The original Tomb Raider was released in 1996. A pioneering game, it did for the third-person action genre what Quake did for the FPS - showing what could be achieved with fully-3D engines and setting the stage for numerous imitators. The Derby-based developer Core Design would rise to become a British success story and the game’s protagonist Lara Croft would go on to become a gaming icon, and one of the industry’s few household names.
Inevitably, publisher Eidos were hungry for more. Over Core Design’s protests, they demanded a new Tomb Raider game each year. The studio wanted to pause, to develop a new engine and prepare Lara for more genuinely fluid and engaging adventures. Instead, they were forced by Eidos to push their engine and increasingly aged gameplay further and further each year, in pursuit of more profit. Core Design went as far as to kill Lara off in the fourth game The Last Revelation, only to be forced by Eidos to revive her. The situation came to a head with the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness in 2003. The sixth in the series, the game attempted a flawed new direction and was pushed out by Eidos in an unfinished state.
While the resulting damage to the Tomb Raider name was largely the fault of Eidos, it fell to them to try to find a way to rejuvenate the series. In 2004, they made their fateful decision and pulled Core Design from the franchise - a move which ultimately led to the studio’s demise under new ownership in 2010. Instead, another studio owned by Eidos was given the task of developing a bold reboot for the series. Crystal Dynamics, based in California and known mainly for the Legacy of Kain series, became the first American studio to handle the British icon that is Lara Croft.
The new game was Tomb Raider: Legend and saw release on the PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox in April 2006. The overwhelming impression is of a game which is smooth and accessible - the game’s structure is broken up into more manageable segments, the control scheme is overhauled, a much more cinematic feel is evident, and the fast-paced story shepherds the player from one location to the next. Taking around six to seven hours to complete, Legend has simpler puzzles than previous Tomb Raider games and somewhat more dynamic combat sequences. If Crystal Dynamics’ goal was to modernise the series with a slick, propulsive experience they succeeded in some style.
In all, Tomb Raider: Legend sold around 4.5 million copies compared with the 2.5 million shifted by The Angel of Darkness. The reputation of the series, and the stature of the Lara Croft character, were dramatically improved. All of this set the stage for the game’s two follow-ups, and to the series’ continuing success today. However, it’s easy to lose sight of just how different Legend was upon its first release - and how its design contributed to the revitalising of a stored series that seems now like a permanent fixture of the third-person action landscape.
Being a reboot, Legend establishes a whole new continuity for the Tomb Raider series, taking just a few previously seen elements and repurposing them. In all, the game comprises eight chapters which take Lara to seven countries - Bolivia, Peru, Japan, Ghana, Kazakhstan, England, and Nepal. Each stage will take most players something like an hour to complete, helping to create the game’s brisk feel.
Refreshingly for a reboot, Legend doesn’t serve as an origin story. When the plot begins, Lara is already a seasoned adventurer. The game opens in Bolivia, where Lara is exploring the ruins of Tiwanaku in the hope of discovering what happened to her mother following an encounter with a magical dais in Nepal after a plane crash years earlier. The trail leads Lara to pursue separated segments of the legendary sword of King Arthur: Excalibur. The story is delivered mostly through short cutscenes, both within and between the chapters. It’s fairly predictable and in the standard mould for the series, but more than serviceable.
While The Angel of Darkness had contributed visual and audio improvements, Legend takes this to the next level. Lara was redesigned again, and given the most high-polygon model she had had up to this point. British actress Keeley Hawes - known mostly for the BBC spy series Spooks - was an excellent new choice for Lara’s voice actress. Lara's personality is warm and confident, a pleasure to listen to and play as.
The diverse environments in the game are generally well-differentiated. The previous game was criticised for its emphasis on urban environments, and originally Legend was to feature none at all. Ultimately, a compromise position was settled on which resulted in the inclusion of the Tokyo segment. At one point, a third location in Latin America was planned but this was felt to take away from the game’s variety so it was scrapped and replaced with the Kazakhstan chapter. This is easily one of the more novel locations, set within a largely abandoned Soviet research facility dating from the 1950s. Another highlight is the opening of the Ghana chapter, which allows Lara to swan dive off a cliff into a large pool, and then to use an ancient machine to part a waterfall and permit access to a hidden temple. The sequence looks excellent and is a joy to play, and has all of the game’s elements working in synchrony for maximum effect.
Historically, the Tomb Raider games could be a lonely experience because of Lara’s isolation - often, her only interaction with other living things was pumping 12-gauge shotgun shells into endangered species. Legend attempted to remedy this by keeping Lara in regular radio contact with her team back at base, consisting of brash tech expert Zip and bookish researcher Alistair, who know little about their areas of expertise but do provide a degree of comic relief.
Getting around the environments in Legend is generally a slick and pleasurable experience. Prior to 2006, one of the elements which was most distinctive about the Tomb Raider games was also one of those which most held it back - its idiosyncratic movement and controls. Beginning with the original 1996 game, the series relied on a grid system which governed Lara’s position within a given level. This invisible grid underpinned all of the environments in the games: a step would cover one grid square, while a leap would traverse a larger number. While serviceable in the 1990s, this system grew increasingly dated and frustrating as games underwent modernisation. Lara may have looked beautiful in a low-poly kind of way, but handled like an aircraft carrier.
Legend is notable for doing away with this awkward system entirely, moving to what is now a more standard and fluid approach to character movement. Freed from the tyranny of the grid, players can move Lara more freely and dynamically around the game’s environments. In addition, Lara gained a number of new ways of moving, most notably a grapple which is also a tool used in puzzle segments and in combat.
Compared with previous games in the series, Legend has a more rigid separation between different aspects of the gameplay: exploration, puzzles, and combat. Of these three, it is the combat which is least compelling, as is usual for the Tomb Raider series. Targeting enemies is slightly less awkward than in earlier games, and the boss battles range from adequate to deeply annoying.
The exploration and puzzle segments are the real meat of Legend and generally work very well. The puzzles are notably easier to complete than in the earlier games, but this is a welcome change - the game has an accessible, easygoing feel but the puzzles are still engaging to attempt and satisfying to complete. The integration of new tools like the smart binoculars and grapple into puzzles is one of the most notable additions Crystal Dynamics made to the series. There’s a significant emphasis on the game’s physics code, which also helps Legend to feel like it was bringing Lara into the 21st century.
If Tomb Raider: Legend was to be described in one word, a good choice would be “smooth”. This is a Tomb Raider experience which softened out almost all of the hard edges of the previous games. Its story, puzzles, combat, and exploration are all easier to digest than the classics developed by Core Design. The whole experience is wrapped in a visual presentation that literally rounds off the hard edges and abstracted level design of the past era, moving to something more organic and imaginative. Lara herself is a warmer, more witty character than ever before, more human and easier to identify with.
Played today, Legend is a reminder of how much more streamlined third-person action games were in 2006. In contrast with newer games, it isn’t a vast and sprawling open-world adventure; nor is it bogged down with a raft of menus, inventory items, upgrades, skill trees, experience gains, maps, and other miscellaneous subsystems that break the immersion. It may not be as pure a Tomb Raider experience as the games which precede it, but it may just be the perfect midway point between that, and the cluttered and overly “realistic” feel of the 2013 reboot series.
There’s a pervasive freshness and warm, easygoing charm to Legend which gave the series a much-needed shot in the arm. It contributed in a crucial way to the longevity of Tomb Raider, and is still - boss battles excepted - a compelling experience a decade and a half later.
In 2007, Core Design would bring this new Lara into an even more direct encounter with the series’ legacy, with the era-mixing remake of Tomb Raider: Anniversary. But that, as they say, is a story for another time.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.