7 October 2009

Tomb Raider: Underworld Review

Tomb Raider: Underworld...you've heard of it, you've probably seen trailers for it. But please, for the love of Steve - spare yourself playing it. Get Anniversary. Revel in better story-telling of Core Design, coupled with the superior graphics brought along by Crystal Dynamics. Enjoy it. Because you will not enjoy this one.

Because somewhere along the line, Lara has acquired a whole load of flabby, messy crap, seemingly thrown into her games at random. The movement controls are still as unrefined as ever - Ben Croshaw's 'cow in a supermarket trolley' description is still the most apt - less precise even than the original Tomb Raider, and that was made in 1996! Considering how uneven it was in Anniversary and Legend, you'd've thought they'd address that. But no, they didn't. C'est la vie. At least they improved the graphics, right?

Now there's an interesting juxtaposition going on here. They've improved the environments - moving away from the 'blocks of equal length' mantra of level design to a much more organic and lush feel to the levels. It's a pity, then, that they didn't actually upgrade the movement system accordingly. There are times when a precision jump that should be more than doable for Lara is impossible, seeing as there's only two types of jump - forward a certain distance and up. You can't fine tune them at all, and the game doesn't bother to adapt the distance of your jump to the context of said jump, so a lot of the time, you'll find yourself sailing over the ledge you wanted to land on and plummeting to your death.

Yet another thing that hasn't seen improvement - yes, having Lara die if she falls more than 30 feet may be realistic, but do you know what else it is? Flow-breaking, and fucking annoying. Especially considering the still-terrible camera, and the fact that ledges that you can grab onto are almost indistinguishable from those that you can't. The other games had little pits beneath platform puzzles that - if you buggered up, which was rather inevitable - you fell into and had to climb back out again. This was an ingenious method of dealing with it - a puzzle within a puzzle, if you like - however, this concept is completely done away with in Underworld, with every single pit under a platform puzzle leading to instadeath and a reload to one of the not-frequent-enough checkpoints.

The combat system is still the worst part about it, though - enemies having tons of health (see how Crystal Dynamics sway from realistic to arcade-y in the blink of an eye!) - and fully all of the weapons don't fire quickly enough, nor have enough effect on the enemy to be satisfying to shoot. The adrenaline system is a fairly interesting idea, but the fact that it takes just that little bit longer to fill it up than it takes to kill the enemies you're presented with, coupled with the fact that if it's not full, it empties means that you'll rarely get to use it in a manner which compliments the flow of the game. You'll either acquire it just as you kill the final enemy, then you use it in a surprise attack on the next set of baddies, or indeed not acquire it at all. Which is frustrating, to say the least.

Then there's the enemies who have their bullshit-o-metres turned up to 11, unleashing attacks that knock off a third of your health, knock you off your feet and require you to take so much time to recover from that another attack is headed your way before you can even think about pulling the triggers to ward it off. You're gonna die in combat - badly and often. What's worse is that despite an array of moves that should work as dodges - various flips and rolls that Lara can do whilst in shooting mode - these are nearly impossible to use effectively. The camera comes in to haunt you once again, frequently making you unintentionally back into corners and thus get mauled by the giant lizards.

There are, however, some good things - the graphics are magnificent, with this stylised reality beautifully rendered, with top-notch lighting effects and ludicrously smooth animation creating a believable world that you can explore so long as you don't try anything fancy. Or...y'know...logical. The puzzles are as well-realised as ever - even if they do rely on the old games cliche of 'no, you can't just climb over the wall'. The story fits well with the rest of the series, and its turning dark does nothing but enhance the whole deal. The voice acting - on the whole, at least - is solid and interesting, and Keeley Hawes is the best thing about it with her sultry, roguish portrayal of Lara.

They've also taken the gaming industry's advice and more-or-less done away with the 'Press X to Not Die' quicktime events. Instead letting you decide to do so, and keeping the whole thing in game without cutting to a cutscene. For instance, when a large elevator-type-thing collapses under her feet, you can still move Lara around on it as it starts to tumble towards the ground. Moving up to the top, if you're quick you'll spot a magnetic ring that you can grapple onto, leaving the elevator thing in bitty shards at the bottom, and you hanging safely onto your grapple line. Sounds tough? Well, it would be if the game put it in full speed. But it helpfully slows down, giving you just about enough time to get it done before speeding up once again. A clever interpretation of the quicktime events, and they are to be commended for it.

It's just such a shame that despite raised stakes, Crystal Dynamics have dropped the ball on so many aspects of this one. It's even more of a disappointment given how much better Anniversary was than Legend - a similar step up was required here. I would say it's only worth it for the die-hard fans, but to be honest, I think I'm one of them - having played each iteration of the franchise, and completed all but Angel of Darkness. So I can't even reccomend it to them. Annoyingly, bitterly dissappointing.


Gameplay: Sloppy controls both for exploration and combat, combined with a terrible camera detract from superbly designed puzzles and some fantastic 'adrenaline moments'. 9/20

Graphics: Stunning environments and hugely detailed, motion-captured animation, albeit with the odd bit of slowdown, and some occasionally glitches. 18/20

Sound: The environmental and vocal work is top notch, but a lack of effort for the sound effects of the weapons is very noticable. 15/20

Value for Money:
12 hours of gameplay, although quite why you'd even consider playing it through again is beyond me. 10/20

Haven't been this frustrated by a game in ages, both as a piece of art and as a game. 5/10

Total Score: 57%

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