Lara’s tomb has been raided one too many times.
There was a time when Lara Croft was better known for pushing the boundaries of the adventure genre, than for pushing the boundaries of her brassiere. Somewhere along the line, Ms. Croft fell victim to her own celebrity and left her adventuring soul behind along with her original bra size.
[image1]As Lara’s most salient physical features have become more and more augmented, her adventures have become proportionally more dull and diminished. However, with Crystal Dynamics’ first foray into the Tomb Raider series in 2006, we saw that Lara may have some life in her yet. True, the game had its share of issues, but Tomb Raider: Legend brought back much of what made the original Tomb Raider games so great—and, no, it didn’t rhyme with “tubes” or “sass”. Instead, Crystal Dynamics gave the series a renewed sense of adventure.
As with their prior entry in the series, Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider: Underworld again shows that this old lady still has an adventurer’s spirit somewhere beneath all those botulism injections. Unfortunately, that spirit isn’t easy to spot and it only appears in very short bursts.
Like many middle-aged female celebrities, Lara’s obviously invested most of her treasure-hunting fortune into plastic surgery. And much like Lara’s choicest “assets”, the game’s environments have also received a notable injection of color and youthful vibrancy. Most every area and dungeon looks stunning.
But like many of the plasticized trophy wives of Orange County, the game shows its age as soon as you begin to look very closely. Yes, the game does look good, but underneath all the make-up and silicone implants lies seriously outdated gameplay. Puzzle designs are facile and repetitive, combat is unnecessary and simplistic, and platforming sections are a frustrating mess of bad camera angles and poor button-mapping. Back in the early days of 3D gaming, these issues were forgivable. But now over a decade later, we expect better.
[image2]Each level is built around one or two large puzzles that follow a predictable structure: one main room with 2-4 branching paths, each with some item or switch at the end of it. After doing each said task, a door in the main room will open. This same formula appears over and over again throughout the entire game. While some of the individual sections are inventive, the overall design structure never feels new or challenging.
The platforming sections in Tomb Raider: Underworld retain all of the series’ many fundamental flaws. Over and over again, you’ll be faced with impossible-to-judge angles and gaps. Miss a jump and you’ll either die or fall far enough that you’ll have to do some obnoxious backtracking. This would be another matter if it were the result of doing something wrong; however, missing a jump is almost never due to player error but to an uncooperative camera, misleading ledges, or poorly mapped directional buttons.
The return of Lara’s grappling hook does add some spice to the otherwise stale platforming sections, but if you’ve already played Tomb Raider: Legend, none of the grappling hook’s uses will seem creative. In fact, almost every element found in Underworld has its direct analog either in Legend or in one of the first two Tomb Raider games. Nothing appears here for the first time, making Underworld more an exercise in endless iteration than in reinvention.
Combat in Underworld is a vestige of a much earlier and simpler time in gaming history. Lock on to an enemy, hold down the fire button, and jump around to avoid getting hit. You can add in one-hit-kill special headshot moves, but they’re not necessary. Lara is a crack-shot, and enemies rarely put up much of a fight.
[image3]The Tomb Raider games have never been known for focusing on combat sequences—which makes the inclusion of combat all the more inexplicable. With top-notch competitors in the genre like Uncharted doing combat so well, this piss-poor excuse for gun combat just doesn’t cut it anymore. Gunplay in the series either needs to be reworked from the ground up or done away with altogether.
Story-wise, Underworld picks up exactly where Legend left off. Lara is still on the trail of her long-lost mother through a mix of dungeons, caves, and temples around the world. The story plays out like a great Saturday morning cartoon, but the trouble is that if you didn’t play Legend, the story of Underworld will make no sense. While Crystal Dynamics has included a short cinematic that tries to summarize the prior game, it’s short and incomprehensible. If you want to understand what’s happening in Underworld and who the main characters are, you’ll need to play Legend first since Underworld never offers any explanation or back-story.
Beginning to end, the game runs roughly six hours, but there’s little reason to revisit it. For as short as the game is, the only substantial reason to play through it is to witness the excellent visuals. On the surface, Tomb Raider: Underworld looks and sounds fantastic, but much like its heroine, it shows its age upon closer inspection.
Both Lara and her series are well past their prime, and both try in vain to look half their age. Though she might be worth a few hours of your time, Lara’s best days are far behind her.