Tomb Raider: Underworld

Lara Croft has been through a great deal during her lifetime, not just in terms of her fictional self and the things that have happened to her family, but also in terms of her performance in the various Tomb Raider iterations over the last decade and a half. Ranging from the superb Playstation classics, down to the disappointment of Angel of Darkness and the despair of spin-off film Cradle of Life, Lara's gaming and film appearences have been met with varying levels of praise and criticism, but in the hands of developers Crystal Dynamics, the series has seen a return to form, and early signs were that this trend had continued onto Playstation 3 with Underworld, Lara's first outing in the high-definition era. For the most part, the finished product is as good as a Tomb Raider game has ever been, but it's still not without its flaws.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

The first thing you'll notice, whether you're male or female, is that the developers have still held onto the image of Lara as a sex symbol, with gravity-defying boobs (though thankfully a little more in proportion than in previous outings) and other features that, with the help of the wetsuit used in an early level, are more than a little eye catching. Lara has always been viewed as somebody that's not just attractive to look at, but also a likeable, competent heroine to follow through an adventure. In this regard, Lara succeeds in many ways, using guns and gadgets to plow through different regions of the world, cruising the Mediterranean on her private boat, taking to the Mexican jungle on her motorbike, mapping her local surroundings with sonar and that hardly scratches the surface when it comes to toys back at her mansion. However, technology without brainpower is largely useless, and although Lara is made to look very knowledgeable, with impressive language capability and puzzle solving, she never appears to have thought more than a single step ahead, and shows no sign of the sort of chess-munching that would be nice to see in that sort of role. Next to the likes of Uncharted's Elena Fisher, Resistance's Rachel Parker and Valkyria Chronices Selvaria, Lara Croft seems noticeably one dimensional. And that's before she starts jumping.

As an action hero in a game that features numerous ledges, pillars, poles and platforms to negotiate, a competent climber is an absolute necessity. Unfortunately, where Nathan Drake intelligently leaps to the ledge you know you're aiming for, Lara will, inexplicably, head off in random directions, apparently just to cause annoyance. Pressing a very clear direction, followed by the jump button, will not always cause Lara to leap the way you want to, and far too many times, you'll end up in mysterious death water. Despite this flaw, and some shockingly wonky collision detection near low obstacles, the jumping and leaping is a significant step forwards from previous games, and somewhat more forgiving. It still has some way to go to achieve a perfect balance, but it's getting closer. When you're leaping through underwater Mediterranean caverns, across Mexican jungles and over Arctic pillars, you need to know your character is cooperating, and the single largest flaw in the game is that Lara doesn't always play along, but at least she's not doing the exact opposite of your control pushes.

Pleasingly, the gameplay has a greater focus placed on the exploration and puzzle solving, as opposed to combat. In fact, there's almost no significant boss fights, and a relatively small number of pesky enemies to take out. Players are quickly introduced to the use of adrenaline moves and, in particular, adrenaline headshots, involving a short bemani-style mini-game that results in an instant kill against most enemies. So effective is the headshot move that players will most likely not need to use any weapon besides the standard pistols and, later on, a certain archaic weapon, even on the hardest difficulty setting. There are a few machine guns to try out, but they add very little to a game that is very easy when it comes to combat. The puzzles are reasonably interesting though, and may make players scratch their heads for a few seconds, but there's nothing particularly taxing. Finding the best-hidden treasures and relics may take a few minutes of strategizing, figuring out the best route to a hard-to-reach platform or beating a timed door to reach a hidden area, but it won't tax most gamers. The joy then, in the gameplay, is the comfortable balance of jumping, exploration and the occasional sprinkling of puzzle solving and combat. Things rarely get boring as a result, even without an online mode to complement the single-player action.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Although Lara might not jump in the right direction, following her about is an absolute joy most of the time. You could debate the logic behind finding a collection of pixels attractive, but the developers have clearly invested a lot of time in Lara's looks. The visuals don't stop there though, with some lovely environments to explore. The jungles, ruins, caves and underwater statues are all magnificent, and clearly favour realism over splendour. The downside there is that, unlike Uncharted, which itself takes place in a believeable environment, Tomb Raider appears dull and less vibrant. The jungle scenes in Uncharted might be slightly smaller, but every pixel is bursting with energy and enthusiasm, while those in Underworld are content to just be there. The animations on offer are very impressive though, and a definite rival for Uncharted. Lara has clearly benefited from some motion capture work, but it's not just her: enemies of all kinds, including tigers and spiders, move fluidly and realistically. The water effects are also quite decent, and it says a lot that the game is brave enough to allow a good section of the first main level to take place underwater.

Voicework in the game isn't massively extensive, and the void between cutscenes is boringly quiet on occasion. Avoiding a direct copy of Uncharted, Lara is not the sort of person to make quips as she climbs, or air every thought in her head as she runs along, but when left with only grunts and gasps as a result of the biggest leaps, there's not much besides ambient noise to entertain. If you're desperate the hear Lara's voice, you can always tune in to her personal aid gadget, with pre-recorded instructions on what to do, but essentially she's the polar opposite to Nathan Drake. Once in a cutscene, Lara's all business, though her emotions inevitably get the better of her when she closes in on the trail of her lost mother. Unfortunately, there's no real sense of camaraderie with her colleagues, nor any true feeling of menace from her enemies. That's not to say the voicework isn't good, it's just that the story doesn't allow sufficient character development to truly let the actors unleash themselves on their roles. The game is fairly average in the music department too, though some elements of the score are quite enjoyable. Thankfully there's no daft rock songs plugged in to appease modern-day masses, but a few extra segments to the score, and more recurring themes might have helped the story develop emotionally.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Though there is one serious fault in the game, the wonky jumping, Tomb Raider is actually a very decent title, and a good alternative to Uncharted. With a little more tuning of the exploration and jumping, the next Tomb Raider game might compete with Nathan Drake's next adventure, but in this iteration, there's still room for improvement. It'll keep players busy for eight to ten hours perhaps, and longer if you want to find every hidden treasure. Replay value is extended via a treasure hunter mode, allowing players to re-visit locations to collect missed treasures, and also a recently-added trophy patch with the usual targets including completing the game on the hardest difficulty and collecting all relics and treasures. Lara is still a much-loved Playstation character, even if she does now flirt with other consoles. For fans of the series, Underworld shouldn't disappoint, but it doesn't yet compete with Naughty Dog's terrific Uncharted.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Eidos Interactive

Developer:

Crystal Dynamics

Players:

1

Online:

None

Release:

2008-11-21

Trophies:

33

Review summary

Gameplay:

Flawed jumping control, but still good fun to play

Graphics:

Excellent characters and environments

Sound:

Average voice acting, effects and music

Lastability:

A story of reasonable length with extras to bulk it out

7.7

Volcanic

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