Game Review: Tomb Raider: Underworld

Tomb Raider: Underworld is the ninth game in the Tomb Raider franchise. It is the most refined game in the franchise in terms of player control, graphics, and level size. Like all previous tomb raider titles, Lara Croft stars as the dual pistol wielding spelunker on a mission to find treasures deep beneath the earth.

To understand how this game fits into the franchise a little background is needed. The first game, Tomb Raider, was developed by Core Design and published by Eidos Interactive in 1996. Following the success of that game Core Design developed five more Tomb Raider games, ending with Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness in 2003. Though each of these games had certain plot inconsistencies, for the most part their story lines were interconnected with each other.

In 2006 Tomb Raider: Legend was released. That game was developed by Crystal Dynamics, but still published by Eidos. With the new developer Lara was more mobile than ever. The controls were fluid, the visuals were more appealing, and the level design was funner. In addition to these improvements, Crystal Dynamics all but threw out the plots from the first six games. They started a new story involving Lara’s search for King Aurthur’s mythical sword Excalibur. This game also included heavy back story on how the death of Lara’s parents influenced her to become an archaeologist.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary was released in 2007, still by developer Crystal Dynamics, and though a remake of the first Tomb Raider game it was also designed to be a prequel to Legend. Tomb Raider: Underworld followed in 2008 and is a direct sequel to Legend and ties the events of Legend and Anniversary together. As it stands today, the full canon of the Crystal Dynamics games can be experienced by playing Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Tomb Raider: Legend, and Tomb Raider: Underworld, in that order.

Because this game is tied closely with Anniversary and Legend this review will make comparisons to those games, but it should be realized that playing the previous two titles is not necessary for the enjoyment of this game. Tomb Raider: Underworld features the biggest levels in a Tomb Raider game, epic puzzles, and interesting locations, but it is not the best game in the franchise. It is an excellent game, but it does have a few glitches, lousy combat, and the length of the game is dissapointing.
The sexy Lara Croft in a lush outdoor environment.

The game is mostly an adventure game. Puzzles come in a few varieties, either putting together a few broken pieces of an object, then pulling a lever, and wham, some ridiculously huge door opens up. There are navigation puzzles as well, in other words figuring out how to navigate Lara through a complex array of maneuvers. Including jumping on pillars, swinging on bars, climbing rock faces, swinging across chasms using Lara’s grappling hook, and other acrobatics. Some of these events require quick reflexes and timing, but most allow the player to carefully plan and execute Lara’s next death defying jump. Of course, if the player fails to execute the appropriate move, the game has a check point system, that will usually set the player in a position just before the jump they failed to execute. The rock climbing and jumping around is really where the Crystal Dynamics games have shined, and this one is no exception. It is extremely satisfying to make a particularly difficult jump, and anything that requires the use of the grapple mid air gives you about as much an adrenaline rush as a video game can provide.

Lara has a few new moves in this game, that were not seen in previous Tomb Raider games. She can now rappel. Which means that when Lara has to climb down a particularly steep edge, the player no longer has to jump down unsure whether or not there is something for Lara to grapple or otherwise grab onto. A move called a chimney jump has been introduced as well. This move allows Lara to jump back and forth between two walls in order to make an ascent. The chimney jump looks a little silly, as Lara can stick to a vertical wall for about a quarter of a second, but it adds a new dynamic to the classic Tomb Raider spelunking.

As mentioned, this game features the biggest levels ever. Underground caverns are huge. The overall level design creates a fun environment for players to explore. In some levels Lara goes scuba diving deep under the sea only to find underground caverns. It makes for very fun level design. Crevices in the caverns that leak water serve as a reminder that while breathing air, Lara is deep under the sea. The tombs in this game are epic. They are completely unbelievable. Certainly there is nothing like them in real life, but in a fantasy video game world, they make for a very fun time.

The glitches are pretty minimal, and for the most part can be ignored. The camera control can be problematic at times, but doesn’t really interfere with the game, except on the motorcycle which is extremely difficult to control. In general Lara’s motorcycle is not very fun, and would have best been left out of the game. Also, Lara gets stuck on occasion, but oddly enough pulling out her pistols gets her unstuck, which is an annoyance, but doesn’t make the game unplayable.

Combat has never been strong in the Tomb Raider franchise. The games have always been mostly about the puzzles, and this game is no exception, in fact this game is actually worse than the other games when it comes to combat. For whatever reason, enemies can take a lot more damage. In each level Lara can take one weapon in addition to her pistols, and when that weapon runs out of ammo, you are done with it. Lara can do one shot kills, the same as in the previous two games, but that move is more difficult to execute in this game, and you can’t do it as often. The only good thing about combat is that when you die and go back to a checkpoint, all the enemies you killed usually remain dead, so getting killed during combat isn’t a total loss. Though, the game is somewhat selective about which enemies remain dead.

Boss characters have been completely removed from this game. In some regards this is good, as some of the previous Tomb Raider bosses have either been too simple, or too difficult. It does somewhat weaken the game, however, as the bosses in the previous games required the player to discover certain secrets to defeating them. Once those secrets were discovered, bosses could be taken down almost instantly. This was a throw back to the early days of gaming, when bosses had certain secrets, or patters that players had to follow to defeat them. Though not a big deal that these are gone, some players will feel the lack of boss battles in this game.

The length of the game is perhaps the most disappointing aspect. It really only has seven levels, and even a thorough exploration of each of them will have the player finishing in about seven hours. Neither Anniversary or Legend were particularly long, but they featured a time trial mode that added new challenges and re-playability to each of the levels. The time trial mode was one of the best parts of the two previous games. It was very satisfying to barely make it to the end of a level in time. Part of the reason that it is missing in this game is because the levels are so much bigger. A time trial in this game would probably have to be thirty to forty five minutes long, and when a time trial is that long players may want to give up if they don’t make it through the first time. It is very missed in this game, however, and makes the game less re-playable.

The game does allow players to revisit levels after they’ve completed the game, but this mode is very different from the previous games. Instead of re-playing the levels, Lara can go back and search for any of the “secret treasures” that may have been missed the first time through. The levels are absent of enemies, and all the doors remain unlocked. It does add the feel that Lara is going back to visit a location where she has already been, but it isn’t as satisfying as re-playing the actual level, and doesn’t have the appeal that the previous games had.

In addition to this, finding the hidden treasures only unlocks developer art, it doesn’t provide the player with new outfits for Lara as in the previous games. Part of the appeal of re-playing levels in Legend was that, each time, a level could be played with a different outfit, and if you found more treasures in the level or completed a time trial you’d unlock even more outfits. Lara doesn’t have many outfits in this game at all, only one additional outfit can be unlocked when you complete the game, and you can only wear it on one level.

The problem is that this game is so fun that it leaves you wanting more, there isn’t enough of it. It should have had more levels or longer ones. Instead, fans will have to wait for the next game.

The bottom line is that this is a very fun game. It has a unique game play style, and will provide a satisfying experience, albeit a short one, for the player. Crystal Dynamics has done an excellent job in their contributions to the Tomb Raider franchise, but they should still be more ambitious in creating a game that will last more than a few hours. Anyone who enjoyed Anniversary or Legend is going to love this game. Anyone who has not played one of the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games ought to download the demos and give them a try.

Rating: 8/10

Alternatives: Tomb Raider: Legend, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3 Only).