Ever since Crystal Dynamics had taken over the franchise, the series has undergone a dramatic changeover by delivering on the promise in more tomb raiding and by tossing out the tank controls that made Lara’s mannish movements blend in better with her fluid acrobatics The changes were a huge success, and with Tomb Raider Underworld, the darkest chapter to her story that had begun with her very first adventure comes to a dramatic close.
If you haven’t played any of the previous titles, don’t fret. Underworld covers all of the important points with a short video before dumping you into the middle of the ocean to find an underwater ruin. When we join Lara, she’s getting ready to dive a site that may hold clues as to what her father may have been working on before his untimely death. She doesn’t know it yet, but it’s the first step on a trail that will lead her across the world and through the legends of the afterlife as she races against an old friend determined to beat her to the answers, even if it may spell the end of the world.
Series creator Toby Gard is back behind the pen, delving back into Lara’s past and setting the pace for where the series may go after this chapter, filling the story with cinematic scenes that explore the settings as much as they focus on Lara’s own story. It doesn’t answer every question that fans may have, but it’s does create a satisfying end to an arc of Lara’s history while leaving it open for new adventures. A small PDA that Lara carries with her is also used to carry clues and descriptions of previous chapters along with her current adventures for story-obsessed players to pore over.
Having gone through both Legend and Anniversary, getting back to Underworld’s controls was simple enough, although newcomers might find themselves dying in the opening level since it doesn’t start off with a simple set of challenges to get used to them. Death is introduced early in the game, ostensibly to create an air of dangerous dread to what will follow afterwards, with players going head over heels with leaps and hops in an effort to survive the explosive prelude.
Crystal Dynamics had boasted the use of an Olympic gymnast (Heidi Moneymaker) in order to lend more realism to Lara’s moves and for the most part, it does blend her movements together well onscreen. In addition to her climbing over most anything that has a handhold, Lara will be able to choose a secondary weapon before heading off into a new area such as a shotgun or a tranquilizer rifle which is a change of pace for the series. No longer will she be carrying a small arsenal with her. Limited in ammo, unlike her always present twin pistols, they give the player a few options to pick from if they expect the worst.
Lara will also be able to kick and punch her way through danger this time around, sometimes forcing an opening for her firepower to take care of. Health packs will also need to be found to keep her healed up, although continuing from a checkpoint will bring her back up to full. With her limited arsenal, however, comes limited medical packs. No longer will you be able to stock up on these and carry them over, area to area.
She also has the use of adrenaline which is a kind of bullet time that she can use to quickly dispatch enemies as the action slows down around her for a limited time. The adrenaline gauge is filled during combat and can be saved for those touch ‘n go moments where death might be one juicy tiger bite away. Or she can just try and run from danger which usually works, but not every enemy she’ll run into this time will simply sit on their hands while she heads up to another floor.
One of the things that the developers had promised was in making each level as much of an adversary as the horrors that still live within them and to this extent, they’ve managed to succeed which can catch some players off guard if they were expecting a boss fight. In “Shadow of the Colossus”, the Colossus that each player had to fight were living levels in and of themselves that had to be conquered. Underworld’s levels are almost approached in the same way, throwing plenty of challenges in the player’s face as they paw their way around. This is especially true of the final level which can be thought of as one titanic superboss puzzle, but if you’re expecting the kind of battles that marked the end of Anniversary’s levels, you won’t find them here.
But while each venue that Lara discovers both above and below the waves are filled with lush details, the controls undercut their polish. Somehow, they’ve actually gotten worse since Anniversary if that’s even possible and it might be because of the new animation tricks that they’ve worked into her movements. Whenever I’d try to get Lara perch atop horizontal flagpoles, she’d sometimes get stuck until I’d force her to climb back down. When running down halls or over certain tumbled pieces of rubble next to a wall, I’ve seen her get ‘confused’ and do something like a jitterbug as if trying to decide whether or not to step over or past a rock. The camera actually feels more claustrophobic than ever, making me wonder how hard it could be to switch the perspective to see things from Lara’s own eyes instead of fiddling with the camera to see if there was something right in front of her or behind her while pushed against a ledge.
Combat also feels less dynamic than its predecessors with the adrenaline system taking the place of the slow motion “sweet spots” used in Anniversary to snap off insta-kill headshots for dramatic effect. Most enemies succumb to buckets of bullets anyway, but this change kind of took away the excitement from fighting enemies in the game, making each encounter feel like simply another monster to knock out of the way. This gets ridiculous in later levels because of where the story goes, with plenty of combat but by that time, you do have an equalizer to take revenge with.
Extras include an art gallery and your typical pick of achievements. If you’ve missed any of the generic ‘treasures’ and ‘relics hidden within each level, you can revisit them during the unlocked ‘Treasure Hunt” mode when you complete the game, but there isn’t much else to get excited about once you peel away the rest of the story. There’s no mansion to explore this time.
I liked Underworld, especially for its story and the puzzles, but it’s not a quantum leap of polished perfection that its fantastic production values were. Seeing ancient gears and wheels stuck with the same flagpoles and telltale ledges is starting to feel a little silly, making it seem as if the same contracting company had been hired by the Ancients to build their wonders across every game, and the shortness of the campaign makes this a rental that can be finished in a weekend. This is die-hard, fan only territory in the strongest sense. It’s some ways it’s Lara’s best adventure yet as it concludes the arc begun with her first adventure, but only as long as you’re a fan willing to put up with the traps that lie in wait within its crumbling halls.