|System: X360, PS3, Wii, PS2, PC, DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Crystal Dynamics||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Eidos Interactive||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Nov. 18, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jonathan Marx
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 controller. 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 by holding down the left trigger. 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 and a flick of the analog stick, 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.