Tomb Raider Underworld: Lara’s Shadow Xbox 360 Review
The one massive problem that arises when reviewing the sort of DLC that follows on directly from a game’s ending is the almost unavoidable certainty that elements of said game’s conclusion will be splashed about for all to see. So for those still chipping away at the latest adventures of Crystal Dynamics’ mammarific cash-cow, it is highly recommended that you stop reading and come back once you’re finished. As stated in our review it won’t take very long at all, and at least then the events of Lara’s Shadow will make some sort of sense. Maybe.
Lara was last seen zipping through a portal with her enemy-turned-saviour Amanda, leaving Natla (she’s the one with the wings, in the business suit) looking rather worse for wear in the depths of Helheim. Fortunately for Natla, Lara’s doppelgänger (created by Natla to seek out and kill our buxom heroine – come on, we can get through this!) is down there with her, which is where the game cleverly branches off, and we find ourselves at the helm of an altogether different Lara Croft. Despite appearing almost identical to Lara, the doppelgänger has been stripped of many of the characteristics and abilities with which players will have familiarised themselves during the course of Underworld. In their place is a new, far more feral style to the key moves, requiring a brief relearning of the game mechanics.
The doppelgänger, as displayed throughout Underworld’s narrative, is a superhuman version of Lara Croft, and as such relies on brute strength and super-speed over elaborate gymnastics and clever gadgets. These skills are triggered using the doppelgänger’s “Shadow Meter”, a gauge in place of Lara’s focus bar, that when initiated via a press of either bumper, sends the doppelgänger into a Max Payne/John Woo/Paul Daniels-style bullet time. This allows for all manner of fancy new ability, from evading traps that would otherwise be too quick to comprehend, to running up vertical surfaces. It bares many similarities to the latest incarnation of Prince of Persia, but when applied to the cavernous interiors of Underworld’s, erm, underworlds, the style completely becomes the doppelgänger’s own.
One of the big draws of Tomb Raider Underworld was the introduction of motion captured animation. Lara croft now moved like a real person, scaling rock faces with a scary amount of realism and bringing a new believability to her actions. With Lara’s Shadow, Crystal Dynamics have used this to emphasise how alien the doppelgänger really is. Traversing sections of the level is done with such ease and at such a pace, that the elegance of of Lara’s accurately timed jumps is soon forgotten in favour of the doppelgänger’s displays of raw power. There is a drawback, however. Much like the majority of Underworld, despite earlier claims that levels would feature climbable routes that would require a wealth of investigation and planning in order to successfully overcome them, it boiled down to looking for bits of scenery that didn’t quite blend in – and more often than not, Lara could climb them. Lara’s Shadow approaches the issue with even less subtlety, as the doppelgänger can only scale surfaces that feature vertical fissures. This instantly reduces the proceedings to a game of ‘find the fissure’, and seeing as they stick out like a dog in a cake, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where to go next.
Despite highlighting the game’s linearity, this wouldn’t have been such an issue. Much of the fun to be had with Lara’s Shadow lies within the doppelgänger’s movement, and simply leaping from crevice to crevice brings with it a level of physicality, which – similar to Mirror’s Edge – provides a rush of adrenaline when performed in a flawless run of consecutive leaps and bounds. Sadly, if left in this state, the level would likely take less than an hour or so to complete, so Crystal Dynamics felt it necessary to pad it all out with – you guessed it – bloody awful thralls! Yes, having escorted the dying Natla to an ancient health chamber of sorts (who writes this stuff?), the doppelgänger has to restore its power in order to save Natla’s life, and all that lies between her and the power source is about five million of the undead nasties.
Thanks to the doppelgänger’s abnormal physical attributes, doing away with enemies is far less irritating than that of Lara’s ‘lock-on, jump backwards, shoot, repeat’. Instead, a new combo system is introduced, consisting of a variety of punches and kicks. Though not particularly deep, hitting a string of punches and ending with a kick is fairly satisfying and usually enough to knock a thrall to the ground, which leaves it open for a good old stomp to finish it off. Activating the Shadow Meter during combat also allows for some super powerful moves, including a mega-hyper-rapid-fire from the doppelgänger’s pistols. It’s a definite improvement over the kind of awkward shoot and dodge mentality that the series is renowned for, but rather than being a breath of fresh air to divide the acrobatics, it turns the game into a roaming beat ‘em up with elements of platforming. So numerous are the enemies, that at one point the included hint system simply sates “Kill all the enemies to progress”. While it’s understandable from a game perspective, and while plenty of other games get away with it, it seems odd that in a place in which everything is run by switches and levers, there’s a single solitary platform that is powered by beating the living hell out of a bunch of zombies.
There is also an unbelievable amount of backtracking to be done. It was hidden quite well in Beneath the Ashes, with the level changing just enough to constitute a new experience the second time an area was encountered. With Lara’s Shadow, there’s little to mask the fact that the same routes are being treaded all over again. That’s not to say the latter part of the game is identical to earlier sections, but there’s little new to discover. Combined with the fact that some of the objectives can be highly repetitive, parts of Lara’s Shadow can soon become quite a chore. Despite this, the team does still have some tricks up their sleeves, and the later traps and obstacles require some lightning fast reflexes with the Shadow Meter, which justifies some of the more laborious sections of the game.
It’s probably safe to assume that those interested in purchasing Lara’s Shadow will be the ones who have played the main game to the end and already dabbled in Beneath the Ashes. To those people, it’s hard not to recommend it, because despite being overpriced – and a bit on the short side – it brings closure to Underworld as a complete package. Lara’s Shadow not only takes place during the events of the previous spot of DLC, but it also continues on from the end of Beneath the Ashes, providing what most would consider to be an actual ending to this entry in the Tomb Raider universe. As such it’s even harder to believe that these levels weren’t planned to be released on the disc. Although quite different from Miss Croft’s usual puzzle solving affairs, Lara’s Shadow manages to lay the foundations for what could be an interesting spin-off for the franchise, if lacking slightly in the overall feel of a Tomb Raider game. This is a brave first attempt at something new in the world of Lara Croft, but it doesn’t quite manage to match the levels of accomplishment seen in the rest of Tomb Raider Underworld.