If anyone, Lara Croft knows adventure. Travelling to overgrown historic ruins in Thailand, swimming amongst schools of fish in a deep blue sea. Never before has a game delivered such a rich sense of rural adventure and exploration. More then ever, Tomb Raider tricks you into believing that you are the adventurer, discovering new ruins and traversing what seemed like impossible cliff faces just moments before. Tomb Raider’s linearity is well disguised. Whilst you may be left baffled and bemused, once you find that hidden ledge or make that precarious leap, the reward is incredibly gratifying.
Tomb Raider: Underworld GamePlay
Lara Croft’s latest adventure started back in Legend, the previous game, and although Underworld states you don’t need to have played Legend before enjoying this one, it is certainly recommended. The ridiculously short ‘Previously’ video leaves more questions than answers, and you won’t get very far with the story if you don’t know what happened before as the two games rely heavily on one another. Alternatively, you can pop over to Legend’s Wikipedia page and read the plot there. It describes events in Legend with surprising detail but obviously you won’t be graced with the lovely looking visuals of the real thing.
In Underground, Lara is trying to find her mother who was taken away from her when she was a child by some unknown ancient force. Her quest finds her on the hunt for Thor’s Hammer, as well as the blood of a previous friend-turned-enemy, Amanda. It’s a good story when it gets going, and gives Lara a reason for getting on her hands and knees in lost dungeons and forgotten temples.
Lara Croft has certainly gained some inspiration from the Prince of Persia himself with her her platforming ability, with puzzle platforming ranging from rock climbing up walls, jumping onto circular pillars, swinging off poles and shuffling along ledges. By the end of the game, your trained eye will will be able to meticulously inspect environments for an opportunity to advance forward, like a seasoned explorer who knows the tricks of the trade.
The acrobatic antics of Lara Croft are counterweighted however, by the lacklustre and brainless combat used to break up puzzle areas. Lara proves to be unusually skilful with her dual pistols, taking out swarms of bats or spiders with instant jerk reactions worthy of ‘aim-bot’ status. Humans, however, are far more deadly, but this doesn’t make the shooting fun. Dumb enemies are bullet sponges, and soak up shot after relentless shot with little reaction. Lara’s breadth of movement seems to be lost when in combat, and shooting consists of little more than pointing and holding down the trigger. The lack of any cover mechanics means each encounter feels identical, despite being in different locals. The much more formidable tiger and panther confrontations always get your heart racing, but continue to be just as bland.
Thankfully, Tomb Raider: Underworld knows its strengths, and keeps dull shooting to a minimum. Aside from one of the first levels where Lara infiltrates a ship and has to kill all of the crew on board (easily the worst scene in the game), combat consists no more than quick sharp attacks that end soon, allowing you to get back to what’s enjoyable.
In wide open areas, Underworld’s camera works well enough, but in more cramped conditions – which is a frequent occurrence when you’re a tomb raider – the camera merges into walls, crops right into Lara’s figure or just plain messes up. Some potential handholds are totally obscured from view at times, leaving you to jump blindly into the darkness. It’s not unmanageable, nor does it ruin the game, but at times you will find yourself getting frustrated at the dizzying third-person view.
Controlling Lara can also be a bit of a pain, which is typical in most open-world third-person platformers. Sometimes Lara reacts differently to commands, or just doesn’t react at all. I found the use of a controller to improve navigation somewhat, with just a few inaccuracies to be seen.
Considering Tomb Raider: Underworld was originally released in 2008, the graphics stand-up well to most modern puzzle-platformers. Some environments are absolutely stunning, whereas other aspects of the game like character models show their age.
But for every annoying error, every crummy shooting sequence comes another eye-opening revelation, the treasure beneath the weathered cross, the final reward after hours of scaling walls, solving environmental puzzles and avoiding deadly traps. These scenes make Underground. The journey is definitely a good one, but the very real sense of achievement gained from reaching your desolate and very isolated destination is uplifting and incredibly satisfying.
Overlooking its faults, Tomb Raider: Underworld is less like a virtual platformer, and more like a tomb raider simulator. The challenging puzzles and unforgiving platforming makes the end reward something really special. The story is good enough at giving a backstory and motive, and the graphics certainly don’t disappoint. The combat, some control and camera issues and some level design quirks prevents Underworld from being a perfect game, but still an experience worth enjoying for any closet-adventurer looking to let off some steam.
Publisher: Feral Interactive
Genre: Puzzle Platforming Adventure
Pros: Perfect exploration, platforming and puzzling, good environmental detail, good enough story.
Cons: Repetitive and skill-less combat, iffy camera, some control issues and glitches.