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.