When it comes to gaming characters, one of the most iconic in popular culture is none other than Lara Croft. Star of the Tomb Raider franchise, Lara Croft has come out with another chapter in her legacy entitled Tomb Raider: Underworld. For the PlayStation 3 this is Lara’s first adventure for. We missed out on both Tomb Raider: Anniversary and Tomb Raider: Legend, but thankfully some of the elements of the story carry over to Underworld (albeit not with the greatest execution). CORE Designs always developed the Tomb Raider series previously. However with this incarnation in the series, Crystal Dynamics has taken the reign. You might remember them from The Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver series way back during the PlayStation One days (now there’s a series I’d like to see redone). With that being said, I became more interested in seeing what Underworld would have in store.
Graphically, Tomb Raider: Underworld has a lot to live up to. Before playing this game, many PlayStation 3 owners like myself would have been exposed to our newest treasure hunter Nathan Drake in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The bar has been set high and I wondered if Tomb Raider could ever reach that. The settings in Tomb Raider: Underworld is a step up from previous incarnations in the series. You’ve seen a Mayan pyramid before? Take a second look at how a Mayan pyramid should appear. The textures on a majority of the level designs are rich in detail. The scope of the level design is astonishing for the most part. When you’re exploring the outdoor levels, like the jungles and oceans, it’s something to take in. However when the levels shift to interior spaces, you get a lot of bland corridors and tunnels. I got to give some credit for trying to add atmospheric effects to the levels, like the lighting, dust particles and overlaying textures to give that shine or slippery effect. Yet at times it’s a hit and miss approach. There’s also the issue with texture popping as well. Walk through a level for 30 seconds and you’ll be exposed to 15 seconds worth of inconsistencies.
Getting now to character designs, its safe to say a lot of attention to detail was put on Lara Croft. The animations they gave Lara, from acrobatic maneuvers, wall climbing and gun slinging, are dead on, though I can’t say Lara’s death scene performances are the greatest. It’s just terrible ragdoll physics, almost like watching a crash test dummy. The standard grunts that you fight ranging from pirates to military operatives are pretty standard. Animals that Lara fights range from spiders, lizards, sharks, tigers, panthers and others; but of the extra large variety. Whenever you make a character that big, you got to show off the details. Unfortunately it looks like the animals are last generation character models, imported into a next generation game. There’s such an imbalance in the animal characters and this shows predominately is the enemy boss battles. For example in a large battle with a kraken (a.k.a. giant squid), you can see the detail put into that character. However with the sub characters that you fight, the developers probably put less than half the detail and effort into those designs.
With Tomb Raider: Underworld I was hoping for some great story elements enforced with cut scenes. They have some, but they are short for the most part. I was expecting to show off more spectacles. However it’s used in sparing moments. I came across a few that the cut scene was used at the right time to get the story going. Then at times the cut scene was just too short to explain a story element or puzzle.
Listening to the music in Tomb Raider: Underworld, the epic orchestral soundtrack is just spot on. The music builds up a good pacing depending on the action that’s taking place. Ambient sounds are nicely woven in depending on the level’s location, whether you’re underwater and hear the bubbles, or the rain showering down on you in the open roof temples. Its almost like you’re taking in a real expedition with a National Geographic crew. Getting back to the animals that look bad, at least they do sound good and add to the environment’s soundscape. Maybe it was best if there were no animals to be seen at all, just heard instead. There isn’t much to gripe with regarding the sound. There is the occasional hiccup on abrupt mixing of sound or sudden silence. However I think I know what might be the cause of that issue, which I will address soon. The voice acting in Tomb Raider: Underworld is pretty well done. The dialogue script is adequate, however Lara for the most part is talking to herself in internal monologue. You’ll find at times with any game the main character is cast very well. However you get sub-par performances from the secondary characters. It’s just one of few odd quirks in the sound vs. game play usage.
On to the gameplay of Tomb Raider: Underworld. The story in this game takes a while to get into. One of the reasons is that it takes up after the previous title, Tomb Raider: Legend, as well as Tomb Raider: Anniversary. The inclusion of a cut scene with the “Previously on Tomb Raider…” vibe didn’t help much in explaining what Lara was up to. Did I mention they ripped a low-resolution cut scene and dropped it into the options menu? Not the kind of start I was looking for to begin the story. Eventually from playing a few minutes in, you find out Lara’s previous nemeses Amanda and Natla are up to no good. What you’ll also gather from some of the cut scene is that Lara is dead on in finding the disappearance of her mother. Somehow the disappearance of Lara’s mother is linked to the Norse underworld of Niflheim. To enter Niflheim you need to search out the Norse god Thor’s gauntlet and other weapon accessories. The puzzles involve a new approach where you solve things not in chronological order. So basically you come to a large centerpiece level, which consists of separate chambers where you need to either collect items or flip switches. Most of the time it doesn’t matter which chamber you start off with. The platforming mechanics that Lara has to conduct is a range of wall climbing on rock surfaces, to balancing on beams and flipping over pits. It’s almost as if I was playing Prince of Persia at times, but that experience rapidly disappears. Another cool feature is the grapple hook Lara uses for spelunking up and down wall sides. It can also be used for pulling objects down to manipulate and trigger puzzles. The problem with pulling off effective use of the grapple hook is that the icon that shows where to grapple jumps around the screen when the camera is moved. So when you think you want to grapple to something on the left, it might be actually to the right, which then causes the camera to jerk around in a 360-degree movement.
Now getting to the camera. Oh that dreaded camera. What makes me not enjoy this game as much as I wanted to is the fact the camera controls and movements are just utterly terrible. It’s so terrible it actually affects the pacing the game, movement of Lara, attack sequences, and overall navigation of the level. Getting the camera to cooperate with you is really hard. Sometimes in the level you’ll have to guess if there’s a ledge to jump to because the camera won’t pan around to your desired location. Another camera issue comes up with Lara’s new adrenaline sequence. This is where a certain event goes into slow motion and Lara moves at normal rate. So the player is given a short amount of time to pull off a safety maneuver. The problem is the camera can’t decide what speed it should move in this timeframe. So you’re spending more time moving the camera instead of moving Lara. You’ll be dying a few times in these sequences, so try to have some patience.
Another issue you’ll need patience with is the frame rate. There are action sequences such as the riding a motorcycle through a jungle that causes the game to chug. When you’re fighting numerous enemies on screen it’ll chug some more. The game will also chug when Lara, for some reason, will get stuck in objects or walls. Game glitch on top of glitch equals more chugging. Another quirk about Tomb Raider: Underworld is the use of Lara’s PDA for assistance. The diary log is just too much text to take in and comprehend. The sonar mapping system has terrible camera navigation and I found I wasn’t using it at all. The only part of the PDA I was constantly referring to was the dictation recordings, where Lara is talking to herself on what she should do next. The problem though, at times the hints don’t sync to the current objective you’re doing.
In the overall impression of Tomb Raider: Underworld, I believe somewhere under this mess lies an actual good game you can play and enjoy. Unfortunately the lack of polish and refinement that could have done to fix the awful camera and frame rate might have saved the enjoyment of Lara Croft’s newest adventure. Though the exclusion of downloadable content for the PlayStation 3 version and a treasure collection feature that doesn’t translate to PS3 trophy support, you might want to wait for the next chapter Eidos Interactive might be planning. Maybe the faithful followers that have enjoyed Lara Croft’s past expeditions across the globe will enjoy this game. Though if I have the choice in which treasure hunter to play with, I’d settle for Nathan Drake this round. Like I referred to earlier, the bar has been set really high with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Hopefully Lara can reach it that next time around.