Tomb Raider Underworld PS3, Xbox 360 Review

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When Tomb Raider Underworld was first announced we we’re promised our first proper next generation Tomb Raider (since legend and anniversary were built for the PS2 from the ground up). New shiny graphics would accompany new gameplay additions and were expected to appear in abundance. So how is it we’ve ended up with what is essentially Tomb Raider Legend 1.5? It’s hardly the big leap we were promised. Let the excavation begin!

The game starts with a literal bang as Croft mansion is blown to smithereens, I’m sure this was supposed to be symbolic by separating this Tomb Raider from previous iterations by removing Lara’s mansion but it’s all subterfuge, do not be fooled by their digital trickery! Underworld is pretty much exactly the same as the previous versions with a few minor but needed tweaks to gameplay. One of the most welcome additions is the removal of the rubbish “Simon says” quick time events that the last two games did so poorly. Instead at key moments the game slows down and you are free to evade whatever oncoming danger in any fashion you desire. It’s refreshing to not have control wrestled away from us while Lara ensues back, front, side and wall flipping her way to safety which the player is never able to make her do. It’s a lot less jarring and helps keep you in Lara boots.

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Speaking of which, at the beginning of each chapter you can decide what Lara will be wearing… pointless really but there must be some people out there who will get a kick out of being able to have Lara run around in the skimpiest outfit available. Other such pointless additions include Lara getting covered in mud (noticing a pattern here?). What was initially made out to be this game enhancing addition simply makes Lara look like she’s been bitten by a diseased monkey and has developed a terrible rash. Although it must be said that despite the occasional rash Lara is looking great, I’m not judging this based around her poly count or texture size but more so by the way she moves. It would seem that great care has been taken to make Lara’s movements more realistic and most of the time they are quite impressive, you get the occasional moment where her leg looks like it’s too far out to the side to be used to climb on or certain movements will be too quick as if there’s no force behind her pulling herself up but overall it’s a definite improvement for the old girl. And finally the swimming, for the first time ever in a Tomb Raider game, it’s actually pretty damn enjoyable! Thanks to tighter controls and underwater combat you find yourself shocked at the lack of hatred every time you see a body of water.

Lara isn’t the only pretty thing on show however as the environments seem to have had a similar (but not equal) amount of attention given to them. Everywhere looks as old or as shiny as it should but it’s fairly easy to make out where you are supposed to go by actually looking at the level for what it is, a sequence of swings and jumps. Unfortunately Underworld isn’t very good at blending its progression path with the scenery. Everything you use is either a pole, a beam a hard edged platform or a climbing wall. It all sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s just me but with platform games I prefer to come in to an area look around and see how I should traverse the level. Not just have it laid out in front of me. It reminds me of Lara’s mansion in Legend, the gymnasium was possibly the most fun area of that game (in terms of platforming) because you would have to think about how you would progress and sometimes you would get it wrong and have to start over.

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I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the industries biggest brands is following the general trend of becoming simpler, but it could at least try to challenge me every now and then. Even the puzzles are relatively simple, usually a case of put this here put that there hey presto you’re in the next room. I suppose this is to avoid frustration but you do feel a little unaccomplished upon solving each one. That said the levels do have a nice flow to them and while you’re in the flow it’s hard not to have fun. It’s just a shame it’s given to you rather than having to find it yourself.

This doesn’t mean I want to be involved in a repetitive shootout with challenged AI. The lions and spiders I can handle, they’re animals that like to kill things I just have to get out of biting range and fill them with led. Not exactly my idea of fun but it spices things up every now and then. It’s when they throw humans into the mix that everything goes downhill. The guard AI is utterly ridiculous, it seems to have no concept of cover or moving AND shooting at the same time. There have also been plenty of occasions where you can get away with throwing a grenade onto a guard and laugh as his colleagues seemingly run towards him. It’s crap at long range and crapper at close range and to top it all off there is very little indication as to when you’re about to drop dead other than your tiny health bar which is surprisingly not what your attention will be focused on when getting shot at. It seems like such a shame to have done away with the simple yet competent combat system of the previous titles in favour of something so broken.

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Many people seem to have complained about the story and I can understand why, it all seems a bit too much. Lara’s mum trapped in Valhalla, scientist chick with wings. The game just expects you to accept all of this without question, it doesn’t take the time to explain in greater depth the how or the why, probably because the game is so short they decided to axe the “less important bits”. There is an incredible moment however where Lara gets smacked in the back of the head for attempting to use her feminine wiles to get out of a tough situation that had me in stitches.

I still don’t understand how Lara can use her guns underwater or why she insists on kicking priceless vase’s, but niggles aside Tomb Raider Underworld is actually pretty fun in places. It’s just a shame that this so called update was is so horrendously out of date in comparison to something like Uncharted which trounces Underworld at every turn. Worth a buy if you’re an avid adventuring fan but a rental to the rest of us.

6/10

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Version tested: PS3, 360

Developer: Crystal Dynamics

Publisher: Eidos

Genre: Action Adventure