The Countess of Booty
Next to Mario, Lara Croft is perhaps the most iconic video game persona of all time. Her skimpy outfits, dual pistols, and signature ponytail have permeated popular culture (though having Angelina Jolie cast as her movie counterpart didn’t hurt).
Disappointingly, the Tomb Raider franchise has been hit with a number of underwhelming entries throughout its lengthy history. This has caused much of the sheen of Lara’s draw to be tarnished and, subsequently, neglected by all but true fans of the series. Fortunately, the assignment of Crystal Dynamics as developer was a very good move. The dev studio began polishing this series with Legend and has given Underworld the lavish treatment that the once powerhouse series deserves. Though not without a number of technical flaws, Tomb Raider Underworld is a very enjoyable platform adventure for anyone who digs the genre.
Lara, since childhood, has been plagued by misfortune. The mysterious disappearance of her mother and, later, the death of her father, have instilled an insatiable wanderlust in her. With a vast estate and technological resources at her disposal, Lady Croft has tackled numerous quests around the world that were steeped in the paranormal and supernatural. Continuing from where Legend left off, Underworld catches up with Miss Croft in search of Avalon, the mythical netherworld where her father Richard Croft felt her mother had been transported so many years ago. Lara is on a quest for truth and finds a ruin at the bottom of the Mediterranean, which is home to proto-Norse ruins.
The seemingly out of place, sunken structure houses an artifact of great power that allows its bonded wearer the ability to wield Thor’s not-so-mythical hammer, Mjolnir; an implement that can raze mountains with a single blow. After laying hands on the relic, Lara is quickly stifled by an encounter with thugs of Amanda Evert, and soon thereafter comes face to face with her nemesis, the imprisoned Jacqueline Natla, former Queen of Atlantis. Though this may all sound a bit contrived and even confusing to the uninitiated, the story actually plays out quite nicely over the course of the game. In fact, the high quality cutscenes and epic environments do a great job of recounting the plot and engaging players; the cinematic nature of this title is both polished and fast-paced and never heavy-handed.
With this as a background, players will travel to various locations around the world. Lara will have to use her signature athletic prowess to platform her way from site to site and in and out of danger. Players will find Lara to be very lithe and painless to control. The team at Crystal Dynamics did a great job of giving her easily manageable abilities. Platforming skill is needed to perform a number of difficult swinging and jumping segments, but a player’s aptitude for simple problem solving to find the best routes through the levels tends to be tested rather than their technical savvy with the controls. That’s because, for the most part, hopping from ledge to ledge, climbing rock faces, performing chimney jumps, making a wall run with her grapple tool, and vaulting from strategically placed poles is second nature. Heck, even the dreaded swim mechanic works amazingly well. Gamers of a variety of skill levels will be able to enjoy Underworld, as it can be both forgiving and challenging depending upon the level of difficulty selected.
Players will also find combat to be a snap. Lara, as usual, can lock on to targets. While dual-wielding her pistols, Lara can even hit two targets at once. Additionally, an adrenaline meter will fill as she takes out baddies. This allows her to enter into slow motion moments to perform immediate headshot kills. This adrenaline mechanic is pleasant, providing another cinematic element to the mix. Evading attacks by your enemies is typically easy, as Lara acrobatically flips out of danger with a press of a button, maintaining a steady stream of bullets on her target all the while. However, melee combat is a bit wonky, as the spinning kicks she performs often miss or clip through her target. Also, human enemy A.I. is rather pathetic. Don’t believe me? Throw a sticky grenade on one of the nondescript minions and watch them run toward their buddies. On the other hand, animals can be downright deadly. Animals’ ability to knockdown Lara with a pounce and their swarming tactics are often brutal. Flipping about with evasive maneuvers and hitting them with powerful weapons such as the tranquilizer or spear gun are imperative. Combat in Tomb Raider Underworld is definitely the weak link in this package, but, thankfully, it is really only used to break up the highly enjoyable, yet lengthy, platforming sequences. Don’t worry about getting stuck due to cheap A.I. segments (not for too long anyway).
Speaking of not getting stuck, though environments are very expansive, there is a clearly linear nature to specific platforming segments. Consequently, it is very easy to shimmy your way around the environments and advance the story. Also, if you happen to get lost, the devs included a Field Assistance tab via Lara’s PDA menu. Field Assistance provides a two-part hint system to get you quickly out of a jam. Also, a sonar mapping scheme is very handy, as later levels become quite complex. Why do they become so complicated?: Because Crystal Dynamics doesn’t railroad you into one set route. As I stated previously, specific platforming segments are linear (which makes things very clear), but players will find levels branching out in several different ways. Generally, any portion of the puzzle can be performed in any order to achieve the desired objective. This really makes trekking across the vast environments feel much more realistic and engaging, and it also makes puzzles more enjoyable if somewhat confusing. What’s more, there are a ton of Treasures and Relics strewn throughout the levels. If you so desire, you can attempt to collect them all and garner awards/achievements. Often, treasures are found all around you, but collecting them all takes a special effort and a lot of extra platforming.
Visually, Underworld is both amazing and underwhelming all at the same time. For starters, Lara is more lifelike and sexier than ever; there’s a lot of booty to be found in Underworld and it’s not limited to treasure collecting. The varied environments are always breathtaking, vibrant, and crisp, with a solid draw distance and a realistic, lived-in look. The cinematics both in and out of engine have received a lot of care and polish to bring the story to life. Also, subtle animations such as Lara protecting her face from pockets of extreme heat, casting aside obstructing vegetation, and the determined way she trudges through a deep stream are great at establishing the mood of the title. I also enjoyed how Lara remains soaked after getting out of water and how dirt and grime accumulates on her over time.
Unfortunately, these pristine moments are frequently marred by nearly ever-present clipping and collision detection issues, invisible platforms, occasional framerate drops, and somewhat challenging camera angles. Players will find Lara levitating on uneven surfaces and fences, kicking through enemies, and being absorbed by walls and objects. Most noticeably, players will be thwarted by a challenging camera that often frustrates platforming sequences. By and large, the devs did a decent job with the angles and gave players control over the camera, but too often it inexplicably pans out or zooms in, causing tempers to flare when you fall to your doom. Finally, enemies, especially humans, are a bunch of silly clones. This exacerbates the already dull combat sequences. These graphical missteps leave a bad impression and even goes so far as to hamper gameplay.
Graciously, the musical themes and voice over work is outstanding throughout. The varied and epic score sounds like it was pulled straight from a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The music not only fits and heightens the events that transpire onscreen, but it also matches the scope and character of each locale. The interesting cutscenes are made even more enjoyable by top-quality acting. The only aural downside would have to be the screaming spiders. I’ve heard of barking spiders after a night of Mexican food, but screeching arachnids in a video game just come off as cheesy.
Tomb Raider Underworld was far more enjoyable than I ever thought it would be. The expansive environments, solid platforming sequences, challenging puzzles, and adventure-filled storyline should appeal to anyone who loved the Prince of Persia games and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Disappointingly, combat is fairly mediocre, and a lot of technical inconsistencies are troublesome. Nevertheless, Underworld is a very good game. Eidos can feel confident that Crystal Dynamics has returned this gaming superstar back to her former glory. I expect the next entry to be substantial. After all, third time’s a charm!
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
While home to breathtaking environments, Underworld is in need of a technical overhaul. 4.2 Control
Platforming segments are second nature, and combat is very easy, but a little too wonky for my liking. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The musical score and voice acting is top-notch, but some of the sound effects seem out of place. 4.0 Play Value
The expansive environments, challenging puzzles, and engaging storyline are very enjoyable. Because there are no multiplayer modes, players will really only have the Treasure and Relic collecting side quest to extend play time. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.