By ZanzibarBreeze 33 Comments
I have not completed Tomb Raider: Underworld. I grew too frustrated with it. I was not having a good time. Moreover, there was one major glitch I encountered that broke the game for me. Naturally, this experience has colored any opinion I have about the game. If you do not think it is right for someone to write about or review a game they have not completed, then you should not read the following.
Underworld frustrated me beyond belief. As I said, it is what I assume to be a glitch that broke the game for me, rendered my progress nil, and caused me to stop playing. The game allowed me to carry an essential item into an area where I would not be able to take it back to where I needed it. The item got stuck there. The game autosaved at a checkpoint I had already cleared several checkpoints back, and I was unable to continue on. On principle, I can no longer play Tomb Raider: Underworld. It breaks my heart, so to speak, because this game so desperately wants to be good. It looks great; it has some great ideas. Ultimately, years of hard work amounts to nothing when crippling glitches and atrocious design destroy the game. Here’s some of what went right, and everything that went wrong.
The game is not good at letting the player know where to goOne of my concerns with Underworld is that it is not linear enough. This may seem a bizarre complaint, but it most definitely is not. Open games are absolutely fine, but it is essential that the player is informed of where they have to go. This is an area where Underworld is desperately lacking. I find myself floored at how such a design oversight could be made. Ledges that the player is expected to clamber upon are almost identical in color and design as the walls, so there’s no sign that they are actually meant to be traversed. Some environments are big, but the different rooms and hallways all look the same. Paths for climbing up ledges and platforms are completely masked. Summarily, the path to continue is indistinguishable. The world all looks the same. This is completely unlike most other video game design. It’s just utterly unclear where the player is expected to go. I am well aware that the game includes a hint system accessible though the in-game ‘PDA’, but by this stage it should be clear that those hints scarcely help the player. I spent a tremendous amount of time running around rooms, simply not knowing where to go. This problem is evidenced by the segments that are well designed and where the player has no questions over where to go, like the short segment where the tanker ship sinks. One example of where I had trouble was after killing the Kraken in just the second stage in the game. The hint system says that there is a lever behind the body of the Kraken that opens the door to get out of the large area. Even with this blatant hint, I spent the better part of ten minutes searching for the lever. It turned out that it was the most nondescript-looking lever I’ve ever seen in a video game, in an alcove behind the Kraken, completely unlit; this the player was meant to find in what is a massive area. The fact that such a blunt hint system has to be implemented, however unhelpful it may be, should have told the developers something about the way they designed their game. Running around the environment, not knowing where to go, is just not fun. This game is not fun. The way it was designed goes against six years of progression in designing games. Tomb Raider Legend, the previous game in the franchise, had better, clearer design. This game is not fun, and that’s a tremendous disappointment for me.
The game is not good at letting the player know what to doAs if not telling the player where to go isn’t bad enough, the game isn’t very good at telling the player what to do, either. This leads to obvious problems, typically involving more running around, the player being consumed by pangs of frustration and boredom. The fact that I wasn’t told what to do led to what I believe to be me breaking the game, because I did the wrong thing, and the game wouldn’t let me recover.
Accidental successAs a result of the player not being told where to go and what to do, most of the success I experienced was accidental. For a significant portion of my play time I made my way by accidentally jumping in the right direction, or accidentally leaning in one direction while holding onto the ledge, and seeing Lara indicate that she wants to jump that way. There is a very clear and present problem with this. Solving so much of the game accidentally is not at all rewarding. It didn’t feel as if I had achieved anything. It didn’t feel as if I had solved the problem I was faced with. It’s just not good.
Unacceptably bad cameraThe fact that the player is not told where to go or what to do breaks the game. If those things break the game, the absolutely unacceptable camera destroys it beyond playability. It is absolutely outrageous and unforgivable that the game was released in such a state. For god’s sake, the camera doesn’t even work when the player wants to turn it to see where they have to jump to. When the player is climbing on walls, in a position where the camera goes overhead, it’s utterly impossible to see the path ahead. In any tight room or corridor, the camera literally breaks. It’s completely reprehensible. That essentially means the game cannot be played. Above that, there are other problems. When in tight areas, the camera jumps and flickers around. These problems are not only isolated to the PlayStation 3 version. Furthermore, there is no way to explain why the camera’s neutral position is so closely zoomed in on Lara at all times. The camera is just too close. The player can’t see the environment because the character is taking up half the screen! I am astounded that the game was released in such a state. It is tantamount, in the field of video games, with getting away with murder.
The camera clips through wallsAll those camera problems are bad and inexcusable, but here’s the most amazing thing: the camera clips though walls. This is a problem that has plagued the Tomb Raider franchise since the very first game! This problem has spanned three console generations! How has this not been solved yet? How is this problem still with us? Who is in charge of developing these games? Whoever they are, they’re getting paid far too much. This problem needs to be fixed. It needed to be fixed seven full years ago.
Bad goal detectionHere’s another thing gone wrong that ruins the player’s experience: bad goal detection. I can issue a perfect example: at the end of the first stage, Lara says she has to “get back to the surface.” The player is tasked with swimming back to the surface and back to Lara’s boat. The goal is completed by swimming to a certain small window of the boat -- namely the front of the boat. Not the back of the boat, the only place where it’s actually to board the boat from. Who is making these decisions? Every other game would do the following: make the trigger (that sparks the end of the mission) a ring around the boat, so that no matter what direction the player approaches the boat from the goal will be cleared. But not Tomb Raider: Underworld. This game wants the player to hit a pinprick of a window. It’s completely ridiculous.
Stupid puzzlesThis is a problem inherent to many video games: stupid, nonsensical puzzles. The first puzzle in Underworld has the player looking for three different crank shafts in underwater cavers. The cranks will turn three different giant discs on a wall, which will eventually open up a giant gap in the wall, into further caverns. The first two cranks are in the same room with the disks, but the other crank is on the other side of the map. Again, who comes up with this stuff? It doesn’t make sense! It’s absurd. The puzzles are silly and stupid, and there’s no point to them. It’s indicative of a great lack of creativity.
RestartsFor a game that revolves around action and completing puzzles, Underworld does not make it easy for the player to correct their mistakes. For instance, there’s no ‘restart at checkpoint’ option, which is a tremendous flaw. In fact, as far as I can tell from the pause menu, there’s no way to restart a level from the pause menu. (This seems so unbelievable to me that I will be happy to be corrected by anyone who knows better.)
Health barsThe health gauges displayed on-screen are confusing and hard to understand. There are two body-shaped icons, and both of them change colors and seem to deplete at different times. I don’t understand it, but that’s probably my failure. But it does beg the question -- why not just have a simple health bar?
Super quick load to menuTomb Raider: Underworld has perhaps the fastest load I’ve ever seen for a disc-based video game. It has no awkward “this game autosaves” notice screen; no “please don’t switch off the console when the hard drive is being accessed.” In fact, it only has one screen with copyright information and small logos for the developer and publisher. It doesn’t have any opening titles. It was a very welcome surprise after playing too many games where it takes over forty seconds just to get to the menu, let alone to start the game proper.
Graphics and animation
Great Lara character modelLara Croft is the prized possession of the Tomb Raider games. She is, after all, the central star, and for many, the main draw of the Tomb Raider franchise, so I am hardly surprised that so much attention and time and care was put into designing her for current generation consoles. The results are pleasing. Her base character model -- arms, legs, face -- are nicely sculptured and never painful to look at. Players are also provided with a myriad of outfits which they can dress Lara up in before each stage. Although I do not want to sound cynical, I am quite surprised that players are even given the option between dressing Lara in as little clothing as possible or in as much clothing as possible (the Vietnam level, for example, gives the player a choice between jungle-colored cargo pants and what are, for all intents and purposes, hot pants). I would suggest that an overwhelming proportion of players would choose the hot pants. Nevertheless, the option is there. All the clothing is nicely designed and looks good. It’s all nicely packaged. And as much as I try, I cannot avoid admiring the design of Lara’s butt. She already has a perfect hourglass figure; it’s very easy to get hypnotized by the waggle of her ass. It’s certainly pleasant to stare at, nonetheless, but not in any facetious way where I find her body elicits an emotional response -- far from it, in fact; she is, after all, completely digital. If I have one complaint, it’s that Lara’s face looks a little comic book-like, a little plain, compared to the other characters in-game. Her skin is very smooth, there are no imperfections, and it can be slightly jarring. If Lara had a beauty mole/mark, for instance, she would be much more realistic (and perhaps much more attractive as a result) than her rather plain-faced iteration here. But overall she is very well designed, and I have nothing but praise for her character model in Underworld.
Good animationsI would hazard a guess that a significant amount of development time was put into the animations in Underworld. It shows. By-in-large the animations are all great, especially Lara’s. Some of the implementation -- the control -- doesn’t do the animations justice, which is unfortunate, but most of the animation is great. The wall climbing in particular (see below) and the grapple hook actions are very impressive.
Great wall climbing animationThe animations are well rendered overall, but the wall climbing animation is the most convincing I have seen in any video game to date. Lara clings to the rocks; visibly looks and reaches for foot- or hand-holds to transition to; rests against the wall; and spreads her limbs to get the best range. It really is spectacular to see. The wall climbing animation is a textbook example of how to make one’s game look and feel realistic.
Beautiful environmentsTomb Raider: Underworld excels visually. It is very refreshing to be able to explore an ocean environment, or a jungle environment. What’s special is that those environments are nicely rendered, and busy. The textures for rocky crags and walls, and for the underwater ruins, are great, and the environments are fantastically populated with overgrown plants that Lara was to hack through. The jungle in Vietnam is particularly impressive in that respect. Overall, the game has a vast scope that is well realized. I’d like to note the water itself, which looks and feels very realistic. Light refracts accurately, and the seabed looks great. The way the surface of the water ripples is also impressive. Finally, I saw a few vistas, and all of them were great.
No active hintsHaving in-game hints is fine, but don’t make the player navigate through two pause menu screens just to reach them. The developer should not punish the player because it is unable to design a level or a puzzle so that it’s clear what is required. Games contemporary to Underworld implement active hints -- hints in the game which point the player’s focus in one direction. Do that, or design the game so that the player won’t need hints.
Bad combatUnderworld is overwhelmingly weighted towards platforming and puzzles, and does not feature a tremendous amount of combat. Unfortunately, that little combat is incredibly dull. The combat system revolves exclusively around lock-on targeting, which means that the player doesn’t really have to do anything or think about anything ever. At least the lock-on targeting is functional, if not a little bit flitty at times when it comes to deciding which enemy/enemies it should lock to. There are some problems which serve as major detriments, however. Firstly, the bad camera can make it hard to keep one’s bearings when the action picks up the pace. Secondly, the weapons aren’t all that powerful, and they are devoid of any feeling. They lack punch or feel; they don’t register, and the bullets that strike the enemies feel and look like arbitrary paintballs marking vaguely human-like targets. (Please note that I have not had enough exposure to the AI, so I will abstain from commenting on enemy behavior.)
No cover mechanicThough combat may be infrequent, when it does take place there are many enemies. It’s not, however, easy to take cover (because there’s no cover mechanic and crouching is awkward) which means that there are an inordinate number of game over screens. The cover mechanic may be a hackneyed device, but it is now a common trait of video games, particularly action-adventure first- and third-person games. Not having a mechanic is fine, but at last make it easy to take cover behind waist-height objects and the like. Underworld does none of this. The results can -- and most likely will -- be painful for the player.
Melee attacks do not lock on to enemies in most casesI favor hand-to-hand combat above firearms in close quarters with enemies, as I would guess most other players do also. The melee fighting here isn’t all that bad, but it isn’t particularly good either. For instance, melee attacks won’t lock on until the player is about a foot away from any given enemy. This is not good design. The game should predict which enemy the player is targeting when the player presses the melee button five or six feet away from the enemy. Instead, an unstoppable animation ensues where the player is completely vulnerable to damage from attacks but is not doing any damage themselves.
Fine aim leads to slow movementAs an alternative to lock-on targeting, the player can choose to summon a reticule and aim manually. This is a typical contemporary gameplay element; Underworld makes one revision to the mold, however -- Lara will now move no faster than what feels like half a foot a second; in other words, inexplicably slowly. I’ve no idea why such a design choice was made, but it does not work.
Nice autonomy over the grapple hookThis is a small point, but I like how no control is forced over the grapple hook on the player. Once the player grapples, for instance, they are not forced to swing back and forth; indeed, the player can choose how to use the grapple -- swing, climb, or slide down.
Abrupt startUnderworld starts extraordinarily quickly. Selecting ‘New Game’ from the menu thrusts the player straight into a tutorial level in a burning house, without any cutscene or context. From what I have surmised, this is done for narrative reasons. I do not know exactly how it works because I failed to reach further stages in the game, but, against, I assume (from what I know) that it is at least somewhat interesting, speaking from my impressions of the story in general.
Great theatrical momentsUnderworld has some great cinematic moments, even in the first three hours. I particularly like the first sequence in the manor. The sequences on the ship in the second stage are fantastic. There is one brilliant part where the ship begins to sink, and it rocks and rolls and falls on its side.
Underworld has significant problems. In the state it was released, and in the state it remains, I implore people not to purchase or play this game. Do not tacitly endorse bad game design. I see the problems. Underworld is a perfect storm, a tumultuous and noxious combination of archaic gameplay traits and glaring glitches. Tomb Raider has missed the boat. It is no longer 1996. Games have moved on. If this franchise is not willing to update, reform, change, and build, it can only fail, and, indeed, if it doesn’t do any of those four former things, it deserves to fail.