"I'm falling in love all over again."
That's one of the early clips of dialogue from Tomb Raider Legends, and a piece of foreshadowing based on what's about to happen to the player. Resurrecting the franchise from utter disasters and slapped together yearly sequels, Legends is the game Tomb Raider wanted to be and should have been all along. You will be falling in love, even before the first level is over.
The leap in quality from the miserable Angel of Darkness to this is an astonishing achievement, and proof that no franchise should be denied a second chance. Gone are the clunky, grid-based controls that prevented any type of natural movement. Lara Croft now moves like a human, and combined with smooth controls, this new engine is a masterpiece. The simple act of moving her around the widely varied environments is enjoyable. The only thing missing would be generous leaping controls since it's not always possible to see where Lara will be jumping.
While many of the trademarked Tomb Raider concepts are here, from moving boxes to hit a switch to shimmying across walls. Lara's new piece of equipment is a magnetic hook, and it's gameplay benefits are enormous. This long piece of rope can do nearly anything, from propelling the player over a pit, grabbing an out-of-reach object, pulling switches, or various other life saving maneuvers.
It also adds an extra layer to the puzzle solving. Each level usually revolves around a giant test of ingenuity and logic skills. The solutions are not obvious, but never buried deeply enough that the player isn't without everything they need right in the front of them. There is no running back and forth to grab a missed key card or code to open a locked door.
In fact, all of this adventuring is handled so adeptly, it's a shame there's any combat at all. The targeting system is awful, making every encounter sap precious ammo because the player is unable to aim anywhere but where the game tells them too. The few massive boss battles become aggravating because of this. One of the end level encounters becomes a puzzle though, and that ends up being one of the numerous highlights. It's how each battle should have ended up.
Two sections of the game also traverse into vehicular combat, putting Lara on a motorcycle to chase various bad guys (who are in no way varied enough). While intense, fast, and exciting for the first few minutes, they quickly degrade into repetitive levels that jar with the superbly crafted stages before and after. The final quest deserves multiple awards for its enjoyment, epic quality, and wildly fun leaps of faith. The motorcycle levels before it are shown up because of how strong everything else is.
Assuming the puzzles are solved quickly, Tomb Raider Legends will give you at minimum, six solid hours of gameplay. It's the perfect length, as there's no padding material or time for the well written story to become stretched out. The Xbox 360 has the added feature of Achievement Points to extend the length further, to add to the enhanced lighting and water effects. Time trials and an extra romp in Lara's manor keep the replay value moving.
Tomb Raider Legends would have been every bit as enjoyable as it is without a single gun. Solving these grand puzzles is the game's strongest asset, and it flaunts it every chance it gets. This is a return to grace that rises above last year's Resident Evil 4 in terms of a leap in quality from the previous game to the next. It's almost depressing to think of the people that will pass this over because of their last few disappointments with this series. The rest of us will have one of the best gaming experiences this year.
(***** out of *****)