By dankempster 2 Comments
Yesterday, I completed Tomb Raider: Underworld. Seeing the credits roll on this final chapter in this journey has brought my time with the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider trilogy to an end. It's also made me feel a little bit like a video-gaming version of Orpheus, because having descended into Underworld and spent some time looking back, I can't help but feel that something I once treasured might have been lost to me forever.
I last played Tomb Raider: Underworld on its original release, way back in the closing months of 2008. Revisiting my Giant Bomb blogs from around that time, I got the impression that I really enjoyed the game on my first pass through. I praised the graphics and the success of the tried-and-tested combination of exploration, puzzle-solving and light combat, things I'd still be willing to agree with to an extent. Strangely, though, everything I had to say about the game was almost exclusively positive. The closest I came to deriding the game was in saying its ending " takes a brilliant plot setup with so much potential and manages to squander it all" - something which in itself confuses me greatly (more on that later). There was definitely no mention of the various problems I encountered on this playthrough.
Let's discuss those problems, shall we? Quite a few of them seem to be tied to the game engine Underworld is running on. I'm guessing it's an updated version of the engine from Legend and Anniversary, but whatever changes made to accommodate the current generation of consoles seem to have had some damaging consequences for the gameplay. Collision detection seems to fail a lot more often than it should, a cardinal sin in a game which features so much precision platforming. The camera, occasionally unreliable in Legend and Anniversary, has become even worse - I can recall over twenty instances where the camera ended up not even focused on Lara, let alone demonstrating the ledge or pole I was supposed to be leaping to next. Both of these issues, seemingly minor on the surface, combine to turn almost every single extended platforming sequence in the game into a frustrating exercise in perseverance.
Remember earlier on, when I said that the comments I'd made regarding the story struck me as odd? That's because on my second pass through the game, I didn't encounter so much as a vestige of a brilliant plot set-up. A continuation of Legend's already paper-thin story, Underworld's plot also borrows heavily from the expanded storyline of Anniversary, marrying the two under the umbrella of proto-Norse mythology. I don't want to say too much here for fear of spoiling it (insofar as one can spoil something which spoils itself), because esteemed Giant Bomb veteran Sparky_Buzzsaw will eventually be playing Underworld and I don't want to ruin the... surprise for him. All I will say is, the 'revelations' of the plot come across as anachronistic and silly, and the denouement is one of the most anticlimactic video game endings I've ever endured. I suspect my change of heart has come from doing some study into Norse mythology as part of my University course, realising just how many liberties the writers at Crystal Dynamics took with it, and how ridiculous the entire concept is.
I don't want to give the impression that Underworld is a bad game. It's not, not by any stretch of the imagination. In some ways, it's an improvement - the graphics are an obvious step up, Lara's repertoire of moves is expanded in ways that add more depth to the platforming and combat, and the Anniversary philosophy of bigger levels and more involved puzzles is in full force here. But for every positive point, it feels there are at least two minor niggles that prevent it from being something great - the aforementioned camera and collision detection issues, the ridiculous story, the reduced length (which make this game around the same length that Legend was, maybe even shorter), the removal of boss fights, the lack of unlockables which severely cuts down on the game's replay value... It all adds up. It's a shame that even with the extra power of the current generation behind it, Underworld ends up being a step backwards for the series rather than forwards.
Lara Croft is my gaming Eurydice. I've spent the last month or so attempting to recapture the relationship I had with her in my formative years, but making that choice to look back has probably cost more of those fond memories than it's rekindled. The painful truth has set in, as I've realised these games I once held up as something amazing are simply good. Yet I'm liable to keep going back. Right now I feel an urge to cast my net even further into the series' past and play one of the PS1 incarnations - perhaps Tomb Raider III, or maybe even the original. But that urge is just weighing down one side of a pair of scales, the other carrying the preconceived knowledge of inevitable disappointment. Part of me is excited for the upcoming reboot that's due this year, hoping that the developers can revitalise the franchise in the same way they did six years ago, but at the same time I don't really know what I want from that game any more. I guess all I can do is place my hopes in the hands of the fine folks at Crystal Dynamics and pray that they deliver something I'll enjoy. They made me fall back in love with Lara once, after all. Who's to say they can't do it again?
Thanks for reading, guys. As always, I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Final Fantasy XIII-2 (X360)