Tomb Raider: Underworld

Year: 2008
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox), Buzz Monkey (PS2)
Genre: Action/adventure
Review Date: 5/10/09
Rating: ****

Picking up where "Tomb Raider: Legend" (2006) left off, "Underworld" has Lara Croft following in her father's footsteps to learn more about her missing mother's whereabouts. Her journey delves deep into Norse mythology and has her visiting ruins in the Mediterranean Sea, Thailand, Mexico, Arctic Ocean, and ultimately the Norse underworld. Lara finds the answers that she seeks and gets closure with her mum, but at what cost? By the end of the game, Lara has become a much more complicated woman, weighed down by grief and guilt. Her obsession results in the destruction of Croft Manor and the death of her friends, so what's Lara's next move? Sadly, "Underworld" was considered a commercial failure, so we may never know. Fortunately, Lara Croft is a lot like James Bond, and she WILL return in one form or another.

"Underworld" is a unique game in that it finally forced me into supporting the current generation of hardware (which is already several years old). I originally played the PS2 version of the game, which was delayed and came out six months after the initial Xbox/PS3 release. While "Tomb Raider: Legend" and "Tomb Raider: Anniversary" (2007) were designed for the PS2, "Underworld" is clearly a port and suffers dearly. While the overall objectives are the same, the levels and play mechanics are radically different. The Xbox 360 version of the game is sprawling and epic in scope, whereas the PS2 version seems cramped and claustrophobic. By PS2 standards, the game is still quite attractive, but the workmanship feels rushed, clunky, and incomplete. Ultimately, "Underworld" marked the death of the PS2 for me, as it appears that developers have finally abandoned it for A-list titles. Some of major differences include:

    · No map, no sonar, no flashlight, and no video camera
    · No melee attacks, head shots, or vaulting
    · No alternate weapons - all you have are your trusty infinite ammo dual pistols
    · No health packs - if Lara gets hurt, her health regenerates automatically over time
    · No subtitles
    · No controller configuration - this is unfortunate because the X-axis controls are inexplicably inverted, making it extremely difficult to control the camera. While the Xbox 360 version of the game allows you to change this to your liking, the default is the "correct" orientation which makes the PS2 version even more baffling.
    · Minimal enemies. The PS2 version is almost completely devoid of life. There are no sharks, no bats, no spiders, no nagas, and no poachers (although you can still hear them off in the distance). There are only two times that you encounter unfriendly wildlife, and there are only a handful of thralls that you have to deal with.
    · No relics, and a significantly reduced number of treasures. The treasure locations are also completely different.
    · The PS2 version contains more motorcycle stunts than the Xbox version, and the underwater level in the Arctic Ocean is actually a motorcycle level in the PS2 version.
    · Reduced difficulty. As a result of all the previous concessions, the PS2 version of the game is considerably easier to play. It's also a lot shorter since the levels are so much smaller and simpler.

In addition to the above, the PS2 controls are a bit clunky. The camera is extremely fussy and hard to control, and it's difficult to perform subtle movements with Lara. She can be very twitchy, and lining her up for jumps can be very frustrating. Quite often the shimmy controls are completely backwards, which is baffling. I lost track of how many times I would press left and not move at all, but pressing right would make me shimmy to the left. Sometimes I would have to leave the area altogether and re-enter it to make any progress.

The levels are all similar, but much smaller and simpler. You definitely get a sense of familiarity between the different versions, but the details are sometimes completely different. One of the most bizarre things you'll notice early on is that a switch that is on the left wall in one version of the game is on the right wall in the other, even though the hallway is identical. What was the design process that came up with this decision and why? While it doesn't affect gameplay, I still find it baffling.

Now that those issues are out of the way, let's focus on the actual game. From here on out I'll only be referring to the Xbox 360 version. First and foremost, the game is beautiful and looks absolutely stunning. Great care was taken to model the locations and give them an incredible sense of realism and authenticity. "Underworld" is primarily an environmental puzzle game, where you utilize Lara's tireless athletic skill to run, jump, climb, and crawl all over the place to find treasures, keys, and clues that allow you to make progress. The game is full of life and dense foliage, which really gives you a sense of being there. There is also the occasional predatory wildlife to deal with, including tigers, panthers, nagas, sharks, and other nuisances like spiders and bats. And no Tomb Raider game would be complete without having some supernatural undead adversaries to deal with as well. Since combat is minimal, you can really take your time to explore all the nooks and crannies and just let the beauty and splendor of the location soak in. I sometimes found myself just staring at the scenery for minutes at a time, while contemplating my next move. The objectives are mostly clear, and help icons appear to nudge you in the right direction. This happens mostly because you simply can't see a critical item, like an object to grapple or a nearly invisible health pack lying on the ground.

The game's difficulty is pleasant enough to remain engaged, without being frustrating and overwhelming. There are no crazy jumping stunts or time trials to contend with like in the earlier games, which is nice. Everything feels fluid and very natural, and taking charge of Lara is a wonderful experience. Her character model looks great and animates extremely well. She reacts to her world and creates a seamless integration with the environment, making the game that much more immersive. The only criticism I have regarding Lara is that her lips are even bigger and more unattractive this time around, which is only apparent in the game's cinematic cut-scenes. For the most part, the cut-scenes are nice, but instead of tying the game together, they feel disruptive. The choreography and motion capture also seems awkward and inappropriate for most of the characters, and especially Jacqueline Natla who struts around like a slutty porn star. The game also has a stunning soundtrack, very much in the same vein as "Legend." It's big, bold, epic, and dramatic, and complements the gameplay perfectly, although on occasion the combat music continues to play well after a threat has been neutralized. The game controls are identical to "Legend," so it's easy to just pick up and play. The only complaint I have about the interface is that the menu is awkward, cumbersome, and difficult to use. Really, is that the best they could come up with?

The story is kind of a mixed bag, which is what I think turned off most fans. Amanda Evert from "Legend" returns as Lara's prime rival and adversary, and she and Lara still have unfinished business between them. Zip and Alister also return, but thankfully only show up during cut-scenes and mission briefings. I found their inane chattering extremely disruptive and distracting in "Legend," and their absence in "Underworld" helps to enforce the utter loneliness and isolation that Lara experiences in the field. Lara's doppelganger from "Anniversary" also returns to make Lara's life miserable, which has the unpleasant side effect of making her motivated by revenge. Lara definitely has a harder edge this time around, which brings back memories of her "kill everyone" attitude in "Angel Of Darkness" (2003). While the story provides the overall framework and character motivations, it's the gameplay itself that defines the experience. The only time that I was even aware of the story was in between levels when the importance of what I had just accomplished was summarized. There are some nice emotional hooks here and there, but they don't add significantly to the game experience. I find this to be a curious observation, because when it comes to games I'm usually more of a story guy. I think this emphasizes just how strong and compelling the gameplay is, and how the journey outweighs the outcome. Overall, despite its narrative weaknesses, I found "Tomb Raider: Underworld" to be a rich and highly rewarding gaming experience, and I continue to look forward to Lara Croft's future adventures.