Can you believe that it’s been over 10 years since the voluptuous Lara Croft began seducing us with her enticing blend of action-packed exploration, treasure hunting, acrobatics and perceptive puzzle-solving?
The success of the series has meant that the foundations laid down by the original title still haven’t changed one bit, with Tomb Raider Underworld following a familiar and predictable blueprint. If you’re a fan of the series then you’ll no doubt take some delight in exploring ancient ruins, underwater chambers, dimly-lit caverns and lush jungle settings all over again. You’ll probably also feel quite at home climbing mountain faces, ledge-hopping, swinging over ravines, pulling levers, pillar jumping, shifting blocks to activate weight mechanisms and solving cog-based puzzles. We, on the other hand, were bored out of our minds. Ever heard of the saying “familiarity breeds contempt?” Well, never has a phrase been more apt than in the case of Underworld.
Furthermore, whilst Miss Croft’s latest outing, which carries on from where it left off in Tomb Raider Legend, looks suitably next-gen, with Lara moving around with admirable poise and grace, ass cheeks wobbling with every step, we spent most of the adventure swearing at the T.V. with sheer frustration. Like spoilt brats – and we feel quite ashamed to admit it – we almost lost the plot at one point, banging our fists with anger onto the table after we fell to our death and then had to scale a cliff face for the tenth time. A videogame hasn’t made us this angry since we hopped on the back of a dragon, took to the skies and wrestled with the motion-sensing functionality of the Sixaxis controller in the disappointingly poor, Lair.
There is some good news though. As far as pixelated videogame heroine’s go, Lara does look very sexy. With all the bumps and curves in the right places, her finely chiseled body should certainly appeal to the testosterone-fueled teen brigade and undoubtedly old perverts as well. Crystal Dynamics has cleverly played on her sexuality throughout the game and from the outset, where they place her snugly into a figure-hugging swimming costume for the first ocean-diving level, to the coast of Thailand where you have the opportunity of dressing her up in either jungle pants or jungle shorts, there’s never an opportunity missed to take advantage of her obvious womanly charms.
Wisely, every opportunity has been grabbed by the developer’s manly fist in order to show off Lara’s mighty fine cheek-wobbling buttocks up close and personal. Thanks to camera angles that pan in when you’re scaling a mountain face or during cut-scenes you’ll get plenty of time to ogle those buns. We’d hazard a guess that this will also be the gameplay footage that is most likely to be sent out to the press or put onto You Tube in a bid to tempt you into the alluring world of Lara and her creamy thighs. Unfortunately, watching Lara parade around in this flirtatious manner is one of the few highlights of an otherwise boring, predictable and irritating jaunt across some familiar locations.
Lara does animate extremely well. It’s clear that the motion-capture technology, which has been used for the first time in the Tomb Raider series, has really paid off. She looks fantastic shimmying down poles, somersaulting through the air, traversing cliff faces, scaling walls with her grappling hook and swimming through the clear blue ocean. Lara has never looked and moved so well as she interacts with the environment, using her arms to push through the overgrown jungle foliage or putting her hands to her face to shield herself from fire. It’s commendable that his level of attention has been paid to the story’s heroine and her impressive range of acrobatic tricks, but the focus on making her look great and move like a medal-winning gymnast feels like it’s been to the detriment of much of the rest of the game, which consistently fails to live up to her eye-catching physique.
Underworld suffers from some frustrating level design, annoying camera angles and tedious puzzles, the likes of which have been regurgitated from the bowels of previous Tomb Raider games and mixed around ever so slightly to try and give you the impression that they’re somehow different and new. From very early on though, you’ll soon work out that it’s the same bag of tricks that the series has been churning out for over a decade. There’s no real surprise that the first puzzle you’re tasked with solving requires you to explore the environment in order to obtain two axles that you then have to place into a cog mechanism. Turn them a few times to solve a simple a simple visual puzzle and you’re done. It’s predictable stuff.
Many of the puzzles are also multi-layered, requiring you to do more than one task to solve them and most also call for an element of exploration. This means that you’ll often need to traverse the environment searching in every nook and cranny to find a necessary piece of the puzzle; a concrete block, for example, that weighs down a platform that in turn opens up a doorway. See what we mean by ‘predictable?’
The hint icons and glowing ledges of past Tomb Raider games are now a thing of the past, making exploration much more difficult. You now need to rely on your ability to actively search for a way across the environments, by keeping an eye out for a grappling hook, a pillar to ascend, a wall to scale or a slightly protruding rock face to grab onto. This isn’t as easy as you’d think. Even in the initial level, which took us 3 life-wasting hours to complete as we tried to solve a three-pronged puzzle to get past the ocean-dwelling Kraken (who guards the doorway to where the Iron Gauntlet of Thor is hidden,) we were exhausted and utterly bored searching for the solution. Once we did find out the answer, after once again falling to our death numerous times, we were mortified to be told we had to make our way back through the maze-like cavern complex, right back to the entrance where we’d began our dreary journey.
Jerky camera angles don’t help matters at all; in fact they hamper the game significantly. Like previous Tomb Raider games, a lot of your time is spent performing acrobatics, balancing and jumping from pillar to pillar, latching onto a pole to swing across a gap, or jumping from one ledge to the next. Therefore, camera angles should play an important part in helping you smoothly traverse the locations. The camera actually works against you though, panning out, zooming in, or moving around you at inappropriate moments. We’ve spent far too much time than is healthy misjudging jumps and falling to our death, or even worse into the water below (at least if you die you’ll respawn close by, if you fall into water you have to make your own way back.) Multiply that by 2,3,4,5 or 6 times and you’ll get an idea as to why we’ve been so frustrated with our Tomb Raider experience. If camera problems didn’t exist, then our review of Underworld would probably have been remarkably different. As is stands, dodgy camera angles have an unhealthy knock-on effect on the whole game experience.
Layered puzzles don’t help either in relieving any of the monotony and just as soon as you think you’ve solved a puzzle you’ll be sorely disappointed to realize that it’s just the first step in completing it. Inevitably, this means that you’ll be stuck in the same environment for relatively long periods, which is about as exciting as watching grass grow. If there had been a walk-through available at the time we were playing Underworld we’d have snapped someone’s hand off for it, or certainly of committed some form of violent act. Even with the PDA, which offers a few hints and tips, we found some of the intricate puzzles very difficult.
In between the arduous puzzles and bouts of problematic exploration, Underworld also has a fair amount of combat to get stuck into. After your first encounter, against the most none-threatening sharks we’ve ever seen -these ones react more like playful dolphins, nipping at your toes and then swimming off into the distance as happy as Larry- combat doesn’t really get any better. The A.I is as thick as two short planks. Combat against human forces, in the form of mercenaries, rears its ugly head for the first time when you’re tasked with infiltrating an ocean liner and then having to see off enemies on your way to the lower decks.
There’s no real differentiation between auto-lock and manual targeting. If you’re close to an enemy and pull the trigger, Lara will automatically shoot directly at him. There’s the cool addition of being able to split up your dual-wielded pistols and shoot at two people at once, and there’s some impressive looking close quarter combat moves, including a more powerful roundhouse kick, but thanks to the over-helpful targeting system, combat doesn’t require any skill. You simply just need to pull the trigger as fast as possible and make sure you dodge out of the way of flying bullets and then get back into position without being hit. Even if you throw sticky bombs at enemies they’ll generally land miraculously at their feet or on their bodies, even when you weren’t aiming directly at them.
Whilst Lara looks great in combat, the behavior of enemies is far from impressive. Mercenaries often appear to be in two minds as to whether to run at you or take cover and so they’ll often end up running back and forward not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing. The lack of care in other animations, aside from Lara’s model, is made more apparent by the way that enemies fall to the floor like a sack of potatoes or do the splits when they die – very bizarre. As a result of dumb A.I. and a targeting system that helps you far too much than it should, Underworld lacks greatly in the action stakes.
In a bid to give the game a movie-like feel and inject some vitality into proceedings, Crystal Dynamics has introduced ‘adrenaline moments,’ which contrary to their actual purpose, do little to get the adrenaline flowing. The first example of an ‘adrenaline moment’ is when you have to escape a sinking ship and cargo comes hurtling toward you. Time slows down and you have to jump over the boxes that come flying your way. The fact that time slows down makes it a really simple task and quite frankly a waste of time. Quick-time events, in which you need to press corresponding buttons that appear on-screen, would have been far more effective than adding ‘adrenaline moments.’
We gave Underworld a chance, we really did, but what with the predictable puzzles, exploration that is hampered by camera problems and the uneventful combat sequences, we found the latest game in the Tomb Raider series a little too much to bare. Perhaps we were expecting too much, but that’s what happens when the hype machine comes knocking at your door. If we’re told something is going to be brilliant, the best yet, then it’s quite easy to get suckered in; we were. If you’ve been a fan of Tomb Raider over the years, then we guess that you’ll still get something out of Underworld, but if you’re expecting a memorable and enjoyable adventure, the best in the Tomb Raider series so far, be prepared to be sorely disappointed. Lara looks fresh and reinvigorated, it’s just a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t.