STAFF REVIEW of Tomb Raider Underworld (Xbox 360)

Sunday, November 30, 2008.
by Adam Dileva

Tomb Raider Underworld Box art Lara Croft is almost a household name among gamers and she is back for yet another adventure through exotic locations, temples and many tombs. Everything in Underworld has been built on top of and attempted to make better from the previous Tomb Raider Legend title; from the combat to the traversing animations.

Environments are much larger and the foliage (especially in the Thailand level) adds a very natural and realistic visual style. Some very small things have even been added such as Lara pushing away branches and leaves out of her way when running past. It looks so smooth I was instantly reminded of Altair pushing people aside gently in Assassin?s Creed.

Tomb Raider Underworld lives up to its title and will have you deep inside temples, under the sea and in many exotic locations. Even Lara herself looks better overall and you will even notice that her skin is still wet with beads of water when she emerges from any form of water.

This story is a direct sequel to the previous title; Legend, and picks up where the story left off, but starting the game off has no back story to catch you up on anything that has previously happened which will leave many people confused that may have forgotten the previously storyline or newcomers that will have no idea what is going on or why. If you just happened to check the Extras menu before starting the campaign you would find a very brief cinematic that will catch you up on the very basics of what?s happened previously and why you are still trying to find your mother and what?s happened to Amanda in Legend.

The main story honestly wasn?t very memorable; the only reason I was somewhat interested was because I?ve been following the Tomb Raider series since its first iteration, so I?ve already invested into Lara and her travels. I could see new comers to the series not care very much for the overlaying plot, but most will probably be wondering why one of the female characters has wings and is trapped since the lack of back story is quite the hindrance for story and character development. There is an overlaying Norse mythology aspect to the story which I found more interesting than the main plot itself. It is enjoyable to see some other main plot characters get some more face time unlike how Legend did.

The scale of the story seems to be much bigger to go along with the larger scale of the levels themselves. There are different places all around the world you?ll visit and explore like Thailand, Mexico, the Arctic, and even under the Ocean.

Gameplay is very similar to how Legend was played though now with many tweaks for the better. Lara has many more moves this time around to help with her exploration such as balance board walking, being able to shoot while hanging from ledges or pillars, and even the ability now able to shoot two enemies at once with her signature pistols.

Lara has also been given a new set of animations for all these new moves and they look much more fluid for the most part, but this is when the beginning of bugs starts to arise. There are many clipping issues such as legs and hands going through rocks and ledges or even sometimes getting completely stuck inside a rock. Sometimes the forced animations cause you to sometimes get stuck in objects as well and Lara won?t reset until you stop and move away from whatever bugged her out in the first place. Normally I can deal with clipping to an extent, but when it happens often enough to be quite noticeable to break my immersion, that?s where it needs to be mentioned.

I?ve also had quite a few times where Lara would just stop and seemed stuck in her tracks and it took moving the stick in many directions before she would start moving in the proper direction again. There was also one instance where I had a bug on such a huge scale that it was game breaking and I had to reload an older save; losing around 40 minutes of work, but I?ll get to the save feature issues afterwards.

One of the levels in Mexico has you solving a puzzle but the scale of it is so huge that you have to drive from each half of the area on your motorbike just to get to each side. After the puzzle is solved a large tomb entrance emerges from the ground and you have to drive there before it closes and retracts. Well I didn?t quite make the jump into the tomb and my previous checkpoint save was reloaded to just before I had to drive into the tomb. As I get to the tomb entrance I notice it has not risen and the entrance is not there, so I drive back to both sides of the puzzle to try and reactivate it, but it had already been completed, so there was nothing I could do. I lost a good chunk of time having to restart the whole level again from the chapter?s start checkpoint and gained quite a bit of frustration due to this.

This is where the save feature problems are also apparent. For an actual save it only auto saves at the beginning of a level or chapter. There are many checkpoints as you play and if you die it just pops you back at the last checkpoint which works well, but if you get stuck or have a major issue like I did, unless you saved manually, you will have to start at the very beginning of the chapter.

There are redeeming qualities though that Underworld brings to the series. There are optional paths for the collector gamer that needs to find all the treasures and secrets to find special relics. Lara?s PDA that gives her basic info and inventory now has a sonar map that can be used to view a 3D model of your surroundings to look for where to go next or any grapples you happen to not see. The sonar feature is interesting though I never found myself having to use it after the first level once you know what to look for. The PDA also has a built in hint feature that will tell you a generic ?The switch must be used to open the gate? (for example) with a press of the ?A? button, but if you need more help, pressing ?Y? will give you a very detailed hint of what to do such as ?I must move that boulder onto one switch while I stand on the other?. It?s a nice feature to try and keep you in the game instead of looking up walkthroughs online when you get stuck and when it works properly it has helped me solve some of the puzzles, but there were even times where it was too generic to offer any real help or even thought I was in a previous room instead of where I really was which just added frustration on top of not being able to figure out the puzzle.

For how often you are underwater, the controls are quite decent and simple to use. While not perfect, it is good enough to not be a hindrance considering how most games? underwater controls are just atrocious. It?s very refreshing that at least when underwater there wasn?t any unnecessary frustration with the controls.

Lara's grappling hook allows you not only to swing across gaps with ease but now you are able to wall run, scale walls up and down and even use it as a tool to knock over boulders with the wire. If you are hanging from your zipline and need to change directions because you didn?t quite jump and grapple on straight, I found it near impossible to do simply without just giving up and retrying to hook on at the proper angle.

There are some levels where you will be using your motorbike to jump gaps and to get from place to place. It did feel kind of just thrown in because the previous titles had it as well but a much better job has been given to a purpose of actually using the bike this time since there are some puzzles that are the size of a small city. It can feel very daunting at times and make you wonder how you will ever figure out a puzzle of this magnitude, but when you do finally figure it out the feeling of reward is much greater as well. It can feel a little too much for new players to the series when just looking at some of the scale of these chapters but every time you complete a puzzle you?ll do the almost obligatory ?oh yea!?.

Quite a few of the levels have a good portion of backtracking which at times felt very unnecessary. When a level could end, there were some sections that instead of rewarding you with the next cutscene, it makes you run all the way back out. It seems like it was a simple way of just adding some unneeded length to the game since you were just going down the previous path in reverse.

The camera is still the largest issue in the series and it has not been fixed in Underworld yet either. Ideally it is supposed to give you the best view when you are climbing up walls and pillars so that you know where you need to jump to next. This would be ideal if the camera didn?t always fight you when you try to move the camera yourself to search around for the next spot to leap to. Because of the camera issues, it can simply be a guess where to jump to next which will add to the frustration when you don?t understand why you didn?t make that jump for the tenth time. If you are properly lined up to the next jump (only certain gaps about half the time) Lara will slightly crouch and get into a leaping position so that you know you are properly lined up and aren?t just leaping to your death?.again. With camera issues being a problem since the first Tomb Raider, I really do hope one day that this will be fixed as having a bad camera only adds player frustration.

I was quite surprised that the sound quality was the most noticeable feature that I found during my play. The music was very well done and set the moods for whatever environment you happen to be immersed in perfectly. It?s a shame that the voice acting other than Lara was only mediocre at best, though the quality of the writing and cliché probably didn?t help the cause.

Upon completion of the main story, Treasure Hunt mode is unlocked but unless you are achievement hunting or striving for the 100% completion, you probably won?t even touch this mode once finished.

Combat has been slightly refined but has the same basics that Legend had. When loading a new level you get to choose your main guns and your outfit beforehand. It?s a small feature that resembles some customization but with combat not having any real challenge, it really doesn?t matter what weapons you choose in the end. You are also now given sticky grenades that are actually quite useful when locked onto an enemy and is a guaranteed kill for the smaller enemies. The ability to now shoot two enemies at once when using your pistols or two weapons is a new feature that is welcomed but not revolutionary.

While making shots in combat, your adrenaline meter fills up and when it is full you are able to pull off one shot kills while in slow motion for precision aiming. There are also certain parts while platforming around that will automatically slow things down so that you have time to jump at the right time for specific situations.

Throughout your adventure you will be faced against tigers, regular enemies with guns shooting back at you, giant spiders, panthers, and even summoned monsters and yetis. Even the enemies towards the end of the game had no real challenge and once you get the final weapon in the game, combat is a joke and even less challenging. With no bosses to fight against at all; being somewhat of a letdown, it?s apparent that combat wasn?t as big of a focus as it was in Legend.

It is apparent that combat is quite a big weakness and with no cover system you just need to strafe in and out from behind walls to avoid being shot. Even though you could do this, it?s never really challenging as the AI lacks are sort of actual intelligence. Most of the time enemies or even animals will just stand there as you shoot them. There are options to alter the difficulty of the enemies but turning it up only made the bullets do more damage instead of making combat any more of a challenge. In a way it?s almost a good thing as it made me focus more on the puzzles and exploration than having to deal with long drawn out firefights, which isn?t the sole reason most Tomb Raider fans play for.

?Substantial? exclusive DLC for the 360 has been promised, but with the story only being a few hours long it makes me wonder what may have been taken out in lieu of future content instead.

For every great moment and new feature, there seems to be an equal amount of frustration and bugs such as random floating body parts from down enemies. It felt like a tradeoff of sorts and just seemed to bring down the whole experience for myself, even being a huge fan of the series.

Tomb Raider is still leaping from point A to B then shimmying over to ledge C. This is the strength of the series but it feels much too linear especially since there are rarely ever secondary ways to solve puzzles or climb to heights. It?s a predetermined path and feels constricting when we are now able to play open ended games like Assassin?s Creed.

It plays very similar as the previous Tomb Raider games and it feels like it?s time for a new take on Lara?s adventures. Obviously multiplayer is a needed feature for future iterations, but I?d honestly just be happy with a properly working camera so that I know where I actually need to go to next. It?s another adventure with Lara and it?s basically the same old gameplay that we?ve been playing for years with minor tweaks and additions. Lara may look better but here?s to hoping that the next time we get to adventure with her it?s a much easier experience to swallow without as much frustration.

Simply fix the camera, its been an issue for WAY too long and I would be happy.

Overall: 7.1 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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