Tomb Raider Underworld: Beneath The Ashes Xbox 360
It’s amazing what you can learn about a person based purely on the contents of their basement. I was going to slip a remark in here about Josef Fritzl, but fearing the review would deviate a little too far into the realms of distaste, it’s probably best to press on. The basement of Croft Manor, as already discovered during the original trek through Underworld‘s short-but-sweet adventure, is nothing but a haven of hidden treasures, gothic architecture and devious puzzles. Beneath the Ashes sees Lara returning to the charred remains of the mansion (destroyed by the evil Doppelganger, pay attention back there!), looking for clues as to the whereabouts of an ancient relic that can create and supposedly control the zombie-like thralls that plagued the later levels of the main game. Not that it really matters of course, it’s not as though the plot has ever made any sense. All that needs to be known is, Daddy Croft has hidden this relic within the Manor’s subterranean labyrinth amongst his collection of kinky medieval devices, and Lara must endure an array of undead knights and dog-sized tarantulas in order to obtain it.
The setting itself has an instant familiarity with that of the Croft Manor stage from the single player campaign, and on an aesthetic level inspires a rather worrying amount of deja-vu. Luckily, Crystal Dynamics have retained the same lone-adventurer focus that they delivered with the majority of Lara’s latest quest, and Beneath the Ashes soon opens up to reveal itself as a textbook exercise in acrobatic puzzle solving, regardless of the location. The intricately designed set-pieces make use of Lara’s entire arsenal of abilities, and much like that of St Francis’ Folly in Tomb Raider Anniversary, are structured in such a way that certain actions will affect the level’s layout. This means that a lot of Beneath the Ashes takes place in and around a smaller number of areas than in other chapters, but due to the nature in which the stage is constantly changing as a result of Lara’s actions it avoids becoming repetitive, instead providing a sense of player-level interaction that was lacking from some of the earlier levels.
It’s not just Lara’s agility that is the focus of level interaction either; although there are plenty of enemies to deal with, there’s a definite shift in the role of her guns as a puzzle solving element, and even more intriguing is the use of Lara’s grappling hook. Finally meeting its full potential, the grappling hook is transformed from a single-use object, to a superbly versatile piece of kit. And while a lot of Beneath the Ashes is spent swinging around in the traditional sense, the occasions on which the grappling hook is used in other ways provides the kind of enlightening sensation synonymous with the completion of any good puzzle. That it took this long to implement properly is a bit of a disappointment, and there are only a few places in which the grappling hook is used to this degree, but the direction in which the general formula has evolved is promising for future iterations of the franchise.
The rest of Beneath the Ashes is a fairly paint-by-numbers affair, with the interlinking chambers requiring all manner of death-defying leaps and well timed swings. While most of it has been seen and done before, it still manages to induce a satisfying sense of relief each time Lara makes it through unscathed. Of course, this is Lara Croft we’re talking about, so ‘unscathed’ is fairly optimistic, but the constant checkpointing ensures that the game’s flow is rarely broken, avoiding any sort of frustration that could have arisen. Combat is not so forgiving however, and although the enemies encountered are by no means difficult to dispense of, the volume and lack of variety of enemy (there’s literally three types) begins to grate quite quickly. Instead of aiding the atmosphere, they simply become an inconvenience used to slow the player down, and if anything further enforce the desire for a Tomb Raider game that completely does away with combat, which going by the follow-up DLC Lara’s Shadow, is a long way off – but more on that in the upcoming review.
It would be easy to attack Beneath the Ashes as a level from an unfinished game, what with the recent controversy over Crystal Dynamics employees spilling innumerable tins of beans throughout the -nternet, but regardless of what’s been spread about various forums, it still holds enough original content to appeal to those who felt short-changed by the length of the main game. Whether it’s worth the asking price of 800 MS Points, however, is another matter entirely, and considering it can be finished in a couple of hours with little in the way of replay value other than collecting the treasures that litter the place, it’s a tad on the expensive side. Even so, it’s a perfectly acceptable entry into the Tomb Raider series, and offers plenty of original elements to distinguish it from the main game. Anybody actually paying attention to the narrative will appreciate the gasp-inducing ending, and anybody under twelve will appreciate the abundance of inappropriate costumes that come included. For everyone else it’s a good, if not quite great platformer, that complements the main game while not exactly revolutionising it.