21
Aug
09

Tomb Raider: Underworld

I bought this game shortly after it came out, I think it was the promo screen shots involving the Kraken that made me get it [1] the underwater temple looked amazing and I refused to be put off by my last experience (not a good experience) with Tomb Raider which was Chronicles on PC [2]. So, if I bought it nearly a year ago, why am I writing about it now? Well, as you may remember, last year Q4 was a bit packed with games, so even though I bought it back then I didn’t play it immediately (I was somewhat distracted by Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead). Before I got round to Starting on Underworld I had also bought the Eidos collectors pack on Steam which included the two prior Tomb Raider games, Legend and Anniversary. Earlier this year I played Tomb Raider: Legend (Comparisons to Underworld will be made later) but didn’t jump straight to the next one (you can have too much of a good thing). When I finally felt like playing another Tomb Raider game I decided to go with Underworld as the plot caries on where Legend left off (it even has a “Previously On” video to catch you up if you need it), as it turns out there are some also some references to events I believe are in Anniversary, so with hindsight I probably should have started that one first…

I have to kept spoilers very minimal (and are plot rather than puzzle spoilers) but I don’t want people complaining that I ruined the game. If you are bothered stop reading now

Tomb Raider may be a story driven game but it isn’t particularly important (though I was getting much more interested in it as the game progressed) as the story is merely and excuse for you to jet (or sail) off to exotic locations and cause havoc by wreaking a temple that has stood for thousands of years just so you can get your hands on a mythical artefact, in this case a certain hammer owned by a certain Norse god. Lara’s search starts in the Mediterranean sea, where she discovers an underwater temple containing one of Thor’s gauntlets (needed to lift the hammer), this underwater temple was the one featured in the promo screen shots I saw and looks quite amazing, water dripping everywhere, stone glistening and wet, it does beg the question how something on the seabed could be so leaky and not have filled up in the years it has been there [3], but this is a fantasy setting after all.

You sir, are a large cephalopod.

You Sir, are a large cephalopod.

Other locations are equally (or more) impressive, from tropical Thailand to the Rainforests of Mexico and an Arctic island I had never heard of [4] to a sinking ship. Most of the temples have one thing in common though, there is a puzzle to open a deeper section of it, the underworld of the title. At what stage in the level you reach this point varies but you will come to a gate representing the entrance to the underworld of the culture that was indigenous to your location, the difficulty of these puzzles varies but never gets frustrating, if I’m honest I could have solved some that were considerably more complicated than those featured and it would have been nice if they had included some cryptic clues [6].

wet

One of the features of the new engine means Lara looks wet when she goes in the rain and gradually dries off once inside, a small touch but good none the less

The platform play is, as you would expect in a Tomb Raider game, pretty damn good, though it is let down by the occasional “I think Lara should have been able to grab that” moment. Fortunately there are not too many of these and checkpoints are for the most part well placed (and make an audible “ding” when you pass one) so you never have to go back too far. The animations for the climbing have been improved since the last game and a new selection of moves has been added, apparently they used motion capture of gymnast Heidi Moneymaker to make over 2,000 animations and it really does show as Lara seems far less stiff and robotic than in previous titles (though I am sure some of the moves Lara can pull off on stone should really only be possible on a sprung floor/gym mat). If you leave the main path through the level there are plenty of treasures to collect, these are either clearly visible but hard to get to or hidden from view but easy to get, I enjoyed trying to get the visible ones (though gave up on a few), seeing them just out of reach gives you such an incentive to find how to get to them. The hidden ones I will leave to the 100%ers, I don’t have time to worry about collecting something that I will have to stumble upon rather than puzzling out.

Climbing up this tower whilst all the sections were rotating at different speeds made me feel quite ill... In a good way.

Climbing up this tower whilst all the sections were rotating at different speeds made me feel quite ill... In a good way.

Several major changes have been made to the game since Legend, all of them good. The first one is that the quick time events, requiring you to press the button displayed in order for the cut scene to have the required outcome (rather than a hideous death), have gone. Instead are sections that go into slow motion and a cinematic camera angle, you still have to do something relatively quickly, but using the normal controls rather than an arbitrary sequence of button presses. This means you have control over the outcome rather than it being a case of completing a Dance Dance Revolution mini-game to continue. I was still rarely able to do them first time but, unlike in Legend, I felt I could (and should) have which prevents them being frustrating.

Thailand

It seems you can't move in Thailand without coming across a temple hidden in the jungle.

The second thing that has changed for the better is the motorbike. In Legend there were horrible bike chase sections that looped until you killed enough people, the control was horrible, the bike combat was horrible, they were too long and there was more than one, I can’t think of a single redeeming feature of these sections. So you can imagine my horror then when I first saw the motorbike in Underworld, I thought they had done it again. Well it turns out the motorbike (not sponsored by Ducati this time) has been used much more effectively. You end up taking the bike with you through large chunks of any level where you have it, but rather than just driving across the map you end up driving between points of interest, parking up and exploring that area on foot. The bike has become a useful tool in some of the puzzles and a way to quickly traverse sections that would take an age on foot, there are plenty of spike pits to jump it over as well.

The bike is used an an extra tool rather than in a poor chase sequence like in Legend.

The bike is used an an extra tool rather than in a poor chase sequence like in Legend.

The last huge change is that the boss fights that ended nearly every level in Legend have gone, along with the quick time events and the motorbike sequence these were the worst parts of Legend, they were repetitive and tedious and mostly boiled down to running around in a circle shooting someone while they launched green at you. Rather than replace them Underworld does away with them all together, levels just end with a bit or narrative when you have the artefact. There are a couple of combat sections that could be considered boss fights, but nothing like in the previous game and though I suppose you could call the Kraken a boss you don’t have to fight it directly.

That is not water...

That is not water...

Talking of combat, this is definitely one of the games weak spots, though even this has been improved. Fortunately it is not over used and instead breaks up larger platforming/exploring sections quite well. Due to the auto-aim the combat early on in the game is a case of simply holding down fire until whatever is chasing you has died. Later on it becomes much more interesting as there are undead creatures that can only be killed by jumping on them after knocking them down (or with the motorbike), this means when there is more than one of them fights become a bit more tactical as you have to decide whether to kill a creature permanently or risk it getting up while you take down its companion. There are also adrenalin moves and melee attacks, neither of which you will use much though they are much more useful when fighting the undead.

The combat improves hugely when you meet these guys.

The combat improves hugely when you meet these guys.

In all I think this is the best Tomb Raider game I have played, though I admit I missed out on the early ones, Legend had some serious flaws and several bugs (some that were near game breaking) and Tomb Raider: Chronicles suffered from bugs as well as a poor control system. Sure it still isn’t perfect, the camera is still a bit wonky (name a third person game where it isn’t) and the combat wouldn’t make a top ten list anywhere but the feeling you are exploring somewhere and the satisfaction when you finally open that door you were puzzling over is hard to find in other games, it also makes a nice change to have a (non indie/casual) game where your sole means of measuring progression is not the body count behind you.

Some people have said that the Tomb Raider series is nearing the end of its life, the poor sales of Underworld often being cited as an example [6], but I think that though Crystal Dynamics got some things wrong when they took over from Core Design, they are learning from their mistakes and the next game will be better than ever. I finished Tomb Raider: Underworld wanting more and I really hope Eidos lets Crystal Dynamics deliver.

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[1] The Alison Carroll promotional material had nothing to do with it…
[2] Which had a glitch that made part of it impassable (at least on my computer) as well as no mouse support making the free camera really awkward
[3] I’m calling this the Bioshock paradox.
[4] I had to look up Jan Mayen Island, it belongs to the Kingdom of Norway. Put 70°59′N 8°32′W into Google Earth
[5] I guess cryptic is considered too difficult for gamers these days.
[6] Though if you release in the same quarter as Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2, Dead Space, Gears of War 2 and Mirrors Edge as well as direct competitor Prince of Persia, then of course sales are going to be low.

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3 Responses to “Tomb Raider: Underworld”


  1. August 25, 2009 at 10:19

    I didn’t get the chance to play Underworld, did get to play Legend though. The problem with Legend was that it was far too short. 6 levels I think? And I only got stuck once.

    I feel like a fool sometimes though. I’m one the only one I know who doesn’t hate QTE like the plague. Yes they don’t involve skill but I don’t mind them.

    Also, could you use HTML anchors for your footnotes plox? Just makes them easier to read if I want to…

  2. August 25, 2009 at 10:57

    Underworld could be considered a bit short as well, there were plenty of areas I got stuck in for a while though (but that could be just me). As for the QTE, they are so jarring and unexpected that I never manage to do them first time and I don’t feel that I ever could have, that is my main reason for hating them. The replacement in Underworld is a much better solution as it doesn’t take away control.

    I’ll look into the anchors for you.

    EDIT: Done, I might update some of my more footnote heavy old posts as well.

  3. 3 valldyarco
    January 26, 2013 at 15:37

    Reblogged this on ✎ Welcome to airjyp's and commented:
    TRU 2008


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