Lara and I have had a pretty good relationship to date. For the third consecutive year, we’ve hooked up and spent 12-15 enjoyable hours tracking down ancient treasures and weapons, solving massive puzzles, all the while collecting goodies and defeating baddies. We’ve traveled the world a few times over and have always parted ways with smiles on our faces. Unfortunately, this time I’m left feeling a little burned. Lara was far more defiant than I recalled – jumping into walls, instead of jumping up to grab the near-by ledge. Or flat-out jumping the wrong direction all together. She really had me feeling like I was walking on thin ice that could, at any moment break from underneath me. Thankfully, I decided to try her out with a rental instead of forking out full price.
The Good Stuff
First of all, there’s lots to like about Tomb Raider Underworld. The environments are massive and absolutely gorgeous. The visuals overall have been stepped up a notch or two, and the game runs surprisingly well considering. Both Legend and Anniversary struggled with framerate issues, while Underworld runs smooth as butter no matter what is happening on screen. There’s a really nice motion blur effect when you pan the camera around quickly, which is also quite noticeable when you’re fighting in close quarters.
The music is exactly what you would expect. Soft ambiance while you’re exploring, which kicks into intense mode in just the right spots. Sound effects are quite good also, with lots of varying surface sounds as Lara bounds around the environments. I always enjoy hearing how Lara’s voice changes during cut-scenes depending on the room she’s in.
Not Quite Back to Basics
Underworld takes a bit of a different approach when it comes to solving puzzles and finding the current route to take. There aren’t much in way of visual queues to tip you off as to what to do next. But if you get really stuck, there are options to get a quick hint or straight-up “what to do next” in your trusty PDA. If it weren’t for some of the gameplay quirks, I would have enjoyed this open-endedness a bit more than I did. Instead, I found myself getting overly frustrated over what ended up being simple tasks, for the most part.
Lara has learned some new moves since her last adventure. Primarily, she can now chimney-jump (to jump upwrads from wall-to-wall) and rock climb. Both are welcome additions to the gameplay, but I found that having new options and still only using a single button to initiate, Lara would often perform the wrong maneuver leading her to certain death, or causing me to think I was going about it the wrong way. For example, I might have spotted a ledge which looked to be withing reach – I would run towards it (from many different angles), jump, and Lara would push off the wall instead of attempting to grab the ledge. In this case, I would assume that I couldn’t grab that ledge, then move on to find some other way. Problem being, I was on the right track. Lara performed the wrong move. Taking another stab at the ledge, if I jumped from a stand-still directly under the ledge, she would grab it as expected. I found myself in this situation too many times, which made me think that they need to expand on the controls if they’re going to introduce new maneuvers. Perhaps you have to press a button while in the air to make Lara reach out and grab?
Along the same lines, objects that can be interacted with (treasures you can pick up, switches you can pull, etc) require you to come to a complete stand-still before you press the ‘Y’ button. This also lead to many actions I didn’t want Lara to perform, as ‘Y’ is also the melee combat button. It would often take 5 or 6 button pushes to destroy 3 erns, which should obviously have taken no more than 3. This might seem like a minor issue, but I found it really slowed the game down. It got to the point that I was so annoyed by it, that I stopped collecting treasures all together.
Fix the Fucking Camera, Already!
What’s a Tomb Raider review without complaining about the shoddy camera? To carry on the tradition, Underworld sports the same frustrating horrid camera troubles that all of the previous games have suffered. For a game that is so focused on agility and acrobatics, you’d think making sure you could look around appropriately would be task 1. Apparently not. I lost track of how many blind jumps I made, which often ended up in tragedy as I simply couldn’t move the camera enough to see where I was supposed to go next.
Who Doesn’t Enjoy a Good Story?
The story of Underworld is a pretty familiar formula. Bad people show up which do bad things. Lara needs to find ancient weapons to destroy bad people and stop them from doing bad things. Along the way, she uncovers a bit more information regarding the fate of her parents. And of course, ends up saving the world from certain destruction by the end of it. I enjoyed the story, though. And the weapons you seek this time around are pretty awesome, and lead you to some incredible locations. The shear scale is mind blowing at times.
Still Worth Playing
Normally, I go back for a second play-through and collect some of the straggling Achievements that are within reach. But I couldn’t eject Underworld from my Xbox 360 fast enough. I promptly returned it to the video store and am pleased to have moved on. That said, I’m still glad I played it. It’s just unfortunate that some of the gameplay mechanics are botched by shitty controls, which leads you to the point of frustration where you’re concerned for the safety of your television.