Tomb Raider: Underworld
First posted on 07 June 2009. Last updated on 10 January 2011.
The game is available at GamersGate.
The Tomb Raider franchise has existed for 13 years now, with 8 video games in the main series and 2 feature films based on the license. The odds are good that even if you have not played any of the games you are likely to have heard about the main character Lara Croft through endless analysis and arguments in the mainstream media over the gaming industry's portrayal of women. The series has gone through 2 developers and a number of minor canonical revisions, but the theme of the series has ultimately remained the same: a sexy brunette with exaggerated physical dimensions must travel the world to exotic locales to retrieve mystical artifacts and keep them out of the hands of mischievous villains. The story is clearly a take on the classic Indiana Jones formula, playing to the male fantasy of women rather than men: a buxom heroine rather than a macho male hero serves as the protagonist.
The plot in Tomb Raider: Underworld picks up immediately from the previous game, Tomb Raider: Legend, where Lara had learned from her rival and former college friend Amanda Evert that Lara's mother is still alive in Avalon. Laura soon discovers that her father had spent the end of his life searching for her mother as well. She decides to retrace her father's tracks and untangle the myths concerning the underworld that will allow her to reach her mother and discover what has happened to her, all the while fighting off Amanda and her allies who are also searching for the underworld to serve their own evil plans. The story is told with an initial gameplay segment set in the burning Croft manor, then flashes back to reveal how events have progressed to that point. Cut scenes where Lara voices her thoughts or interacts with other characters move the story forward, but ultimately the characters are all exaggerated enough and the story campy enough to where it is difficult to take seriously, the player is mostly just along for the ride and seeing what will happen next rather than nervously anticipating a resolution to the plot arcs.
The most striking attraction in Tomb Raider: Underworld is the eye candy. In addition to the extent to which Lara herself has been obviously crafted to appeal to male gamers, the environments are gorgeously rendered: the player is treated to huge open vistas in the jungle with temples, towers, and statues on all sides of them, along with massive underwater environments that the player gets to enjoy approaching from a distance and observing all the details. A good deal of the areas begin by presenting the player with an enormous wide open space and subtly steer the player towards the desired direction, all while allowing the player to enjoy how expansive the game world appears to be. The little visuals details in the game also add to the joy of exploration: Lara pushes plants out of the way of her face as she passes through jungle areas, her body can become wet or muddy and gradually dry off or have the dirt be washed away, and the particle effects done with water, fire, and lighting make a good deal of gameplay enjoyable just to watch.
The gameplay in Tomb Raider: Underworld tries hard to please fans of different game genres. There are some minor puzzles, generally based around retrieving objects and getting them to the desired place, or activating switches. There are many combat sequences in which Lara has to fight off enemies, all done with the aid of an auto lock-on system that allows the player to fire whenever enemies are in view. It even makes use of some entertaining tricks where the player can fire guns held by both right and left hands in separate directions simultaneously, and the game employs an adrenaline or energy meter system for bullet time effects. That said, the puzzles are fairly basic even by pure action game standards, so it is difficult to consider this title to be a full-fledged adventure game based around puzzle solving alone. The difficulty in the combat is not too steep, thanks to the generous checkpoint system which brings Lara back with full health at the nearest checkpoint after she dies, and the game's infinitely regenerating ammunition supply ensures the player is never completely overwhelmed by enemies. The main challenge and the final component of gameplay comes from the game's platforming elements in traveling to difficult to reach places, which is where the bulk of the game's time is spent and where the majority of the game's failings come from.
My basic critique with how Tomb Raider: Underworld handles platforming is that it combines the challenges of particularly hard tasks like timing and positioning jumps with the more general challenge of knowing what to do or where to go. Classic platformers such as the original Super Mario Bros. or even Super Mario Galaxy give the player challenges in reaching a certain location, but because the progression is generally linear, the player always knows where to go. In Tomb Raider: Underworld, the player is frequently given wide open vistas and generous expanses to explore, but because of the challenges in platforming and getting from place to place, exploring the environments can be a costly proposition in terms of time. Frequently, the game will punish the player for taking the wrong path or retreading an old stretch of ground not by damage or death, but by wasting time. Falling off of a ledge or leaving an area too soon can mean repeating the minutes it will take to climb back up, and the lack of an easy quick save and load system means the biggest risk the player will be taking is with the player's own time. The bottom line is that there is a lot of fun to be had in the parts of the game consisting of action segments, puzzles, and adrenaline moments of trying to survive in tough situations. The same cannot be said for the precise maneuvers required by the platforming segments which cause gameplay to lag until the player completes them, that are made more difficult by the complex layout of the game world and awkward camera system, and which cause the player to repeat previous efforts upon failing.
Tomb Raider: Underworld offers several draws to enhance its replay value and lasting appeal: hidden artifacts can be found in most of the levels as collectibles, and old levels can be replayed while dressing up Lara in different outfits. To its credit, the game does extremely well in conveying a sense of scope and distance, and a few levels start Lara off on a vehicle to explore or approach an area which makes traveling around a quicker and more rewarding task than getting through difficult platforming stretches.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is a very impressive game visually and technically, but it does not leave me completely sold on its unique mix of gameplay of puzzles, combat, and platforming. Tomb Raider: Underworld is an enjoyable game for what it is worth, but it is a game in which the main appeal is appreciating the artistic content at the cost of the more exacting challenges in the gameplay.