After a string of disappointing titles, Eidos handed development of Lara Croft's Tomb Raider games over to Crystal Dynamics, and she's been a changed woman ever since.
Now the on their third Tomb Raider game following the solid Legend and Anniversary releases, Crystal Dynamics takes Lara to greater depths than ever before in Tomb Raider: Underworld, and while we know our opinion of Lara as a virtual woman (rawr), for opinions on the game we turn to the assembled critics of the game industry to help us steer past the curves.
For fans, Underworld successfully brings things full-circle, delivering a fitting solution to the missing mum equation that has had Lara puzzled for the last two games. For those unfamiliar with Lara's past adventures, however, Underworld does little to describe the profound significance of its events in relation to the previous games. The result is that Underworld is weighted to benefit longtime fans and is fairly successful from a purely story-based standpoint, but this plot payoff is buried under layers of mechanical and technical issues that could keep all but the most devoted followers of Miss Croft from finishing her trilogy.
Of course, Tomb Raider plots have always been about mythological gibberish, and for good reason. No one wants to see Lara embarking on an epic quest to find her car keys, or completing a difficult sequence of jumps, rope-swings, pole-slides and wall-climbs in order to reach the doorway to Argos. But I was hoping for a proper storyline, a narrative with real twists and an objective you actually want to achieve. What I got was a load of old bunkum and plot developments so tedious I'd forgotten them by the time the cut-scenes were finished.
The extensive range motion-captured animations have been smoothly connected, so there's a nice flow to Lara's movement if you take her from a walk to a sprint; from a leap over a set of grinder rollers to a dive under a head-high set; or leaping from her fingertip hang at the edge of a stone shelf to a freeclimbing perch across the craggy face of a rocky buttress. Of course, the level design puts you in those predicaments constantly—though that aren't too difficult to navigate successfully, you'll have to work at finding the path that'll take you from where you are to where you want to be.
Combat thankfully plays second fiddle to exploration. It's by no means bad, with Lara able to target and even focus shoot enemies in the head for instant kills, but she just doesn't seem at home doing somersaults while firing pistols. Also making a reappearance is the bike from Legend. Thankfully it handles far better here and is only used as a means to get from location to location rather than having levels dedicated to it. Later levels have an almost free-roaming feel to them, with Lara able to bike around the environment, leaving it behind when entering buildings. It's a nice touch and gives the game a great sense of scale.
Underworld lacks polish, but whenever you find a reason to hate it, you come across something that makes you instantly forgive its shortcomings. Like the sundial puzzle in Mexico (which takes nearly an hour to complete) that unlocks the entrance to Xiabalba, the Mayan underworld. Or scaling cliffs on the Thai coast as sunlight dances across the Indian Ocean below you. Or discovering an ancient, dusty tomb beneath Croft Manor. The game's full of surprises and memorable moments.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is a gorgeous game that doesn't deviate from what we've come to expect from Lara Croft over the years. The puzzles are logical, the plot is not, and even though Lara's boobs have gone down a couple of sizes over the years, she's still got a backside you won't mind watching as you scale walls over and over again in nothing but a bathing suit (take that, Nathan Drake!). The additions of swimming, motorcycle driving, and melee combat to gameplay manage to add something to Underworld without reinventing the wheel. But maybe that's the game's biggest failing: it didn't try to do anything revolutionary; it only tried to bring Lara Croft up to speed.
Not the best Lara Croft outing, but far from the worst.