Tomb Raider: Underworld REVIEW
COMPLETED THUS FAR: 100% (Main story, including both Beneath the Ashes and Lara's Shadow DLC)
PLATFORM PLAYED ON: X-Box 360
(Edited 01/09/12: Removed dead youtube links.)
NOTE: From the videos I've seen, the Wii and PS2 versions of Tomb Raider: Underworld are designed differently than the PS3/360/PC versions. Obviously there's a difference in poly count and textures, but also the game is so bright in the Wii/PS2 versions compared to the others that I'm not sure if the flashlight is even necessary, if you even have one. Also, the puzzles are set up differently, and some of the locations seem to be rearranged. Because of this, your mileage may very. It also appears that the Wii version requires you to aim the wiimote at enemies to shoot them (if I'm understanding the mechanics right), whereas the other versions just autolock.
I don't mean to hate on the lesser powerful versions, since I have Legends for PS2 and I love it, but the PC/360/PS3 versions are clearly superior to the Wii/PS2 versions. It makes me sad. The Wii/PS2 versions look so damn rushed. Legends for PS2 was a really beautiful game, so it's not like the lighting present in the other versions isn't possible. They really just didn't try very hard, I think.
I originally decided to purchase the game for 360 because of the DLC that isn't available in other versions, but now I'm so glad I decided against getting it for PS2 (to go along with my copies of Legends and Anniversary). I'm a firm believer that everyone should buy the best version of the game for whatever systems they own (regardless of any prior system preference), but it really upsets me to see such a huge difference between versions when there really doesn't need to be one.
It should also be noted that the Beneath the Ashes and Lara's Shadow DLC (both of which are extremely excellent extensions of the story) are available only on 360. I was hoping at the time of release that it was a timed exclusive, but history has now proven that's the not the case. I'm not very happy with that.
So, let me say this first: I've been a fan of the Tomb Raider series since the first Christmas in which Lara graced my television set. I'm not a giant fan, per say.. for instance, I can't tell you which game had which story without referencing wikipedia first, and I haven't actually finished all of the games; basically just the first three and took hefty chunks out of the remaining few, but never actually finished them--until Legend, that is. Speaking of which, Legend is by far my favorite of the series. The point is, I loves me some Tomb Raider. I'll take Tomb Raider over Uncharted any day of the week (even though Uncharted is pretty great).
With that having been said, you now know that I most likely lean towards liking this game from the get go. Reviews, no matter how try to be unbiased, will always be flavored by opinions. I think it's best if you know where my interests lie before I say whether or not this game is worth purchasing.
Okay.. the disclaimer has past. Let's get on with the game.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is by far the best looking Tomb Raider game, and honestly, one of the best looking games that I own. It came out about a year after Uncharted, but Underworld's graphics appeal to my senses more than Uncharted. I'm not sure if they're actually better, but the fact that I even consider them on par with Uncharted should be enough. Uncharted definitely wins in the cutscene animation department though. I don't believe Underworld's faces are motion captured.
Especially impressive is the lighting and shadowcasting, and the general feeling that the ambient lighting creates in a scene. Silent Hill could take a few pointers about how awesome Lara's flashlight looks.
The hint system in this game is awesome. It's like having built in game FAQ. Basically, in your menu there is option to dispense one of two hints. Both require button presses while on that screen, so as to not spoil by accident. The first hint is a bit vague: "There must be some way to open the door beyond the kraken". The second is much more to the point: "I should pull the lever behind the kraken in order to open the door."
Again, the hints are entirely optional, but I feel they really help streamline a game. I have to admit there were a couple times that I did not realize it was "backtracking time", so I wandered around the area I was currently in for a bit longer than I should have. A quick vague hint was all I needed to push me in the correct direction. And I can only imagine how incredibly helpful it would be if you were to put the game down long enough to forget what you were doing when you saved a month ago.
I really like the fact that at any point in the game, you can go into your options and adjust the difficulty. Yes, a lot of games do this. However, Underworld takes it to the next step with allowing you to adjust ammo capacity, max health, enemy health, and grab time (when you just barely make a jump, causing you to grab with only one hand, and you have to press a button in time to grab with the other one). Easy, Normal, and Hard don't always change a videogame difficulty in the way you expect. Sometimes a game can go from being incredibly easy on normal to insanely diffuclt on hard. This helps avoid that. I like it a lot.
This seems a bit strange, since I originally didn't like the combat in this game as compared to Legend, but now that I've been in a lot more skirmishes, the combat is actually pretty enjoyable. I actually took forward to it. It's not as dynamic or complex as, say, Uncharted's combat, but it's definitely a step up from your normal Tomb Raider combat system.
First off, as per usual, your twin pistols come with infinite ammo. By pressing right on the d-pad, you can alternate between those and your secondary weapon. You choose your secondary weapon at the start of an area, or any time you want in your weapons menu. You start with all weapons, by the way. You do not randomly find a pair of twin uzis deep inside an ancient temple.
The RB button throws sticky grenades. The enemy AI (including humans) doesn't seem to understand how dangerous those are (read: not running for cover), so they're quite effective.
You also have kick (and flying kick) move for up close enemies by pressing Y. This actually does a surprising amount of damage, along with knocking them down for a second or two. The standing kick is a roundhouse, so it's capable of hitting more than one enemy. By pressing the button again near a knocked down enemy, you can also do a spine-breaking stomp. In fact, this is the only way to kill certain enemies.
Combat is mostly spent running and jumping around the area to dodge fire or leaping enemies while filling them full of lead. You have an adrenaline meter that fills with each shot you land (and I think it drops a bit when you're knocked down). During any time that you have adrenaline, you can "spend" it by pressing R3 to trigger "concentrated fire" mode (ie. bullet time). This does a lot of damage quickly.
If your meter is full, you can get up close to an enemy and press X while LT is held. This causes you to jump off an enemy and go into a bullet time headshot minigame. The world slows down and you need to navigate your aim reticule to the head reticule that appears on the enemy before you hit the ground again. Press RT, and bam!, instant death. It's pretty fun.
Originally, I liked Legend's method of this technique better.. but now that I've had more hands-on time, I find this way is actually more enjoyable because it prevents you from using bullet time on every single enemy.
Legend did this also, but I really love that fact that when you get a super weapon in the story, the game actually allows you to use it. I don't want to spoil, but my god, the one you get in this game is just awesome. Using it against Amanda's goons is a very evil pleasure of mine. Very, very enjoyable.
I really liked the bike in Legend, but it was unfortunately only used for the two or so stages in which you raced from one destination to the next, gunning down the enemies along the way like an arcade game. It was fun, don't get me wrong, but it was disappointing that that was its only use. In Underworld you get two or three quite long stages where you get to ride around on the bike, very similar to the snowmobile and ATV in Tomb Raider 3. Honestly, there's something perversely satisfying about getting air with your souped up motorcycle inside an ancient Mayan holy place.
The controls for swimming have improved a lot from Legend and Anniversary. Now you can steer Lara underwater with using your right analog stick instead of with just A and B. High speed swimming is mapped to LB this time around also. Very nice.
What I also really like about the swimming is that, for the most part, Lara now has the foresight to bring along a scuba mask to her nautical adventures. What this means is that you get some quite long underwater levels without having to worry about your stupid oxygen meter. The only time you have to worry about that is in the mostly dry levels where she understandably decided not to bring it.
I don't know why more people don't use rare technique of allowing the camera to pass through the walls, making the walls blocking the camera transparent (off the top of my head, I'm pretty sure Vagrant Story and Persona 3 use this technique.. although Persona 4 takes a step back and lets the camera get hung up on walls again), but Crystal Dynamics really needs to implement this in its upcoming games. Granted, camera issues have been present since the very first Tomb Raider game, but we're--what--ten or so games into the series now? Fix the damn camera!
The question is, does this harm your ability to navigate to the point in which the game is unplayable? Nope. It does make a few treacherous jumps a bit more precarious than they were initially, but otherwise it's not game breaking at all. It does make for a less than polished feeling though, which is disheartening.
While not that common in Tomb Raider: Legend or Anniversary (and non-existent in previous games), the jumping from (though not to) the top of a pillar or balance beam is absolutely horrible. A lot of the times it's a total crapshoot whether you dismount in the direction you thought you were pressing.
In Legend, I was able to circumvent this by drawing my weapons and aiming at where I wanted to go. By doing so, Lara would pivot and face that direction when I holtered my guns. In Underworld, Lara keeps her feet planted and rotates only her upper body by leaning back and such to shoot behind her. It looks really awesome, I have to say, but it doesn't alleviate the problem at all. Another possible solution is that when you press R3 (pressing in on the right analog stick) it brings up a "look around" cursor. Pressing R3 again to disable the cursor, while on the firm ground, causes Lara to face that direction, however on a beam or pillar, she rotates only her torso similar to when her guns are out. It's disappointing too, since that would have been a viable workaround.
I hate to say, but this glitch really affects your enjoyment of the game. It won't prevent you from being able to complete the game, but missed jumps in a game such as this is absolutely horrible, especially when they're not your fault.
For the most part, the collision detection works fine and its little quirks aren't much of an issue. But for a game where you're frequently hundreds of feet up in the air, hanging from one ledge and trying to jump to another, the last thing I want to see is my character's hand pass through that ledge. It doesn't happen too often, but it's obviously often enough to make a complaint about it on here. To be truthful, there are really only maybe 3 or 4 sections in the game where this becomes an actual barrier. Unfortunately, that barrier took me at least 20 deaths before I overcame it. It's not a game breaking flaw, but it's definitely a detriment to an otherwise enjoyable game.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is a great game. I enjoyed my time with it very, very much. Of course, I'm also a Tomb Raider fan. It has a few flaws that appear in its previous incarnations, like the camera and questionable collision detection. If you ignore those problems, you have a very solid game on your hands.
One catch for playing Underworld though: You really, really should play Tomb Raider: Legend before you play Underworld. Not only is Legend a great game, but Underworld is pretty much chapter 2 of a story with Legend being chapter 1. There is a "Previously in Tomb Raider.." quick recap, but it's honestly so abridged that I wouldn't even know what was going on if I had not already seen the full story. Very confusing. Playing Anniversary isn't entirely necessary however, since the only thing you really need to know is that two bad guys from that game appear in this one. That part of the story is very well explained, at least.
I did find the story in Underworld to be quite entertaining. It wraps up the loose ends in Legend fairly well, and has you guessing what's going to happen next in some places. Unfortunately, Legend seemed to have more story content than Underworld, but Legend was also a shorter game, so maybe it just seemed like more. I do miss the headset chatterboxes that were in Legend though. I think they should have brought that back for this one, but that's definitely just an opinion of mine.
Finally, if you enjoy a little less gunning and a little more exploring, I say check out Underworld. It won't last you too long, but it'd at the very least make a great weekend rental.
The grapple this time around is much more useful and much better implimented than in Legend. There are also very few jumps that involve you leaping then using the grapple. For most grapple jumps, you can use the grapple while on firm ground and then jump. It's much better. Also, scaling a wall using the grapple is done very slickly in Underworld.
The underwater portions of Underworld are much improved over the past games.
Pillars. You will learn to hate these.
It's amazing to think about how far the series has come graphically. The plant-life in this game is really nice looking, and Lara even pushes branches aside as she runs through it.
Your bike is totally awesome. Much better than in Legends because now you get to drive it around stages like in Tomb Raider 3 with the snowmobile.