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Is Lara Croft back in fine form?

Gary Eng Walk comments on the new Lara Croft videogame, plus two baseball titles

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Is Lara Croft back in fine form?

TOMB RAIDER: LEGEND
(Eidos; Teen; PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GC)
After a long absence, Lara Croft — the impossibly curvaceous archaeologist who seduced, conquered, and (with the 2003 release of the execrable Angel of Darkness) disappointed the videogame world — is back. And after spending just a few hours with the old gal, we’re glad to have her back.

At first glance, Lara’s seventh adventure doesn’t seem all that different than the others. Exotic locales? Check. Lots of jumping, swinging, and spelunking? Check. Devious death traps? Check. Skintight shorts? Check. Legend bursts at the seams with these signature elements, but with a level of refinement never before seen in a Tomb Raider game. Moving Lara around — the bête noire of Angel of Darkness — is now the game’s strongest asset. It used to be that even highly skilled gamers needed several attempts to navigate Lara through a typical life-threatening obstacle simply because sloppy controls only gave them an approximate idea of where she would land after jumping. In Legend, it’s not only clear where you’re leaping, but also when to leap in the first place. That’s because the game smartly provides visual cues — for example, a stone tablet will glisten ever-so-slightly if you need to pull on it — that minimize the agonizing moments spent wandering aimlessly throughout the game’s perilous playgrounds.

And Lara herself has never looked better. Her figure still mocks the laws of anatomy and physics, but her facial features are more lifelike and lack the sharp angles that were symptomatic of older game technology (just between you and me, I think she’s had some work done). Legend also doubles as a massive fashion runway for Lara, as she busts out a new outfit during each level; one even has her battling bad guys in a black cocktail dress.

The newest Tomb Raider game is a few artifacts short of being a treasure: Instantly forgettable are the levels that put her behind the wheel of a too-conveniently-placed motorcycle. Also, the hokey, supernatural plots involving King Arthur’s sword and Lara’s past are the stuff of Saturday morning catoons. Still, there’s enough here to convince the most jaded fan that Lara has gotten her groove back. B+

*

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL 2K6
(2K Sports; Everyone; PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GC)
MLB 06: THE SHOW
(SCEA; Everyone; PS2, PSP)
It shouldn’t be harder to hit a 95 mph fastball in a videogame than in real life. Yet that’s exactly what it seems like after playing just a few innings of MLB 2K6. Game developer 2K Sports’ baseball sim touts a new way of batting called ”Swing Stick,” which requires you to tilt the right controller knob down as the pitcher is about to throw, then quickly tilt it up to complete the swing. And that’s just what you have to do with your right hand. Your left thumb has the equally daunting task of positioning an invisible marker in the location where the pitch crosses the plate. Did we mention that timing counts? And that you have less than a second before the ball reaches home plate?

”Swing Stick,” along with other dubious gimmicks in the game — like being able to make your team’s manager go ballistic on the umpire (”Press the A button repeatedly to increase his temper…”) — highlight the underlying flaw with MLB 2K6: It’s so consumed with adding flashy features that somewhere along the way, between the dugout and home plate, its designers forgot to address the fundamentals of what makes baseball a great game in the first place.

The game also strikes out with the graphics and animations. Virtual big-leaguers don’t look anything like their real-life counterparts, players throw as if they’re missing a joint or two, every batter appears to hit with the same follow-through, and the disproportionate ballpark dimensions make it feel like you’re playing in your backyard, not a sprawling stadium. This is baseball? Say it ain’t so, Joe…

Thankfully, our national pastime finds a worthy showcase in The Show. Somehow, the game running on the creaky PS2 console offers an overall visual presentation that looks better than any version of MLB 2K6, including the one on the far more powerful Xbox 360. Fans will recognize most players by their batting stances alone. And while The Show also dabbles in the bells and whistles that bury MLB 2K6, these gimmicks are generally better implemented.

Which is not to say that The Show doesn’t occasionally swing and miss. The in-game announcers are annoyingly repetitive, and your computer opponent will sometimes prematurely call in a reliever even if the guy on the mound is pitching a gem. You can be reasonably confident, though, that its developers will address these problems in next year’s version, especially when they’ll presumably be harnessing the firepower of the new PlayStation 3 (out this fall). Until then, both casual and hardcore baseball fans will be more than content running the bases in this year’s version.
MLB 2K6: D
MLB 06: The Show: B+