Lara Croft has enjoyed relative success on the Xbox 360 platform, what with the impressive Tomb Raider: Legend making an appearance, and the more recent Tomb Raider: Anniversary provoking our minds with seamless fusing of taxing puzzles, energetic combat and skimpy outfits. Crystal Dynamix (the developers) under the watchful eye of Eidos has done a splendid job overall in bringing our favourite busty heroine to this generation. Well now it’s time to put those thinking caps on again, because Lara’s next big adventure is upon us in Tomb Raider: Underworld. Mythical beasts, Norse mythology and a search for lost parents go hand in hand to underline an excuse to maim, plunder, seek vengeance and once again don skimpy figure-hugging outfits for adventuring in hot and cold climes across the globe. With a brand new game engine at the helm and plenty of experience in the field for the developers, is Tomb Raider: Underworld, Lara’s biggest and most impressive adventure to date?
The game begins with a rather explosive CGI trailer, in which it appears that Lara detonates explosives and destroys her family mansion. However, as soon as the game begins, you take control of Lara inside the now burning and crumbling former stately home. This raises the question from the off, that if Lara is inside the mansion, then who was the Lara look-a-like in the trailer; a question that is answered during the game’s story. The opening level is a tutorial of sorts and pushes you in the right direction of familiarity, or for newcomers, will ease you into the basics of climbing, jumping, shimmying along ledges, using tools and more importantly avoiding getting those shoes burnt to a crisp.
Tomb Raider games have predominantly been about grand adventure in equally grandiose locales, solving puzzles to accomplish your goals, and throwing in some combative elements to keep you on your toes. Underworld continues this trend, and offers no real change for those expecting recognizable elements the series is well liked and renowned for. There are some new elements to the gameplay, but these are largely cosmetic adjustments (and no I’m not talking about the size of Lara’s breasts) that compliment the existing gameplay style of previous games in the series.
Starting off her adventures in the Mediterranean, you’ll be instantly greeted by a new mechanic for the series relating to swimming and sub-aquatic exploration. In previous games, elements involving water were often tense and hurried affairs, as players wrestled with navigation and a limited supply of oxygen. Underworld, allows for a more placid approach to submersed gameplay because Lara has finally brought some breathing apparatus with her this time. This allows players the opportunity to dive deep and take their time with the aquatic surroundings minus the pressure and intensity. Water is certainly a welcome medium for exploring and although inquisitive sea-life such as sharks are present, you’re pretty much able to just relax and take in the sights. Although armed with a spear gun and water proof pistols, you’ll be able to dish out suitable punishment, should those pointed shark noses decide to nuzzle up to you.
It’s plain sailing from the offset, and if you do get stuck, another new feature is the addition of a handy hints and a sonar device which will give you a detailed image of the immediate surroundings. I largely ignored these features throughout my playtime, but it’s no doubt handy for those who might need it. Whilst navigation isn’t purely straight forward, there’s really not much deviating which could lead to getting lost per se. As with previous games, looking at Lara’s animations offers a big clue as to whether you’ll be able to make that death defying jump or grab a ledge without breaking a nail or two in the process.
There are some inconsistencies though, and whilst learning, it’s not always clear as to what you are able to grab onto or not. In my case, this often amounted to a trial and error approach (plus some cursing) and the rather agonizing death screams of our intrepid explorer. Lara is able to scale certain surfaces, shimmy along specific ledges, and as I say, once you become familiar with these visual cues, you’ll become more accustomed to what’s accessible and what’s isn’t.
The game’s puzzles are a big draw besides basic traversing the large levels on offer. In this regard, Crystal Dynamix has mixed things up a little by allowing you to tackle them in multiple ways. There’s a loss of rigidity to the puzzles, and means that you’re able to approach them in the order you see fit. It’s clever how they are tied together, and is a more tangible effort than merely hunting for keys, switches and having to backtrack to some random door. I would say the puzzles on offer, whilst still fairly taxing, aren’t as cryptic as some of the others we’ve seen in the series, where no folly is too mentally demanding that you’re left scratching your head for hours until it finally clicks. That said, there is reasonable challenge provided.
The combat is an area which you’ll either love or loath, simply because, (well to me at least) it feels tacked on for the sake of it. The AI can sometimes be horrendous and act more like stubborn zombies on strike over a lack of pay. Your enemies will pounce, bite, claw and shoot at you, but often will merely stand firm on the receiving end of your infinite pistol rounds. This makes for very tedious encounters for the most part, and whilst Lara can elegantly dart around the screen showing off her gymnastic prowess, it just feels somewhat redundant at times – especially against the human foes. The return of adrenaline shots, and the option to perform swift kicks to those in close proximity is welcome, but when the AI simply fails to react and you end up in a boxing match of sorts it does dampen the whole experience. Luckily there’s not a lot of combat, or at least it’s broken up by long sections of more traditional adventuring.
Later on in the story, you’ll be able to ride a motorcycle, which is not a new feature for the series. There’s a more laid back approach here, rather than the on-rails riding we’ve encountered before, and certainly adds another dynamic to the gameplay. The controls aren’t as tight as they could be, but not hard to master either. Like the combat, you’ll either have a distaste for it, or find it a welcome break from the on-foot sections of gameplay.
Crystal Dynamix has done an excellent job of rendering sprawling vistas, confined caverns and lush jungle stomping grounds. There are some very impressive textures on most surfaces and the attention to detail is stunning. I’m not too familiar with the authenticity of the architecture used in the ancient ruins of Mexico or Thailand, but rest assured, the ideal certainly feels right. Tomb Raider Underworld is a very organic and pleasant looking game.
Lara’s had a slight tweaking to her appearance, and I guess it’s subjective as to whether you feel the art direction for her character is for the better. She has a realistic visage, yet at the same time, slightly anime looking with large eyes, full lips and well-defined structure. If you pan the camera close to her, you’ll notice subtle effects such as sweat, dirt appear on her exposed skin, although this can be easily missed if you’re leaping all over the place. Lara’s animations have been stepped up a gear to provide more moves, more fluidity of movement and a general acquiesce to her athleticism. Although she isn’t perfect and will stumble from time to time. These faltering moments makes her a more believable character, and its great how much attention to detail has been afforded to her in this area.
Sadly it’s not all pristine and flawless, because there are some terrible glitches throughout the game. Lara will often get stuck on the scenery and caught in an animation. This is made more horrendous when enemies bitch slap her to death in the process. I also encountered some moments where she would magically warp from one place to the next, causing confusion and hampering what should have been a concise movement. It wasn’t an isolated case either, as it happened more than once.
The camera is probably one area that really needs to be worked on for any future Tomb Raider game, because more often than not, the auto pan creates some truly dire angles that not only make progression unreasonably difficult, but can lead to some frustrating deaths. Players can move the camera with the right stick, but for the most part you’re unable to rotate to get a clear view of where you’re going. This is more of an issue when performing specific jumps. There are also times when the camera loses sight of Lara entirely, leaving you in pseudo first person view, that is not only distracting, but vexatious to say the least.
One final quibble I had was with a lack of consistency with her movement in regards to precarious edges. For the most part, the game auto prevents you from falling down, and if you do, she auto grips the lip to prevent her demise. However, in some cases this failed to work and poor Lara found herself plastered on a cold stony floor, lifeless and broken.
The audio, especially the music is of a majestic, enthralling and emotive nature. The orchestral pieces compliment the action, as do the more indigenous flavours that paint the aural palette with dashes of ambience as you enter various regions. You can tell a lot of budget and effort was placed in this department, and it works very well to the game’s credit. Other sound effects like gun-fire, are suitable and as you’d expect for a game of this nature.
The voice acting is as you would expect, with a favourable performance from Lara herself. The game offers a more solitary affair in general, which means the secondary roles are noteworthy but not overly systematic in raising emotion as part of the story. You’re going to need to have played some of the earlier games to get more of a feel for them otherwise they are just underling characters to the main lady herself.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is a solitary experience, lasting around 8 hours or more depending on how competent you are at lateral thinking and how thorough you are. There are hidden relics and treasures to hunt down, and it’s here that you’ll end up adding a lot more time onto your adventuring if you want them all. The game offers a Treasure Hunt mode upon completion, which allows you to jump to any level and find the treasures you missed. There are three levels of difficulty, but this mostly affects the combat element. The real challenge lies in the player tailoring options, and what weapons you decide to use. The tranquilizer gun in particular, changes the nature of the combat to a degree. There’s some decent achievements on offer, and if you want them all, then expect to invest quite a bit of time exploring the levels further, and perhaps replaying the game once or twice.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is a concise, consuming and meritorious addition to the franchise, which is well worth playing for fans of adventure, puzzle solving and action (despite a lack of cohesiveness in the action department). However, for every exemplary moment of brilliance, there’s an equal antagonistic element which will drive you to despair on occasion like an impudent passer-by, nudging you out the way as they rush past. Nothing is truly game-breaking, but enough to warrant a perception of hurried development.
I’ve enjoyed playing the game, and I think most of you will too. It’s certainly familiar territory and in this regard is a title worth picking up. The story is a little cliché, but fitting for the components that comprise the game’s premise. Lara Croft is an endearing character, and certainly one we’re well acquainted with. This is a good game, but still has room for well-polished improvement. Tomb Raider: Underworld leaps to heady heights in the level of details presented, which cannot be faulted, but somewhat loses its grip and slides down a slope to an irregular floor that blemishes this graphical accomplishment.