Tomb Raider: Underworld is the eighth game in the Tomb Raider series and the third developed by Crystal Dynamics in almost as many years.
True to the original game's roots, Underworld's gameplay is 75 percent platforming and puzzle-solving, 20 percent action and 5 percent cut scene. The old quicktime events where you had to wait for that magic button to pop up before you could order Lara to move out of harm's way have been replaced by "situational adrenaline" moments where everything slows way down and you retain complete control of Lara – so if she dies, it's totally your fault and not the game's for tricking you into pressing the wrong button.
Hit the jump to find out how we weighed in on Tomb Raider: Underworld.
The Music: Good video game music doesn't distract you from the action; the best video game music adds something to the atmosphere. With Lara running all over the world from Thailand and Mexico to mystical locations like Valhalla and Niflheim (the theme is Underworld – get it?),there's a lot of atmosphere to account for. The score, supervised by British Academy Award-winner Troels Brun Folmann and composed by Colin O'Malley, features fragmented music that kicks in specific to events in the game and (usually) does not loop. This is really helpful during puzzle-solving chains when you're not sure if you've done something right; a swelling crescendo of choral music is a pretty big hint that you're on the right track. And during the action-packed scenes where Lara's racing the clock, the music really gets your blood pumping in the best way.
The Water: A big gimmick in Underworld is swimming, so expect to be doing a lot of it. Fortunately, the swimming mechanics are fairly easy to master and the water looks damn great – even greater than Lara's collection of skin tight wet suits. Usually, when a game touts its pretty water effects, it's a bad sign that there's nothing much to talk about. Not true for Underworld. There's a lot of stuff to talk about; it's just that you'll be seeing so much of the water that it's worth mentioning how gorgeous it is: an ocean shimmering in a Thailand sunset, raindrops glazing temple walls in Southern Mexico, and the glorious site of Lara Croft's bare legs scissoring through the murky depths of the Arctic Sea (never mind that she'd freeze to death real life).
Thor's Hammer: Underworld, like several other games released this year, has a preternatural obsession with (and weak understanding of) Norse mythology; which explains why you'd be looking for one of Thor's gauntlets in Thailand. If you can ignore the sheer impossibility of Mayan temples being built around ancient statues of Thor (you did it for Aliens vs. Predator – you can do it again), the plot point of finding Thor's entire ensemble so you can wield his hammer, Mjolnir, is actually pretty compelling. There's other stuff in there that
wraps up plot points left hanging in Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, but for first-timers and those that couldn't be arsed with the last two games, the find-the-Thor-stuff is fairly compelling. A good rule of thumb for game designers is: if you're going to include a huge plot point about mythical weapons, it's good manners to let the player use said mythical weapons. It's even better if said mythical weapons are freaking amazing, clearing entire corridors of bad guys in a single swing.
Twitchy Controls: It's been 12 years, Lara, could you please learn to jump where I tell you to jump and not where you think you ought to jump?! I enjoy your blood-curdling screams as much as the next gamer forced to repeat an entire puzzle 11 times over, but when I mash the analog stick to the left, where the climbable ledge is, I expect you to jump LEFT, not forward into the acid pit. It's weird when a character handles better underwater or on the back of a motorcycle than they do on their own two feet. The Tomb Raider control scheme has always been a bit of headache with the occasional suicidal leap from Lara, but in Underworld, where a single missed jump a) fails to kill you and b) means you have to backtrack through an entire level to repeat the puzzle, these headaches quickly become murderous rages.
Gameplay Extension: Underworld is pretty generous with checkpoints, but don't be fooled by the apparent generosity of the developer; the checkpoint system is a diabolical plot to make a six hour game into a 10 hour game. Because many of the puzzles are non-linear (that is, you could complete any part of it at any time and still get the same result), you have to rely on the magical chime sound to tell you that you've reached a checkpoint (also, look for health packs, that's a huge tipoff). You'll only hear the chime when you hit the checkpoint the first time, but the checkpoint will be reactivated if you happen to go past it again.
So imagine this: You go all the way into an ancient temple to a burial chamber to do… something. Instead of teleporting you out when you're done, you've got to go back through the temple – only you can't go back the way you came because you blew shit up on the way in and now you have to climb over it. But – oops! – you fall from a ledge and wind up in the middle of the temple that still has the entrance blocked off. Well, it'd take another 20 minutes to work your way back to the burial chamber, so why not plunge off that cliff there and spawn back at the last checkpoint before you blew that jump? Ha! Fooled you, says the game. You don't go back to the checkpoint before the jump, you go back to the last checkpoint in the room you fell into. Now a 20 minute backtrack has become a 25 minute backtrack because you've got to sit through the level loading screen while Lara respawns.
Bugs: I'm curious whether the 360 version will have as many hiccups as the PS3 version. There were no show-stoppers but the frame rate took a nose dive every time there was lightning (mind you Thor's Hammer generates lighting, so this bug happened a lot towards the end), and there was an odd flicker on the screen every so often in the Southern Mexico level. Also, Lara clips through the environment an awful lot (which can be amusing when the ragdoll physics kick in during death). These aren't big deals in bug land but for a game that seems so wonderfully polished in appearance and atmosphere, it's kind of a slap in the face (albeit a hilarious one) when Lara falls from a ledge and lodges herself headfirst in the floor with her legs splayed and arms twitching.
Tomb Raider: Underworld might remind players of another pretty game on the PS3 — Uncharted: Drake's Fortune features almost as many lush tropical locations, as much dynamic lighting, and the same amount of water effects as Underworld. To be fair, Tomb Raider established itself way before Nathan Drake was even a glimmer in Naughty Dog's eye, and how different do you really expect jungles to look? But as you play through Underworld and start to notice more than a few similarities (up to and including the camcorder narrations), you might start to wonder if you're really playing Uncharted: The Chick Version instead of Lara Croft's Super-Awesome Next-Gen Comeback.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is a gorgeous game that doesn't deviate from what we've come to expect from Lara Croft over the years. The puzzles are logical, the plot is not, and even though Lara's boobs have gone down a couple of sizes over the years, she's still got a backside you won't mind watching as you scale walls over and over again in nothing but a bathing suit (take that, Nathan Drake!). The additions of swimming, motorcycle driving, and melee combat to gameplay manage to add something to Underworld without reinventing the wheel. But maybe that's the game's biggest failing: it didn't try to do anything revolutionary; it only tried to bring Lara Croft up to speed.
Tomb Raider: Underworld was developed by Crystal Dynamics and Nixxes Software and published in North America by Eidos Interactive. It released on November 18, 2008 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii and DS, with the PS2 version delayed ‘til January 2009. Retails for $39.99 to $59.99 USD. Completed PS3 story mode, tested treasure hunt mode.