TRL Review

Posted in Reviews,Xbox 360 by Michael Pica on the June 15th, 2006

[this is a repost of the original article posted on Xbox-Scene.]

Tomb Raider has easily been one of the most well known franchises in video games, ever since the first Tomb Raider game was released in November of 1996. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend marks the seventh release of the series in 10 years.

TITLE: Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend
PUBLISHER: Eidos Interactive
DEVELOPER: Crystal Dynamics
DATE RELEASED: April 11, 2006
HDTV Support: 1080i
5.1 Surround Sound: Yes
GENRE: Action
PLATFORM: Xbox 360, Xbox, PC, PS2, PSP
ESRB: T (Teen):Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence
Retail Price: $59.99 USD

It’s important to note that the first four releases of the series all came within a year of each other and were all released for the Playstation and PC. Because of this many felt that the series lost it’s flair after the first two games. The first Tomb Raider was hailed for it’s originality Tomb Raider II was hailed for improving on the first title in nearly every aspect: gameplay, graphics, sound, level design, the addition of vehicles etc. After Tomb Raider III and later, Tomb Raider Revelation, and Tomb Raider Chronicles (the fourth and fifth games in the series respectively) were met with far less excitement. Graphically they were the same game, and gameplay elements remained unchanged. Despite the game having received annual “updates” for it’s first 5 years 2001 marked the first year there was NOT a Tomb Raider release. The franchise however took form as a successful major motion picture. The Picture spawned a sequel that was released in 2003 just day’s after the sixth game in the Tomb Raider series, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, was release on the PS2 and PC after three years of hibernation. Angel of Darkness was supposedly the most ambitious game in the series yet it was to receive substantial graphical updates and it was hoped that it would revive the series. Unfortunately, despite many delays and the substantial gap in time between releases it was ultimately considered the biggest let-down of the series. The game was found to have many bugs on different systems, basic controls were drastically changed. Despite the solid plot concept what ended up in the game was full of holes that only confused the player. Most disappointing however were the uninspired levels taking place in urban environments as opposed to tombs or ruins as well as the absence of Lara’s trademark pistols. The game did so poorly in fact that Paramount blamed it for the lackluster turnout for the second Movie.

Up to this point every game in the Tomb Raider series had been developed by Core Design. For the seventh addition Eidos Interactive gave the project to Crystal Dynamics for development. Despite the change in development teams Toby Garb had returned to act as adviser. Garb, who is credited as the creator of Lara Croft, had left Core Design after the creation of the first Tomb Raider game. While he was acting only as an adviser his role was important in that they’d hoped he would be able to help “reset” the series back to what made the first game so very popular. Riley Cooper lead the design team responsible for this game, the same group responsible for The Legacy Of Kain series. So the question now is, was Crystal Dynamics able to revive the Tomb Raider series back to it’s original glory?

You might have noticed that the name of the game isn’t just “Tomb Raider” as past titles were called; the game has received a slight name change to “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” this falls in line with the movie spin-off of the same base name. While the movie and the game arn’t entirely related the name change is important. It implies that the game will hold more importance on Lara herself and this is true. The game’s plot has a far more personal touch and exploits a major part of Lara’s back story that was created for her bio in the first Tomb Raider game. The game kicks off in a flashback with Lara as a child. She witnesses her mother getting pulled into a portal of some kind just before it collapses. It’s clear that this event was a driving force that shaped Lara into who she is today. The game follows Lara as she attempts to uncover the mystery behind key used to trigger the portal that killed her mother. This takes her all around the world to a number of interesting places. The plot develops as a very good pace and throughout the game you learn more about Lara’s history as well as the the mysterious key she is attempting to uncover. The story is even related to another well known legend (hence the title) which I felt gave it a nice touch. While there are those who have been disappointed by the ending I personally felt it was appropriate and it provided closure to the game as opposed to leaving you with a cliff-hanger. This leaves the game open to an entirely fresh and new adventure with it’s next rendition as opposed to dragging out the same story arc.

TRL includes seven levels across seven different locations. Each location takes about an hour to complete and includes at least one boss battle or major gun fight, and at least one major puzzle to solve. The rest of the game includes a good balance of acrobatics (reminiscent of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), gun fighting, and problem solving. It’s really executed quite nicely. You’ll encounter Puzzles that include a mix of thinking about how a puzzle will work as well as thinking about how you need to run, swing, crawl, push, jump, and climb through the area. At no point did I think the puzzles were overly difficult nor overly simple and they seemed to all make good use of the various tools available. In addition to the seven main levels there is also a final boss battle level that takes place in the same location as the first level (bringing the story full circle), as well as a bonus level that you can explore, Croft Manor.

While the level designs include interesting puzzles and well thought out acrobatic arrangements the game is incredibly linear. Very rarely will the player not know where to go next. while you might get stuck in a room and have to think critically about how to use your skills to climb the walls, you’ll almost always know that you’re supposed to progress UP. I suppose it’s difficult to make an open ended game with such a ridged plot structure, perhaps this could be something they work out in the next game. Even still linear progression has it’s merits as it allows for more movie like plot development and ensures that the game plays as the designers intended. One nice thing though is that you typically go through a level, get what you were looking for and go back out the way you came facing each area from a different perspective. I thought this was a nice true to life touch as rarely would you exit ancient ruins from a different location then where you entered.

Despite the relatively short game in terms of how long it will take your first time through There are a number of things that have been added to increase the game’s replay value. In addition to simply pushing the plot forward and progressing through the levels there are a number of artifacts for you to find. Each level includes one Gold artifact, a small number of Silver artifacts and a larger number of Bronze artifacts. Most of the Bronze artifacts hide in plain site. Though they are often skillfully placed in such a way that they will come into view when you are no where near them but once you are up close you wont notice them unless you’re looking for it explicitly. Silver artifacts are hidden a little better, often requiring you to explore slightly off the beaten path or to find slightly hidden passageways. The gold reward in each level is usually hidden quite elaborately and requires the player to question certain obstacles and really dig and explore all the nuances of the levels. While the Croft Manor level doesn’t have any sort of structure or plot related to the main game it has a number of these hidden artifacts (more then any of the other levels). In addition to the artifacts you also must find all of Lara’s equipment throughout the manor, this means certain puzzles cannot be solved until a particular/necessary article of equipment is found which adds an interesting element to the bonus level.

Another feature that adds a substantial amount of replay value is Time Trial mode. Once a level has been completed a new “Time Trial” difficulty is opened up. This difficulty setting will add a countdown timer and requires you to complete the level before the timer reaches Zero. While the linear level design and overall short game might be negative things in general, a time trial mode of this nature might not work as well otherwise. If you’re familiar with the level design and comfortable with the controls you could easily blaze through the entire game in under 2 hours. Levels that might have taken about hour to complete the first time through only give you an average of 20 minutes to complete in time trial mode. Playing through all the levels in this mode myself I was pleasantly surprised how well each of the levels worked for varying gameplay types. On the one hand they offered elaborate puzzles and a complex series of poles and cracks for you to swing and climb on, on the other hand the levels are laid out so that if you know where you’re going you can flow through each of them in one smooth motion that will help you net your best time possible. Areas that you used for for cover to strategically take out enemies the first time now serve as cover to help you simply run by them without getting hit.

Artifacts and short level times don’t just provide replay value and self satisfaction though. Xbox 360 owners will be rewarded with Achievement points for uncovering a certain number of artifacts, as well as completing each of the levels in time trail mode. Both are far easier said then done. Also by completing these tasks you’ll unlock lots of bonus material such as concept art, object models, gun upgrades, cheat codes, character bios, even new outfits that Lara can wear while replaying the game or just while having fun just scaling the walls of Croft Manor. This is similar to the rewards provided by Condemned: Criminal Origins for finding birds, metal pieces and propaganda reports. I think its a fantastic reward system because none of the bonus items are critical to the game but they’re all things that true fans would enjoy unlocking and using. Not to mention it gives that same group an excuse to give the game another play through.

Not only are the levels creatively designed but they’re also drop dead gorgeous. It’s no surprise that the game’s tag-line is “Seeing is Believing”. And it’s not just hype you really truly need to see the game in action to fully appreciate how good it looks. I played through on the Xbox 360 version I would imagine the other versions of the game have their graphics tuned accordingly. I can easily say that the 360 version really shows off a lot of the console’s power, the gameplay is smooth, I never saw it drop in frame rate or frame tear. They made good use of Anti-Aliasing providing crisp jaggy-free graphics. Shadowing, particle effects etc. are all done well. This is particularly impressive considering the game is a cross-platform release, since most cross-platform releases come up short in the graphics department. The most impressive however is the animation. All of the movements are fluid and natural looking; one move flows well into the next. Even small details like if you grab onto a bar slightly askew she’ll swing around off balance and naturally correct herself. Details like that make the overall look and feel of the graphics really impressive. It’s the kind of thing lost on a screen shot that can make or break a game graphically and TRL passes with flying colors.

All of the games plot developing cut-scenes are rendered with the in-game engine And they look as good as you’d expect from something pre-rendered. Quite frequently I’d be watching a cut scene and then Lara would stop moving and talking. I’d question if the game froze only to realize that the cut-scene had ended and the game had returned control to me. The transition from gameplay to cut-scene is completely fluid and really helps the game move a long at a good pace. the fact that it uses the in-game engine to create the cut-scenes not only attests to the quality of the actual game environments and character models but it allows for small details that really help pull the game together and keep the player right in the game world. If you enter an area that triggers a cut scene the computer simply takes over your character right where they are. The steps don’t miss a beat, if you have an uncommon weapon equipped that weapon will stay in her hands. Even if you left her flashlight on it will remain on. This detail really brought a smile to my face, I can’t tell you how many times other games have pulled me out of the game experience when I had some alternate weapon equipped or was wearing a alternate costume, but once the cut-scene started my character was magically in the default outfit with the crappy weapon I started the game with. Seeing that has the same effect as watching a movie and noticing a stage hand walk by in the background, it totally pulls you out of the experience. I think it’s this attention to detail that makes TRL great.

Maybe more beautiful then the graphics is the audio. The game is cut wonderfully in 5.1 surround sound. The voice acting, though a bit corny in spots (but that’s more the fault of the script), is fantastic as are the sound effects. Footsteps and gunshots have enough variation as to not get repetitive. Noises like water splashes, tumbling rocks, or the creak of bars as you swing off of them are all very natural sounding and have accurate spatial placement. The game is even scored amazingly ranging from traditional native sounding songs to modern techno depending on the feeling trying to be portrayed. The music is done well enough that it never draws attention to itself but always sets an appropriate mood for the part of the level you’re going through.

Plot, level design, graphics, and sound are all well and good but all utterly useless unless the core gameplay and controls work well. In general the game does play really well. The controls almost always do what you’d expect them to do and very rarely do you have the excuse of blaming them when you die. That’s not to say they are without problems. The game controls almost identical to the original title on the Playstation. This even includes some of it’s faults. The controls rely heavily on which direction you’re pushing the analog stick. You need to instruct where the game should push a block or where you plan on jumping to next. Like most 3rd person games these directions change based on where the camera is. If you’re hanging from a ledge and the camera is behind you. you need to push right to jump right, but if the camera is to your left, pushing right will make you jump backwards as opposed to your right. Once or twice in the game I ended up jumping to my death simply because I disagreed with the game as to which direction I was instructing Lara to move. Or in some cases the camera would change positions at the last second, just enough to screw me up. This can also make jumping to and from ropes difficult at times. This problem is most apparent when pushing around boxes or other game objects. While these sort of things detract from the game play they are forgivable on some levels as I’ve yet to see a game that relies this heavily on directional/camera based movement that has completely nailed the controls. They did a really good job keeping the original control style while fixing a lot of it’s faults. Though the problems that still exist are mostly inherent in this type of control scheme, I still feel that they are the most natural controls you could use for this type of game.

In addition to the general running, jumping, and shooting you’re doing, the game often gives you control over cut-scene action sequences. It seems rather cheesy at first but after playing through the game a few times I felt it really added some nice breaks and changes to the gameplay. Most levels have at least one of these action sequences. Essentially a cut-scene starts and as it progresses a button icon appears on the screen that the player must push within a certain amount of time. If the wrong button is pushed or if the button is not pushed in time Lara will die and you’ll return to the last checkpoint. If the proper button is pushed within the time limit then Lara will conquer the obstacle and the cut-scene will progress further. Most of these are action sequences that in any other game the user simply wouln’t have control over at all. You know the type where you’re typically limited control wise through the whole game and then the cut-scene happens and the character does all the cool stuff that you wish you could do but can’t, then it’s back to crappy controls. Despite the simple button push operations it gives you some control over the cool stylized action cut-scenes and makes you feel like you’re still in control. I think it’s a nice way to break up some of the levels to help keep it interesting. The buttons you push arn’t random either. If you’re watching the cut scene and it looks like Lara needs to jump, most likely you’ll be pushing the Jump button.

Another change of pace added to some of the levels is the use of a motorcycle or some other vehicle. The Motorcycle portions again serve to break up the gameplay a bit. The controls here do make a lot of sense. They fit well with the rest of the game. However if you’re someone who plays a lot of racers you might get confused. In TRL the Triggers are used for targeting and shooting and the A button is used for action. So naturally when you get on the bike the triggers still shoot and the A button is used for Acceleration. Playing this game after having just finished Full Auto, which uses the A button to shoot and the right trigger for acceleration, I occasionally found myself finishing up a gun battle and slowly decelerating while shooting forward aimlessly wondering why I wasn’t speeding up and why I was still shooting. It a minor nit-pick and mostly my own fault for being TOO acclimated to a different control scheme. In all fairness the one they chose for the bike does make the most sense in fitting with the rest of the game.

TRL does fantastic in almost every aspect but it’s biggest fault, like many modern games, is it’s length. Tomb Raider fans will be pleased with and get some good use out of the hidden artifacts and time trial modes but casual gamers probably wont get much use out of those things and most likely question why they spent $60 for only 7 hours of game. While I explored every nook and cranny of the extra features I felt the game could have been a good deal longer. another 5 to 7 hours of gameplay tacked on to the main game would have been very nice to see. The level length was good but I would have rather seen 12 to 14 levels then the 7 that we got. I felt this was needed particularly because of the game’s linear nature and lack of multiplayer features. Even if you were to exhaust the extra features it still only offers up about 16 hours of gameplay.

All things considered did Crystal Dynamics succeed in reviving the Tomb Raider franchise? Regardless of my opinion the industry and consumers alike have shouted a resounding YES! Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend is the fastest selling Tomb Raider game to date. Not only that it has also received some of the best review scores of any Tomb Raider game since Tomb Raider II back in 1997. There is no question that this game did not succeed in it’s goal. I really hope this title stands as a new beginning to the franchise and that they can build on it from here. Even still Tomb Raider isn’t for everyone and it’s short length makes this much more of a rental rather then a buy for most gamers. Aside from that the game does very well for itself in just about every other aspect.

I give Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend an 8.5 out of 10

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