Version tested: Xbox 360
How did you spend November 1998? I spent it having conversations like this.
"Try jumping to that pillar over there." "I've tried that, it's too far." "Are you sure? It definitely looks like she could make that." "I know. She can't. I've tried." "Oh. What about those rocks over on the left? Can't she climb up those?" "No." "But she climbed up that other bit before." "I know. I don't know. Hang on, what if... Yes, that's it... No... NO... YOU STUPID F****** BIG-TITTED B**** I HATE YOU I HATE YOU WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS I'M GLAD YOU'RE DEAD." "Oh dear. Can we put Baywatch on?"
How are you spending November 2008? I've spent it having conversations like that. (Except Baywatch has been replaced by Deal or No Deal and every other statement includes the word "bevelled", but more on that later.) Yes, it's time for a new Tomb Raider game. This one's prettier and shinier than ever, but it's still Tomb Raider. You can tell because of all the beautiful environments, clever puzzles, complex acrobatics and the moments you want to punch Lara Croft in the face until she's nothing more than a grotesque bloody stump atop a huge pair of tits.
With Tomb Raider: Underworld, Crystal Dynamics has kept its promise to deliver all the classic elements that made the original games so good. Unfortunately, it's also delivered all the rubbish elements. For starters, there's the plot, from which you can expect a load of blather about some rusty old historical tat and Lara's dead Mum.
The opening cut-scene ends with the set-up for a twist, which you'll guess if you've ever played more than two videogames, or seen a film. There is an African-American character whose main job is to say things like "Dayamn, this is creepy!" and "What was that thang?" Mythologies are thrown into the mix any-old how, with little consideration for historical or archaeological fact. So in Thailand you explore a Cambodian temple and climb a statue of a Hindu god, while on a quest to obtain a Norse artefact. Which will help you reach the final resting place of King Arthur.
Of course, Tomb Raider plots have always been about mythological gibberish, and for good reason. No one wants to see Lara embarking on an epic quest to find her car keys, or completing a difficult sequence of jumps, rope-swings, pole-slides and wall-climbs in order to reach the doorway to Argos. But I was hoping for a proper storyline, a narrative with real twists and an objective you actually want to achieve. What I got was a load of old bunkum and plot developments so tedious I'd forgotten them by the time the cut-scenes were finished.
At least you get to visit some exciting places. My favourite is Southern Mexico, where you explore realistic and spookily atmospheric jungle temples in the middle of a thunderstorm. On a motorbike. The bike is used in quite a few levels, and it handles nicely. As an added bonus you can use it to run over enemies and break its legs off, which is highly satisfying. There are also a couple of underwater levels. They've sorted out Lara's swimming, so no more 1998-style drownings because the stupid b**** can't turn around properly. But for the most part, it's business as usual; levels involve tramping through stone corridors, and doing an awful lot of jumping, ledge-grabbing, shimmying, sliding and swinging round poles.
You don't always have to worry about pixel-perfect positioning like in the old days, either. You can usually rely on Lara to work out you wanted her to jump to that conveniently-placed pillar, rather than plummet thousands of feet to a crunchy death. There are still too many occasions, however, when she doesn't make a jump she really should be able to, or sails right past a ledge without grabbing it because that's not how you're supposed to complete the level. This is a particular problem in the final missions, which generally feel a bit rushed and are full of punch-to-bloody-stump moments.
But Lara has never looked more graceful and acrobatic, and nor has she ever had such a wide range of moves at her disposal, even if some of these are a bit useless. Walking along beams, for example, is painfully slow; you're required to correct Lara's balance with fiddly nudges of the analog stick on 360 version, but it's easier just to let the b**** fall, catch the beam on her way down and then shimmy along at a much faster rate. However, some of the moves are brilliantly satisfying and do make you feel like a proper action hero. These include the ability to rappel down vertical walls using your grapple line, and the melee kick which sends enemies sprawling. After all these years there's still pleasure to be had in pulling off a complex series of swings, grabs and jumps in one fluid sequence, especially with Lara now more elegant than ever.
So it's all the more frustrating that she still won't do certain things. She'll chimney-kick her way up hundreds of feet of flawless walls, no problem, but if one of those walls has a rough texture or a bit of a dent, she won't do it. She'll happily clamber along vertical surfaces with nothing but tiny hand and footholds to grip onto, but she won't climb over foot-high rocks on the ground if they're round rather than straight-edged. Round things are a problem generally for Lara, as are things with the aforementioned bevels. When it comes to edges that haven't been finished off with a diamond cutter, our heroine's hands are made of butter. So it's always been, but it's 2008 and it's about time Lara got a grip.
It's also about time she learned to climb different kinds of crates. Two of the levels in Underworld are set on a ship in the middle of the ocean. It's the same ship in both levels and both are abominable. You're required to navigate your way across the deck by jumping between crates. Only the big crates, mind. Lara just can't cope with climbing on the thinner wooden one, despite the fact she's oh-so acrobatic and they're large enough to support her frame. Similar inconsistencies and disappointments crop up throughout. Lara can pick up poles, but she can't carry them through holes while crouching even though there's plenty of room. She can shimmy along the railing running the length of the deck, but she can't go any further because there's a porthole with a two-inch raised frame in the way. She's got a boat and it's beautifully reflected in the water, but it's full of invisible walls that she pushes her hands up against like a scantily clad mime-artist.
And if you think that's dated and rubbish, prepare yourself for the AI. You begin to notice something's wrong when you find yourself shooting six tarantulas as they emerge from the exact same spot in the scenery and follow the exact same trajectory across the wall. Later on, sharks, panthers and tigers all pose a bit of a challenge, and are all satisfying to shoot in the face, but then there are the two-legged enemies. They all look the same, follow the same attack patterns and are incredibly stupid. The men with guns on the ship have never heard of taking cover, nor even moving out of the way when being repeatedly shot in the chest. It makes the combat system in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune look impossibly complex and sophisticated.
You also no longer get to wander round picking up randomly abandoned guns, as in previous Tomb Raiders. Underworld sees you choosing your weapon at the beginning of each level from a range that includes sub-machine guns, a shotgun and a harpoon. You can switch between them during levels via the pause menu. It doesn't matter though, as the enemies are so thick you could take most of them out with a toothpick and an elastic band. Without wishing to spoil things, towards the end you get an absolutely brilliant weapon that has a sort of Ratchet & Clank feel to it and is immense fun to use. It does make combat even less challenging, however.
Considering the Tomb Raider series has been around for over a decade, it's disappointing these fundamental issues haven't been sorted out. With Underworld, you get the sense that too much time was spent on polish that was supposed to bring the technology up to date. None of it adds much to the gameplay, and some of it doesn't even work properly. So what if Lara now pushes tall plants away with her hands? That doesn't make the game any more fun, and she just looks like a frightened girl trying to scare off a wasp. Much has been made of the way Lara gets wet now, and how mud sticks to her skin. I barely noticed this, apart from the odd close-up where she looked more leprous than usual. It's nice, I suppose, that you can select which outfit she wears at the start of most levels. But really, I'd have swapped the choice of shorts or trousers for enemies capable of hiding behind a crate.
At least the combat only makes up a small proportion of the game. The emphasis is firmly on the traditional tomb-raiding elements of environmental navigation and puzzle-solving. The puzzles vary pleasingly in terms of scale and difficulty level, though they almost all follow the same pattern: navigate two pathways to find two things to slot in two holes to open the door. Later on puzzles do become more complex; you have to navigate four pathways to find four things to slot in four holes to open bigger doors.
That's not to say solving puzzles isn't enjoyable. They're sufficiently challenging, with plenty of "Aha!" moments when you finally notice that tiny detail you've been missing. But they do get samey, and as you close in on the end you feel a bit fatigued. Instead of being excited about the sweeping panoramic view of the new environment you just entered, you find yourself thinking, "Oh good. An implausibly tall tower to navigate, complete with rotating sections, precipitous drops, conveniently placed poles and a multitude of sticky-out ledges. What a shocking turn of events." There's not enough variation and ingenuity. Yes, there are moments where you're left marvelling at the level designer's fiendish intellect, or feeling pleased with yourself for thinking through a particularly sticky problem, but they're few and far between, especially compared to the early Tomb Raiders.
Which brings us back to the fundamental problem. At its worst, Tomb Raider: Underworld is everything that's wrong with videogames - clichéd, predictable, frustrating, inconsistent, repetitive and derivative. Legend was supposed to be the game that marked the series' return to form, and it achieved that. Underworld is better than Legend; meatier, more challenging, more atmospheric and with less silly nonsense like quick-time events. But Underworld was supposed to be the first real next-gen Tomb Raider game, and it isn't.
At its best, however, Tomb Raider: Underworld is everything that's great about videogames. It's beautiful, exciting, challenging, rewarding and absorbing. Many of the locations are stunning, and so's Lara. There are thrilling moments, there are scary moments, there are even a few surprising moments. There are times when you feel truly alone and free to explore the huge, expansive environment laid out before you. Sometimes you feel like James Bond, and sometimes you feel like Bruce Lee, and sometimes you feel like 1996 Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Lilia Podkopaveva. But it's not quite the next-gen Tomb Raider adventure we've been waiting for, even if it's enjoyable all the same.
7 / 10