Tomb Raider Underworld is Crystal Dynamics' third Tomb Raider offering since Eidos had them reboot the series back in 2006. Crystal Dynamics has opted to stick with what worked well in the previous two entries, so what is presented here in Underworld is a pretty easy, streamlined platformer that manages to be a lot of fun the first time through.
A word of warning: If you haven't played both of the previous two Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games, Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary, you're going to be completely and utterly lost when you start Tomb Raider Underworld. The story picks up right where Legend's leaves off and manages to use many story elements from Anniversary as well. You can view a short movie via the main menu, and it tries to fill you in on what you missed if you didn't play either of the games, but it doesn't do a particularly good job.
Once you have a solid grasp of what's going on in the world of Lara Croft, the story tells your usual treasure hunter tale of weapons of the ancient world and the doom of man. While Legend focused on the myth behind the Excalibur sword and Anniversary focused on Atlantis, Underworld focuses on Norse mythology and Thor. While the tale itself is fairly predictable, its delivery and the twists along the way make for an interesting story.
As with any treasure hunter game or movie these days, you'll find yourself traveling all over the world to uncover the ultimate treasure. With Underworld, you'll be covering several countries ranging from Mexico to the Arctic. The impressive part here is that the only noticeable load time occurs when you start the level. These levels often last more than an hour and cover a lot of ground, so the fact that there's hardly any loading is a very nice touch.
That's not to say that Tomb Raider Underworld is a very good-looking game though. While we finally get a Tomb Raider game that looks like it was designed with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in mind (Legend and Anniversary were designed with the PlayStation 2 in mind), it's a game that sometimes has some frame rate issues, with occasional slowdown. In a few instances, the game even starts chugging at a frame rate in the single digits. This is very disappointing considering that the game usually doesn't look that impressive. While there are some landscapes where the title looks absolutely stunning (several of the ruins in the Mexico level come to mind), most of the game looks serviceable and mediocre, with a nice helping of plastic-looking characters on the side. That's a little harsh, however, as some of the enemy design that shows up later in the game really looks quite nice.
While the game may not be the best-looking game in the world, the level design is usually brilliant. With a heavy emphasis on crazy platforming and death-defying feats, the majority of your time will be spent doing some truly great platforming. The learning curve of what Lara can and can't do with the environment before her is virtually painless, and in no time, you'll be climbing on things that no sane human being would ever set foot on. The only downside to the platforming is that on occasion, you'll see things that look very similar to what you've done with Lara on previous levels. You may attempt to take a route to move forward only to find that that ledge wasn't meant to be grabbed, and Lara will fall to her demise. This isn't a big hindrance, though, as checkpoints pop up after virtually every platforming section. As soon as your feet are on solid ground again, the game will usually give you a checkpoint, meaning that if you die, you'll rarely have to repeat anything more than about two minutes of gameplay.
Platforming as Lara is simple, as Underworld is very forgiving and will even give you "saving grabs" on occasions, where you reach something that can be grabbed when Lara is falling to her death. Long gone are the days of Tomb Raider where every jump required extreme precision and a single misstep would result in repeating the prior 15 minutes of gameplay. The end result of the streamlined platforming experience is a game that feels pretty easy. Health packs are plentiful if you get hurt, and the correct route for how to proceed is usually plainly obvious, except for the beginning of the Mexico level. Many gamers who've had their hands held found themselves frustrated by the more open-ended nature of the Mexico level, which suffers from poor level design and leaves the players to figure out the solution on their own.
In the event that the player manages to get stuck, Lara has a PDA that can be accessed with the Back button, which allows her to create a sonar map of the local area (in case you missed something), read journal updates to fill you in on the backstory of Lara and the Norse myths, and finally, for virtually every little segment of the game, Lara has two hints that she'll give to the player about how to proceed. There's a general, "What's the task I need to get done?" hint and the all-telling "Here's how I get past this puzzle" hint. To keep any level of challenge in the game, you can avoid entering the hint menu, but the game is very quick to let you know that it's there if you encounter any roadblock along the way. This can be both good and bad for the title; it's good to streamline an experience and make it so that the gamer can have a lot of fun without any frustration, but the complete lack of challenge can make the experience entirely forgettable and unsatisfying once everything is said and done.
To break up the constant platforming, there are occasional driving sections where Lara will have to move around on a motorcycle. These moments work best when Lara is barreling through the jungle or down a steep hill at 100 MPH, but unfortunately, that only occasionally occurs. Usually, you'll be driving around in tight corridors and trying not to crash the bike into a wall.
Then there's the combat, which really isn't a lot of fun. Pull the left trigger to pull out your guns, and Lara will target the nearest enemy (or two, if you're dual-wielding) and start firing. You can jump around if you want, but the AI isn't going to be affected by it much, mostly because it's pretty dim. Enemies will either charge you head-on, stand still, or hide behind the nearest object and wait for you. If you really need it, Lara can go into bullet time for a few seconds using the adrenaline she's built up from combat. Generally, the only real use for the adrenaline is the instant head shot skill. If you're near an enemy and have full adrenaline, a single button push will have you jump off his face into the air, and you'll need to aim at his head in bullet time. If you hit the enemy, he goes down for good. It's a neat little feature and the sole highlight of the combat aspect of the title. Thankfully, Crystal Dynamics must be aware of the combat system's weakness because it hardly ever takes center stage; there are only a few instances when gunplay becomes a major factor. Even when those pop up later in the game, you have an overpowered weapon that generates amusing rag doll effects; it's pretty easy to ignore the shortcomings of the combat when it doesn't crop up very often.
While the platforming is fun and the other distractions don't occur enough to be annoying, over the eight- to 10-hour course of the game, you'll notice two huge glaring issues with Tomb Raider Underworld. The most apparent is that the title really needed a few more months in development because it's extremely buggy. Lara will get caught in bizarre animations that get her stuck in things, she'll frequently clip through things, and physics bugs show up left and right. Without trying, I even managed to get myself running around in midair. While no game will ever be bug-free, there are enough bugs in Underworld to get in the way of one's enjoyment of the title.
The second big issue is the camera, which never quite works the way you need it to. It will keep Lara on-screen and pointed in the general direction you need to go, but on several occasions, it gave me the impression that I needed to head in directions that become dead ends. This would have me jumping into walls for several minutes once I reached the dead end, looking for a handhold that I must've missed. There are also several occasions when the camera starts to get buggy. I've had the camera zoom out to the location of the last cut scene (500+ feet away) and then zoom back in on Lara for no reason. At times while platforming, the camera would zoom in on the area just under Lara's feet for several minutes at a time, leaving me to play a third-person platformer without actually being able to see my character.
Tomb Raider Underworld has a little bit of replay value once you've finished the game; there are several difficulty levels and 179 treasures scattered throughout the game world. There is usually at least one of these treasures in every single room of every single level, so you just have to find the right pot to smash open or make am extra jump or two to get there. There are some unlockables associated with these findings, like Achievements and concept art, but it's nothing really spectacular or interesting.
All in all, I enjoyed Tomb Raider Underworld; the platforming is a blast, and Lara's treasure hunter story makes for a fun little tale. Thankfully, the story and the platforming are the main focus, as they rightfully should be. The title's other distractions aren't very good, and the game is not technically sound, with slowdown, a poor camera system, and frequent bugs throwing a pallor over an otherwise enjoyable experience. There's not much replay value and very little challenge, but if you can tolerate the buggy gameplay, you'll have fun taking Lara on her latest globe-trotting adventure.
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