Lara is back to fight her nemesis: The Camera!
In 1996, gamers everywhere became infatuated with Tomb Raider. The mix of puzzle solving, gunplay, and its sexy female protagonist, Lara Croft, pushed the game (and especially Lara herself) into an iconic status. Twelve years later, Lara is still kicking (and jumping) with her latest entry in the series, Tomb Raider Underworld, for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. While the core gameplay mechanics haven’t aged gracefully over the years, Tomb Raider Underworld is still a satisfying adventure for fans of the series.
Tomb Raider Underworld takes place shortly after the 2006 series reboot by Crystal Dynamics, Tomb Raider Legend. Following Legend, Crystal Dynamics produced an excellent remake of the original game called Tomb Raider Anniversary. Underworld is the 3rd offering from this development team which allows for a greater sense of continuity in the overall story. Certain references to those previous games will be lost to newcomers, but the story is still simple enough for all to enjoy.
Tomb Raider’s overall story involves Lara’s quest to solve the mysterious circumstances that led to her mother’s teleportation into another dimension. Underworld begins in a very dramatic fashion with Lara fleeing the flames of her destroyed mansion, as well as the bullets of her supposed comrades. From there, the game flashes back to the previous week and its up to you to retrace Lara’s steps. Throughout your travels, Lara will gradually discover various artifacts relating to Norse Mythology. All the plot points fit together quite well towards the end of the game to produce a satisfying, albeit bittersweet, conclusion to the story.
The gameplay in Underworld is true to its predecessors while introducing a few new elements. The most apparent innovation is the sheer size of the environmental puzzles. During one of the first temple excursions, Lara has to dive into the ocean to open an ancient door. In the past, you would probably be led along a set path, but in Underworld you can literally swim wherever your heart desires. The scale and open ended nature of the environments transitions to solid ground as well, as you stand face to face with massive temples trying to decipher how exactly you would get from point A to point B. While an impressive technical feat, the vistas might prove to be too overwhelming for some players. For those who can withstand it, the game should take 7 to 8 hours to complete for the average gamer (maybe a bit longer if you really get stuck in the puzzles).
Getting through the temples and dungeons involves turning cranks (that inexplicably never rust), climbing walls, swinging, jumping, and occasionally engaging in combat. The combat in Tomb Raider games has always been rather lackluster, and unfortunately this installment only reinforces how unpolished and archaic the gunplay is. Whether you’re confronting a bat, a tiger, or a soldier with a grenade launcher, you can eliminate any enemy by hopping from side to side like a hyperactive monkey firing Lara’s dual pistols. The game allows you to use other weapons as well, and you can freely select those weapons before each level, but there’s no real reason because the pistols are equally effective no matter what the situation is. Additionally, the enemy artificial intelligence is so poor you’ll never think to even use the extra arms at your disposal. Enemy soldiers will stand still, dumbfounded by your barrage of bullets, and every ferocious animal can be foiled by repeatedly jumping backwards (and oddly enough, it takes the same amount of bullets to kill both species: over 100).
By far, the most impressive part of the game are its visuals. During the course of the game, Lara will visit a snowy mountaintop, lush jungles, dark caves, and even Valhalla…yes, the Valhalla. Each location is meticulously detailed and feels incredibly organic, and Lara’s acrobatic maneuvers animate wonderfully as she makes her way through them. Unfortunately, the game camera hates it when you admire the graphics for too long as it insists on fighting you in every tight corridor or precarious ledge. Be prepared to make quite a few blind jumps, as the camera is often more focused on showing you Lara’s impressively seductive body instead of the two-foot pillar you need to jump to. You will have to profusely use the right stick to adjust the view point, and even then the game will occasionally fight your commands in a frustrating tug of war match.
The sound design is equally impressive. Well-produced orchestral pieces swell in perfectly whenever you solve one of the multi-layered puzzles or combat ramps up, which effectively enhances the sense of player satisfaction. The sound is just as superb during quiet moments, as cicada chirps and bird calls perfectly complement Lara’s travels. Voice acting is a mixed bag overall. Keely Hawes continues to perform wonderfully as Lara and veteran actress Kath Soucie is a great fit for Lara’s former friend, Amanda. However, minor voice roles fall flat, but its mostly due to lackluster writing and insufficient exposition.
Tomb Raider Underworld isn’t a game that will completely change the gaming world or the series for that matter. However, the game is a faithful evolution of the formula presented in the previous games. If you haven’t touched a Tomb Raider game since its inception, it may be a better idea to start with Tomb Raider Legend, then gradually work your way up to this title as you adjust to the core mechanics. On the other hand, if you’ve been with Lara every step of the way throughout her long journey, this is a great game to pick up and, potentially, a great way to end an era.