With Tomb Raider: Underworld, Crystal Dynamics have now produced their third entry into one of the gaming industry's most iconic franchises, and they're starting to shake things up a bit. Underworld is their attempt to go deeper and darker into Lara Croft's world, both with the game's storyline and with the overall tone and feel with the game. They've also tried to expand Lara's moveset, touting a new approach to game design called "What Could Lara Do?", whereby they have attempted to allow the player to do anything which Lara could conceivably do herself. But does this delving into the underworld of Tomb Raider pay off with a bounty of gold, or does this adventure turn up nothing?
At least Underworld manages to start off with quite a bang. Within seconds of starting the game, the series' trademark Croft Manor explodes, with Lara still inside. We are then taken back in time to see the events leading up to this catastrophe, as Lara explores several archaeological sites in her quest to find the legendary underworld of Avalon, where supposedly her mother is trapped. Her quest takes her from Thailand to the Mediterranean as she discovers the underlying Norse mythology behind the underworlds of several cultures, and draws closer to a powerful weapon - Thor's Hammer.
The plot serves to wrap up most of the dangling threads left from Tomb Raider: Legend, and ties them together with some elements from the very first Tomb Raider game, re-made last year as Tomb Raider: Anniversary. However, it's not as dark as it likes to think it is, with cutscenes largely wasted with shouting and gunfire, rather than allowing any emotional connection to form with the game's characters. But hey, it's Tomb Raider, and as such it manages to connect the dots in Lara's globetrotting in an interesting, if silly, fashion.
Largely, Tomb Raider: Underworld plays exactly as you'd expect it to, for better or worse. As Lara, you still still have to travel through exotic locations to find some undiscovered ancient ruins, all the while killing all the endangered wildlife you come across and ultimately gaining access to a subterranean tomb with some kind of giant mechanical statue. The structure of the game is pretty much identical to its predecessors, but if you were expecting anything different from a Tomb Raider game, then you're probably in the wrong series to begin with.
Stemming from Crystal Dynamics "What Could Lara Do?" concept, the combat in Underworld is slightly different. While wielding her trademark dual pistols, Lara is able to target two enemies simultaneously, which always did seem like a no-brainer. Lara's pistols once again come complete with unlimited ammo, although Lara can also wield a secondary weapon which is chosen at the beginning of the mission. Lara's also capable of melee attacks, although considering that her pistols never run out of ammunition, there's never much occasion to take advantage of them. This makes combat a bit on the easy side for most of the game, but later in the game enemies actually require a melee-finisher before they completely give up the ghost. Lara also has a supply of sticky grenades which are more useful for sticking onto tiny spiders and bats for comic relief.
Of course, part of being a tomb raider requires raiding tombs, which is where the famous Tomb Raider style of platforming comes into play. In most respects, the game isn't as different as you might think from Legend and Anniversary. A lot of Lara's exploring has to do with hanging from conveniently placed ledges along temple walls, pulling levers, jumping from both horizontal and vertical poles, and crouching under various low obstacles. The main addition of those two games, the grappling hook, is still present and has various uses, although not many that require a lot of thought. There are also several swimming sections in Underworld that are serviceable, but not terribly fun. However, you do get to fight sharks, just like in the movie.
One problem that does continue to get in the way of the gameplay is the camera. On several occasions, you'll find that it's impossible to see that next ledge Lara has to jump to. Combined with the dark lighting in some of the environments (since this is a 'dark' game, oh ho ho), and you'll find yourself having to rely on Lara's animations for cues on when and where you can jump. On another note, quick-time events have been adjusted in this game so that Lara doesn't simply follow button-prompts. Upon reaching one of these events, time will slow down to a crawl, and allow you to decide exactly what action you should take to avoid the obstacle. This action is usually something simple like 'jump forward', but it's nice to see a game breaking away from the button-prompt frenzy. Despite this, the platforming remains strikingly similar to other Tomb Raider entries, even with Crystal Dynamics new mantra in effect, but is still quite enjoyable. It's much more stop-start than the meditative flow of games like Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia, but Lara still manages to keep us interested as we leap from temple wall to temple wall.
One point where the game does shine is the many environments where Lara finds herself. While a few deeper and darker locations tend to blend together as somewhat generic, for the most part the outdoors environments are lush and detailed, especially the various temples. Character design is a little bland, although extra attention has been paid as always to Lara's model (and certain parts of her anatomy), as well as her animation, which is at times extraordinary. The music in the game is actually pretty good, fully orchestrated and with several memorable themes.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is not a bad game by any stretch. The leaping, climbing and gunplay are as fun as they were in Legend and Anniversary, but haven't evolved as much as they should have. The supposedly darker tone of the game also unfortunately works against it, as it ends up feeling largely generic. Where the game truly shines is in the feeling of discovery that you get whenever you first come across a colossal ancient shrine, or realising that the underwater mountain you just passed was actually the remains of giant sculpted head. Sure, it's likely the head is part of an improbable giant mechanical statue that opens a tiny door, but that's just the way Tomb Raider is. And by this point in the series, it doesn't look like it's going to change.