Tomb Raider: Underworld Reader Review
Tomb Raider Underworld continues Lara Croft's journey to discover just where in the world her mother's gotten to. While Lara's aware that Avalon is the location, that's unlikely to be found on a lot of maps. While reviewing the work of her late father, of the same trade, the adventurer discovers evidence that her dad had previously embarked upon an expedition to track down his missing wife, himself. Following his notes, Lara sets out determined to find out the truth.
The game begins with Croft Manor ablaze and its famous resident battling her way through the devastated structure. Here, you get a quick tutorial before the game timeline swings back to a week earlier. On a boat in the Ocean is where the game proper begins.
The scale of this adventure is impressive, with the locations being the stars, that even Lara's new wet-look skin texturing cannot outshine! Each ruin is memorable, and progression varied enough that you'll remain interested in continuing to explore the locations created by Crystal Dynamics.
I found the first third of the game underwhelming. Not having previously played any demo of this, I went in to Bhogavarti, the first tomb to be raided, fresh. Not knowing what to expect. Well, I did at least once I had found my way around a series of rock formations to get high enough up the cliff face to reach my first destination.
From what little I have so far played of Anniversary, one of the elements in that design that I liked the most was how those levels seemed to show by their design how the location would have looked to its original inhabitants (you can tell where stonework had buckled and masonry collapsed to make passage perilous, for instance) and so, I was a bit thrown not to see any of that design aesthetic, here, in these more traditional playgrounds.
In the first real level, contrary to what I expected, there just seemed to be a huge ditch immediately after the entrance, with, on first impression no way of progressing beyond. Then, I saw a handhold and soon started finding my way around the foreign landscape. I imagine that you'll be happy to know that block-pushing has been almost done away with, with mechanisms playing a huge part in moving things forward. Lara can now perch on (and on top of) poles, and also comes packing, in addition to (ultimately superfluous) additional armaments, the ability to spring upwards vaulting between the twin sides of crevices, formed of facing vertical surfaces. There's a video camera with a zoom option that can be used to see far away objects and details more clearly, but I found it rarely necessary to use.
Source of QTE punctuation in the previous game, reaction time is back, but is now player triggered at will, once a gauge has been filled. While there is a UI, it is minimal and graciously fades in and out as needed, so that the views are not spoiled. Lara's health is shown in the form of her silhouette coloured green through yellow and red, with a smaller one to its right alternating as required to show either accumulated adrenaline for the reaction time (accrued by attacking foes or nimbly dodging their attacks) while on land, and remaining air during underwater pursuits. For these, the developer has been able to increase Lara's level of immersion, by ensuring that where aquatic exploration is required, Lara will usually be outfitted in the appropriate attire, complete with diving gear including an infinite air supply. Before each level, a costume design, from a selection of outfits appropriate to the location, can be chosen and you can swap out your weapon, if you like.
A motorbike rounds out the new additions for this adventure...New, because you can use it far more often, than in Legend, which restricted the usage to self-contained levels. Here, the level design dictate when and where Lara can mount and leave the game's sole vehicle. It comes in handy, for covering more sprawling distances, and powering over large gaps - not always merely a thing of cutscenes.
An open-shut case
For all that may have been said publicly by the folk making the game during its creation, it's not really that open. More, you're channeled mostly through narrow, subterranean passages towards hubs, wherein you'll solve a massive, and rewarding puzzle before, surprisingly, playing your way back out to the entrance, before the next section begins.
It's important not to overlook the impact and nature of these puzzles. They often take place in awe-inspiring chambers, and more than make up for there being no true boss battling to speak of. There's another, less fortunate way that this game could be described as not particularly open which is in an ethic associated with the game you may have heard of titled "what could Lara do?", which I have to reveal, didn't make it into the finished game in any practical way. Lara shielding her face from heat hazards, and brushing aside ferns is about the extent of its influence.
This leads us back to the passages again. The game delivers a double-edged sword, with its open aspirations. On the one hand, there's staggering scale to most of the levels. The flipside to this being if you find that the level is as vast, so that you can't tell what you're meant to do, or perhaps how a task was intended to be done, so that you begin trying everything you can think of (you'll often discover that the designer hadn't had the same idea, and so, you encounter invisible walls and physics-based oddities - this doesn't happen often, but there is usually just the one solution to problems.) A few examples of this spring readily to mind.
Fortunately, realising that most players aren't likely to be too familiar with the finer points of traversing dangerous ancient ruins; and not wanting to resort back to having Lara's new-found scooby-gang of Zip and Allister (who do appear in this game) offer advice through an ear-piece; the Lady herself, again very well voiced by Keeley Hawes, is ready and happy to offer her expert guidance to assist flummoxed players. Lara can offer either a hint (which can be a bit vague) or a more step-by-step blatant solution to the current predicament. There is a minor shortcoming though. The information offered is based upon Lara's present physical location.
Beauty's not only skin deep
This is a visually compelling, and commendable title. With one exception, which is in itself no way horrid, the visual offering is vibrant and strong. Each of the areas have their own individual colour motif, be it the green jungles, icy caverns, or clear blue of the ocean deep. It is often times powerful, and vividly delivered. Only near the start of the game is regular lighting noticeably used to create mood and intrigue. You quickly find that a lot of areas are impassable without usage of the fob light affixed to Lara's apparel. For the final two thirds of the experience, the mechanisms and puzzles more than ably pick up the slack in this regard, however.
The areas you visit are really built up in a credible way, and with highlights, popping flourish, and culturally themed elements to the design almost every location is individual, with its own style and perils to discover and overcome. There is one clunky level, though, that just seems out of place, perhaps under-developed. A tanker ship. I don't know whether it was included to offer a change, or what the circumstance, but it's dull and laborious. It's a wonderful showcase for the most poor decisions made in the game.
Platforming is minimal and fleeting in the level. All the enemies are dopey loudmouthed sailors with guns, and all there is to do is for Lara to make her way to the end, wherein there's a sliver more of platforming, before the conclusion. It's almost Angel of Darkness bad. I just don't know what it's doing there. It's then reused later, with the most flimsy of justification, to equally sinful effect, except with a larger crew. It conspicuously fills a role in the game of well, we need somewhere from which to carry the plot forward, now...They must have been able to find a better solution, though, I can't help but feel. There's nought wrong with it from a quality perspective, it's just bland. Thankfully, it's a brief stop-over, on Lara's journey.
Other appreciable elements include the music, which is usually themed with the location and circumstance, and though not especially memorable, performs well on the day, giving accent and emphasis as needed to player activity.
It's the way you tell 'em.
Not having played through Anniversary yet, I'm not sure of how much Crystal Dynamic's recreation of Tomb Raider (the Adventures of Lara Croft) has altered narrative from its inspiration, but the previous game to Underworld, Legend, introduced the very beginning of Lara's eventful life, and set a competent narrative thread (these events can be recapped in a brief montage video clip included on the game disc) that the latest title continues to weave from. Previous periphery concepts are now brought strongly to the fore, to drive the reasoning behind repurposed histories (Norse being particularly prominent) home. If it does get a little convoluted, there's always Lara's journal to fall back on to access more information, or just to keep things in perspective; a resource that she'll periodically update.
After the episode on the high seas, the game begins to hit its stride, and the narrative and urgency pick up pace, with several key plot-twists, and the scale swells ever larger, before things draw to an utterly exhilarating, climactic, and unmissable close. The payoffs during the adventure are fitted just right, that I never felt that I was just going along. The game never drags its heels. I always felt a desire to progress, to delve deeper, and it delivered ample reward for what I was doing. I wanted to see what was behind every next corner, and in every next room.
Along the way, you can collect treasures, and relics, which are usually found in clay pots, of which there are a lot you'll find while looking about. One of the additions to elongate the time spent playing, is a "treasure hunt" option, unlocked after you've played once through. As much as I enjoyed playing the first time, the idea of revisiting these huge, complex levels simply to ferret out gems missed first time round, doesn't carry much appeal. I didn't time precisely how long I spent playing - I was too busy exploring, and enjoying - but I'd estimate 10-15 hours, at least.
Bumps and scrapes
The technology used in the game seems a little less than solid some times. There are also jumps you should be able to make that you can't. At times, where in TR1-5 Core would at least show Lara attempt to traverse any obstacle or geometry, CD just don't bother including a pathway for it - even where the object is knee high, and could credibly be vaulted. Lara can't jump very high either. In the event you do try to climb on the wrong surface, you get a really awkward animation. At height, a wrong leap is rewarded often just by hitting an invisible wall, or the camera will angle in such a way on the back swing (Lara's grapple returns, and sees far more use, doubling as a rappel line for descent, and rope which can be pulled around objects, this time) that you're unable to accurately plot your landing after you leave go of the rope. On few occasions, the game noticeably sucks Lara's hands to grip onto the right surface, if she was a little off line on her landing.
The game causes more missed jumps and landings than I think would occur through genuine player error, which especially becomes problematic when you appreciate it's usage of the vertical axis. The camera, also a technological element, can additionally aggravate, and, while Lara does her best to indicate through her preparatory animation whether a jump can be made successfully, sometimes the camera misbehaves, throwing to waste all good intention. Combat against animal and thing foes is there. I mean, that it's just a feature of the world. The game could do just as well without it. It isn't fun most of the time, it's just a moving obstacle instead of a stationary one. I'd like to see the entire role, and implementation of combat in Tomb Raider be re-assessed, before any future games are released.
Here's a game that everyone really ought to play. I think that most fans of video games will get a lot out of it, and it's without question a must for fans and followers of Lara's adventures to date. It's definitely better than Legend. Not to knock that game particularly, but this one is more fleshed out, it's more player friendly, focussed and contains some of the most well-thought-out puzzles and presence-laden locations seen for a while. It's truer in style to Tomb Raider, than perhaps any other game since the first. It's not flawless, thanks to the problems that I highlighted, but these distractions can't take away from the enjoyment to be found. This and all the things done so well in the game, make me confident in the score that I have given.
I recommend everyone to give Underworld a try.
8 / 10