In 2006 a new lease of life was given to the decade-old series featuring archaeologist and adventurer, Lara Croft. Following on from the industry-changing phenomenon that the original 1996 game proved to be, Eidos and Core Design produced several sequels that varied in quality, ranging from the fantastic second game to the disappointing ‘Tomb Raider Chronicles’. All of them included new locales and some relatively minor innovations, but the series had started to feel outdated by the turn of the millennium. In 2003 its gradual stagnation culminated in the much-maligned ‘Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness’ and it became clear that a break and a new direction were needed. Thankfully, after a three-year hiatus, Lara returned to action and the series returned to form with the release of ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’.
In order to take the series forward, development responsibilities were handed over to Crystal Dynamics. One crucial thing they focussed on was ensuring that the way Lara controlled was more in-line with current standards. The rigid grid-based movement system of previous games, which required players to make precise and unnatural adjustments to guide the character around the gaming environments, was done away with in favour of a more realistic and responsive scheme. This change alone made it far less frustrating and much more enjoyable to direct Lara to run, roll, jump, shimmy, swing, and somersault during her new adventure.
The original ‘Tomb Raider’ was packed with mysterious and atmospheric ancient ruins to explore and traverse. However, as the series matured each successive entry (excepting ‘Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation’) included less tombs—and in their place—more modern locations, such as an oil rig, Area 51, a London Underground station, and a Russian submarine. Crystal Dynamics addressed this disparity between the series’ name and its locales by making sure that ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’ has a much better ratio of old world to modern areas spread across its levels, with the balance being strongly in favour of the former.
There are seven main locations in the game and each one forms a separate mission area. The worldwide adventure takes Lara to Bolivia, Peru, Japan, Ghana, Kazakhstan, England, and Nepal. The levels are beautifully designed and all of them feel unique. As a welcome bonus, we also get the opportunity to make an extended visit to Lara’s stately home in order to explore and discover its many hidden secrets.
Upon starting the game, after the depiction of a harrowing event from her childhood, we find adult Lara scaling a sheer cliff face in Bolivia, which serves as the game’s first playable area. Our heroine is full of confidence as she fearlessly makes her way to the top. This sassy version of Lara is one of her best incarnations of the entire series; it seems that she can take on anyone or anything right from the very outset of the adventure.
The opening level is a good microcosm of what makes ‘Legend’ feel like such a strong ‘Tomb Raider’ experience. We start in an exotic locale at the summit of a table-top mountain that features cascading waterfalls and superb views of the surrounding plateaus. At this point, Lara’s goal is a relatively simple one—to locate an ancient stone dais she believes is situated in a nearby temple. To get there she must traverse the environment in several different ways: she climbs up rocks and vines, swims through a pool of water, swings across chasms, dodges a runaway boulder, and grapples obstacles out of her way—all within the first twenty or so minutes of gameplay.
The exploration is broken up when Lara reaches the temple entrance, where she becomes embroiled in a skirmish with a group of well-armed mercenaries before tentatively entering the mysterious structure. It is from here that the real tomb raiding begins in earnest. The temple is a hazardous place that contains a collection of booby traps and a predatory jaguar or two. The player must have their wits about them and quick reactions at the ready as they advance along a path that also includes a couple of easy but enjoyable puzzles to solve. Once Lara reaches the stone dais, she is assaulted by several enemies and must survive a testing end-of-level battle.
This gameplay loop repeats itself throughout most of the levels. It is simple yet satisfying, and no one element outstays its welcome. ‘Legend’ certainly features more combat than earlier ‘Tomb Raider’ games, but it feels light enough not to diminish the sense of adventure and exploration. The gunfire encounters are not as polished as those of the ‘Uncharted’ games but are designed quite differently, with the player being encouraged to keep moving while under fire, rather than taking cover as in Nathan Drake’s outings.
Lara also has a few new moves at her disposal, which include using her grappler on opponents and backflipping off them to set up a slow-motion precision shot. The exchanges of lead tend to be quite short-lived and the player should have no problem blasting through them and getting back to the exploration. Overall the balance feels good and although ‘Legend’ is not as challenging as previous entries, it very importantly retains the spirit of the series’ earliest games, while still modernising the whole package to harmonise with gaming standards circa 2006.
In addition to the opening mission, the levels set in Peru, Ghana, England, and Nepal do a particularly good job of capturing that special ‘Tomb Raider’ atmosphere. To use Ghana as an example, after unveiling a huge temple that was hidden behind a massive waterfall, Lara must make her way through a flooded cavern and past deadly spinning blades to get to the inner sanctum. The interior of the ancient structure is dank, dark, and dangerous and the accompanying ambient music amplifies the location’s tone very effectively.
Hiding a mysterious explorable area behind a waterfall will certainly be appreciated by those old-timers who recall the ‘Tomb of Qualopec’ level from the original 1996 game, but ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’ also includes a couple of more modern areas. Of these, the mission set in Japan stands out most in terms of how much of an aesthetic contrast it is to the other levels. It begins at a high-rise suite in Tokyo, complete with neon lighting and all the sophistication one would expect of a VIP party in the world’s biggest city. However, it isn’t long before Lara is scrambling up the sides of skyscrapers and swinging off ledges high above the endless streams of bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic far below.
Despite the absence of tombs, temples, and ruins in this level, it is a joy to navigate because of how well it is designed as a platforming playground. Where better to induce a sense of vertigo than the city’s tallest buildings? In addition, great care has been taken to make the location feel realistic. For a game released in 2006, the night-time city skyline looks good and contains significant detail, such as having Tokyo Tower visible in the distance. Most importantly though, despite its modern setting the area doesn’t feel out of place within the game, as what takes place there fits in neatly with the overall story.
The game’s main quest item is an ancient sword, more commonly known as Excalibur—of King Arthur fame—which was broken into pieces and scattered across continents over the centuries. Lara’s goal in most of the areas she visits is to retrieve a piece of it, with the aim of making it whole again. She believes the sword can be used in the type of stone dais she finds in Bolivia, which she hopes to activate in order to find out what happened to her mother, who vanished while interacting with a similar relic and dais in Nepal. This provides a personal element to the adventure and results in our protagonist having a stronger motivation than just collecting ancient artifacts for the thrill of it.
The other main theme running through ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’ focusses on the concept of the monomyth. This idea was largely brought to the reading public’s consciousness by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and is based on the proposition that the myths and ancient stories of many cultures contain remarkable similarities. It is apparent that a fair amount of research was undertaken on this before or during the game’s creation and that considerable effort was made to incorporate the theory into ‘Legend’s’ narrative.
This is accomplished by weaving it into the story about the aforementioned ancient swords. In the game, it is suggested that these magical weapons were passed to certain important historical characters by some even older civilization, in order to raise them up. The individuals who received the swords all seem to be part of mythical stories that chart their rise to greatness and follow the same basic outline. This outline can be seen as an iteration of the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell discusses at length in his literary work.
In addition to the game’s overarching narrative, each level contains a subplot. Some of these are directly related to Lara, such as that of the Peru mission, which provides an opportunity to revisit the site of a harrowing event from her student days. The less personal subplots of other levels are equally as interesting. For example, the mission in Kazakhstan features a backstory about a disastrous experiment that combined one of Nikola Tesla’s electricity-related inventions with the artifact Lara is searching for. Evidence of the resulting calamity can be seen throughout the level in the long-frozen corpses and letters of scientists who were trapped while trying to flee the research facility where the experiment took place. Even though the level doesn’t include ancient ruins or hidden temples, it is still pervaded by a palpable feeling of historical significance, which makes playing through it enjoyable.
In writing a retrospective of a game that features such a well-known protagonist whose digital appearances reach into double figures and include two series reboots, at some point due attention should be paid to how she is portrayed. Lara Croft certainly has an interesting history. When she arrived on the gaming scene in 1996, she brought a liberating breath of fresh air to the industry; here was a strong, independent, confident, cool female lead that could compete with any male action hero. Although the character’s physical proportions were criticized for being oversexualised, she also acted as a role model with her can-do attitude and general ability to surmount any obstacles placed in her path.
‘Tomb Raider: Legend’ serves as the initial game of the first reboot of the series. In the previous games, Lara didn’t have chance to show many sides of her personality. She was the strong character type described above—a capable, cold-blooded, globe-trotting raider of tombs. Conversely, in the games of the second series reboot, she is portrayed as more vulnerable and emotional, particularly in 2013’s ‘Tomb Raider’, where she is really just trying to survive. Although that game’s sequels, the excellent ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ and ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’, do go some way to bringing Lara back to her original self, there is still quite a difference between how she is portrayed in them and in her earlier incarnations. Sometimes it seems that these representations could be protagonists from two unrelated series.
In ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’, although our heroine’s physical proportions and skimpiness of clothing are still suspiciously unrealistic for anyone but a glamour model, her personality development has reached an excellent balance. She is still as masterful as in the older games of the series, but her steeliness is tempered by a humanity that was never previously there. This is apparent in her interactions with her support crew (Zip and Alistair), which often consist of banter-filled humorous exchanges. It can also be seen in the way she introspectively talks about what happened to her parents with her family’s long-time live-in butler Winston. Her personal feelings are out there for the player to empathise with, but she is never depicted as frail or weak.
A lot of credit should be given to her voice actor (Keeley Hawes) for this, who does a fantastic job of providing Lara with the sass that is lacking in the most recent games. When she demonstrates her deep knowledge of ancient civilizations in ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’ it comes across as much more believable. In this game Lara is still the likable mature British aristocratic adventurer she always was, just with a lighter and more humane side. She isn’t the work-in-progress archaeology student and Katniss Everdeen hybrid that she seemed to turn into for the 2013 reboot game. Still, there is no accounting for taste, and it is completely understandable that some may prefer the latter version.
The high quality of the game’s audio is not exclusive to the voice acting; ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’ features some wonderful music too. The tracks created by Danish Composer Troels Brun Folmann are the perfect accompaniment to the exotic and mysterious locales featured throughout the various levels. The original ‘Tomb Raider’ was sparse on music, but that created an intense sensation of isolation and allowed the game’s sound effects to have a greater impact on the player. In ‘Legend’ Folmann has been able to retain the great atmosphere of the older games yet bring something new with his music, which is expertly applied. It is the ambient tracks—of which there are many— that create the almost tangible atmosphere, but up-tempo electronica is also used to complement action-oriented sections. Overall, it is a good package and suits the game very well.
When comparing ‘Legend’ with all of the ‘Tomb Raider’ games over the years, one can usually find another of its siblings that does a specific thing a bit better, but what makes this game so good is that it does everything very well. It is not the most challenging installment of the series, it doesn’t have the most intricate level design, and it doesn’t feature the most insidious tombs. However, it conserves the atmosphere of the originals, improves the combat and control system, and features a more human version of Lara without making her seem fragile. Most importantly though, it revived a languishing series and brought Lara back from the brink of oblivion to where she belongs.
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