Tomb Raider: Underworld should’ve been the best installment since Crystal Dynamics’ Legend successfully revived the once-revered franchise. It comes awfully close, blending the tighter, revamped gameplay mechanics of Legend and the complex, multi-layered level design of Anniversary with improvements of its own, but odd glitches and archaic combat keep a great game from being a truly exceptional one.
Underworld continues after Legend ended with its irritating cliffhanger ending. Lara’s still looking for her mother, and she’s going to wade through a ton of Norse mythology to get to it. The story is good, providing enough motivation for you and Lara to trek ancient ruins and lush greenery and dive many leagues under the sea. Cut-scenes are succinct and impressive, keeping up a strong narrative presentation throughout the game. Lara also has a lot to say in the cut-scenes, mostly referencing her vast knowledge of all things mythological and historical. It makes her sound smart, and it gives Lara that strong but feminine (she still loves to wear make-up) quality that makes her such a likable character. Oh, and she still has a great body. Yeah, that too.
Controlling Lara doesn’t feel all that different from her two previous outings. She still has a realistic sense of weight, and platforming feels absolutely fantastic, just like it always has. New moves, like the wall-jump, are natural additions to her acrobatic repertoire, and while her grapple hook isn’t utilized as much as it was in Anniversary, it’s still a very fun and useful tool to use. The newness comes from the details. Lara’s animations are far more nuanced; she leans into turns, animations look better than they have before and, when the camera gets up close, Lara will constantly emote and shift her eyes depending on the situation. In a way, these elements are more superficial than anything but make the platforming experience feel more natural and satisfying than it ever has.
Before we get into puzzles, be aware that Croft Manor is 100% not in Underworld. Cry – it’s only natural. On the bright side, the puzzles are present once again, and while they don’t nearly have the depth of Anniversary’s riddles, they’re always satisfying. The solution is always obvious, and getting to the solution requires a lot of platforming, which is what Underworld excels at. On the far end of the spectrum, there’s combat, which is, in a nice, sugarcoated word, bad. Surprisingly, the gunplay feels a lot more robotic and underdeveloped than ever before. The camera moves about as if Paul Greengrass was behind the camera (good when watching a Bourne flick, mighty bad when playing a game) and the auto-aim is questionable when there’s more than one enemy to shoot at. Granted, there’s not a lot of combat, but this is one area Crystal Dynamics needs to totally redo next time around.
Then, there’s the rare technical glitch. Every once awhile, Lara tends to get stuck and clip into the environment. You can get out of this by right-clicking to enter combat, but things like that tend to break the illusion that you’re really exploring an honest-to-goodness world. It’s apparent that a lot of effort and love have gone into all the game’s levels; they’re immersive and authentic, but the occasional misstep mucks things up. Lara sometimes jumps one swing after you press the key while pole-vaulting, and she very at times refuses to grab onto a ledge that she could easily grab onto if she just extended her arms. The camera also tends to be resistant to your inputs, so it’s better to just let it do its own thing, because it tends to be helpful when you’re not butting heads with it.
These problems don’t ruin the game, but they do cloud the gem within. The same tends to go for the visuals. At its best, it can compete with the best, offering gorgeous vistas and jaw-dropping scenery. On the other hand, some of the areas are unimaginative and quite boring to look at. The caves and crypts are the worst offenders; there is a musty, old atmosphere, but they just don’t look very attractive. The game has a great lighting engine, but it’s underused in these instances. Animations get a similar treatment; Lara’s animations look outstanding, easily rivaling Altair’s animations in Assassin’s Creed. On the other hand, everything else – mercenaries, animals – aren’t given nearly the same attention to detail. On the whole, it’s an impressive visual package, but some polish is in order.
Sound design is a bit better, but not by much. The score tends to go for orchestral and epic choirs, but during exploration, the environmental sounds do the talking. Creaking and cracking of old structures, intense thunderstorms, and the sound of Lara’s whelp as she just barely makes the jump echo and reverberate throughout large rooms, evoking the sense of isolation that has always been important in Tomb Raider games. Voice-acting is adequate, with Lara’s voice actor being the best out of the bunch. It’s a great sonic experience.
Underworld is awfully short, just clocking in at around 6 hours. It’s packed with substance with a dash of blemishes, but the game really could’ve benefited from Croft Manor. Concept art can only motivate so much. For Lara’s first true next-gen outing, it’s a great one, and it deserves to be played, but it lacks a certain amount of the polish that was present in Crystal Dynamics’ first two efforts. Now that the new engine that renders Underworld is already built, here’s hoping that the inevitable sequel will be even better, erasing technical blunders and including Croft Manor (bringing this up a lot – hint hint, Crystal). Until then, here’s another great installment of the now-consistently-fun Tomb Raider series.