When it comes to game icons, Lara Croft ranks as one of the most well known in the world. Eidos' popular heroine has explored the ruins of various cultures, fought human and supernatural threats, and solved countless puzzles on her way to becoming one of the greatest archeologists (or treasure hunters) in gaming. Two years ago, Eidos and Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise with Tomb Raider: Legend, a title that revamped the combat, control scheme and brain teasing puzzles that the series was known for. The follow-up to this adventure, Tomb Raider: Underworld, was recently released with hopes to expand on this formula. But has Lara learned some new tricks, or is this an old journey in disguise?
Underworld is a continuation of the storyline established within Legend, and even presents a quick summary in the form of a recap video for players that are new to the storyline or want a quick refresher. Covering both the mystery surrounding her mother as well as the last research that her father did before he died, Underworld starts as Lara explores coordinates that lead her to an ancient ruin on the Mediterranean Sea floor. As she investigates, she uncovers a rather surprising find: a site dedicated to both Norse mythology and evidence that indicates that Thor's hammer, the mythical weapon wielded by the God of Thunder, actually exists. While I won't give facets of the story away, I can comfortably say that for the most part, the story is pretty good; it manages to present the kind of adventure that you typically expect from a Tomb Raider title and while there are some moments of predictability (particularly if you've played Legend), the game's mix of cutscenes and exploration keeps the action moving just as you'd want it to.
Watch the video review here.
The pacing that you see is slightly due to the expansion and refinement of the some of the gameplay mechanics. For example, in Legend, players were given the largest amount of flexibility yet in a Tomb Raider game, with a lot of freedom provided to your agility, the speed at which you climbed or moved around ledges, and other control elements. That is pretty much retained within Underworld, so you still are able to easily manipulate Lara's acrobatics when it comes to swinging on poles, scaling walls and other moves. Underworld attempts to build on these basics within a few adjusted gameplay systems. One of the first refinements is the removal of the quick time events from Legend in favor of Situational Adrenaline. Instead of having a button prompt that pops up onscreen that tells you what you need to do to survive a particular moment, the developers tried to give you a feeling that you simply need to react by moving and avoiding that particular threat.
Another adjustment that has been made within the gameplay is some minor adjustments to combat. Lara still retains the agility that allows her to perform actions like tumbling and firing weapons at the same time or aiming at targets from ledges or other perches. In Underworld, Lara now gains the ability to aim at and fire at two separate enemies that happen to be targeting her at the same time. This is particularly useful if you're trying to take out swarms of bats or other creatures, but can also be used to hamper the progress of other enemies that attempt to close in on you and perform melee attacks. What's more, Underworld provides Lara with sticky grenades that she can throw, ensuring that an explosive that you want to go off in a specific location will detonate at the desired place and cutting down on the frustration that frequently occurred in Legend.
While Legend allowed players to bounce behind an enemy and shoot them in a bullet time enhanced motion, the flip has simply been included into her normal repertoire. The focus system from Legend has been somewhat replaced by the inclusion of an adrenaline system, which is built up after each successful melee attack or bullet that hits its mark. Players can trigger the adrenaline at any time, which instantly slows down the actions of your enemies and makes your shots much stronger. Alternatively, you can store your adrenaline until you've maxed out your holdings, at which point you can get close to an enemy and bounce off of them, lining up a reticule into a highlighted area to potentially perform a one-shot kill. It's not guaranteed, but if you can get in place, it does allow you to get satisfying takedowns that are worthy of Lara's athleticism.
However, while the adjustments for combat do help to make the fights you go through a bit more accessible, it does wind up raising a few other problems. For one thing, the adrenaline system manages to make a large number of the battles a bit too easy. Because you're always replenishing your adrenaline, you are frequently able to continually move in and out of gunfights or other combat situations with an edge over your opponents. Even though you can manipulate the game's difficulty thanks to the player-tailoring system (making it harder to kill enemies), hits with your firearms still wind up adding to your meter, allowing a player with an accurate flick of the analog stick to effectively combo his or her slow motion attacks, giving him or her an advantage in battle. Another issue comes in the fact that while you are asked to select a weapon at the start of a stage, you still have access to all of the weapons within the game thanks to your PDA, and between quick swapping and accessing these weapons with your pause menu, you're more than equipped to take out any enemies that you face. In fact, thanks to the unlimited bullets that you have with your basic pistols and the lack of penalties for carrying this arsenal, battles are relatively easy to get through regardless of who you're up against. While combat still isn't the primary focus of the game, it occurs frequently enough in a level to stand out as a weakness.
One of the last adjustments that Crystal Dynamics made is something it lovingly termed "What Could Lara Do?" What that essentially means is that if a player believes or expects that Lara should be able to perform a specific action, she most likely is capable of doing that within the game. For example, if you want to pick up an object and fight off opponents with your free hand, or want to bounce from one wall to the other to climb a narrow vertical shaft, you can do that as well. In many ways, this was designed to help unshackle the player from constantly focusing on the older platforming and "leap from Pillar A to Ledge B" mechanics that the Tomb Raider series had become known for. It also added a bit of realism to Lara's movements, as you'd expect her to brush plants aside or naturally prep for a jump before leaping forward, much more than any animation would ever convey.
This system also extends to more than basic controls, because it winds up affecting the exploratory nature of the game as well. For instance, if you can see a ledge that's just out of reach, chances are that you can scale a nearby wall to reach it or swing from a pole and grab it with your fingertips. This verticality plays into the expansive feel of the stages, which seem to be much larger than any previous Tomb Raider level thanks to the non-linear approach paid to many of the game's puzzles. Players will frequently move from one direct hallway or corridor into an open area dominated by one or more complex puzzles, and they'll be able to pick and choose which side or way they want to attempt to solve problems from and move forward. This makes traversing many of these larger areas much more interesting, because you'll have at least two or more ways that you can choose to accomplish a task as you go through each level. While this can also add to potential confusion that you might face thanks to the size of each area, Lara fortunately comes with a sonar map that works on both land and underwater, allowing players to continually get a three dimensional sense of where they happen to be at all times.
What's more, Crystal Dynamics decided to throw players a bone by including something known as Field Assistance if you find yourself completely confused or stuck. By accessing this feature from your PDA, players can get a hint as to what you need to do for a particular action or get a more detailed explanation to help you through a trouble spot. The inclusion of this feature will definitely be a welcome addition for those players who wind up having trouble visualizing where they need to go as they explore the vast locations or just want a little nudge as they try to move through each environment without having to rely on a guide, FAQ or other hints from the Internet. It also allows people to determine just how much handholding they want, because they can completely avoid this system and charge ahead, making the challenge of exploring the locations of the game as easy or difficult as they want.
While Underworld may be more open and accessible to players, as well being more non-linear than ever before, it does seem as though this has come with some technical downsides, which happen to be some of the largest detractors to the gameplay. For one thing, slowdown and framerate drops happen quite a bit within the game. It's not nearly as bad as it's presented on the consoles, but when it does happen, it is distracting enough to break you out of the immersive nature of the visuals and aural presentation, which is generally very good, and the striking scale of the levels themselves. However, another thing that will stand out will be texture pop-in, which will snap into place before your eyes even if you're not moving through the environment. Odd shadows and flicker will also crop up, which doesn't look nearly as good as the rest of the title. Spiders and bats, while much better than the console version, still look pretty bad, particularly from a distance. While that can be overlooked for the overall strength of the visuals and the presentation of each environment, as a minor aside, what's with some of the treasures and health packs blending into the background? It can be hard to tell what the treasures and the health packs are because they don't stand out, particularly if you have icon prompts turned off or you're in a darker section of a level.
However, these are no match for the two biggest technical issues for the game. The first is that there are a number of clipping and object detection issues that frequently plague the game regardless of the console you play it on. Lara will frequently move into or through walls or blocks, sometimes forcing her into an animation loop as the game tries to reconcile her movement with her location in the game world and an object she shouldn't be in. Coworkers and I have also seen instances where Lara has jumped onto a pillar and landed inside of the column up to her waist, or tried to grab a ledge and phased into a wall – not onto, into
. This makes it much harder to gauge your next jump, or even be sure that you're on the part of the game environment you think you are. I've also seen segments where Lara has leapt onto invisible platforms as she's tried to make jumps to other areas, which makes it rather hard to determine whether or not you've got your timing down when you accidentally wind up exploiting a technical hiccup. Similarly, I've also seen sections where enemies have moved cleanly through Lara without any damage caused or explanation as to why
The other serious problem comes with the camera, which is perhaps as infuriating, if not more so, than previous Tomb Raider games. As you move through the environment, the camera will perform zooms, pans and tilts of its own accord, without any instruction or direction from you. Technically, this would be fine if there was a particular thing that it was trying to frame while not hampering the gameplay. But frequently the camera will either lock onto a specific perspective, making it nigh impossible to figure out the right jump angle or location to move to. Other times, the camera will fight you for things that you want to look at, making the screen visibly shake as it tries to reconcile what you are seeing and what it would prefer to show you. The camera can also throw you and Lara off with your jumps, because it can push her away from specific jumps or turn her head at the last second, making it harder to lean and jump in the right direction. This is infuriating, and I hurled many an invective, as well as a controller and furniture, as I fought with the game. Even with using the mouse to control the camera, which is better than the analog stick of the Xbox Controller, it still creates these visual issues.
As I mentioned earlier, this is rather disappointing, because the visuals that are presented within cutscenes and in very impressive location shots are quite good. There are some sections in levels that will simply make you say wow, especially when you realize that you have to traverse that location or a specific area to unlock some puzzle. Lara's animations are quite well done as well, from the handstand to a cartwheel that she'll do as she flips over an edge to the desperate grab for a handhold. The spoken dialogue though the game is very well done, and the musical score is great.
At least the PC version of the game attempts to optimize its experience for you, and I noticed that made the visuals much sharper and clearer than expected. I also noticed that there were plenty of jumps where using the mouse and keyboard controls were a much better option than simply using a gamepad, because Lara didn't have nearly as much deviation available in her jumps. While that didn't solve every single camera issue that would lead her to jump to her death, it was refreshing to know that it was an option.
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