Tomb Raider: Underworld Review

Dan Webb

Every man and their dog claims to be a gaming icon in this day and age of gaming. I’ll tell you now though, one or two successful games doesn’t grant you that status, so shut it Sackboy! It takes a good foundation and year after year of abuse to get to that level, and trust me, Miss Croft certainly has had that. In what is no less than her 9th title (including Anniversary), Lara Croft has finally gone back to her roots and that’s all down to the US based developer Crystal Dynamics. At the turn of the century, Lara Croft was climbing nightclub scaffolding and avoiding high tech laser systems, but now ... it’s all about raiding those tombs, as Lara truly goes old skool on our asses.

Fancy a bit of Kraken for tea love?

The story in Underworld is a typical Tomb Raider storyline revolving around some ancient myth and untold power that some evil doer is convinced to get hold of. As usual the overly complicated plot fails to grip the player entirely, but hey, at least the cutscenes are uber pretty. Lara will have to travel the world chasing after the legendary Thor’s Hammer to put an end to this madness and along the way will get to visit plenty of diverse and beautiful locations. Crystal Dynamics certainly have come a long way since Legend as far as the environments and their puzzles as they truly reach epic proportions.

With that sort of growth though the game is bound to have its problems and they fall firmly on the level design. Sure the freedom is fantastic but sometimes you can’t help but think that the game has become too convoluted. The truth is, that you’ll spend so much of your time looking around figuring out where to go that players with a short attention span will get bored within minutes. This new open world per se almost pushes you in to a trial and error attitude as you try to make jumps that aren’t within reach; there were even occasions where I would be attempting a jump and after seeing Lara die more than a handful of times, I realised that I was going for the wrong jump. Part of this falls down to the detail on the game as well as it seems Crystal Dynamics have almost tried to disguise some of the ledges – which is great for realism but not for accessibility.

An example of the multiple targeting system

The navigation and ease of controls in Tomb Raider is by far the most important aspect and whilst the combat seems to have been made slightly more difficult than Legend, the emphasis is most definitely on exploration. The controls and ease of movement are typical of the Tomb Raider series as a whole and there is plenty of blind jumping; and awkward and annoying camera angles to frustrate even the biggest Lara Croft fans. The accuracy issue also poses another huge problem in Underworld as it sometimes requires players to hit a specific line on a jump to make the grab which isn’t helped when you can’t see what you’re jumping to. While nothing groundbreaking has been added to the series in Underworld, Lara is equipped with a ton more moves; and I must say that the animation and transitions between animations are some of the best in the business. She even gets dirty when she rolls around and has a ton of other contextual animations to help raise the immersion factor.

Whilst I mentioned the combat has been made slightly more difficult, the fact is, that it’s less prevalent in Underworld and even the epic boss battles and wide arrange of enemies have been drastically reduced. Lara no longer feels comfortable jumping backwards and shooting at the same times either but she does feel ok dual targeting  with the pistols although it’s automatic for the player and requires nothing else on your part. The awkwardness of the targeting system at times and the inability to cycle through targets make the shooting a bit of a chore though. Crystal Dynamics even took it upon themselves to introduce some hand to hand combat in to Miss Croft’s arsenal and while she’s no Bruce Lee – she can literally kick and that’s all – the hand to hand combat is powerful although awkward to master.

The “epic stage multi-puzzles” which are new to the series are massive level based puzzles that require more than one aspect to be solved before unlocking its secret and furthering your progress. While essentially these are simplistic mini puzzles that solve a bigger puzzle and they don’t really require that much thought or application, they are still truly incredible to be a part of, especially as you put in the final piece of the jigsaw. The parts of the epic stage multi puzzles may involve simple tasks like finding an artefact and placing it in a special slot, using the new grapple cord physics to dismount boulders or a simple puzzle involving cogs and such, but it’s the final cinematic of the puzzle unfolding that will grip you.

Despite Lara heading back to genuine tombs, one could argue that Crystal Dynamics don’t really offer the player that much variation and such with only a handful of different environments on show. What they do create though are fantastic living environments making great use of both natural and artificial light and when traversing across gaping tombs; it’s only then that you know Lara is home.

The sounds that emanate from Underworld are of a typical Tomb Raider style with bold orchestral roars as you discover new areas and finish off the epic stage multi puzzles. Even the checkpoint twinkle feels right at home in the game and on the whole, the score and sound effects are spot on. The voice aspects are fairly competent, I mean, they won’t win Miss Croft an Oscar or anything for her performance but they aren’t going to win any gongs; same goes for the rest of the cast.

It should be pointed out that Underworld carries with it, its fair share of bugs and it’s a fairly extensive list unfortunately; this can include and is not limited to; getting stuck in the scenery, plenty of clipping and frame rate that doesn’t react well to the use of Thor’s Hammer. The checkpoints can be awkward as well and can sometimes leave you having to travel some distance to just attempt another tricky jump, which is hugely annoying. Even the diving scenes, although the vast majority of them have you using an oxygen mask now which is a godsend, just seem somewhat disorientating meaning that combat is an absolute nightmare.

Why Miss Croft you'll catch a cold wearing just that.

The achievements are very “meh” and although I’m thankful that the speed run achievements from Legend are pretty much all but gone; to find 179 collectibles sure is going to be annoying as sin ... but I suppose if an exploration and actual tomb raiding game doesn’t include collection achievements, then no game should (which we’d like to see). On the whole, the list demonstrates little originality and little thought, but I should add that the storyline secret achievement tiles sure are pretty. You’re looking at about 20 hours tops for the full 1000 but chances are, you’ll need a walkthrough ... boy, some of those relics are tough to find!

Tomb Raider: Underworld is Lara back at her best undoubtedly as you actually take to raiding eerie tombs rather than your local HSBC bank. Whilst Crystal Dynamics haven’t really tried anything groundbreaking with Underworld, they’ve certainly tried a few small things on the way which are for the better; epic multi-stage puzzles, less vehicle scenes, hand to hand combat, and more importantly, Lara’s proper return to the tombs. Despite the open world-esque attitude, making choices and route planning are more to do with guess work rather than path perception, and its fair share of technical hitches, Underworld is still a solid title that is a must for Tomb Raider fans at the very least. I for one can’t wait till the exclusive 360 DLC lands that’s scheduled to drop this side of Christmas.

While the voice acting won't win an Oscar; as far as the score and the soiund effects go, Crystal Dynamics don't put a foot down.

The levels themselves look fantastic and tomb raiding has never been so visual, but the game is full of bugs and glitches that totally detract away from the whole experience. Such a shame. However, some of the best character animations and transitions I have ever seen. Kudos.

Combat seems harder, a wonky camera, too much guess work and blind jumps are literally the only things that Lara is not top notch on. Once you get the hang of all that though, you'll be traversing chasms in record speed.

Utterly fantastic epic multi stage puzzles but sometimes the lack of direction can overwhelm the player. No more random city jaunts for Lara which is great but maybe not enough different locations ... but that's being picky.

Nothing bad per se about the whole list but a distinct lack of originality let it down. There ARE collection achievements but we deem them acceptable in an exploration game ... just this once though.

Lara undoubtedly is growing stronger with each incarnation on the 360 and we hope she can continue this trend and relive former glories. Crystal Dynamics have without a shadow of a doubt rescued the series but the game still has too many bugs and issues to be declared a must buy. One day we hope to be able to use must buy and Tomb Raider in the same sentence, but this is goig to be the best Tomb Raider game you get until then .. or the next one.

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