Tomb Raider Legend at 15: An Odd Artifact of Gaming History
Tomb Raider is unquestionably a very important name in video gaming. The franchise helped introduce the 3D action-adventure to video gaming in 1996 and has almost consistently remained important over the 25 years that it’s been around. 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend was a particularly crucial moment in its history, seeing the first reboot and change of developer after The Angel of Darkness‘ failure, but one that’s been consigned to the past. It is far from perfect when seen from 2021’s standards, but its success also helped to redefine its genre. Why doesn’t it get recognition today for its role? And does an old, slightly creaky title, warrant revisiting in an ever-evolving industry?
It stands out as an early example of a brand destroying itself and hastily hitting the reset button. Legend was a reboot — and not in the sense of Resident Evil 4, a soft reboot, keeping the core narrative and taking the gameplay to thrillingly original heights. This was a wholesale new beginning because of the humiliating failures of The Angel of Darkness, which was poised to be Lara’s glorious leap to a new generation of consoles, with advanced gameplay and proper storytelling. It was instead a disaster that showed a developer still stuck in the previous generation, the gameplay more finicky than ever and the narrative embarrassingly inept, and demanded that the franchise go back to its foundations.
Crystal Dynamics took over development duties from Core Design and had the dual challenge of bringing a fresh eye and showing reverence to the fans. The tail end of the PlayStation 2 era was very different from its midpoint, with new releases like God of War showing epic scale, fast-paced action, and high production values that suggested a cinematic grandeur. Even a platforming series like Jak and Daxter had taken to putting a weighty, character-driven narrative at its centre. Crystal Dynamics faced the challenge of living up to these expectations, but also bring back the tomb-based adventuring that made the series popular.
Its aspirations to deliver a more cinematic experience are evident from the first cutscene. The most jarring element is the introduction of headset-based chatter, a step away from the isolation of earlier games. But such shifts take inspiration not so much from early Tomb Raider games, but from the early ’00s action movie adaptations they spawned; giving Lara a team, a movie-accurate mansion, globetrotting adventures, and a narrative based around her family trauma. The introduction of Keeley Hawes as Lara Croft, who by 2006 was already a famous name in British television, showed a franchise concerned with image as much as the gameplay. It was inevitable that the experience of playing the game, then, would signify a new, grander approach through a more heavily managed journey.
The ability to freely adventure and discover was replaced by linearity that is deliberate and unfortunately frustrating. There are plenty of moments where you gaze on gorgeous vistas, and you’re sent to several tombs with complex-seeming puzzles to unpick. Reality is, though, that there’s much tedium amidst the fun: crumbling buildings have too many gotcha moments, puzzles can be game-haltingly obtuse, and quick-time events drag you out of the moment. Perhaps the game’s best invention is the grappling hook as it allows for a little variety in traversal, as well as some unique puzzle-solving — but that’s hampered by cumbersome physics and controls. The cool, franchise-worthy presentation is consistently undermined by a lack of finesse when you’re actually playing, and so you’re left in an odd place of both loving and loathing Legend.
But through its awkward attempts at a new approach, it set up the wildly popular 2013 reboot. The simply titled Tomb Raider kept Legend‘s cinematic stylings but rejected the aping of the original games’ tone for a fresh, grittier take. This universe has Lara, not as the somewhat arrogant, super experienced adventurer we had become so familiar with, but a young woman who struggles with the violent horrors she encounters. Similarly, the variety and dynamism that the grappling hook promised to bring in are more realised here, with an arsenal of tools at Lara’s disposal to make traversal interesting. Tomb Raider carried across the best bits from Legend and refined them, making for a smooth experience with an identity of its own.
Legend‘s then-successful revitalisation of a tired formula helped lay the groundwork for the Uncharted series, now-classic adventure games that have undoubtedly reached Tomb Raider‘s popularity. The first Uncharted game probably was not influenced by Legend seeing as it was released merely a year later, and it became a minor success with decent reviews and sales. However, the fact Lara was brought back into popular consciousness by cinematic, globe-trotting adventures must have spurred Naughty Dog on to bigger things. Uncharted 2 was released to unimaginable acclaim and upped the ante on its predecessor in every respect — a move that it mightn’t have made if the franchise was alone in its action-adventure reinvention. That game, however, has engaging pacing and stunning all-around finesse that Legend doesn’t get anywhere near.
Legend suffers from not having much of its own identity, an issue common with many games of its era. It doesn’t go down the grimdark route that many of its contemporaries attempted, the likes of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within throwing in swearing, grey visuals, and removing much levity — all in order to appear more serious. However, it tries too hard to incorporate familiar story elements and keep its tone recognisably fun that it rarely feels particularly involving or surprising. It seems perhaps a more striking change in gameplay than in Tomb Raider ’13, but that game is a much more intriguing prospect because it’s not trying to be anything other than itself.
Legend is an awkward game to play today and quickly ended up looking old-hat, yet it remains worthy of remembrance as a springboard for future successes. Unfortunately, though, it hasn’t been released on the last generation of consoles, relegating it to a not easily accessible history for a lot of younger gamers. It’s bemusing that a title from a massively popular franchise would be withheld, missing the opportunity to make easy money. But for gamers it’s a shame to not have the chance to explore the history of the medium they love; to gain a deeper appreciation for what they enjoy today and to perhaps find older gameplay styles they enjoy more. Gaming is far from static, and the junky, unsettled nature of Legend is a valuable testament to the experimental, versatile nature of a medium that is worth knowing in all its variety.