Tomb Raider Underworld is a True Test of Patience

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

Tomb Raider Undwerworld

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.

Tomb Raider Undwerworld

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.

Tomb Raider Undwerworld

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.

Rating: 3/5

Tomb Raider Underworld

12 Responses to “Tomb Raider Underworld is a True Test of Patience”

  1. I would have to agree with the camera issues on the Tomb Raider games, but mostly on console versions. The PC versions of the new Tomb Raider games have allowed the camera to be free moving so it's often not too bad.

    Great review aside from that. I've been debating about whether to play this or not.

    • Do you mean you can actually detach the camera and move it around freely? You can manipulate the camera using the right thumbstick on the consoles, but some times there just isn't any room for it to move – like if you're near a corner or between pillars. In that case, they need some other way of looking around. A first person view, even.

  2. I bought this for my girlfriend at xmas and she finished it last night. I've watched her the whole time and seen all these crazy cameras, such as the glitchy cave where it refuses to sit still, flipping through walls and zooming into random body parts.

    The times that I have picked it up to play myself I've found the controls to be particularly frustrating, but my girlfriend struggled on through it and tried to make the most of it. She loves the series and wasn't prepared to let all those issues you have described get her down.

    One thing you didn't mention was the awful AI. This is one of the worst AIs I have seen, with enemys just standing there staring into space while you shoot them in the face. In the later levels, one of the yetis decided to stomp around in circles, while Lara stood within crushing distance.

    I completely agree with your post. The visuals and music create a fantastic atmosphere, and the story is entertaining. It's a shame that the developers claimed better gameplay and AI, but have failed to deliver.

    • You're right, I didn't mention the awful AI, and that wasn't intentional. I guess I'm just used to nothing more than cannon fodder for opponents in Tomb Raider games. At least the animals are smart enough to come at you. The humans on the other hand – like you said, just that there and take it. Another issue I have with them, though – how many bullets does it take to drop a human? 2 or 3 close range shotgun blasts, or a dozen or so bullets from your handguns. Super lame, and really makes the game feel dated when it comes to combat.

  3. I'm so torn on this one. After just finishing Uncharted and Prince of Persia, will Tomb Raider be a disappointment?

    If the puzzles and platforming are on par or better than Uncharted, I could enjoy it. But it's sounding more and more like it should be a Gamefly rental rather than a buy anytime soon.

    • Hard to say, if you like Prince of Persia. You have much more freedom in Underworld, on both exploration and acrobatic fronts. No comparison to Uncharted, though. Which is funny, since Uncharted is the one that creeped in on Tomb Raider territory. Uncharted > any Tomb Raider.

  4. I hated Underworld, where was croft manor? and i really hated the load/save thing, a real let down compared to the awesomeness that was Legend and Anniversary.

  5. I just finished playing the demo for the first time about a day ago and I agree with you in almost every part. I can't believe the camera is so awful in the worst of situations. Also, some of the simplest puzzles are way to tedious. I jumped from pole to pole, followed by a leap of faith, and removed stick to loosen chains, yet I couldn't figure out what to do next. I referred to my PDA and it informed me that all I needed to do was flip a lever about 3 feet away from me. While that example might imply I just suck at games, in my defense the lever simply looked as if it was part of the scenery. I understand that maybe I have just been babied along in most games, but I have never fallen off ledges or died as much in any other game.

  6. Meh, I could never stand this series since its early days, when you had the focus and try the same jump 20 times in a row.

    I just don't get along with that kind of game, not matter how good the story can be.

    But that's just me, maybe 😉

  7. Hehe, obviously I have conflicting views about Underworld than most other people, which always seems to be the case when it comes to my taste in games. I loved it, even with the dodgy camera angles and odd frustration with the controls. But then again, I don't think Lara could do much wrong with me as she's quite sentimental to me (a game my Dad and I used to play regularly). It's also a refreshing change from my usual breed of games – shooters and RPGs.

    In related news, you've probably seen that it's experienced disappointing sales, therefore Crystal Dynamics have laid off 30-odd members of staff. Sucks. I hope this isn't the last we see of Lara on the 360.

    • You know what else poor sales means? Lara is going to get a makeover, yet again. You watch, the next game will be some "revolutionary" new direction and Lara's appearance will change drastically again.

  8. I just started/finished this game with my girlfriend this past weekend.

    I'll agree the controls/camera need a bit of work…….but overall it felt like Uncharted meets Prince of Persia…..and that's not a bad combo.

    I'm a sucker for massive environments that I can climb around…..and while I do think that some of the puzzles were a bit frustrating, overall it was a pretty solid play.

    A great game to get your girlfriend more comfortable with gaming too.