Tomb Raider: Underworld (Xbox 360)
There was a time when Lara was a driving force in the games industry; she was recognised universally by men and women alike and became a household name across the globe. She also became a gaming icon in the process, catering specifically to the casual market that were intrigued to play as a strong-willed, kick ass heroine and, essentially, helped shift millions of Sony Playstation’s worldwide.
But, my, how the mighty have fallen! Indeed, she managed to recoup some of her popularity back with the release of Tomb Raider: Legend (which was developed by Crystal Dynamics and not Core Design, the franchises’ original creators), and while it was certainly a commendable title that attained a sense of series’ past glory, it also felt somewhat underdeveloped. True, the new engine certainly brought the gameplay to life (especially the combat which was surprisingly fluid), but it was too short and at times felt like a side project, a mere experiment if you will. It wasn’t particularly epic, the story left little to be desired and the quick time events were completely pointless, all aspects which have been taken into account to mark the release of her first ‘true’ next-gen outing: Tomb Raider: Underworld.
Crystal Dynamics stated that they made a conscious decision to make the game more open-ended than previous releases and, by god, they really stood by their promise. The first level, for example, throws you into the middle of an ocean; the scope of the scenery is a sight to behold and while it’s somewhat baffling initially, the player is greatly rewarded by familiarising themselves with the level. It’s this unprecedented sense of scale that really brings the game to life; there’s so much to see and do and the new addition of adding multiple pathways also freshens things up a bit. So, judging by the first half of the game, it seems as though the developer has addressed the problems that have plagued its predecessors and for the first time has created a genuinely cohesive Tomb Raider experience.
It would be great just to say ‘yes, this is the definitive Tomb Raider title gamers have been waiting for’, but there are just so many technical mishaps along the way that it’s just impossible to recommend it. The game starts off in a promising fashion with lush, exotic environments that are appealing to the eye and great fun to play – the controls are responsive (for the most part) and the level design is cleverly crafted, with many platforming elements borrowed from the recent Prince of Persia titles (much like Legend). This, of course, is not a bad thing but it does make the gameplay somewhat derivative, however it is obvious that they weren’t necessarily trying to re-invent the wheel this time round; they wanted to create a solid gaming experience. It looks stunning with superb bump mapping and texture effects giving the game a more organic feel – Lara’s physics have also been improved greatly with her movements mimicking real life actions (for example, her wall climbing abilities look far more natural and realistic this time round).
The main problem however is that the game is swamped in glitches. It has been debated that publisher Eidos pressured the developer into rushing the game for a Christmas release, and if that was the case then it definitely shows. The game is critically under-developed in certain areas and show very little sign of polish – this is the problem when ambition oversees the technical capabilities of the console. It’s a shame because there are some great ideas hidden within and the levels are well constructed, but some areas (such as the Southern Mexico level) are an absolute mess. Some of the puzzles are just too obscure without Lara’s help (having to find a random skull then place it on a pedestal that turns only one cog out of three - you must align the cogs, do another one on the opposite side of the level and then race into an underground dungeon with your motorbike without ANY indication that it’s actually within a time limit…?!), and the collision detection is just horrific in places. This is particularly problematic when the platforming sections get a bit more complex, and especially when Lara is balancing on a beam; you’ll want to her to go in one direction, however she’ll disobey your orders and jump straight into the abyss. It’s like she wants to die!
And then there are the camera problems (which will be the cause of many sudden deaths) and the dreadfully clunky combat system which seems to play worse than Legend – the lock on system is practically non existent and makes gun play more of a chore, not to mention that the enemy A.I is downright horrendous with opponents refusing to cover or hide. It’s just simply unacceptable that Eidos would allow the game to be released in its current state – not even the downloadable patches can save its broken gameplay mechanics.
It’s sad to be honest – what was considered the most popular gaming icon of the 90’s has now become a shadow of her former self. Barely anything in this game seems to work properly and offers the player little incentive to keep playing; technically the game is painfully inconsistent with its dodgy collision detection and a camera system that goes haywire all too frequently. It’s a game that is often based on trial and error and that is never a good sign of a well made game. Yes, it looks great, yes the music is fully orchestrated and incredibly epic, but the game leaves little to be desired. It’s a shame because with a little more time, Crystal Dynamics could have created undoubtedly the best game in the series – as it stands, the game is pretty much unplayable.
Oh, Lara. You’re looking tired. Perhaps you’re getting too old for this now?