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Lara's quest to rescue her mother from Avalon continues in the latest Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics...
- More epic in scale.
- Motorbike is better integrated.
- Strong storyline.
- Overly obscure at times.
- Field Assistance doesn't make it more accessible.
- Same old Tomb Raider.
Just in time for Christmas comes the return of Tomb Raider, Eidos' key franchise, which returns for an eighth instalment following a delay of several months. Set after the 'cliff-hanger' conclusion of Tomb Raider: Legend, where Lara Croft discovers that her mother (long thought dead) is alive having been transported to the mythical Avalon, Underworld is the third adventure in the series to be developed by US outfit, Crystal Dynamics.
Pitched as the first true next-gen Lara adventure, and coupled with the teetering position of publisher Eidos, there's a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the world's number one video game heroine. So how does the game actually fare? Is this a fresh take or more of the same with extra spit and polish...is this one tomb that didn't need to be raided?
Lara's Got A Thor Point To Make.
First of all, it's more than fair to say that Crystal Dynamics hasn't really strayed particularly far from the well-worn path of previous Tomb Raider games. In fact, all of the ingredients you'd expect from a Lara Croft adventure feature in Underworld, which enjoys a far greater sense of scale and of being epic than past instalments. The globe-trotting antics also return too, with Lara travelling cross the world from Thailand to Mexico, the Mediterranean, and beyond. Investigating the link between a number of mythologies including Mayan and (more importantly) Norse, Lara's attempts to uncover the entrance to Avalon means that she also encounters old enemies from the past, as they too run head-long towards their own nefarious goal of discovering Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir.
Going beyond just eye-candy, the implementation of locations in Underworld was one feature that the team at Crystal Dynamics pushed in the run up to release. Describing how weather and the environment would work against Lara almost like a constant enemy sounded intriguing, but sadly it isn't quite as realised as we'd have hoped. Sure, ledges get a little more treacherous if it's belting down with rain, but there's little to be found that we haven't seen before in the series. However, pretty rain effects and the occasional blizzard don't make a Tomb Raider game - it's all about the puzzles.
Ah yes, the puzzles.
Here's the thing: when they're done well, Tomb Raider: Underworld is a master-class in environmental puzzle design, with grander and more epic 'puzzles-within-puzzles' than we've seen across the breadth of the franchise's history. However, when the design goes badly - which it does in more than a few key places in the game - the gameplay becomes disappointing and 'throw your controller through the TV' frustrating. Case in point is the Mexican level, where Lara uses her new found ability to knock a several ton boulder from its perch using just her grapple line (yes it does really seem that mass in Tomb Raider is about as non-existent as it's always been). For a long while it looks like the hole created by the boulder is the exit to a puzzle - there doesn't seem to be a logical way to get down into the underground system, only a way out. It's only when, in a last gasp effort to persevere with the game that a leap of faith was made, that she jumped far further than we'd expect, just reaching the ledge...it's a poor design decision.
Another head-scratching element makes itself known far earlier - the first true mission in fact - where Lara has to find two wheels to solve a puzzle. The issue is this: she's 20m underwater, and the resulting search for glowing jellyfish (yes, apparently they are attracted to relics and treasures) makes for a less-than-exhilarating start to the adventure. This puzzle just typifies the worst of Underworld - the gameplay can stray too far away from the delicate balance between 'fun frustration' and 'annoying frustration'. It's this deviation that means Underworld doesn't reach its potential; it's not the great game it could have been, and instead is just another solid effort.
There are plenty of things right with Tomb Raider: Underworld, however.
One tick on the list is that the use of Lara's motorbike is far more prominent than it has been in the past. Previously, the bike was used in a high-speed chase through an exotic environment, a break from the more cerebral elements of the adventure. Here, it's actually a requirement during the main stay of gameplay; the bike is used to travel between different sides of some of the labyrinth ruins, and even as a weight in one puzzle. After so many iterations, it's good to finally see the bike better integrated into the overall experience.
Gamers bored with the heavy use of quick-time sequences in recent years will be pleased to hear Underworld instead employs 'adrenaline events' that slow down time, enabling players to save Lara from impending doom. A decent enough alternative that at least helps to inject an extra jolt of drama to the gameplay, the events compliment the 'Adrenaline Headshots' during combat sequences. Talking about combat, Lady Croft has been working on her shooting skills, learning the ability to split target enemies, and use her gun whilst hanging from a ledge or cliff-face. A decent melee kick has also been added, but all three feel like they should have been there all along, and aren't exactly things to get particularly excited about.
In a bid to expand the accessibility of the franchise, Crystal Dynamics has implemented a 'Field Assistance' feature, enabling gamers to access a hint or solution to a problem or puzzle. A neat idea that's near-essential at times, the feature is let down by being all too obscure at times, especially when Lara's faced with a multi-stage puzzle and the assistance fields the same hint rather than break it down further. If the feature is a bid for greater accessibility, then it falls slightly flat.
Tomb Raider has always kept a strong sense of linearity to the gameplay; there's one path though a puzzle and mission. For Underworld, Crystal Dynamics has tried to expand some areas with occasional multiple paths through ruins. The ability to free-climb across certain sections is one feature, even if Lara looks creepily spider-like when she does it, whilst picking up and using poles dotted around environments to access other areas is another. Both are welcome, but neither really does much beyond acting like a side-note feature; we're certainly hoping that Crystal Dynamics radically upscales and evolves their use for the next instalment.
Beyond puzzles and exotic locales, Underworld features another Tomb Raider nugget: Lara's hypocritical perception of antiquities. Focusing her efforts on gathering mythical artefacts may grant her greater status in the world of fictional archaeology (and help Lara find her mum), but the wanton destruction of ancient pots and gourds along the way - just to find some glittering crystals - is surely sacrosanct...Indiana Jones wouldn't do that.
Oh, and a final piece of advice for the future, Crystal Dynamics. If you're going to recap the events of the previous part of the 'Avalon' story-arc, make it the intro movie. Don't hide it away in an 'Extras' sub-menu, because it then just looks like an after-thought.
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