Tomb Raider: Underworld Review
November 23, 2008 by Celeste O'Neill
If there were ever a fitting case to demonstrate that familiarity sells, it would be the case of Lara Croft. Now the eighth game in the series, Tomb Raider: Underworld has a lot of expectations to meet. When the franchise changed developmental hands from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics, the team resolved to bring back the heart of the first game whilst simultaneously offering new features to players. Three games later, with the release of Tomb Raider: Underworld, it looks like Crystal Dynamics may have finally accomplished its goal.
Underworld catches up with Lara after the events of Tomb Raider: Legend, who now has an ever-increasing determination to discover the fate of her mother. The storyline is more intense and interesting than that of the previous two games, but is just one facet of many that has been successfully enhanced for this episode.
One of the most difficult tasks that faced Crystal Dynamics in developing a new game in the Tomb Raider series was to take its stylised gameplay and adapt it to something more exciting whilst retaining components that would be missed. The results, seen in both Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, appeared neither nostalgic nor overly enthralling.
With Underworld, Crystal Dynamics has largely achieved this balance. Several of Lara’s moves are the same as those in the previous two games, but some modifications have been made. For example, Lara can now shoot whilst traversing walls and wall-jump between tight pillars in order to reach the top. The grapple gun can now be used in more innovative ways, such as for wrapping around objects and pulling them to the ground. Even the stale interactive ‘button pressing’ cut scenes that found their way into Legend and Anniversary have been completely eradicated, bringing the gameplay back inline with its intuitive foundations.
The impact that these amendments make to the gameplay experience cannot be understated. Lara’s reactions feel far more natural and create a greater sense of freedom for the player, an experience that was at the heart of the early games. But it’s not just Lara’s practical abilities that have been improved. All of Lara’s traditional movements feel more visceral, due in no small part to the motion capture employed in Underworld, which is a previously untried technique for the Tomb Raider franchise. Lara also reacts to environmental stressors such as fire and overarching foliage by using her hands to protect herself. This really helps Lara to become a more believable character.
The puzzles in Underworld are both more traditional and difficult than in Legend and Anniversary. For example, some tasks will be riddled with monsters that cannot be killed. These moments should create a pleasant feeling of nostalgia in many players.
Perhaps the most significant development in gameplay, however, is that, further to the standard three difficulty settings, the player is now able to fine-tune details such as the amount of damage Lara takes when in combat and the amount of health enemies possess. There is also the choice of turning off training text, allowing the player to discover ways to exploit Lara’s abilities themselves, which is another dimension consistent with the mystique of the original games.
In-game hints have also been revised. Not only can the hint buttons be switched off, but ‘hint’ and ‘task’ information has now been included and can be accessed or ignored as desired. These choices allow players who are accustom to the easier style of play that Legend and Anniversary offered to enjoy the game as much as players seeking a challenge, and has also prompted the developers to increase the ‘normal’ play difficulty of Underworld compared to their previous episodes.
Combat is much the same as it was in the previous two games, with the adrenalin-charged ‘head shot’ remaining in tact, and seems a little underwhelming as a result. A somewhat risky adjustment to the formula, however, has been to allow the player the choice of only one weapon to compliment Lara’s standard pistols in some missions, with the opportunity to change this weapon between missions. All the standard weapons are available to choose from, with the extra inclusion of stick grenades, which are consistently accessible. Overall, however, these tweaks seem to detract from rather than add to the combat experience.
Being designed for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 has meant that the graphics of Underworld are the best to have ever graced a Tomb Raider game. Lara appears more realistic than ever before, enjoying a better texture in clothes and hair. Walls and foliage also have greater texture to them, and this seems to have inspired the developer to make the game’s environments more detailed than their previous iterations.
This heightened visual realism has also encouraged Crystal Dynamics to include small but significant details to Lara. For example, her skin becomes dirty throughout her explorations. At first this inclusion seems a little futile, but the player will notice before long how effective these small details actually are in adding depth to the game experience.
The general sound quality of Underworld is as stellar as its graphical rendering, and will sit well with any modern home cinema kit. Noises are more realistic than previous Tomb Raider games, such as the thud of Lara’s boots and the movement of plant life.
Music has always been an integral dimension to the Tomb Raider experience, and the music of Underworld is another element that has been realigned to the series’ authentic style. Different game areas will trigger a different piece of emotive music, reminiscent in particular of the original game. For moments of combat, Crystal Dynamics previously used relatively bland ‘action’ style pieces of music such as those you might find in a Hollywood action movie, in complete opposition to the compelling sensory experience that Tomb Raider was originally designed to be. Underworld replaces these unequivocal themes with more enchanting and unique pieces.
The franchise has an inconsistent history; gameplay in the early days was quite challenging, designed with hardcore gamers in mind. Sequels from Angel of Darkness onwards have involved relatively uncomplicated gameplay, resulting in less appeal for serious Tomb Raider fans. Underworld’s PlasmaFactor is therefore its balance of the traditional and the modern. Gameplay feels authentic, but includes a broadened range and better rendering of Lara’s moves, which should increase its appeal to both long-time fans and new players alike.
Underworld is a good effort to restore a well-worn franchise. The modifications employed together with its visual superiority create a fresh yet nostalgic Tomb Raider experience. Despite this, there are moments when the game feels like it falls short of its potential, such as those surrounding its combat formula. The developers still appear to have been handicapped in some respects by the desire to appeal to the mainstream. But will we see such features improve in the inevitable future episodes? Even Lara doesn’t know the answer to that one quite yet.