Tomb Raider: Underworld
Lara's back, and if any increment in the long running series meant a lot to publisher Eidos, it is this one, the company relying heavily on Tomb Raider's return to make good of an otherwise disappointing year for the British game maker. Can Lara make it all worthwhile? Well, Crystal Dynamics have certainly done the right thing taking the series back to its globe-trotting, ancient tomb-raiding roots, but having played the game I'm still left with a lingering feeling that this could have been so much more than merely competent.
The backdrops to the action are certainly what we might have wished for, Lara's mythologically inspired plot takes in Thailand, Mexico, the Mediterranean and Croft Manor itself, as our heroine follows bread crumbs left by her father on an adventure to unearth the mysteries of Thor; and face off against a powerful and brutal enemy.
The plot itself sounds promising on paper, just the kind of inaccurate fun you might hope for as part of a jaunt with the big-breasted one. Sadly, the story doesn't hang together quite as well as Crystal Dynamics might have hoped - and at times I found myself struggling to care what the latest twist in the tale would reveal. Then again, the story does shoe-horn in a range of exotic locales, and it certainly isn't dull; merely far-fetched and occasionally irrelevant.
The locations themselves can be stunning at times, parts of the Thai and Mexico stages in particular standing as testament to the talents of the design team, Crystal Dynamics delivering worlds brimming in atmosphere, rich in detail. Historically or even mythologically accurate these scenes are not, but they are evocative, the only shame being that they don't sit quite as comfortably in the plot as might have been expected.
But what does Miss Croft actually do, in these locations? Well, the game begins with a tutorial section that unfolds as Lara tries to escape from a blazing Croft Manor (we don't know why), before we flash to a week earlier and the action begins to unfold in earnest. We're diving in the Mediterranean, taking on sharks and other nautical nasties, as we piece together a giant puzzle - which will in turn unlock the path ahead of us. Lara can't drown, fortunately, thanks to some low-profile diving gear, and although this underwater section is an intriguing start, a break from the usual clambering, the camera can frustrate at times as you seek out pieces of ancient contraption beneath the waves.
Emerging from the drink and Lara has some more traditional platforming-style leaping and climbing to get stuck into, and if it wasn't obvious at the game's opening, we see here the range of new moves our acrobatic star now has at her disposal. Movement through the world is more fluid than ever, while her abilities seem more consistent now, the developers having taken a 'what could Lara realistically do' approach. With this in mind, the grapple comes in handier than previously, not only for death-defying leaps but also for moving other objects as part of larger puzzles. Lara can also carry items, which will prove essential while solving the game's giant, crumbling mechanisms of long lost civilizations.
Combat too is on the receiving end of a more detailed, less simplistic approach. Enemies are tougher, (if not smarter) so its just as well Lara can now target two foes simultaneously while duel-wielding pistols. Melee-style attacks will also be essential in beating back tigers, or for squishing pesky spiders, while bullet-time moves add a little flair, while hardly reinventing the wheel.
Crystal Dynamics seem to have taken a brave stab a reviving the original Tomb Raider feeling, while at the same time embracing all the bells and whistles that modern gamers expect. Exploration is at the heart of the experience, then, but while the environments do their job admirably (and can in fact be quite inspiring at times), there's still the sometimes frustrating feeling that the core of the game is based around miss-timed jumps and subsequent re-plays. It isn't appalling, but the gameplay can almost be too pure in places.
There are noteworthy elements here, segments that move the experience beyond the jumping and shooting, and the big puzzles can be fiendishly enjoyable at times, even if the unlock-the-gateway to the next platforming arena structure can feel contrived (but who cares). The plot should really have justified all of this I imagine, and made the different parts of the game sit together as part of one glorious whole, and at times it works. I really enjoyed exploring the Thai ruins; the visuals combining with gameplay to create an immersive experience which makes you forget the bare-bones of the gameplay. Games like BioShock do this well, Tomb Raider: Underworld only pulls off this trick for fleeting moments.
The focus on realism may have paid dividends in terms of Lara's abilities but it also makes it more obvious when she can't do something, and there are still times when you'll growl as Lara refuses to go somewhere it really looks like she should be able to. That said, the gameplay is altogether less frustrating than past iterations of the series, even if the baddies are still still largely redundant of brain mass.
If you can suspend your disbelief, Tomb Raider: Underworld will deliver some of the best gameplay the series has to offer, wrapped up in one of the most eye-pleasingly gorgeous releases the Christmas season has produced - but still I'm back to that nagging thought that this could have been so much more, and perhaps should have been.
The settings deserve a convincing plot to really make them hum; the combat is patchy, and while some of the puzzles are marvels the scantly-evolved platforming and climbing gameplay that you'll spend the most time doing just isn't the Tomb Raider renaissance we were hoping for. Question marks still linger over the camera, and there are occasional glitches, despite the overall air of polish.
All this said, Underworld is impossible to actually dislike, as at its core you know this is what games should be about, pure escapism, discovery, immersion. This doesn't stop Lara's latest failing to be greater than the sum of its parts, however, and while this is unquestionably a step forward for the series, Crystal Dynamics could perhaps have gone a few inches further still.