For one of the industry's most recognisable characters, Lara hasn't appeared in that many great games. 1997's tomb Raider II was her last quality outing, with her adventures since then being rather mixed. Expectations for Legend, then, were mixed, as the title could have gone in either direction. Thankfully Eidos and Crystal Dynamics have come up with the goods, delivering a Tomb Raider game fans will love, and a next-gen version to boot.
With a new team at the helm (although Lara creator Toby Guard returns) it makes sense that Legend is something of a new beginning. The story centres on an ancient sword and the 'death' of Lara's mother, as Lara travels around the world to find missing sword parts and piece together the mystery surrounding what happened when she was a child. Bar the opening puppet-like cutscene the story is told well enough, using the in-game engine to good effect. There are some rather obvious twists along the way and one of the most blatant sequel set-ups in recent memory, but seeing as Lara's back on form, it's hard to complain.
Gameplay is a nice mix of platforming and combat, with the emphasis firmly on the platforming. The cumbersome Lara of old is nowhere to be seen, with her movements now precise and incredibly fluent. It's fair to say that Ubisoft's Prince of Persia series has been used as a template, with Lara feeling more acrobatic than ever before. Whether you're rope swinging, leaping over large holes or simply shimmying along a cliff edge, everything feels right and extremely natural. You do occasionally feel like the game cheats slightly, making certain ropes reachable only if you jump from a set location, but it's rarely a problem, and getting to where you need to be is never a chore.
Combat is pretty simplistic, with target lock-on making enemies more of a distraction than any real challenge. Even boss battles are relatively simple once you've sussed exactly what you need to do, which is never too taxing. Some close-quarters moves are available if you need to use them, but you generally don't. While Lara's standard pistols aren't great, there's a regular supply of ammo for the more powerful weapons, meaning you can usually pick off enemies with ease. At times it feels like the action sections were included simply because it was the expected thing to do, and although they're not bad by any means, the platforming and puzzle solving is where it's at.
There aren't any brain melting puzzles, but a few are more than mildly tricky. The key is that they're never dull. However they're solved, you never have to do any tedious tasks over and over again. This doesn't help the game's length, with most players probably able to breeze through in less than eight hours, but there's never a dull moment. The odd motorbike sequence is mixed in (for better or worse) and there are a few interactive custscenes that may well catch you off guard. Once you've finished the story you can go for 100 per cent completion by tackling each level in 'time trial' mode and there are plenty of artefacts to be found throughout the adventure. Xbox 360 owners also have the bonus of 1000 gamer points to earn, but other than that all versions of the game are the same feature wise.
The big differences come in the visuals department. Legend looks great on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, with large environments and a steady frame rate, but the Xbox 360 version trounces them. While it's still noticeably a game ported from current-gen systems, Lara looks great on the Xbox 360. Lighting, textures and effects have been totally redone for the 360, giving more life to the environments. Lara's model looks great with its next-gen makeover, but the henchmen you'll fight don't look quite as impressive. Everyone also looks like they've been spending far too much time at the gym, with muscles almost leaping out of the screen - I'd bet that even Lara's butler is packing a six-pack under his uniform.
Sadly, for Xbox 360 owners, there's a rather big negative. If you plan to play the game in a HD resolution you might want to make other plans. While 720p and 1080i are present and correct like they are in all Xbox 360 games, the frame rate takes a noticeable dive in these resolutions. It ranges from slight stuttering to unplayably choppy, making Lara's next-gen debut a little disappointing. If played in a standard resolution the frame rate isn't a problem, but HD display owners will feel very disappointed. PC owners can also get the next-gen frills, but the spec required for acceptable performance might be a little out of reach for most people.
Spooks star and British starlet Keeley Hawes voices Lara, and, while not an obvious choice, her voice fits Lara perfectly; so much so that's it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Other characters don't seem to have had the same care over casting, with a few larger than life performances, but seeing as Lara gets most of the lines it's not really an issue. The soundtrack is also excellent, although there's a slight secret agent vibe to it at times. Overall it's another job well done for the development team.
Tomb Raider: Legend might not be an epic or set new standards like the original game did ten years ago, but it's thoroughly entertaining for its duration and is an impressive package on every system. Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PC owners certainly get better value for money, but the Xbox 360 version signals a strong next-gen future for Lara. It's certainly not 'game of the year' material, but as far as entertaining diversions go, there'll be few that better it this year.