Despite its popularity, the Tomb Raider series always got a bad rap. As anyone who’s spent time on forums or looked at blog comments knows, gamers can be horribly misogynistic — just ask Jade Raymond — and because Tomb Raider starred an attractive woman, it was often thought to be a mediocre game covered up by a pretty virtual face (among other things), catering only to horny teenage boys. After all, it was Lara Croft, not the game design, that inspired two Hollywood action movies. Imagine my surprise when I played Crystal Dynamic’s previous outing, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and found it to be an immensely satisfying and thoughtful puzzle game. The story was laughable, but the quiet, haunting atmosphere and brutally challenging puzzles were a far cry from the guns n’ boobs drivel on which the series hinged its marketing.
I loved the game so much that I went back and played Tomb Raider: Legend, supposedly a rebirth of the franchise and Crystal Dynamic’s first stab at the series. It was a solid action/platformer, but a bit generic and nowhere near the same league as the lonely, sadistic Anniversary, which after all was a remake of the original game. Could they could craft an original adventure of the same caliber with Tomb Raider: Underworld?
The answer to that question is not quite so simple. Tomb Raider: Underworld gets a lot right. At its best, it’s the most beautiful, lavish, well-realized iteration of the Tomb Raider saga to date. At its worst, it’s tedious, bloated and unpolished, and perhaps even a tad regressive at times.
The core of any Tomb Raider game is its environmental puzzles, and as such, a Tomb Raider game lives or dies based on its level design. The series works best when it focuses on the titular tomb raiding, unleashing you unto a vast room with no direction, forcing you to keep your wits about you as you scurry about the scenery, pulling levers and grabbing ledges in a desperate attempt to sort out whole sorry mess.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is chock full of these moments, and in some ways, it’s better than ever. There is a linear flow to the game, but often you can solve multiple pieces of a puzzle in any order. The puzzles are generally not as complex and multi-tiered as those in Anniversary, but their scope makes up for it. In some later levels, for example, you are given a motorcycle and can drive to various points of the map collecting ruins to unlock one giant puzzle. Underworld achieves true brilliance through set pieces like this, and they only get better as the game progresses.
Atmosphere is also a key to a game like this, and Underworld does a rather admirable job. I’ve always preferred my tomb raiding to be in a solitary locale, untouched by human hands for eons, and most locations in the game are like this. Fans of Anniversary will be happy to know that they’ve ditched the radio in Legend, so you no longer need to listen to Lara’s sidekicks yammer on, ruining the atmosphere. There are a few times when forgettable mercenary grunts raise their ugly heads, but for the most part, the remnants of the ancient world that Lara makes it her duty to survey are brilliantly realized. Ranging from the tropical jungles of Thailand to stormy Mayan ruin ’cum gateway to Hell in Mexico, Underworld’s diverse locales deliver on one of the greatest appeals of these sorts of globetrotting adventures.
There is a plot here, sort of. Something about Lara and her stylish, metrosexual flatmates looking for Lara’s dead mum, who may not really be dead, but rather mucking about in Avalon — or something. Truth be told, plot has never been a strong point with the series, and Underworld is no exception. I can’t say I was surprised by this, but it is a shame that no one has really given much depth to Lara, as she is one of the most well-known female protagonists in gaming. She looks great (not just attractive mind you; her facial expressions are exquisitely crafted), and Keeley Hawes does a fantastic job with her vocal delivery, so you really want to care about this character, but quite simply don’t. Still, one plays Tomb Raider for its finely crafted puzzles and platforming, not for its story.
The game’s combat is probably its weakest aspect. The AI is almost non-existent, and you can basically get through your foes by merely locking onto them and mashing the fire button. There is a slow-mo feature, but it’s more cumbersome to use than it was in Anniversary, which is a bit puzzling and backwards. Thankfully, combat makes up roughly 10 percent of the overall experience, and with a few notable exceptions, it mostly punctuates the other action and rarely drags on.
There are a few points, however, where combat is a lot of fun. Without giving too much away, you are given an extraordinarily powerful weapon late in the game that allows you to dispose of even the toughest foes with ease. It takes close to no skill whatsoever, which should theoretically break the game. Still, the feeling you get as you slice through hordes of baddies like butter is truly something to behold. It’s here where the presence of enemies is welcome.
The animations are an entirely mixed bag. When they work, they work beautifully. Lara smoothly scales footholds in rock formations like an insect, brushes shrubbery out of her face, shields herself from heat and uses her palms to brace herself against a wall. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so good when she does the same animation against an invisible wall, which you’ll often see as collision detection and clipping errors are plentiful. Rarely will they impede your progress in any significant way (though I did run into an awful glitch where Lara spawned in a pool of plasma, forcing me to reload the last autosave 45 min beforehand), but it is distracting to see Lara awkwardly pace back and forth around a key until she’s at just the right spot to bend her knees and pick it up. You’ll see these sort of things often enough to break the immersion.
One thing that mildly bothered me about Underworld is its abundance of collectibles. Every level has close to 30 treasures and one relic, but most of them are not very interesting to find. They’re often just lying around in plain sight (or in clay pots that Lara doesn’t mind shattering. Some archaeologist she is). Unlike Anniversary, in which each collectible was guarded by some unique, hidden puzzle, these treasures require little exploration. The levels are also extraordinary long at times, so there’s little motivation to go back to collect all the hidden goodies.
Which brings me to one of Underworld’s most baffling design choices: the only way to replay levels is in what’s called "treasure hunt" mode, where all the puzzles are left solved and the enemies vanquished. This is a nice feature, but it would be nice have the option to go back and replay levels the way they were meant to be played; with all the puzzles and enemies left intact. This is something the previous games in the series have been doing for years. Also, there are no time trials here, another series staple that was inexplicably removed.
I may come off as harsh against the game, but that’s only because Tomb Raider: Underworld proves so often what it’s capable of, making its flaws all the more jarring. It’s still the best 3D puzzler/platformer game since Tomb Raider: Anniversary nearly a year and a half ago (though the new Prince of Persia may give it a run for its money), with some brilliant, memorable level design, rich atmosphere, and a diverse set of locales. But its also marred by poor combat, a quantity over quality approach towards collectibles, glitchy detection issues, a half-baked story, and the inability to replay levels as they were. Still, these issues can only mildly tarnish what is an otherwise brilliant game. If you’re willing to look past an overall lack of polish — and the aforementioned misogynistic idiots on message boards— Tomb Raider: Underworld will satisfy anyone with even a passing interest in tomb raiding.