Review: Tomb Raider: Underworld
Platform(s):Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Reboots of popular franchises are all the rage in the film now but what's the point of them in gaming? Sure, a series' storyline tends to get convoluted after a few games and it's nice to just hit the "reset" button on all of that - but what about the gameplay? No matter how good the original game was, there were still plenty of issues and it's just silly not to correct them in the name of nostalgia. This is the fundamental problem facing Tomb Raider: Underworld, the second game in Crystal Dynamics' revival of the Tomb Raider series.
Underworld continues the storyline introduced in Legend, except this time you're retrieving Thor's hammer instead of Excalibur. I'm not gonna say much about the plot except that I like the fact that both this game and Legend feature usable treasures. Thor's hammer isn't just some pretty trinket Crystal Dynamics found by flipping to a random page in a mythology book; you'll actually get to wield it in this game. More importantly, Lara actually needs the hammer - this isn't some Indiana Jones "it belongs in the museum" crap.
Lara, of course, looks good. Most gamers have wanted to nail her since she debuted with triangle boobs back in 1996 and Underworld continues the trend. I'm not sure why the game asks me to choose whether I want her to wear short-shorts and a tank-top or a jacket and pants (would anyone pick the jacket or any of the other conservative options?) but hey, options are cool. Her animations are all very fluid, too save for some weird collision detection issues. As with previous adventures, she's trotting all over the globe and these various locations all look great too. There's one thing standing in the way of your enjoyment of these vistas, though, and that's the camera.
The bulk of the gameplay is platforming, with Lara constantly looking for ledges and passageways in order to proceed and frankly the camera just isn't up to this task. The camera's always been pretty shitty in this series and it's no better here. It's just plain stubborn. Sometimes, when hanging from a ledge, you'll need to jump to another ledge directly behind you but you'll be completely unable to see that ledge because the camera refuses to pan. In fact the only way you'll be able to tell that your jump is aimed backwards is that Lara looks over her shoulder. When you boost up on a ledge and place your back against a wall, the camera will often pull in close on you, offering you a masturbatory view of Lara but an inability to see a ledge across from you. Complain all you want about Mirror's Edge's first-person camera and its lack of peripheral vision but it at least allowed you to look in the direction you want to. Underworld tries to offer up a solution to this problem with a sonar map you can access through your PDA. The wireframe map isn't a bad idea in theory but it requires a loading screen and you can't view it while moving so it wasn't that big of a help to navigation.
I doubt I've sworn at any video game character nearly as much as Lara Croft. The constant dying isn't what bugs me so much - that sort of thing's inevitable in a platformer or any type of game. The problem is how often you'll have to replay the same segments due to the infrequent checkpoint saves. Even if you don't die from one of your failed jumps, there's a good chance you'll have to redo several jumps to get back up to the point you fell from. Constantly retracing my steps so I can re-attempt a jump that I missed because the camera is pure ass just isn't fun.
The combat is another feature that hasn't changed in the decade or so since the series first began. You press a button to lock onto the enemies and then another button to spray rounds with sniper-like precision while you flip around like a jack-ass. Auto lock-on has always been a weak gameplay feature but some games that utilize it(GTA IV, for example) at least allow you to shoot without it. This isn't an option with Underworld, though - if you haven't targeted an enemy, there's no crosshair and your shots will just careen off to the left and right of whatever you're trying to shoot at. A new addition to the combat system is an adrenaline meter, which, once full, allows you to perform an acrobatic finishing attack on enemies. The game goes into slow-motion and in order to pull off the adrenaline shot, you have to drag a reticle over the enemy within a few seconds. It's fun to watch but still, it doesn't make the combat any less brainless or underwhelming.
Aside from the rare boss-fight, I've never been a fan of Tomb Raider's combat. It fails to spice up the game at all. Enemies are just lazily thrown at you when you walk down this or that corridor and most of them vanquished with only a single shot. The combat wasn't stellar in Mirror's Edge but the game made clever use of enemies to rattle and hurry players as they navigated obstacles. Even when you're climbing a wall or walking across a wooden beam in Underworld, the sudden appearance of enemies doesn't complicate things. Lara retains her perfect aim in all situations and can easily pick off these foes with one hand. It might be time to consider whether non-boss combat should be removed from the game altogether if no one's going to try to make it interesting.
That may sound extreme but an extreme change is what the series needs. Crystal Dynamics' objective with the past two games was to recapture the magic of the early Tomb Raider games and they've proven they can follow the formula from 1996 - but that's just not enough. It's time to shed some of the shortcomings that have been with the series since the beginning. Stagnation is the reason the series switched hands form Core Design to Crystal Dynamics in the first place.
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