Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
03 December 2008
Review: Tomb Raider: Underworld (PS3)
Strictly as an exploration game, Tomb Raider: Underworld falls short of the standard set by the original Tomb Raider. However, it does provide a better run/jump/climb experience than either of its immediate predecessors, Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary. Regrettably, that's about all it does competently.

Each of the last three games has a key strength: Legend provided a strong characterization of Lara, Anniversary was exceptional for its story and level design (which leans heavily on the original), and Underworld gives us the skilled Lara we've been waiting for ever since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opened the door to the new generation of acrobatic platforming. If Lara has another adventure -- and I'm not convinced she should -- the designers would be well-advised to keep the Lara of Underworld. She really is a joy to watch, and not just for her curves and slinky attire.

When I played Anniversary I felt that the designers had not taken enough liberties with the original material. When I see the opportunity offered by Underworld go wasted, I wonder if the designers simply aren't up to the task of creating compelling worlds.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: the original Tomb Raider was built out of large, dense levels, dominated by a giant structure which Lara needed to approach in several different ways. Underworld goes for gigantic levels with lots of wasted space.

The Sphinx level from Tomb Raider is the easiest example, although the Obelisk of Khamoon, St. Francis' Folly, and The Colosseum would serve just as well. Within minutes of emerging on top of the Sphinx, Lara sees ledges and doors which cry out to be explored. Looking up, you wonder if she can find a way on top of the beast's head. Eventually, each of these is visited, figured out, and bested. Despite the grand scale each level had a special intimacy, a sense of discovering and mastering a whole sequence of devious riddles which fit together like a tightly-packed mechanical watch.

By contrast the levels in Underworld are needlessly gigantic and boring, as if size alone would make them better. Instead of seeing obvious signposts around you, leading you onward to deeper and darker secrets, Lara's Underworld consists of desolate, uninteresting expanses with tiny oases of adventure connected by long hallways or jungle roads. The motorcycle that Lara straddles for half the game -- yes, half the game! -- is proof that the levels are anything but tight, fun experiences. Truly, the best moments of the game, when you first see and later scale a giant mechanical tower of stone, recall precisely the design of the original. They feel out of place compared to everything else in Underworld.

In the final level of the game the designers commit an unpardonable sin: they go from a set number of enemy creatures per level to respawning enemies. The difficulty goes way up, but not in a way consonant with the game's other challenges: running, jumping, and climbing. Perhaps I should have shelved the game, given the frustration this section caused me, but I felt the need to finish even in the face of cowardly tricks.

I'm willing to excuse modestly clumsy design if the story is top notch, but Underworld has no such saving grace. Amusingly, the designers have replaced Lara the cipher of the original game (often derided for being zero- or one-dimensional) with Lara the smoldering, resentful harpy who misses her dear, lost Mommy. She yells and threatens and glowers, hoping the noise will distract you from the stupidity of it all. Sure, you can claim there's more detail to this Lara, but you just can't bring yourself to care.

On top of that, the writers have attempted an embarrassingly amateur Grand Unified Theory of World Mythology. You'll laugh out loud more than once at the blithering stupidity Lara mutters for her little recording device.

Reportedly the original Tomb Raider developers, Core Design, wanted to make a grand trilogy starting with the ill-fated Angel of Darkness. Crystal Dynamics has pulled off a trilogy in four years, which is quite an accomplishment. I am impressed that Crystal Dynamics pulled the thread of the original game's story and wove it together with the seemingly separate thread from Legend, all leading to a tidy resolution in Underworld. It's quite a trick, but ultimately nothing more.

Note: I experienced two hard lockups while playing this game. Each required me to power cycle my PS3.

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--Matt Matthews at 19:57
Comment [ 4 ]

Comments on this post:

"Despite the grand scale each level had a special intimacy, a sense of discovering and mastering a whole sequence of devious riddles which fit together like a tightly-packed mechanical watch."

Interesting that pushing the limits of the PS1 would potentially make for better game/level design than remaking it on the PS3, but it does follow a certain logic, doesn't it?

Does Core Design still exist? Think they could do a Cara Loft version that would include better design? Seems like you didn't hate AoD, though with that horrible leveling-up system, it's hard for me to fathom that.

Fwiw, CD at the end doesn't have a clear antecedent. Core Design and Crystal Dynamics both acronymize to CD, natch. ;^)

By Blogger ruffin, at 04 December, 2008 10:02  

I agree. Haven't we seen similar on older platforms? Like the Atari 2600? Or even just arcade games.

Core was recently acquired, as I recall, and I don't know if they were going by the same name. It's not clear they're up to the level design, however, since they produced TR2, TR3, TRC, TRTLR, and TRAOD -- those were hit and miss, though I thought each game I played had some high points.

Yes, levelling up was a Bad Idea[tm].

Fixed the antecedent bug. Thanks.

By Blogger jvm, at 04 December, 2008 11:58  

Almost finished the game, and I agree with many of your comments, particularly on the story and the bike. Story is easy to ignore in a TR game, though, and while Lara may be recording crap, at least the headset is gone and the chatter with it. The bike is about as old skool TR as you can get and handled just as well.

I liked the return to scale and isolation though, and didn't think these levels' designs or objectives any more "wasted" than some of the original games. I agree completely that Mexico is overblown, and the aren't-we-clever rain system only serves to remind us how little we can explore in that huge environment.

The camera is the most unforgivable part of the game, and I hope that should a new game be made, the current camera system is given the boot. From crawling under the seat when Lara is on the bike to just refusing to pan back unless you fiddle with it a LOT, it serves as a constant reminder you're playing a [i]game[/i].

Overall though, I've spent a good portion of the game trying to figure out how to get from point
A to point B, which was always one of my favorite TR puzzles.

By Blogger LisaB, at 19 December, 2008 09:03  

LisaB: Perhaps you've finished by now.

You're right, they got the isolation mostly right. However, the thugs all over Mexico were annoying. And the monsters toward the end are humanoid enough for me that I didn't really feel alone.

I can also agree about the camera, esp. (as you noted), on the bike. Ugh.

The puzzles were hit and miss for me. I thought some were quite good, but they just never struck me as truly awesome. Maybe I'm just jaded at this point.

By Blogger jvm, at 20 December, 2008 20:28  

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