Tomb Raider: Why Lara Croft’s Legend Era Is The Best One

Lara Croft's Legend Era, which consists of Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld, gets a bit of a bad rap. While you'd struggle to find anyone with too much negative to say about any of the individual games (which is not a problem her other two eras have thanks to Angel of Darkness and Shadow), you'd also struggle to find too many people willing to stand up and declare the Legend Era the best era in Tomb Raider's history. However, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I'm not going to point at Angel or Shadow and boo them. It's to Legend Era's credit that it's without a stinker, but I've played Shadow three times and I can see its merit. I can't in good conscience tell you Angel of Darkness is good, but it was clearly rushed and underdeveloped, and had it been offered a sequel, the darker tone and more urban setting could have turned things around. I like all the main Tomb Raider games, so I don't need to tear the rest down here – Legend Era is good enough on its own merit.

Related: Tomb Raider: Why Lara Croft's Original Era Is BestLet's start in the middle, because why not? Anniversary is a remake of the original game, and it is objectively the better version. The original has the status of being, you know, original, and has the associated gravitas of establishing the Tomb Raider name and making Lara Croft into an icon. Considering the game was never supposed to get a sequel, it's no mean feat that the first game launched Lara into the stratosphere. Despite this, Anniversary is better. It has less of a legacy, but it runs smoother, the graphics are better, the cutscenes are more life-like, and it deliberately trims the less popular elements of the first game into a tighter experience. It's the lowest selling entry in Tomb Raider history, but hey, let's not dwell on that, eh?

Underworld followed Anniversary, which acts as a sequel to both Legend and Anniversary, tying together the story strands of the Original Era and the Legend Era – a challenge no other era has done. The next Tomb Raider game will seek to replicate this idea, tying the Legend and Survivor Eras together, but in doing so will begin a new, fourth era for the series. Even without that though, Underworld is a damn good game. The combat isn't the best it has ever been in Tomb Raider, but the introduction of mocap lay the groundwork for the Survivor Era, while the more classic puzzles and exploration paid homage to what came before. It had a grappling hook, because every video game in that era had a grappling hook, but I still can't really explain why it exists beyond that baffling trend. Underworld also had one of the best Tomb Raider stories, and is the most 'classic' feeling Tomb Raider since TR 4. You know, apart from the grappling hook.

The reason I've left Legend until last is because it's Tomb Raider's ace in the hole. As I have written about before, I firmly believe Legend is the greatest Tomb Raider game ever made, one that perfectly understands what a Tomb Raider game needs to be. It has the most varied level design in the history of the series, paying homage to the past while looking forward to the future. The caves of Peru are a classic throwback, while Bolivia's more open terrain hints at the direction Tomb Raider would later move into once greater technology became available. The Tokyo level, and in particular its cocktail party shootout, is the pinnacle of everything Lara Croft is. There are motorbike chases, spike traps, fights on the tops of trains, and – crucially, considering what some of the games in Survivor offer – lots and lots of actual, proper tombs.

Jeff Wajcs, one the developers of Underworld, the Survivor trilogy, and the Guardian spin-offs, told me in an interview earlier this week that Metroidvanias are the inspiration for Tomb Raider that never gets talked about. The Kazakhstan level of Legend is the perfect example of how this looks in practice. Legend is the supreme Tomb Raider experience, so much so that this entire era is named after it.

It's not just that all three games in the era are good – it's Tomb Raider, all of the games everywhere are at least decent. Legend – Anniversary – Underworld offers a cohesive story, more so than the Original Era or the Survivor Era. Narrative was not at the forefront of many Original Era games, and once you throw in Chronicles and Angel of Darkness, it all ends a bit messier than the cleaner continuity of the first four games anyway. Survivor tells a consistent story, but the importance of Jonah goes up and down across the games, Sam inexplicably vanishes after being a huge part of TR13, and while Rise displays a sense of growth to Lara, Shadow peels her personality back to leave her feeling far too vague.

Keeley Hawes is also a high card in the Legend Era's deck. The Original Era jumped between Shelley Blond, Judith Gibbins, and Jonell Elliot, while the Survivor Era rebooted Lara back to a younger, more naive version of herself played by Camilla Luddington. Your favourite game will play a big role in which Lara you prefer, but no iteration has the cut-throat confidence of Hawes, and aside from Luddington, the other actors performed in technologically worse games where cutscenes and voice lines were limited to save storage space.

The Legend Era is every inch the middle child of the Tomb Raider series, often overlooked while the Original reaps the glory of being the firstborn and Survivor gets to be the beloved younger sibling that points the way for the future. Don't underestimate the middle child though – Kim Kardashian is the middle Kardashian. Why am I comparing Tomb Raider to the Kardashians? No idea, mate. Just go play Tomb Raider: Legend and I'll shut up forever.

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