Influences and accessibility in Tomb Raider: Legend

Lara's looking nicely humanized these days.It’s always fun to pick a console’s remains after its death for cheap goodies that are worth playing. The original Xbox has hit this sweet spot, and as I still have a perfectly-functioning black box, I don’t have to worry about backwards-compatibility issues. I’ve been rifling through the budget bins with a taste for Western titles with good writing and an adventure bent. The first of these I’ve finished is Tomb Raider Legend.

Before Legend came out, there was a lot of speculation that it would be the game to save the series after Core Design’s bumblings, and it had a lot to live up to. Clearly, it was successful. Since I’m only just now playing the game, after all its promises have been fulfilled, I can thankfully evaluate it on its own merits.

It’s clear to see the approach Crystal Dynamics took in attempting to reinvent the series. Elements from other successful titles were adopted liberally. TR:L has Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’s straightforward corridors and heavy reliance on context sensitivity. It has Resident Evil 4′s over-the-shoulder view (optional here) and QTE button-presses within cinematics. It has Half-Life 2′s physics puzzles and time-limited flashlight (not to mention a variant of that game’s gravity gun). And the chatter from support characters that comes over Lara’s headset during gameplay may have come from cinematic first-person shooters like Call of Duty.

Resident Evil 4′s randomized button presses during QTE events (timed keypresses required during realtime cutscenes that keep the player on his or her toes) made them a test of pure reflexes instead of a trial-and-error affair. In TR:L’s QTE sequences, the button presses are the same each time, and the actions for each press is more closely matched to the action the player’s actually carrying out. While this allows the sequences to be memorized in a way that RE4 directly avoided, it makes TR:L’s events feel less arbitrary.

The over-shoulder view resembles RE4′s view directly, though here it’s a toggle instead of something that’s always on. And while it can be used to target enemies, the player will use it most often to target objects that can be destroyed or pushed by gunshots. It doesn’t improve Lara’s accuracy, and since Lara can’t crouch while she’s aiming, this view makes her a sitting duck during combat.

Speaking of combat, it’s interesting how faithful TR:L is to what the original required of the player when bullets start to fly. The best way to approach any given combat situation in the game is not to use stealth, not to use cover, but to flip and dodge and roll around, using Lara’s acrobatics and athleticism to simply move faster than enemies can aim. None of the enemies are particularly smart, and none of the combat encounters are challenging or well-constructed enough to feel compelling, but it’s still satisfying to use Lara’s abilities to completely stomp the rather dull mercenaries present here.

Rather than using the wide-open, sprawling rooms and ruins seen in the first Tomb Raider, Legend keeps its paths relatively narrow and easy to follow. It’s quite rare that the path one should follow isn’t clearly marked. Puzzles are only nominally such – rarely does any one puzzle require anything more than finding a switch in plain view, using the grapple where clearly marked, depressing a plate with a box or ball, or solving a simple physics problem. This does keep the levels moving swiftly, but the player never has to do the sort of surveying and careful scrutiny of the environment that TR1 often required. The physics engine is very well-utilized, however, and the puzzles that require clever use of physics are satisfying to solve. Like Half-Life 2 before, it TR:L should serve as an example for effective and consistent use of physics in gameplay as realistic physics become more common.

This reliance on context-sensitive actions tends to make each level feel like the sequence of keypresses it is, instead of allowing the player the illusion of really hanging from a ledge that’s ten stories above ground level. In TR1, many of the high spots are places the player reaches after several minutes of climbing, so the drop is very real and very present. Most of TR:L’s chasms are bottomless pits that drop the player right out of the level’s environment. The world might as well not exist outside of the main path through a level. TR:L is generous with checkpoints, too, making the setback one faces for tumbling into a gap no more than a few seconds’ worth of a replay and another shot at a jump. While this is a nice way to remove punishment for failure and make the game an even experience for unskilled players, it removes any sort of real tension from exploration.

An interesting side effect of this rather linear approach to level design is that each of the levels is very well-suited to speed play. There’s an unlockable item available for completing the time trial for each level, and while it’s not that difficult to beat the required time, it’s quite satisfying to see Lara flipping and dashing through a level as the player navigates all its hazards without pause.

In fact, that kind of play is what suits Legend’s presentation best. It’s more cinematic than any previous game in the series, and its quick pacing and snappy dialogue are much like what one would find in a Hollywood summer blockbuster. When Lara is navigating a level with ease, without stopping to ponder an obstacle, savor the atmosphere, or admire a vista, the game’s scripting is allowed to portray Lara’s adventure as just the sort of light, fluffy confection that the designers intended.

Fans of the original Tomb Raider, then, would be advised to explore the optional Croft Manor level to its fullest. Its nonlinear flow and the wide-open exploration it allows, ironically, provide the sort of unguided challenge that the first game is best known for.

And as a side note, I really enjoyed hearing Keeley Hawes as Lara this time around. I’m not sure if it was just Hawes, or both the performance and Lara’s lines, but she has a certain humanity and genuine likability here that wasn’t apparent in previous games. Lara is still intended primarily as a male fantasy object – that much is apparent from her costumes and animations – but she’s well on her way to becoming a respectable character.

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