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Tomb Raider: Underworld

Score: 78%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:

It almost seems as if Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise have been around as long as console and PC gaming. After taking a short hiatus, Crystal Dynamics gave the series a reboot two years ago with Tomb Raider: Legend. Now, Tomb Raider: Underworld seeks to continue fanning the spark ignited by the largely successful revamp.

Without a doubt, Lady Croft has never looked so good in pixels. The graphics in TR:U are beautiful and expansive. The locations are immaculately detailed, with luscious foliage and richly textured stone and wood. And the water effects... WOW! There are numerous cutscenes which do a fantastic job of showcasing some of the more exotic locales and, I'll admit, there were several times when I stopped worrying about playing the game and just enjoyed looking around a bit. However, this beauty comes at a high cost, and it is a cost the game almost cannot afford.

The sound effects in the game are quite robust, with crackling fires, splashing waves and many other auditory tidbits. It is a smorgasbord for the ears, one that will feed the acute explorer a bounty of goodness. The music, while occasionally a bit over dramatic, does a nice job pacing the game without being too distracting.


Gameplay:

What would you expect from a Tomb Raider game other than exploration, puzzles and lots of Lara jumping, climbing, swinging, swimming and shooting things? Tomb Raider: Underworld delivers all of these and more. The story continues where Tomb Raider: Legend left off, even including a brief video synopsis for players who did not play Legend. TR:U finds Lara searching to discover more information about her mother and following up the last research her father began before his disappearance. There are six gorgeous and expansive areas to explore. As with previous games in the series, there are lots of puzzles to solve as well as path-finding across beautiful, yet deadly, terrain. The verticality of the explorable terrain has been substantially increased and good use must be made of Lara's acrobatic skills to successfully navigate the over, under and around the many obstacles present.

Though still not the central theme of the game, there are several instances of combat in each level, both with animals and humans, giving Lara ample opportunity to make use of her impressive arsenal of weaponry. Two new additions have been made to combat in TR:U. The first is the introduction of adrenaline. As Lara fights, her adrenaline meter will fill up. When it is full, she can perform a special manuever, often ending in a one-shot kill. Lara can also use stored adrenaline to concentrate her fire, in essence slowing down her enemies and increasing her damage output. While fun initially, this ability does lead to what I find as a weakness in the game (more on this below). The second new introduction is the ability to target two antagonists simultaneously. This is a great help when engaging smaller creatures such as bats or spiders and helps when human opponents are trying to approach from multiple sides.

If you get lost or confused, you can use your handy PDA to help find your way or describe your objective. Easily accessible, this handy tool allows access to Lara's arsenal of weapons as well as providing location data and a sonar, which works in water or on land, giving a 3-D image of Lara's surrounding. This feature is a definite positive and will be used more than once by most players.


Difficulty:

The overall difficulty of Tomb Raider: Underworld on the default settings should not prove overly challenging for most players. There will inevitably be the missed jumps, sending Lara hurdling to her death, but the frequent autosaves make this a non-issue for the most part. Difficulty can be scaled somewhat in the options Menu to make combat a bit harder. On the default settings, combat is ridiculously easy. The targeting in combination with Lara's adrenaline abilities and the less-than-intelligent enemies makes most combat just a matter of locking on and firing repeatedly. The ability to access any of Lara's weapons on the fly also negates any advantage adversaries might otherwise have.

The puzzles, while interesting, quickly became more of an annoyance to me than a real challenge. There were often physics or graphical glitches when you needed to move counter-weights around, causing undue frustration, as you would have to delicately place objects that should have just dropped into place. The graphical problems are not limited to these puzzles either. Several times during the course of play, Lara would phase into a wall or the ground, causing a stutter-loop as the game tried to rationalize her position. This also happened to me once while on her motorbike.

The most difficult part I found was fighting the tedium that started to set in towards the end of the third act. While the storyline was great and the graphics were fantastic, TR:U was still lacking in enough variety to set itself apart from other similar games. Although there were often multiple paths to take to get across an open area, the game is still mostly linear and quickly falls into the pattern of "run through a narrow area, find larger area with a puzzle, solve it, rinse, repeat."


Game Mechanics:

First and foremost, the mechanics of Tomb Raider: Underworld are about movement. Lara runs, walks, jumps, crawls, dives, shimmies, hangs, swings, swims and balances across a myriad of obstacles. With the exception of the previously mentioned phasing/collision problems, this is handled relatively well. However, like many other good games, the Achilles Heel rears its ugly head in the form of an obstinate camera. Too many times the camera will pan or zoom of its own accord, often with no benefit of any kind to the player. Even more frustrating is the inability to get a good look at some areas when you are preparing for a death-defying leap across the abyss. The camera was much easier to control with the keyboard/mouse set up as opposed to the gamepad, but it was still far too argumentative.

As mentioned earlier, the beauty of the landscape comes at a heavy price, and that price is a severe reduction in framerate from time to time, making the game stutter and causing major frustrations to the player. Thankfully, these drops in the framerate seemed to happen somewhat sparcely, yet they were still noticeable enough to make mention of here.

Several other features are worth a quick mention in passing. The first is the ability to save anywhere. Thank you. Autosaves are great, but I HATE having to try and find the next "save spot" before I can quit a game. Game developers that do not include a save anywhere feature should be taken behind the proverbial woodshed and beaten until... but I digress. Each level includes collectible items. While this sometimes annoys me, it was not the case this time. The items are non-descript, eight-sided metallic things that are sometimes out in the open and sometimes hiding in jars and other breakable objects. They did not really make sense in context with the game, which does serve as a slight drawback, but they didn't really distract me from play either, and I'm supposing that they unlock some new gear or outfits for Lara if you collect enough.

All in all, the game is good for what it is, but doesn't take that next leap to greatness that the series needed. Beautiful graphics marred by some poor framerate, an ornery camera mixed with inventive and smooth, but repetitive gameplay, and a fairly engrossing storyline make this title something that a true fan will likely enjoy but not something that I would recommend to those just joining the series.


-The Mung Bard, GameVortex Communications
AKA Buddy Ethridge

Minimum System Requirements:



OS: Vista/XP, Processor: 3+ GHz Intel or 2.5 GHz AMD, Memory: 1 GB Ram (XP) / 2 GB Ram (Vista), Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 6 series (6800 GT or better) / ATI 1300XT or better, HD: 7GB, Sound Card: DirectX 9.0c compatible and drivers
 

Test System:



OS: XP, Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo CPU 3.06 GHz, Memory: 3.35 GB of RAM, Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTS 512

Sony PlayStation 3 Prince of Persia Nintendo Wii Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars

 
Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated