Tomb Raider - Legend
Fact: Lara Croft is a cultural icon. Apparently, she's still recognised by over 90 per cent of the general public - yes, even the ones who hang about outside TK Maxx. Try asking those same people to pick out Far Cry's hero Jack Carver from a videogame character line-up though, and you'll probably just get the blank look that dogs give you when you fire guestions at them.
Unfortunately for license-holders Eidos, developer Core Design made a pig's lug of The Angel Of Darkness, producing a buggy, sloppily-executed Tomb Raider title that nearly drowned our favourite pistol-wielding heroine.
The result was that the job of developing the next Tomb Raider (and effectively saving the franchise) was given to the US-based Crystal Dynamics, a company with an excellent track record of good third-person action games in the Soul Reaver/Legend Of Kain titles, as well as most recently, decent Deus Ex-ey shooter Project Snowblind.
Then one of the original creators of Lara, Toby Gard, fresh from his work on the great-but-late action-adventure Galleon on Xbox, was brought on board to oversee the rescuing of Lara from her spiky pit of despair. Now, I'm never one to be too optimistic about how games will turn out months before completion, but after my recent exclusive presentation of the new Tomb Raider: Legend, I can confidently say that fans of the posh bird with the dual-pistols can start getting excited again. Lara is coming home.
If you've been a semi-decomposing mummy in a crypt for the past year, here's a quick catch-up on the new game. Basically, everything crap from the last game has been thrown out: the terrible hyper-accurate platform-jumping based on a tile movement system; the character attributeupdates; the piss-poor camera; the wandering about empty Paris streets; that second rubbish playable bloke; the dearth of tombs to actually raid.
In their place is a redesigned Lara who retains her curvy videogame features but with a less cartoon-like blow-up doll look, plus a stunning graphics engine, new traps, new intuitive moves, new gizmos, a decent targeting system, physics-based puzzles with multiple solutions, fully driveable vehicles and - yes - bloody big tombs. In a nutshell, Tomb Raider: Legend looks fun.
Roll Out The Barrel
Tlie level we had exclusive access to was called Flashback, when Lara travels to Peru to visit a place where 'something very bad happened' when she was younger. In a dusty, deserted shanty town, she meets up with her childhood friend Anaya, after receiving directions from an unnamed male associate's voice on her headset.
Suddenly, a truck full of goons skids into view and we're given a full guns-blazing demo of the new combat system. Targeting is auto-lock-on (although this can hopefully be toggled on or off for the PC version), and you can switch targets easily, allowing Lara to back-flip, forward roll and jump around, while simultaneously shooting bullets into various militia men's faces and jumpsliding them off their feet So-called 'flair moves' allow Ms Croft to perform silky bullet-time kills, as well as, for example, double-jumping off an enemy's shoulders and blasting them from behind.
In addition, the levels use full physics, so barrels will roll when shot and ragdoll bodies will crumple to the floor, plus 'objects of opportunity' present you with precariously placed explosives for seeing off foes with fiery chain-reactions. Lara's default weapons are the dual-pistols, but you can also pick up an extra firearm such as a shotgun or grenade launcher, and use grenades strapped to Lara's belt - a visible inventory that shows what items are available (there'll be no more pulling out a rocket launcher from an ever-expanding rucksack). An over-the-shoulder fire mode for more accurate shooting finishes off the rest of the bad guys, and Lara is finally free to traipse further into the Peruvian jungle.
On Yer Bike
The Flashback level progresses next via a vehicle section, that was unfortunately not quite ready to show off, but features a frantic motorbike chase. Lara will have complete control of the vehicle while being able to fire her weapons, and simultaneously has to avoid obstacles and use jump ramps to catch Anaya's kidnappers. Eventually, she arrives at an abandoned excavation site flooded with water, where we get our first glimpse of Lara's enhanced swimming abilities.
Unlike other underwater sections in games, the control system isn't fully 3D (to avoid players getting confused) -default movement has Lara swimming at the same depth, while you can use the direction keys to move her up and down. You also always have two speeds of movement for Lara, as many of the game's puzzles are time-based -underwater this means you have short breast-strokes for a medium pace and long breast-strokes for zippier moves.
In the first of the new underwater puzzles, Lara has to operate four crystal switches which lower the water level and reveal a clue to the mystery of the tragic event from her history. You're then into the first area of the Queen's Tomb, where Lara's 'personal light source' (a torch to you and me), illuminates the dark caverns in realtime. You're soon traversing ledges and fluidly leaping from wall-to-wall, with the animation of Lara giving physical feedback to you about what moves are possible, such as her head turning and looking at a reachable area. A shiny object on the ceiling of the cavern indicates a metal area that Lara can attach her metal grappling hook to and use realistic momentum to swing on the rope across a pitch-black chasm.
Suddenly, the haunting atmospheric music (see 'Tune Raider', left) moves up several gears and the removal of the health bar and HUD shows that we're into one of Tomb Raider Legend's new action sequences, used to catch you by surprise and lip the tempo at unexpected points. Rather like the interactive cut-scenes in Fahrenheit (or Dragon's Lair for older coin-op fans), they force you to make critical control inputs at specific times. In the Flashback level, the scene is a series of collapsing platforms that Lara has to leap across, triggered by you pressing the key shown on-screen - do something wrong and she'll plunge into the depths below.
If you manage to complete the sequence successfully, Lara enters the main chamber of the Queen's Tomb, a breathtaking wide-open area with ornately carved stonework, pockmarked walls and cobwebbed corners dimly lit by slivers of light streaming in through distant cracks. Crystal Dynamics wants to bring back the awe and wonder from previous Tomb Raider adventures, presenting you with a massive area to explore at your leisure, until you figure out what the hell you're supposed to do.
In this case, walking over a pressure plate triggers the slight opening of an ancient door - yep, it's a physics puzzle where you have to find and move heavy stone balls around to complete the task. The first ancient sphere is easy, as it's on ground level, but the others have to be reached by climbing and jumping around the level, using your binoculars to spot areas for your handy grappling hook. Once you complete the task, a sphinx rises out of the ground directing the light beams around the tomb, and the door opens to reveal an ancient artefact However, Lara's obvious joy at the discovery is shoit-lived. as a another crackly message on her headset that the militia-men have discovered her whereabouts...
In short, Crystal Dynamics seems to be doing a sterling job with Tomb Raider Legend. The team has gone back to what made the original games so addictive and immersing - the Indiana Jones-style mix of tomb exploration, conspiracy, puzzle-solving and edge-of-your-seat combat - and added an intuitive control system and interactive cut-scenes. Finally, the whole package is being wrapped up in a stunning graphics engine that's being fully enhanced for high-end PCs - as you can see from these first true hi-res screenshots (see 'Nice Polygons', above).
We've yet to see the game optimised for mouse/keyboard, but we're promised that the finished product will have fully customisable controls. There are no plans for multiplayer as yet, but Crystal Dynamics hinted that there might be online elements into the next game. However, that's a few years away - we're just looking forward to next spring, when we'll hopefully be able to play a new Tomb Raider title deserving of a genuine videogaming legend.
Download Tomb Raider - Legend
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode