Lara's first 'Next Gen' outing is a good one
Let’s face it; Crystal Dynamics are doing a great job reviving Lara Croft’s previously dwindling reputation. After disappointing fans with Angel of Darkness; Legend and Anniversary were just the refresh the franchise needed. Both titles left me content and eager to see where Crystal would take Lara next. With Underworld being Lara’s true ‘next gen’ adventure and a tie up of unanswered questions in previous titles, will fans be satisfied with a reinvented Lara or is it time we tuck the old girl to bed?
Underworld continues on from Legend, your main objective is to locate Avalon, an otherworld in which Lara’s mother disappeared to many years ago. The majority of Underworld also revolves around the mythology of Thor, a Norse god whose hammer could smash mountains into valleys and even destroy gods.
After a quick refresher of Legend’s story line, provided by a ‘Previously’ trailer, you start off in a burning Croft Mansion which is some what of a tutorial level for new comers and a shocking start for returning fans. Zip, Lara’s technical assistant, fires your way and before you can make any sense of the situation you are in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea discussing Norse mythology and discovering the secrets of Avalon.
The first thing you might have noticed is how absolutely stunning Tomb Raider Underworld looks. Diving underneath the waves unveils a huge underwater world to explore. Just swimming around the environment is an enjoyable experience. Swimming control has improved dramatically over previous titles and the motion captured animation has really paid off, not only underwater but on land as well. Lara is as beautiful as ever, boasting a more realistic body style (muscles!) and animation sequences. You cannot fault with the look and style of Underworld, which is probably one of the best looking titles currently available.
Tomb Raider is still a familiar game for returning fans, the controls have not changed dramatically and the formula is the same: adventure in large environments, discover secrets and solve puzzles. Underworld keeps its roots in sight making sure the Tomb’s are the main if not the only locations you visit during your play through. The solitude of undiscovered grounds is back again after previous complaints that Legend’s constant chit chat took away from the whole experience, Underworld’s impressive soundtrack and realistic background noises accompany each area perfectly. You really feel like Tomb Raider has evolved as you push past foliage, get covered in dirt and stumble after large jumps while the jungle echo’s around you.
Game play wise lining up straight jumps are a thing of the past and now getting from A to B is not quite as obvious as you would have previously imagined. The best bit about Underworld is learning what Lara’s new limitations are. While this can get frustrating at times, it’s a real achievement to get somewhere you originally thought impossible. Environments have finally got rid of that obvious ‘climb these ledges’ look which creates puzzles on route for those not familiar with the genre.
Lara boasts thousands of move sets this time around that also includes some free running where small walls and obstacles are automatically vaulted without doing anything more than pushing forward. This can make some higher vaults frustrating where you are used to pushing forward and up which results in Lara trying to monkey jump between walls instead of jumping up and grabbing the end ledge. Monkey jumps are one of the more enjoyable moves Lara has at her disposal this time around, adding to the huge learning curve of what Lara can do now and making some old laborious climbs quick paced.
Combat is still about pumping as much lead into anything that heads your way as you jump and roll out of any attacks. Playing the game on the hardest settings adds a refreshing challenge as enemies feel more relentless in their attack rather than just hitting harder. There were many occasions where going against more than 3 enemies without climbing to safety was a huge problem and when some of the creatures you encounter wall climb, your previous ‘safe spot’ becomes useless and panic can set in. Jumping side to side is no longer the best strategy as your opponents are not as slow as they used to be, and seeing Tigers jump from side to side as you try to roundhouse kick them down and get the last few shots in is an enjoyment in itself.
Two new features of combat include duel targeting and shooting while you are on a climbable surface. The dual targeting however is automatic, so sometimes this can become a handicap when you're trying to get rid of the large enemy in front of you and the other hand is annoyingly picking off smaller ones that you’d rather deal with later. The ‘adrenaline’ system has been revived again where this time you must drag your shot into the targeted area while time has slowed down, this generally feels more enjoyable to pull off.
Puzzles have become more about the environment as a whole rather than a key to a door or a switch to pull down. The Kraken room for example, while simple, was about breaking down a number of supports before taking out the Kraken and having access to a new area. There doesn’t seem to be any particular order for any of the puzzles in game which mean when it comes to replaying the title you can enjoy a different experience.
While the puzzles feel larger compared to previous titles, they certainly don’t get any harder, which is something of a disappointment. Previous Tomb Raider’s have had me sat for hours thinking of what to do and sometimes heading online or to a friends to find the answer. Underworld hardly had me using the newly included hints system and the few times I did use it was purely to see how it worked for this review. While this problem would not affect newcomers, fans of the series will breeze through and the promised 12-14 hours worth of game play turn out to be around 10 if not rushed. The majority of your time will be working out how to climb from where you are to where you need to be, which to this day is still enjoyable.
Another new feature like the hints system is the sonar map. Helpful for that completionist in you, the sonar map highlights moveable objects such as small rocks but also shows any bumps on the map. So if you see a very small triangle shape on a somewhat smooth surface you have probably just found the location of a secret. The sonar map is very basic, it could have had a better look and control system when moving around the map, but it doesn’t give too much away so your exploration and experience is not ruined. It is pretty much vital in finding the last few of the secrets and relics you might have missed along the way.
After completing the story, you unlock “Treasure Hunter” mode, which is basically a free pass to all area’s you have accessed without having to solve the puzzles to get through to them. This mode is designed specifically for you to go back and collect up the 6 hard to find relics and all 179 treasures sprawled across the world. Enemies you have killed in the story mode will no longer appear in Treasure Hunter mode leaving only ones you had previously let live. The lack of time trails could be a little bit of a shock for returning fans, but the ‘new game’ option is something that was due after being missing in the older Tomb Raider’s, requiring you to start each chapter individually.
Overall Underworld is an extremely enjoyable experience and now a personal favourite of the series. While the camera is still iffy at times and puzzles not as challenging as I would have expected, the fascinating storyline provides enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. Lara’s new moves and environments make up for any slight disappointments along the way too. With upcoming download content to extent the story line already in place, Tomb Raider Underworld is a worthwhile purchase and a fresh look at what seems to be a franchise still not ready to be put down.