Tomb Raider: Underworld Review
Following Tomb Raider: Legend—a title built for both last and current-gen hardware—and Tomb Raider: Anniversary—a remake of the adventure that started the Croft craze—comes Lara’s latest, Tomb Raider: Underworld, an effort its creators have been calling the first true next-gen Tomb Raider. And while it’s not without its flaws, Underworld mostly delivers on its promises, making Lara’s third time (on the Xbox 360) a charm. Its environmental puzzles, acrobatic adventuring, and globetrotting narrative borrow from the best of what we love from Lara’s previous outings, while upping the ante with breathtaking visuals and the most realistic Lara (even her famous pair of polygons have been kept in check) to ever set foot on our consoles.
In fact, lady Croft’s amazing new makeover will be the first thing to capture your attention; fully motion-captured for the first time, the agile avatar moves with incredible realism. Whether she’s climbing, teetering, shimmying, swinging, or swimming, she moves more like an Olympic gymnast than a female Indiana Jones parody. In addition to animating gracefully, she also emits the appropriate grunts and gasps when achieving particularly difficult displays of athleticism, so, every leap of faith to a hard-to-reach ledge feels like a real accomplishment rather than a simple platforming task that could be handled by any cartoony videogame character. Lara also looks absolutely stunning when she’s not clawing at a cliff face or navigating some other dangerous terrain. And, for the first time, you won’t simply be ogling her because her over-the-top proportions defy physics. Sure, she’s still Maxim-model hot, but her beauty is much more natural this time out. The game’s box art contains a close-up of her torso, almost as if her handlers are throwing her previously ridiculed assets in our faces and saying “See, we finally got it right.”
The visual splendor extends to the rest of the game as well—this is by far the prettiest entry in the series. You’ve likely already seen screens of the beautiful lush, foliage-filled jungles, but other environments will equally have you in awe. From the dimly lit caverns, complete with scary real wall-dancing shadows, to the richly realized underwater settings that, for the first time in a Tomb Raider game, had me wanting to stay in the water, every corner of Underworld has been brought to life with incredible detail. The environments also sprawl seamlessly, so you really get the feeling you’re exploring larger-than-life areas rather than levels; you may begin on a soaring cliff ledge with blue skies in the background and birds chirping in the foreground, and just moments later find yourself deep underground surrounded by dark rock walls and the sound of trickling water, but it all feels natural. Despite the sudden change in scenery, it never feels jarring, and, more importantly it doesn’t seem as though you’re going from one “game” area to the next. This is Lara’s world, and for a few hours it becomes your immersion-amping playground.
Of course, the natural beauty of Lara’s globe-spanning environments is actually a cleverly designed tapestry woven with intricate puzzles and traps. It all may look like a National Geographic special on the surface, but every nook and cranny of this postcard-perfect world holds a secret. Underworld’s environmental puzzles are some of the biggest the series has ever seen, so you’ll want to take in the pretty scenery with the eye of a spelunking archeologist, not a picture-snapping tourist. Even the most seemingly inane object could actually be a well-disguised mechanism that spells the difference between life and death for Lara. Leave no stone unturned, no crevice unchecked, and no path unexplored, lest you enjoy backtracking to try and find something you overlooked on your first pass. Something that may appear insignificant in the first few minutes of a level could end up being the final piece of the puzzle, the one that stands between you and an entrance-blocking stone pillar that appears fifteen minutes later. Deciphering these large-scale riddles isn’t especially difficult—the solutions themselves won’t drain your brain dry—but their size can be intimidating, so thorough exploration is a necessity.
I actually found myself experiencing more frustration than fun early on in Underworld because I wasn’t holding each and every area under a magnifying glass. I was moving too fast and missing too much, often wondering where I went wrong. Once I discovered my own weakness for not studying my surroundings closely enough, though, I fell in love with the involved puzzling. In fact, beating one of the game’s multi-tiered tasks turned out to be its greatest reward, punctuated by a true sense of accomplishment and an eagerness to tackle the next one. Go in knowing it’s a puzzler’s paradise, where any part of the environment could be hiding a lever, switch, or pressure-sensitive plate, and you’re in for a real treat. But make a beeline for the end-level, and you’ll windup scratching your head for much of Underworld’s duration.
The game is absolutely fueled by exploration, not action. There are some amazing boss battles—the best the franchise has ever seen, in fact—and the occasional creature or henchman to take out, but understand you’ll be using more brains than brawn in Underworld. I personally prefer a bit more gun play mixed with Lara’s platforming and puzzle-solving, but I’m guessing the series’ most faithful fans will embrace this recipe that harks back to the franchise’s purest roots. On the other hand, longtime Lara supporters probably won’t appreciate the game’s greatest unsolved mystery: The wonky camera. A problem that’s plagued Lara’s adventures since she raided her very first tomb, the uncooperative camera returns, often rearing its ugly head at exactly the wrong time. It’ll occasionally make exploring and puzzling more of a task than they should be, especially when you’re in tight quarters. But honestly, this wasn't as much of a deal-breaker for me as it probably should have been. As someone who’s been battling with Tomb Raider camera issues since Lara’s polygons first popped onto my PS1, I almost expect this flaw. This certainly doesn’t excuse it, but for me, bitching about it is a bit like complaining about the acting in a Cinemax flick airing at 2am.
Old school fans and new tomb raiders alike should find lots to love in Lara's latest (and best in years) adventure. Fighting with the camera sometimes sucks, and a few puzzles might have you cursing the mythological gods of Underworld's narrative—at least until you learn that you must explore every environment with the conviction of a CSI—but these shortcomings are far outshined by the game’s strengths. Breathtaking visuals, a Lara that controls beautifully and looks even better, and deeply satisfying puzzling and exploration make most of the faults melt away as easily as the snow on one of Underworld’s sun-soaked peaks. Enter this one with a bit of patience, and you’ll be treated to an experience that this season's crowded run-and-gun line-up simply cannot deliver.