Lara Croft is probably the best known female video game character in the world but, similar to the situation of Anna Kournikova in tennis, it’s not necessary because of some high quality performances, but because of well shaped boobies (which get better and better with every new release). And to be honest, that was the only reason I kept playing Tomb Raider games – which, as embarrassing as it might sound, it is true.
However, following my pleasant experience with Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia, another franchise that wasn’t created for me but whose latest installment was a real joy, I hoped Lara will finally become a video game heroine and not just a fantasy. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite do it, even though I must admit she looks better than ever (and deep in my mind, I finally see this year’s Lara as a perfect virtual copy of Angelina Jolie – but that’s probably just me).
Lara’s quest in Tomb Raider: Underworld is that of recovering yet another ancient artifact – the Hammer of Thor this time, and we’re up for a couple of plot-twists and mumblings about her dead mother (unfortunately, nothing unexpected or breathtaking). But in such games the story itself is not the center of attraction (even though some extra sweat thrown in would’ve been great) so we should not be affected by the fact that Eidos didn’t come with a Writers Guild Nominee here.
What matters most is the gameplay and we all know that generally the gameplay in the Tomb Raider series was way below average. Fortunately, things have changed a bit and this year’s Lara is not only easier to control, but also a lot more “natural” when it comes to the things she can and should do, like the classic climbing, jumping, swinging and swimming. However, the battle sequences are still not satisfactory enough even though now Lara’s shooting is improved and the boss battles have gone more old school (which I consider a good thing). There is also a version of a “bullet time” in the game, but it’s not well done either and it simplifies the fights even more, which generally is a bad idea. However, I prefer these new shooting sequences over the ones in previous games when I had to empty clip after clip in walls and such while trying to lock on a target.
One of the best things about Tomb Raider: Underworld, at least gameplay-wise, is the fact that the game is not simplified to the bone (as it usually happens with games nowadays) while the “difficulty” is not created using artificial methods or poor controls. What I’m talking about is the exploration itself: you have no minimap to tell you where you are and where you should go (eventually via a GPS), so you’re mostly on your own (you still have a 3D scanner and a “Lara’s tips” section, so don’t despair!). Which is a great thing, even though every now and then, especially in some wider spaces it becomes a bit frustrating since you have absolutely no idea where you should go. But that’s the fun part about an adventure game – exploration and not following an arrow! Add to that sequences in which exploration is done on a motorbike (which is easy to control and a real joy to ride), and you’ll have some good reasons to appreciate the tweaks in Lara’s control mechanics.
One of the most disturbing problems, though, is the classic “invisible wall” which probably could’ve been masked somehow by the developers instead of simply not allowing you to move any further. Even more, we have “invisible floors” as well, which means that you could do a “safe” jump to a certain spot considered out of bounds by the devs and get hit by the pain of death, simply because you were not supposed to be there. And these limitations, although understandable, are pretty annoying. There are also camera problems every now and then, which means that you’ll have to do some leaps of faith just like Altair but without any haystacks below and even though these problems are no newcomers to the franchise and even though they’re not commonly encountered, they’re still annoying.
Visually, Tomb Raider: Underworld is a really pleasant experience as it manages to rise to today’s standard: Lara Croft looks better than ever, her movement is very natural and, even though you will feel the need to focus your eyes in the center of the screen only (since that’s where she will usually be), you’ll still notice the lifelike visuals (despite dark and quite scary) of the Underworld, or the incredibly well done, lush Mexican jungle.
TRU also delivers some really well done sounds, with creepy background sounds when needed (which make you think twice before carrying on with the exploration) and also with some really exciting moans from Lara herself – and you’ll probably give a good thought to the possibility of simply hitting Lara with a rock, just to hear her cry, while you keep the light off and your eyes closed. But honestly, that’s not what the game is about.
Tomb Raider: Underworld brings back everything you loved about the previous games in the franchise, from exploration to puzzle solving and casual fighting sequences to an incredibly hot (actually much hotter) heroine. It also tweaks and fixes some of the annoying problems of the series without bringing in new ones, so for Tomb Raider fans, this is definitely a must buy. However, if you’re not a fan of the franchise and you’re not into action adventure games, I doubt this game will make you change your mind. It’s not badly done, but it fails to deliver any breathtaking, revolutionary concepts to the genre.
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