Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Let's Review: Tomb Raider: Underworld

When I picked up Underworld, I hadn't played a Tomb Raider game since the awfulness that was Angel of Darkness was released. Prior to that I had played every Tomb Raider with the exception of Chronicles. Having been apart from Lara for so long, I got back into the franchise with Underworld, a game which follows up from the previous, Legend and also addresses some plot from Anniversary. So my entry into the game was met with some confusion having not played the previous installments however this didn't stunt my enjoyment of the game too much. The plot was simple enough to pick up and accept as it played out.

 Having started the game with memories of the good old times had with Lara, I was confronted with a big change that had occurred in all gaming that had some how crept up on me. There was an obligatory tutorial level. In the original games, notably 1, 2 and 3, Lara's mansion had served this purpose, but if you chose to start the game directly you were thrown right into it. In Tomb Raider 3, quite literally I might add.

 In games today, it's normal to have an easy introduction to the game and be told the controls as you go (too many buttons). I didn't feel frustrated by the tutorial as it gave a starting point to my all ready fractured understanding of the plot, but it just gave me a sharp moment of clarity in recognizing the norm of modern gaming in contrast of my fuzzy golden tinted memories spent reading game manuals and experimenting with the keyboard.

 So Lara begins her journey with her house on fire, and once in control it becomes your duty to guide her through the blazing remains. After "accidentally" losing Lara to the flames a couple of times, I eventually got her out of there only for a supposed friend of Lara's begin shooting at her. It is found out why later on in the game after a cut back to that scene and some some cryptic dialogue. But before then, the scene fades to white and we join Lara two weeks earlier, on a boat, in some wonderfully impractical attire, out in the middle of the sea. Now that's more like it. In at the deep end *pause for groans*.

Wearing barely anything, surrounded by sharks, bleeding from the ankle... I got this.
 By this point I was exploring the underwater caverns only accessed by puzzles. It felt like home. The first puzzle is a big one and there is a lot of space to explore. Throughout the story Lara is rewarded with Thor's Gauntlets and Belt (and later on Mjolnir, the Hammer) which enable her to move enormous platforms allowing the puzzles to feel even bigger and more complex.

 My overall experience of Tomb Raider games has been that the game generally starts out in a normal universe, an adventurous girl exploring tombs and caves, doing a lot of climbing and finding ancient artifacts and then the whole thing turns on its axis and suddenly there are supernatural forces erupting from every one of the earth's orifices and Lara is doing battle against zombie-esque Atlanteans, Xian guards, mutant scientists... dinosaurs, the Kraken, Grecian/Roman gorillas... The list goes on. This installment doesn't disappoint on those grounds. The finale goes off with a massive "saving the world from supernatural destruction" bang, and with a pleasing and heart felt ending that I imagine satisfies the the story that this game closes on.

 In Underworld, Lara has some new skill sets and gadgets, one of which is an 'Active  Sonar Map'. I used it perhaps about twice in the whole game, the first because I was prompted to, and the second because I was a little stuck and remembered I had it. It didn't help me find the way out, however. It was supposed to present the player with an alternative viewing angle, the player can receive feedback from a large scope of local environment and spot potential secrets, items needed to progress, or  openings to new areas. I didn't use it... but then again I bet I missed out on a lot of secrets. As a tool it was not essential for progression of the main story, but would be of great use to those combing every area for every secret.
Lara is represented by a piece from the game Ludo.

 Lara was also sporting some new weapons, my favourite being the grenades. I used them a little too freely and against  human enemies, I found them most effective. The big cats, lizards and other overly large nasties moved around too much for the explosives to be effective, but for some reason the human enemies proved to be too dense to move out of the way making them one of the easiest enemies encountered.

 Now let's have a little chat about the combat. As previously indicated, I hadn't played a Tomb Raider game since the originals. My experience of the combat back then was erratic jumping left, right, forwards and backwards all the while hammering the Ctrl key or X button until the thing I wanted dead, stopped moving. So the new intelligence of the enemies and their tenacity came as quite a shock.

That moment when you fill your pants.
 My usual tactics were simply not working, and Lara was being mauled by tigers, lizards and spiders while under my control. I was helped though by Lara's new ability to lock on to two targets at a time which left me free to just fire aimlessly knowing Lara would figure out what I was asking her to do, while I concentrated on dodging and building up my "adrenaline meter". Having not played Legend or Anniversary at this point, I was baffled as to performing the "adrenaline headshot", a new mechanic that slowed combat down to bullet time, allowing the player to target an enemies head and fire one accurate combat ending shot. This move, thankfully, didn't feel too essential, however I was saddened by how much trouble I was having with it. That was until I went online and found tutorial after tutorial proving I wasn't the only poor incompetent soul. If you are here hoping for a tutorial on this, I'm afraid I'm still no more enlightened and have to disappoint you.

 I also found the age old frustration at Lara's controls by this point, they were fluid and the animation of movement was fairly sophisticated, however they felt highly sensitive. Lara stuck to walls unintentionally and occasionally just let go from a hold, leading to either the repetition of a jump sequence or death.

There she falls again.
 I feel that brings us smoothly onto the aesthetic of the game. The first few sequences in Lara's home and in the Kraken's den under ground didn't touch me with its looks; the scale of the puzzles here were the main focus for my attention. The moment I began to see the game rather than just looking at it, came when Lara enters Coastal Thailand and before you lays some of the better water animations and rendering that gaming has to offer. Seriously, it looks good enough to drink. But clear the sharks out first of course. Now for the rest of the green scenery; I had heard the term "lush" used before when describing in game environments, and until I saw the greenery and the seamless integration of traversable platforms with the scenery  I never knew what the word really meant.

My new definition of "lush" right here. Basically means "green". 
 From then on I really enjoyed the look of the game, and even more so when delving into the ruins of the ancient Norse puzzles and everything takes on a lovely blue LED glow. The textures of the game never had issues loading and everything looked and felt organic; there were no real occasions where the environment jarred or looked forced.

 In games and films the music and sounds should be adding information and feelings to what your seeing and enhancing the experience overall. For me, I know a game or film has done this right if I don't remember the music later on after engaging with the medium. I don't remember a thing about the music and sound in this game, save for the high octave 'dingly' sound that plays when you have reached a check point (that is ingrained in my memory forever). Having gone back and listened to some tracks, it has further assured me that the music in the game worked. It feels like I'm listening to it for the first time, yet I am transported back into my memory of certain points in the game play. There are some lovely remnants of the original tomb raider sound track from 1996, and they are subtle enough to make it feel like new sounds.

 I only played the main game on the disc but there are some DLCs available which contribute further to the story. 'Beneath the Ashes' and 'Lara's Shadow' are the titles available, in both we see more of Lara's doppelgänger and also a further encounter with Natla, the main boss. Having not played them I cannot comment on the value of the DLC and if they are worth playing. I felt satisfied with the content in the main game which is good however I wasn't left craving further story, so the DLC did not appeal to me.

 Overall, the game felt like the Tomb Raider I've known and loved in my childhood, though with a little more emotion and humanity from our heroine. It's definitely a franchise that has matured and I'm glad to see it through my own older eyes. Ok, enough with me feeling ancient.

 I hope you enjoyed the read, if not, I hope you gave up before getting all the way down here and finding out you've wasted a half hour. If you have any comments or feed back I'd love to hear, and also your opinions of this game if you have played it!

You can watch my full playthrough of Tomb Raider: Underworld here on my channel, its all in a handy playlist.

 Thank you for reading, have a lovely day, happy gaming and I will speak to you all next time! Buh-bye!


  1. Before this game was even released, I had a bit of a disappointment when I learned that it would finish the story started in Legend. I mean, it was said that they were making a trilogy, but I didn't think Anniversary would count as part of that trilogy, being merely a remake of the first Tomb Raider (even though it was an excellent remake). So I was a bit sad and felt that I'd been kinda betrayed somehow, like "You were expecting more? Gotcha!"

    But anyway, when I played the demo (the beginning of the Thailand level), I was impressed by its beauty and I really enjoyed the gameplay. I was quite excited when I got the full game and had a good time playing it. It was awesome, really nice and the story was interesting. But then, I got to the Jan Mayen level, where you get Mjolnir, and disappointment striked back.
    In every level until then, once I reached the heart of the level and got what I was looking for, I basically had to go back and get out of the temple. Then comes Jan Mayen, a great level like the others, but then I get to Mjolnir, asking myself how I'm gonna get back from there because everything crumbled on my way, and... Oh, okay, I just don't have to go back this time. Lara finds her own unseen way. How convenient...

    It wouldn't be such a big deal to me if the rest of the game from that point didn't feel so botched. After Jan Mayen, you get on a boat that is the exact replica of the one that sinked earlier in the game, and you basically have to do the exact same thing, except this time you have Mjolnir to make it easier and funnier. I wouldn't even call that a level, it couldn't be shorter or less interesting. And then, the last level, being mainly corridors where you destroy an endless bunch of enemies. And after all this time looking for her since Lara lost her as a kid, you finally find her mother (how convenient again, to have her there alone in that room, eh?), or what's left of her, but you don't even have time to get emotional about it. "Hello, Mom! Bye, Mom!"

    Ah, I don't know. It's a good game and I like playing it, but I can't help but feel that it was botched and that they could have done so much better with the last levels.
    Anyway, I'm finished ranting about it. I'm glad to see some new stuff on your blog and I loved reading this post. And after all, it's this game that made me stumble upon your channel in the first place. I didn't feel like replaying it myself because my computer crashed a lot the previous time, so I was looking for a let's play of it, and there you were with your lovely accent. That's one excellent reason to be happy about this game ^^

    1. Aww, thank you kap ^^ I too was a bit disappointed by the duplicated boat level, though they may not have shown at the time because... you know... the hammer was pretty amazing. I've gotten used to the blatant games in stories with games, and the miraculous escape from places that we don't get to see or navigate, its just quick ways to move the game along. A good game can have a bit of that but a Great game knows how to avoid falling into those traps. Thank you for reading, dude :)