Ah, Tomb Raider. It's been two years since we've last had the chance to get inside Lara Croft's tight-fitting shorts and blast our way through a tomb or two in Tomb Raider: Legend. This is the third game to be developed by Crystal Dynamics after the aforementioned Legend and remake Tomb Raider: Anniversary and it's clear that they're looking to shake things up a bit. Tomb Raider: Underworld aims to continue the series' fine tradition of globetrotting and exploration, while giving the player more control over Lara's moves (of which there are apparently over a thousand now). The game was playable for all at this year's eGames & Entertainment Expo, so naturally we decided to strap on our short shorts, load up the unlimited ammo and try the game out for ourselves.
The first level we played was titled 'The Norse Connection' and saw Lara exploring a dark subterranean tomb, home to several traps and puzzles as well as a large statue of the Norse god, Thor. The environments in Underworld are certainly very detailed and atmospheric, although once again the most attention has been paid to Lara's character model. While her face is still a little bit too cartoony, most male gamers will probably be directing their attention to her other attributes, which are lovingly rendered once again. Of special note in this level is Ms. Croft's jet-black wetsuit, which shows off a generous amount of her gluteus maximus to the player. Of course, the view becomes somewhat spoiled after you perform your first roll, and her butt cheeks become dynamically peppered with dust, along with the rest of her.
The other most noticeable change are Lara's controls, which are light years away from the tank-like system of her earlier PlayStation adventures. She feels extremely tight and responsive (the controls, that is) and we rarely ran into any issues in getting her to move exactly the way we wanted her to (seriously, the controls). The only problem we found was that the animations linking her different movements sometimes seemed to be too jerky or unnatural, seeming somewhat torn in finding the balance between responsiveness and realism. Lara's grappling hook also makes a welcome return, allowing Lara to swing across large gaps and to use it in puzzles, such as pulling down a large metal door in this particular level.
Lara is also now able to pick up objects and throw them, such as stone blocks in 'The Norse Connection' which were used to weigh down floor switches. At first this seemed like a welcome addition, however Lara surprisingly has very little upper body strength and moves around at a snails pace while carrying objects. Lara's throwing ability also left a lot to be desired, as aiming proved to be difficult and the collision detection on the blocks was also a little finicky. One part of the level required you to throw stone blocks through a doorway, and because of these issues was unfortunately harder than it sounds.
The other level we played took place in Thailand and saw Lara exploring a lush tropical jungle. Unfortunately, there were only birds and spiders on which to test out the combat system, but from what we can tell it was easy to get used to and responsive. However, it was here we were able to see another cool addition to Lara's animation set, her dynamic climbing, pilfered from fellow budding videogame gymnast, Altair. As you scale cliff-faces, Lara will intuitively find both handholds and footholds, and while this doesn't affect the gameplay that much, it's still very cool to watch. Unfortunately, it was in this level that the camera decided to start impeding our progress. Essentially, the camera is entirely controlled by the player, which is a good thing in that it allows you to survey your surroundings more easily, but it also requires your constant attention. You can forget about finding an acrobatic flow as you leap from ledge to ledge, as you'll often be left scratching your head at where to go next, swinging the camera around as you look for another handhold. This is an occasion where cinematic camera angles would be useful, as they can make a platforming puzzle less frustrating for a player.
However, to end on a positive note, Tomb Raider: Underworld appears to be another enjoyable iteration in the long-standing series. It keeps everything that you've loved about the previous games, namely lush environments, creepy tombs, fast-paced action and the occasional puzzle, while genuinely attempting to fix everything that you didn't. Crystal Dynamics seem determined on making the Tomb Raider series shine once again, all that remains to be seen is whether Underworld is a diamond in the rough, or fool's gold.