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Oddball Review: Tomb Raider Underworld (Xbox 360)

Lara Croft stars as the heroine of Tomb Raider: Cleavage.

I haven’t done a review in a while. Sadly, since the rise of the HD era, all of my vintage video capture equipment is no longer sufficient for the purpose of grabbing screenshots of high-res video games and Blu-ray movies. Nevertheless, I’ve been spending far too much time consuming media and far too little actually producing anything of value, even a schlocky video game review on a blog that no one reads. Consider, then, today’s review of Tomb Raider: Underworld a first step toward rectifying that.

One way that the frugal (a.k.a: cheap-ass) gamer can enjoy his video gaming pastime for very little expense is to buy games a year or two after their release. Although I’ve always been a “mild fan” of the venerable Tomb Raider series (who can trace his lineage all the way back to 1996’s very first installment on the PC), I never bought Underworld when it hit store shelves in late 2008. I did, however, download and play the free demo and liked what I saw. So when a friend popped in the DVD of Angelina Jolie’s first Tomb Raider film over the Independence Day weekend, I got in the mood to revisit this storied video game franchise on my own time.

Tomb Raider: Underworld is a direct sequel to 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, which I bought (at full price) and enjoyed that year, but quickly traded in as it was quite short and had essentially no replay value. By comparison, when I picked up Underworld a couple days ago, I paid eight bucks and change. I can say with certainty that Underworld would have to suck pretty hardcore for me to feel ripped off after a transaction like that. That’s the advantage of buying old stock, friends. After hitting up Xbox Live for the free DLC packs (mostly costumes and such), I fired up the game and decided to see what my eight greenbacks got me.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of anything about Legend, the previous game in the series. My memory of it is very flash-in-the-pan, like a recollection of a dream I had five years ago. So I was a little bit (okay, a lot) confused when the game dropped me right into a scene straight out of an action movie: Croft Manor was burning, Lara was trying to escape from it, and all kinds of shit was hitting the fan. None of this made any sense. I thought I at least remembered the climactic final scene from Legend, and it hadn’t involved burnin’ down the house (with apologies to the Talking Heads) whatsoever. What’s going on?

As it turned out, this little “teaser” scene at the beginning of Underworld is precisely that: a teaser. In other words, it’s actually a snippet of action that comes later in the game’s story. Shortly after the teaser reaches a climax of sorts, we cut to a very cinematic title animation, followed by a date card reading “One Week Earlier…” Yeah, thanks for throwing me for a loop right out of the gate. Oh, and that teaser? You earn 25G for completing it. It basically consists of walking around three corners, jumping twice and crouching once. If you’re wanting to powerlevel your Gamerscore, this game is looking like a promising way to do it.

Vaulting a wall in coastal Thailand

Once you really get into the platforming action of Tomb Raider: Underworld, and if you have any familiarity at all with the earlier games, you’ll probably feel right at home. This is Tomb Raider at its most pure: As the ever-athletic Lara Croft, you’ll be running and jumping from ledge to ledge, climbing and scaling your way up the sides of immense ancient ruins and delving deep into hidden caves and catacombs. Through it all, Lara is in pursuit of the truth behind the legend of Avalon, the mythical resting place of King Arthur (and also, apparently, where her mother has been trapped since an unfortunate accident that occurred during Lara’s childhood). As I mentioned, it’s a direct continuation of the story from the previous game, so if you haven’t played Legend, you’d do well to seek it out first.

The visuals in Underworld are mostly quite good for a Tomb Raider game. The underwater caverns in your first mission are nice, but as you’ll spend the entire time traipsing through rotting old tunnels, there’s not much to look at. The graphics come alive much more in the second chapter, when you travel to the southwestern coast of Thailand and bear witness to some beautiful vistas that remind me very much of Thailand’s actual Phi Phi Islands. You’ll also fight your fair share of enemies, from gigantic squid to tigers and venom-spewing man sized lizards, though most of the smaller enemies’ models aren’t all that detailed and look somewhat chunky and dated.

By comparison, Lara herself is at her visual best here, and the game’s developers have thrown in plenty of outfits for her that reveal a fair bit of skin. One of the most well-known “memes” of the original Tomb Raider, of course, were the Madonna-esque, pointy breasts of Miss Croft rendered in as few polygons as 1996 technology could possibly have mustered. By comparison, you won’t find any rough edges or jagged polys on the Lara of Underworld.

The panthers are waiting to see if she'll lose her balance.

The more you play this game, though, the more you realize that most aspects of it lack a certain level of polish. Underworld seems like a solid A game, but it’s not a AAA game by any stretch of the imagination. In particular, if you’ve played any of the Uncharted games on the PlayStation 3, you’ve been hopelessly spoiled. Uncharted is essentially the PS3-exclusive answer to Tomb Raider, and both Uncharted and Uncharted 2 have not only won countless critical accolades and awards, they also deserve every one of them. Stacked up against competition like that, Tomb Raider: Underworld feels like it’s missing something. Indeed; it’s missing many things: The witty yet deftly-written dialogue, the engaging story, the awe-inspiring vistas, the incredible gunplay. Tomb Raider does well at all of these (except the last point; more on that later), but never comes close to excelling, especially not to the same level that Uncharted does.

Although it’s an enjoyable game overall, Underworld’s two biggest flaws are its camera system and its combat mechanics. The camera system is, in a word, maddening. You can freely control it with the right thumbstick, yes; but it has limited range of movement, and this range seems to arbitrarily shrink and expand based on where Lara is and what she’s doing. Presumably, the camera attempts to make sure that it never exists “outside” the level geometry, and always tries to keep Lara in view. The problem is that, in so doing, it often renders it impossible to see where you’re going. You’ve precariously climbed up to an outcropping of rock and are trying to line up your jump to the top of a column, and you can’t maneuver the camera such that the column is in view. Argh! This doesn’t always happen — as I said, it’s a function of Lara’s location and the level geometry around her — but it’s definitely happened to me a few times.

More than that, even while you are just trying to keep focused on where you’re headed, the camera may swing around ridiculously to the point where it actually gives you a headache. It seems like you’re often fighting with the camera system and thus are acutely aware simply that it exists, which in my opinion is a design failure. Some amusement is also to be had: More often than not, while trying to get a look at my surroundings and plan my next route, the camera ends up planting itself in such a way that your virtual point-of-view is thrust straight down Lara’s shirt, or blocked almost entirely by a closeup of her ass. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s a very fine ass. But this is really just annoying when you find yourself having to reposition Lara out of the way (without making her fall to her death) just to figure out where you should be going next.

The combat mechanics, meanwhile, are where the game really trips over itself and falls flat on the floor. Unlike Uncharted, where you almost hoped to get into a tremendously epic battle against six hundred million raving terrorist lunatics, when enemies appear in Tomb Raider: Underworld you’ll roll your eyes and pray that it ends soon. The firing rate feels abysmally slow, the targeting system is wonky and the game just seems to come down a huge notch in quality every time you get into a shooting match. Most noticeably absent is any sort of cover mechanic, which — being that it’s something almost every other third person shooter has today — makes it feel like you’re missing your left arm. I think Underworld wouldn’t really have lost anything if it had dropped the combat entirely, but I would have preferred a system more like Uncharted‘s, which actually works.

That said, Underworld has a whole lot more climbing, platforming and puzzling than Uncharted, so it appears that the game knows its weaknesses and its strengths and plays to them, for the most part.

I haven’t completed Tomb Raider: Underworld — in fact, I’m not even halfway through — but assuming it doesn’t change radically between now and the final cutscene, I think it’ll turn out to be a fairly solid game. Certainly, it’s worth the price at the $8-$10 you’ll find it selling for at your local retailers. As long as you aren’t expecting it to deliver combat like Uncharted or Gears of War, and if you’re jonesing for some platforming in exotic and adventurous locales, I don’t have a problem recommending it.

Oddball Verdict: Recommended for a casual evening of spelunking.

4 thoughts on “Oddball Review: Tomb Raider Underworld (Xbox 360)

  1. I believe I am required by law to mention the term “Retro Gaming Month” every time either of us talks about a game more than six months old on this site. So there ya go.

    Anyway, I own this game (and noticed you now have it, too). I agree that the combat is pretty bad (and having never played Uncharted, I can’t compare the two franchises). However, I’d posit that the combat in the Tomb Raider series has always sucked. That’s not to excuse this game’s poor combat, only that Tomb Raider has generally been more about the exploring than the gunplay, even going back to the first one.

    I also have the playable DLC for this game. The one with Lara is a bit meh, but I liked “Lara’s Shadow,” because it’s essentially the platforming bits on steroids. There’s some combat, but no gunplay at all, and they mix up the platforming formula enough to make it interesting on its own (it does use the “every game’s gotta have it now” bullet time gimmick, but I don’t hold that against it too much).

    Oh, and also: this game and Legend form a trilogy with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, which was the reimagined version of the first game that came out a couple of years ago. Crystal Dynamics worked that one so that its backstory now fits with Legend and Underworld.

    1. Dah — I should have titled this under the “Retro Gaming Month” moniker, although there is no longer any rhyme or reason to when this “month” occurs, and often times said month may only contain one retro gaming review. 🙂

      You make a fair point that Tomb Raider never really excelled in the gunplay aspect, although it almost always featured some modicum of it. At least it is still quite good at the exploring and the puzzle solving, where it easily bests the competition.

      As far as Uncharted goes, it’s the closest to “playing a movie” that I’ve come to in terms of the epic scale (Heavy Rain is not up for discussion here), but it mostly holds your hand through the exploring parts and there are very few, if any, puzzles to be solved. By contrast, Underworld often has me just jogging around and gaping at the scenery while I try to figure out how I’m supposed to make that thing come down here and stay there long enough for the other thing to open up and yada yada. It’s pretty fun.

      Oh yes, Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Interestingly, it and Underworld came out around the same time, but it was Anniversary that I bought at the time. I never finished it, but got perhaps halfway through before trading it in for some other gotta-have-it title of the month. I still have my savegames, naturally, so I should pick up another el cheapo copy sometime and finish it. I don’t remember much of anything about the 1996 original’s storyline, so if Crystal Dynamics twisted it around about to fit it into their canon, I neither noticed nor was bothered by it. (I’m very far from a Tomb Raider purist in the story sense of the word, anyway.)

      Thanks for the heads up about the DLC for Underworld. I was interested in it, so I picked up a 1600 MS point card while I was at Gamestop the other day. Will probably buy them both and check them out after finishing the main story. I still haven’t gotten far enough to even understand where Lara’s doppelganger comes from, but I do know that she’s there and that she’s the focus of the “Lara’s Shadow” DLC. Sounds pretty good.

      One thing that’s nice, either way, is that we can talk about Tomb Raider games at all without rolling our eyes. For so many years there in the interim, every game with the Tomb Raider name attached to it really did suck vomit through a swirly-straw. I mean, I played part of “The Angel of Darkness” and it wasn’t even a Tomb Raider game. It was horrid.

      Oh — speaking of the 1996 original and all of its perfunctory pointy polygon puerility, I found this screenshot on the web:

      Pointy polygonal Lara, circa 1996

      Games were so ugly as to be almost unplayable in the early days of 3D. 2D sprite-based games like Duke Nukem looked better to me than Quake and that ilk. But that’s a whole other dissertation.

  2. Intriguingly enough, I’ve been toying with the idea of buying Anniversary and (re)buying Legend — they’re $20 total used at Gamestop. I don’t have an Edge card any longer (never picked one up after my last one expired while my 360 was toast last year), but I doubt I’ll cry too many tears over the $2 I would have saved. I dunno why, I just felt like I wanted to play them.

    I’ve always thought that the Tomb Raider series — like Mirror’s Edge (Hey! There’s another subject for a “Retro Gaming (Insert Timeframe Here)” post!) — would be much better if they dropped the gunplay and what not altogether. The platforming — though janky at times — is what both games do best. And I, too, played Angel of Darnkess. Bleh. For years Forster kept trying to give me his free copy of the game (I think it came with a video card he bought), and I borrowed it once, played it, and gave it right back. 🙂

    And honestly, even back in 1997 I wasn’t that impressed with the pointy boobs and jagged polygons of the original Tomb Raider (and its immediate sequels, two of which I own). Give me quality 2D over cruddy 3D any day.

  3. Heh…I’m sure I will get around to playing Mirror’s Edge again, especially because I never finished it, either. (Are you detecting a trend there?) I should write up a retro review of it, too.

    Funny that you fell into a copy of Angel of Darkness free of charge and then promptly attempted to return it anyway. ^__^ That thing was horrible. I even cheated my way up to a higher level just to experience the asylum, because I enjoy such settings, but couldn’t find that one even remotely entertaining. Buggy as hell, choppy and slow, ugh…it was a mess.

    I agree that back in 1996-1999 or thereabouts, most 3D games were so full of jagged polygons that they were really just visually inferior (IMO) to 2D sprite-based games. There’s a whole spate of games from that generation that I never replay because they are so ungodly ugly, like the first PC Tomb Raiders, Blood II: The Chosen (well, OK, I did replay it that one time), the first two Quakes and that ilk. I do make exceptions for the best games of the era, like System Shock 2.

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