Tomb Raider Underworld
Hop…Skip…Jump… “Ah Shiii” – Splat! Yes, Lara is back once again to make men and women around the world scream at their televisions and cause concern among nearby family members. Actually, the British beauty of gaming has in fact redeemed herself in recent years with two immensely enjoyable follow ups to 2003’s travesty The Angel of Darkness. Tomb Raider Legend marked a welcome return for fans that managed to attract a significant new audience to the ageing series. Legend was also successful in reintroducing Tomb Raider veterans that were left with a very sour taste in their mouths after Core’s final outing. This much needed boost was primarily thanks to some great marketing decisions and a completely reinvented game engine that gave Lara a new level of accessibility over any of her previous adventures.
Fast forward two years and you would think things couldn’t get any better for Tomb Raider fans. Anniversary was an admirable re-imagining of the 1996 classic that refined the control system implemented by Legend even further and with that in mind, Underworld could very much have been Lara’s magnum opus. Well, after several months of great anticipation does the game deliver? Yes and no. For a start, it should be made clear that this is undoubtedly one of the most attractive and beautifully designed games you’ll play all year. Everything from the ancient ruins engulfed by nature after years gone by to the soft aquatic tint of the sun kissed ocean, represent an unrivalled skill in videogame art. An immense amount of detail and care has gone into making this game as realistic and engrossing as possible and it’s not just the environments that have received a bit of special attention. Lara is also now fully motion captured, so falling to your death for the fiftieth time has never looked so fluid and believable.
Underworld sports a varied number of locations to visit throughout your adventure; chief among these tropical landmarks is the luscious wilderness of Coastal Thailand. Of course these are hardly your typical holiday brochure tourist spots so a trip to Thailand wouldn’t be complete without a collection of fire breathing statues and death inducing trap doors. Tomb Raider has always held pride in its unprecedented ability to absolutely puzzle the player – in the past it’s often been worthwhile keeping a pen and bit of paper handy just so you don’t lose track. This was very much the case several years ago, however, there’s a new kid on the block and the name is Uncharted. Although it was a bit of a sleeper hit, the game has sparked a new stream of interest in the genre thanks to its accessible puzzles and unrelenting action sequences. It appears that Crystal Dynamics wish to emulate this success and take a leaf out of Drake’s book. While the puzzles in Underworld can be challenging, it is clear that they have been watered down for a constantly expanding market.
The Tomb Raider series has always been a bit hit and miss when it comes to providing a convincing narrative and unfortunately Underworld falls into the latter. Being a total sucker for a good story, Underworld never left me with a desire to find out what will happen next – in fact it almost induced an opposite emotion where I quite frankly couldn’t wait to finish the game so it was over. If the story were to have a blurb then it would sound rather exciting, however, in the long run it is simply not developed enough to engross or cause further interest. The delivery is also up for question too; short and infrequent cut scenes never flesh out any back story and they often feel like they are just there to keep the game moving. The game just doesn’t provide that spark that is often present when somebody truly wants to tell a decent story. This doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience but some extra effort wouldn’t have gone amiss.
On a positive note it’s safe to report that Underworld‘s soundtrack is stunning. Superbly composed melodies accompany Lara’s explorations that almost provide a majestic beauty to particular moments throughout the game. This may sound like an exaggeration but this is a box that Crystal Dynamics have most definitely ticked and for good reason too. Without a consistently brilliant soundtrack like on offer here, Underworld may have just fallen short of average. What voice work there is in the game is solid and well performed, yet when working with a script so flat and uninteresting it must have been hard not to sound a little bored.
So what’s wrong with the game? It has all the usual credentials of an annual Tomb Raider release that could have been a very enjoyable experience on paper and it is – in a way. Tomb Raider Underworld is filled to the brim with glitches and silly overlooked design issues. A lot of this could have been easily avoided with some more initiative testing and production analysis. My experience with the game for the most part was completely ruined when around 75% through the game I encountered a progress crippling bug. Not only could I not play on to the end but everything I had achieved so far was rendered more or less useless. This kind of sloppiness is just not acceptable in today’s marketplace and I was disgusted by its presence in the finished title. A patch may be released (like bloody usual) to remedy these issues and if that is the case then put the final score up by one.
In the long run, the consistently buggy and flawed level design keeps Lara from reaching new heights. It’s a real shame that a game which has all the attributes present for a real fun adventure is ultimately dragged down by such petite issues. The game also only clocks in at around 7 or 8 hours (provided you don’t run into same issue I did) so if anything this is a good rental candidate. There’s no doubt big Lara fans will get their fix from this flashy adventure but for those looking for a solid adventure to hold them over Christmas should probably look somewhere else.