What is it?
If you are a fan of Lara
Croft and her adventures, we are in the midst of really good times. It
seems that we get a new game every fifteen months or so, even if one of
them is officially a remake of the original game. Now, after the extended
flashback that was Tomb Raider: Anniversary, we return to the
current thread of Lara's story in Tomb Raider: Underworld.
This is the third Tomb
Raider game to be made for Eidos by Crystal Dynamics and Nixxes Software.
All three games have been marked by high levels of action, remarkable
environmental modeling and the introduction of real physics in the way
Lara can manipulate items in her world. That's not to say that Lara is
limited to what a real world person can do -- no-one would ever ask for
such a restrictive role -- but that there's a certain physical logic to
what the world does and how it does it.
there a plot?
The story of Underworld
continues from where Tomb Raider: Legend left off. Lara Croft's
mother has been missing since an accident in Nepal many years ago, and
she's thought to be dead. However, Lara has been finding clues that
suggest that her mother might actually still be alive somewhere beyond a
mysterious circular portal, in Avalon. Lara's task now is to re-trace her
father's footsteps into various archaeological sites all following the
underworld theme of the title, and try to find a way to Avalon. In case
you've not played Legend, the bones of this plot are included as a
'Previously in Tomb Raider' in the Extras menu of Underworld. It's
nice to see that some of the Extras are available right from the
start of the game.
Admittedly, the plot isn't
particularly deep or elaborate, but it gives a good motivational thread
from which to hang all this exploration and adventure in spectacular
'lost' locations. And boy, are those locations special! I don't think
it's spoiling too much to say that Lara's travels take her to the
Mediterranean, Thailand and the far Northern reaches of the Arctic. All
the major locations are real back-to-basics tomb raiding environments of
significant scale and, well, awesomeness.
To top it all, when you hit
New Game, the very first thing that happens is.... nah, that would spoil
it. But take it from me, it's quite a shocker!
do you play?
Tomb Raider: Underworld
is played in the same way as all seven (plus expansions) of the Tomb
Raider games that came before it. Lara runs, swims, climbs and fights just
ahead of your viewpoint, in what I like to call the “second person view.”
(As opposed to the Quake/Half-Life “first person” where you are mostly
invisible except for your right hand and/or your armed weapon, and the
Longest Journey/Grim Fandango “third person” where April Ryan and Manny
Calavera are guided around the scenery at a distance.)
The developers of some game
series like to try out new control schemes as the versions come along, but
thankfully the Tomb Raider series has only done this once; from the arrow
and number-pad keys, to the W, A, S, D based scheme with a
mouse-controlled camera. And therein lies the reason. At the same time as
the controls shifted to left-hand movement, Eidos introduced the
mouse-controlled camera which most people use with their right hand. This
scheme seems to be working out just fine for the games, although it is
possible to get Lara into sufficiently tight spots that the camera gets
tangled in her surroundings. So a good sense of direction and a complete
insensitivity to motion sickness is something of an essential résumé
qualification if you want to be a tomb raider.
There have been some minor
changes, however. Lara has yet more moves, as we've come to expect:
climbing has improved, and the grapple line can also be used for abseiling
and ascending walls and drops.
Now for the menu system.
It's nice and lightweight, and because it is just a transparent overlay on
the action, it quite successfully avoids that 'out-of-game' experience
when activated. Even in the midst of your current game, it is possible to
jump straight to a new game or to the Extras section (with confirmation
screens to avoid nasty accidents!). The other options are for Sound and
Video and Game configuration – screen resolution, anti-aliasing, targeting
modes, auto-grab, and so on. Needless to say, you can configure all the
aspects you'd expect in a 3D game, including the controls, should the
defaults not suit. Whilst we're back in this area, I thought I'd mention
that I did try the game with a game pad instead of keyboard and mouse, and
though the former does work just as smoothly as the latter, my personal
preference is for the familiar keyboard and mouse. (By way of an aside,
when playing the Wii version of Anniversary, I discovered that I
really don't like the Wii remote for controlling Lara. Oops, how old-skool
I must sound.)
The checkpoint save system
for the recent Tomb Raider games has come in for some criticism.
Underworld also uses the checkpoint system – every so often, a chime
rings (unfortunately there's no visible indicator) to let you know Lara
has passed another checkpoint, and any subsequent save will only take you
back to that last checkpoint. Now, before you groan, actually the
checkpoints in Underworld are so frequent that, should you wish to,
you can save after virtually every big leap, or significant combat, just
like the old days of F5 to save before every leap, and F6 to load after
every failed one.
If I had to figure out two
words to sum up Tomb Raider: Underworld it would be, 'fabulous
underworlds'. The environments are real hardcore tomb raiding locations.
Deep pits, rough stone work, immense machinery on a titanic scale,
dripping water, slime covered rocks, and creatures from your worst
nightmares. (Or at least, the nightmares that don't involve waking up in
the office wearing only your underwear... on your head! What? You don't
get those? Oh dear!)
It's worth noting at this
stage, having mentioned the beasts in the game, that there are some people
and endangered species on Lara's hit list. I don't like this much, but
there aren't many occasions when this is necessary. Once you're past the
first few outdoor levels, you get to the more mythical creatures – giant
spiders, nagas, undead thralls and so on. On balance I like the descent
from the realistic to the more and more mythic as the game progresses. I
also enjoyed the fact that, on the whole, armed combat is not the climax
of the chapters of the story. Yes, there are some pretty big fights, and
some cool weapons, but once you have the trick of them, none of the combat
scenes are game-stoppers.
The voice actors in the
English version do an excellent job. All the parts are properly dramatic
and not overblown with supervillain monologuing. Furthermore, Keeley Hawes
is back again, doing an excellent voice as Lara. She's the fourth actress
to voice Lara, and has done Legend and Anniversary. May she
do many more. I feel she has a lovely combination of cultured femininity,
with an entirely appropriate subtext of steel.
Like the voice acting and
the environments, the music plays a vital role in the production values of
the Tomb Raider games. Once again, the music lives up to the scale and
style of the rest of the game, with plenty of lushly orchestrated themes
punching up the drama at just the right time.
Throughout the Tomb Raider
games, Lara has had access to various vehicles, and this time Lara has her
big motorbike back. This time it is used in some underground locations (!)
as well as on the surface as it has been before. It provides some
interesting alternatives and challenges that the level designers have not
used in the past. However, some people will not like the timed element
that is also used with the motorbike in some situations.
One of the features of Lara
Croft's adventures that I've always loved is the epic scale of the puzzles
and the ancient machinery. Gear wheels as tall as a man that drive doors
to make villains quake in their visiting boots, technologies constructed
from stone and wood that would even today challenge the structural
engineers in high tensile strength steels and other exotic alloys. These
settings hark back to the dim mists of time when giants strode this earth,
and thought nothing of expending one hundred years and thrice times as
many lives building hidden temples on a gargantuan scale.
A change made in the design
of the game play for this iteration is the sudden increase in the number
of 'secrets'. Previous games would hide perhaps five or six (at most)
locations within the longer levels, some of which would be harder than
others to reach. In Underworld there are 'secrets' everywhere. In
some locations there are as many as thirty 'treasures' hidden around the
rooms, passages and spaces of the level. I found it reasonably easy to get
around of 90% of these in any given level. On the other hand, there are a
very limited number of 'relics'. Not all levels have one. The relics give
Lara a permanent health boost, so they are worthwhile finding. Finally, on
the subject of treasures and relics, the game permanently remembers which
treasures and relics you've found, and the subsequent health boost (should
you find the relics), even between replays of the entire game. I suppose
this fits in with the Xbox achievements system, though it did surprise me
when first I failed to rediscover treasures I knew should be in a location
when replaying the game.
An issue that has plagued
Tomb Raider games since the very beginning, that doesn't seem to affect
other games of the same genre to anywhere near the same degree, is the
collision detection. Lara has always had an unfortunate habit of getting
her feet stuck inside objects in her incredibly rich environment. This
usually happens in piles of debris or weirdly shaped objects in corners.
Now as a former games programmer myself, I sympathize completely with the
people who have to figure this stuff out. It is by no means a simple
problem. There's plenty of nasty vector maths and so on, but please,
can't we have a bit more quality control on this aspect of fitting Lara
into her otherwise really excellent environment?
The only other 'problem' I
came across was that there are occasions when Lara almost makes a
successful major leap to some new height, manages to trigger the
checkpoint in the new location, and then falls to her temporary death
below, having just failed to make the jump. Then the game neatly restores
to the last checkpoint... and all of a sudden, Lara is exactly where you
just failed to get her to. Handy, but kinda wrong at the same time.
Okay, why such a high grade
for what some will see as yet another re-tread of a seasoned franchise?
(Or is that 'over-ripe' by now?) Well, quite simply, I had a blast playing
this game. I couldn't put it down. The minor issues I had with the camera
getting behind things were simply due to the mouse-guided freedom of it.
The locations, the sounds, the storytelling, the just-right balance
between combat (not too much) and exploration (lots) suited me fine, and I
absolutely loved the gigantic mechanical puzzles.
It seems as though there is
a stronger emphasis on exploration, and less on killing things. There's
more underwater work than in previous games, but not much use of the old
blue breath gauge. There are some timed sequences, but not as many really
big set-piece fights like previous games in the series have had.
The minus on the grade is
for the fact that Lara can still get her foot stuck in things after
all these years.
What do you need to play
Microsoft Windows XP or Vista
(in both cases, administrative rights required)
Intel Pentium 4 3+ GHz or AMD
Athlon 2.5+ GHz
1GB (Windows XP) / 2GB (Windows
Vista) system memory
nVidia GeForce 6 series 6800GT
or ATI 1800XT
Direct X 9.0c compatible sound
card and drivers
8 GB Free Space
Keyboard and mouse
(where different from the minimum)
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz or
Athlon 64 X2 4400+
2 GB system memory
GeForce 9800 GTX or ATI HD4800
Microsoft Xbox360 Controller
(I used a custom built
64-bit Vista Home Premium SP1 PC running on an AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual
5200+, with 2048 MB RAM, and an XFX nVidia GeForce 8600GT 256MB video card
with mother-board sound card)
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