When Crystal Dynamics were handed the Tomb Raider franchise after Angel of Darkness, I doubt even the most fanatical Lara fans were troubled. The franchise was at rock bottom, how worse could it be? Fans had lost faith and critics had written it off as a series that died with the PS1. Crystal Dynamics, therefore, had a lot to prove and, in Legend, they delivered a Tomb Raider game that could finally stand up to the originals as a worthy sequel.
Anniversary was a reminder of why the series was (and is) iconic. But with their reputation firmly made, I always figured Underworld was where Crystal Dynamics would begin to build up the series again. So how did it turn out?
After having to jump through half a dozen hoops and install software that you have never even heard of to play PC games nowadays, installing Underworld is a breeze. The game just screams old school from the get go. There is no CD key, no online activation and no installation limits. All you do is pop the disc in, install and play. Both the Xbox 360 controller and keyboard and mouse are supported. Surprisingly, the keyboard and mouse layout works wonderfully, but if you have the option, the Xbox 360 controller is still the way to go.
Graphically, the game is no slouch either. It’s nice to see that, for once, the PC version has gotten as much attention as the console versions. Technically, there might be nothing here that stands out, but the art direction really puts a sublime touch to the visuals and, as a result, you come across some absolutely stunning vistas. The game runs through the usual medley of locations ranging from cities lost underwater to temples in the wilderness and the attention to details is consistently good.
Lara herself has received as much attention as the environments. Run her through the mud and watch as the dirt sticks to her arms and legs. Take her for a swim and you will see that her skin glistens and drips water when she gets out. Her hair bobs and weaves convincingly. It’s not exactly breakthrough technology, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless. Furthermore, it all adds to the immersion factor.
And the good news is that the game isn’t very demanding in terms of resources either. I played it on a Core2Duo 2.67 GHz processor with an 8800GTS and 2 GB of RAM and the game ran on maxed out settings at 1400 x 900 with very rare slowdown. Plus, the load times (on the few occasions that you run into them) are impressive.
As far as the technical aspects (controls, visuals and system performance) are concerned, Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job of porting the game over to the PC. The problem is some aspects of gameplay haven’t received that level of polish and unfortunately it’s not just the PC version at fault.
Tomb Raider games as a standard are pretty simple. You go to a location (usually an old temple or an underground tomb), hang, jump, slide and run through the decrepit old ruins, kill some endangered species while you are at it and retrieve an old relic. It’s a good formula that’s employed well by Underworld. Where it’s let down a bit is by its execution.
The game starts off with the Croft Manor on fire and the tutorial runs you through the basics while the iconic manor burns to the ground around you. Run through the ruins of Croft Manor and the major problem with the game immediately shows up – the camera. While working reasonably well in wide open spaces, it goes completely insane in closed interiors. So quite often, you end up hanging on a ledge trying to jump off to another ledge but the camera is zoomed right up on to your shoulder. Moving the right stick (or mouse) doesn’t help either. So you often just guess the direction you might need to jump to, say a prayer, and take a leap of faith. Thankfully, checkpoints are well used throughout, so repetition in case of failure is kept to a minimal.
Another problem that crops up occasionally is some dodgy clipping and collision detection. Lara will often get stuck in parts of the scenery, annoyingly enough on things that you cannot see, and the only way to move her is by doing a roll/dodge or firing your weapon. Again, it’s not game breaking, but can get annoying sometimes. Thankfully though, both problems aren’t consistent and as the game moves on towards some of the latter levels, which are fairly huge in size and scope, the occurrences are rare.
The levels themselves are exceptionally well crafted. The game particularly excels at dropping you into a stunning location and letting you figure out where to go and how to get there. There are few obvious visual cues, besides ledges and beams, as to what you need to do or where you need to go. No objective icon or compass markers either. This could have been frustrating, so Crystal Dynamics came up with a brilliant solution. Anytime you get stuck, you can simply go into your field assistance guide and the game will give you two hints. The first is fairly general, usually something on the lines of “I need to climb that tower”. If you still cannot figure it out, the second hint lets you know point blank what you need to do eg: “I need to move that box to reach there”.
It might not seem like much, but it makes for an excellent compromise between players who are relatively new to the genre and veterans who don’t want their hands to be held too often. With games nowadays looking to bridge the gap between those two, you have to wonder why other developers don’t use strategies like this instead of flat out dumbing the game down and ruining the experience in the process.
Sometimes, you will need those helpful hints; the game (thankfully) features lots of puzzles. And almost all of them will require some creative thinking so it’s not always just a matter of dragging a stone over to a floor switch or finding the right lever to pull. It’s nice to play a game that doesn’t treat its target audience like idiots incapable of independent thought.
Thanks to the tight controls and a responsive, agile Lara, platforming too is a joy. Most of the fun comes from guiding her around the levels and soon after the beginning, you are jumping, swinging from beams, hanging off ledges, rappelling (ala Sam Fisher) and tightrope waking with minimal effort. Thanks to motion capture, Lara’s movements also look natural. But what I absolutely loved about the platforming bits is how in control you feel at all times. There is no “hold a button and point in the direction you want to move” gameplay from games like Assassin’s Creed. It’s completely up to you to guide Lara around the environments. So when she plummets to an untimely demise down a jagged crevice, you know it’s your own mistake that landed her there. And when she pulls off half a dozen moves gracefully in succession, that feeling of smug confidence is well deserved.
The platforming bits are interspersed with little diversions so it doesn’t get too monotonous. There are the (now standard) underwater sections, which are thankfully a bit easier now, mostly due to some diving equipment early on and a more forgiving breath-o-meter later. It also helps that Lara is a bit easier to control underwater. There are a few bike sections as well which remind me of the chariot bits in Prince of Persia, only here, there isn’t a lot of frustration and swearing involved as you can get off the bike at any time.
Gone are the quick time events of the past. Replacing them now is a more forgiving system whereby everything slows down and you have a limited time to perform a jump/dodge move. It’s not that different from QTEs, but at least it’s not asking you to press a random button in 0.75 seconds, so it gets a thumbs-up from me.
All of the above are fun diversions that are welcome most of the time. The same cannot be said about the combat bits however. It’s overly simple (still using a lock and shoot mechanism) and gets boring fast. Don’t get me wrong; combat against wild animals and some mythical creatures is still fairly enjoyable. But the game falls flat on its face is when it tries to bring combat against humans into play. There is no AI to speak of, so they just stand out in the open getting shot as Lara runs circles around them. The developers must have been aware of this fact, since they’ve tried to mix it up by throwing in a Max Payne style bullet time meter, but it’s still not enough to pick the combat up from mediocrity. Thankfully, human combat is reasonably limited and mostly present when the story demands it. But it’s still pretty awful when present.
Without spoiling too much, the story is quite decent, although never really exceptional and there are quite a few references to Tomb Raider games of the past. It continues from where Legend left off and Lara is still searching for her mother, who she believes is trapped in Avalon. If you haven’t played Legend or forgot the not so memorable story, fear not. There is a nice little recap option in the game menu, a 30 second clip that summarises the events of the previous game that leads us nicely into this one.
Even with that clip though, newcomers to the series will feel lost at times with characters like Natla and Amanda being brought in with no explanation and events occurring that you know are significant, but don’t know why. If you have played the previous games, you will feel right at home and might even enjoy the cut scenes.
One positive aspect of the story and cut scenes is that the voiceovers in the game are pretty good, although at times Lara sounds an awful lot like Judi Dench. Ambient noises are top notch as well. There is a memorable bit where you can actually hear a tiger’s heavy breathing long before you see him and being alone in the jungle makes that noise quite unnerving. What’s truly exceptional about the sound though is the music. It ranges from rhythmic tribal drum beatings to soft melodies as you move from one location to another. And each bit of music compliments the location that you are in perfectly.
The game isn’t as long as Anniversary, but not as short as Legend either, so you will get your money’s worth. Replay value is limited though. The game is relatively linear, so you won’t be seeing much that you missed the first time around. There are collectibles in the form of treasures scattered around that you could look for in subsequent playthroughs, but only the obsessive compulsive types will bother finding them all.
Even with its flaws, I find it hard not love the game. Pure platformers with puzzles and genuine challenges are a dying breed, replaced by games like Assassin’s Creed and the new Prince of Persia. Regardless of whether that change is for better or worse, it’s still nice to know that there is a place for a largely unchanged Lara even after a decade.
Tomb Raider Underworld is a smart, intelligent platformer with fantastic level design, tight controls and creative puzzles. Stopping it from being truly great are the occasional camera and clipping issues and the awful combat sections. If you are a fan of the series or the genre, you are going to love it. If you are new to platforming games, it’s still worth checking out. If, however, platforming is not your cup of tea, there is nothing here that will make you a believer.
(+) Lush visuals
(+) Great level design
(+) Clever puzzles
(+) Sharp controls
(-) Occasional camera and clipping issues
(-) Awful combat
(-) Story may confuse those new to the series
(-) Limited replay value
IndianVideoGamer Verdict: 8/10 (Buy)
Tomb Raider Underworld is in stores for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3