately achieved what they were setting out to do and both did it in entirely different ways, but Legend’s achievement came in how they went back to the drawing board and returned with something formidable despite the potential to completely murder the series, and even seven years later, its successes are hard to ignore.