Probably only surpassed by the absolute royalty of Mario and Luigi, Lara Croft is one of the most iconic characters in videogaming. This is undoubtedly due in part to the Angelina Jolie films which although not critically acclaimed, still grossed high and caught plenty of attention as big action blockbusters. But even before the movies, Lara was still one of only a few videogame characters that would be recognised by casual and non-gamers. Sorry Samus, Zelda and Peach, Chun-Li and Cortana, Lara has you all beat – she's gaming's First Lady
The unusual thing about that fact is that for the most part, the quality of games in the Tomb Raider series has been pretty damn average. Sure, the original Tomb Raider was phenomenal for its time but each successive title brought less and less to the table and they became more and more forgettable. Other games in the genre (such as Ubisoft's Prince of Persi)a were appearing and offering a much better gameplay experience. Following the dismal sixth game in the series, Angel of Darkness, developer Core Design had an employee shuffle and Eidos selected a new studio to continue the series.
Then came Crystal Dynamics with Tomb Raider: Legend and shortly followed up by Tomb Raider: Anniversary – a re-make of the original game. Both games helped breathe much needed new life into the withered franchise and started getting some cohesion back into the storyline. Following these successes, Crystal Dynamics are still holding Tomb Raider reins and now have an all-new adventure in-store for us – Tomb Raider Underworld.
Underworld maintains this solid new continuity with a story arc that follows directly on from the events in Tomb Raider Legend, features recurring characters and gives them more depth as well as tightly binding all three of the newer games together and answering questions left from Anniversary.
Not spoiling anything, this latest adventure sees Lara continue the search for her mother, once again taking her to long-lost ruins of ancient civilisations. As Anniversary was seeded in Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology and Legend was Celtic, Tomb Raider Underworld's tale is inspired by Norse mythology; specifically Thor, Norse God of thunder and his legendary hammer, Mjolnir.
Despite a bit of cheesy dialogue and some hammy voice acting, the story is surprisingly well paced. Straight from the well-constructed tutorial level the game's narrative does a great job of weaving the various missions together and providing a sense of purpose that was sorely lacking from the earlier Tomb Raider sequels. The level progression gives off more of an episodic television series feel. Like the 'to be continued' feeling at the end of an episode of lost, leaving you wanting to see what the next chapter has in store.
Story is not this game's only strong point though. Lara and her environments are looking better than ever before and considering this game is running on the same hardware as Legend
(PS3 and 360 at least), what Crystal Dynamics have managed to get out of the same engine really is quite impressive.
The first thing that really stands out is the water, both on the surface and beneath. This was likely a factor in why the early Thailand mission was selected for the playable demo. The combination of wave animation and aquatic lighting looks great. Couple that with the wet texture effects on both Lara and rainy environments, and it really strikes the right chord.
As for Lara herself; she's still reasonably proportioned and in terms of animation, they've nailed it. It must have taken some exhausting mo-cap sessions to achieve this end-product. In addition to the usual fluid acrobatic movements, Lara now has a few new context-sensitive animations. When you run through foliage, the nearest hand will brush leaves asides or if your guns are drawn and you get attacked by angry bats or spiders a hand frees up to swat them away. When climbing on walls or ladders, Lara moves gracefully from each hand and foothold. These little touches and the general attention to detail go a long way in helping this game look as slick as it does.
The gameplay - at its core - is the same old Tomb Raider we know and love but again like Legend and Anniversary this has been modernised and built upon. Long gone are the days when you could only walk in four directions, navigating with awkward sidesteps and abrupt stops. Everything is much more organic now and Underworld builds upon this with a couple of new abilities at Lara's disposal.
The grappling hook, previously only for swinging and scaling can now also be used to pull designated objects. Another in-game item allows Lara to move much larger objects with ease. Certainly not the most original gameplay concepts but they're well executed and fit very naturally into the game to add more of the all-important puzzle potential.
Puzzles are afterall, the meat of Tomb Raider's gameplay and I'm glad to report that Underworld keeps things interesting. There're a few annoying key hunts and a couple of boring weight-dragging scenarios but overall, the puzzles are well-paced and generally intuitive enough that veteran Tomb Raiders shouldn't find themselves stuck too often.
The sense of scale helps here as well, with the levels in Underworld being slightly larger than previous outings. Many of the puzzles involve some epic contraption created by ancient civilisations, giant statues and stone monuments that you need to move in order to advance. A motorcycle is at your disposal to get around some of the more open landscapes. The camera sometimes takes a bit of wrestling with, particularly on the motorcycle or when you have your back to a narrow ledge, but it's not overly annoying.
The only aspect of the gameplay that really lets Underworld down is the combat. This is one area that they still just haven't brought up to standards of other leading action games.
Lara can now perform some basic melee and the game has done away with the tedious ammunition collection, instead giving you a standard arsenal for each mission – both welcome additions. But when it comes to fighting the various nasties that lurk the Tombs of Tomb Raider Underworld, the action just feels clumsy and awkward. Basically, find a safe ledge to shoot from or just jump around like a circus performer with your finger on the trigger until everything is dead.
Firing off a few successful rounds builds up an adrenaline meter, which when activated slows down time and lets you perform headshots. All this does though, is put your opponents down slightly quicker, adding very insignificantly to the depth of gameplay. With games in the genre like God of War, Assassin's Creed and Uncharted showing how it can be done right it's disappointing that Tomb Raider Underworld is lacking here. Fortunately, however, the combat encounters aren't frequent enough for this to be any kind of deal-breaker.
Everything accounted for, Tomb Raider Underworld is another worthy addition to the restored Lara Croft franchise.
The game does an excellent job of fleshing out what started as a pretty loose storyline and is no slouch in the graphics department, either (particularly character animations). Combat is a letdown but only a small portion of the game, and even after seven games the camera still isn't quite right. Overall though, it's still a worthwhile purchase for anyone that enjoys third-person action-puzzle type games and a no hesitation recommendation for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Tomb Raider game in the past.