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Crystal Dynamics deserve acclaim, not just for having created their best Tomb Raider game so far, but for something even more remarkable: listening to criticism. They’ve taken on board the fact that their strength lies in epic puzzles and astonishing level architecture, and that their great weakness has been boss fights. Of the latter, Underworld contains an admirable none. The former constitutes the whole of the game. Crystal Dynamics’ first Lara outing was Legend, in which Lara’s backstory and motivations were explored, ending with the discovery that her mother might still be alive, trapped in Avalon. Along the way we learned of her feud with another tomb raider, Amanda. The cliffhanger ending of 2006 is where Underworld picks up.
Yet between the two games was Anniversary, the remake of the original Tomb Raider. Threads from that story are woven in too, such as winged Jacqueline Natla, former guard of Atlantis. This time around, Lara is seeking her mother via the eschatological myths of Hindu and Norse religions, and the recovery of Thor’s hammer. But if Underworld goes wrong anywhere, it’s in crapping this story out in such a mess that the convoluted history is as disposable as its muddled conclusion. Underworld is all about the jumping. Fortunately, the jumping is bloody brilliant. The key word for this game is ‘architecture’. Each of the five settings has behemoth buildings, with towering statues, immense chambers, and puzzles on a larger scale than ever seen before. Get the idea? It’s big.
Thailand’s astonishing Hindu site is a fantastic example. A gargantuan stone statue of Shiva looms over the ruins, balanced on the giant upturned body of Kali. Shiva’s arms are manipulated via enormous mechanisms in order to focus a single beam of light onto Kali’s forehead. But these mechanisms require components found in the echoing antechambers below, each a series of exploration puzzles and traps.
The upshot of all this is the complete abandonment of the tiresome Corridors of Death that have blighted the series. At no point in the entire game is there a spinning blade moving back and forth along a wall. Hallelujah! In fact, we can think of only three corridors throughout that contained any sort of moving obstacle, and each were perfunctory, making the connection between two chambers more interesting. Instead, Underworld is about entering a giant room and exploring the place.
While there is usually only one correct route, there’s always the sense that you discovered it for yourself, rather than that you were funneled into its inevitability. Also, many locations have multiple goals, solved in whichever order you choose, furthering the sense of freedom. Instead of being given new moves, this time you’re left to judiciously apply what Lara could already do: jump, swing, climb, grip and roll.
It looks gorgeous. The incredible vistas merit just standing still and taking it all in for a while. Lara’s newly smoothed face is capable of detailed expressions, with a brow that even furrows into delicate pleats when she’s concerned. The water has realistic waves, Lara’s body gets dirty when crawling around in the dust, and most importantly, the platforms and grips look like they belong in the world, rather than having been artificially placed there.
Lara’s grappling hook is back, but here again Crystal Dynamics have made a significant step forward. Previously it was a rather contrived device: this time it’s much more malleable. When you’re attempting to cross from one end of an arena to the other, and you realise you could get from this ledge to that grip by rappelling down, and then running along and dropping – it all feels like your use of the grappling hook, rather than their prescribed route. The rope can even be wrapped around objects and then pulled on to drag them over or turn them from a distance.
Even the swimming isn’t hateful. This being a Tomb Raider game it’s still the weakest part, but you’re never fighting horrible controls while Lara runs out of air for the 15th time. Oxygen conservation is never even a factor; with scuba gear on hand for any wet bits (it does mean you can’t drown her, however). And thanks to the wonderful design, swimming among sunken ruins is gasp-inducing, with schools of fish zipping about, and even the odd shark attack. Ah yes: endangered species. Of course Lara meets tigers, pumas, and other endangered creatures, and of course she can shoot them dead. But magnificently, this time out our heroine carries a tranquillizer gun – you can finish the game without ever becoming the target of Greenpeace’s ire.
Combat in Tomb Raider games has always been a problem. Just as with the recent Prince of Persia trilogy, the games are fantastic because of the athletics, not the biffing. While there’s never a fight where you think, “That was a worthwhile encounter,” this time around they’re a lot less offensive.
The auto-targeting is enhanced by Lara being able to not only shoot but also kick and punch if people/creatures get too close, and also do a few silly slow-mo tricks for extra damage. There is, in fact, a bullet-time mode based on her adrenaline levels – but it’s telling that we finished the game without ever figuring out how to use it properly.
And as we said at the beginning, no boss fights! It’s an excellent decision, keeping all mega-baddie disposals confined to the cutscenes where they belong. In the bosses’ stead are wonderful uber-puzzles, super-challenging scenarios to tax your leaping skills. Figuring out how to traverse the final level made us feel like a genius in a way fighting an enemy never could. In a game about exploration and gymnastics, it’s only right and proper that this is what gets scaled-up for the climaxes.
This wisdom doesn’t seem to have filtered down to the script, however, which oddly keeps setting up boss encounters and then not following through with a satisfying explanation. But this is par for the course with the batshit story. Lara’s journal entries and narrative commentaries, themed around underworld mythologies, are all splendid. We learned lots about Norse legend, especially excellent words like ‘Yggdrasil’. But come the cutscenes and it’s all garbled madness, with people flip-flopping between evil and good, new baddies popping out of nowhere, and major characters copping it and then going unmentioned.
Which is a bit of a shame after Legend was quite so magnificent at weaving a tale. Zip and Alistair’s constant chatter in Lara’s ear prevented things from feeling too isolated, while offering a chunk of laughs. This time they’re relegated to pointless appearances in cutscenes, and Lara is left to chat to herself in the tombs, narrating her discoveries into her Dictaphone. However, it’s only a small sacrifice for a game that understands the fundamentals of why we’ve loved previous Tomb Raiders, and doesn’t waste our time with the stuff that spoiled them. Remember the incredible cog puzzle in Anniversary, before the terrible dinosaur fight? This is a game entirely made of puzzles like that, and no bloody dinosaur fights whatsoever.
The remarkable architectural vision, coupled with ultra-smart level design, all produced on such a huge scale, makes this as good as Tomb Raider has ever been. It’s still short, it still has annoying combat, and Lara still freaks out and jumps off in the wrong direction far too often. So it still falls short of greatness. But the most exemplary check-pointing we’ve ever encountered forgives a great deal, and the brave decision to ditch the boss fights makes us want to hug all involved. Go explore the Underworld.
Nov 19, 2008