Thursday, December 17, 2009

Xbox 360 look: Tomb Raider Underworld

Prior to Underworld my only experience with the Tomb Raider franchise was the PC version of the first game. In fact it was only the demo version and I spent more time manipulating the camera to see more of Lara Croft's curves(well at the time they were more like angles). Nearly a decade and a half later I find myself with the latest in the series and hey I even played through it.

Seeing as how I've missed about thirty games I'm not sure what the deal is with a lot of the characters in this game. I recognize Lara sure but apparently she has to deal with this rival named Amanda. Amanda is so goth she has her own Succubus which she keeps in a glass jar. Predictably tables are turned, crosses are doubled, and Lara has go to opposite ends of the world to find the tools necessary to stop the bad guys.

These tools are located in ancient ruins and are designed in a way where only the dexterous can reach its hidden treasures. In fact a lot of exploration in this game is tied more towards solving the various platforming puzzles than tinkering with pressure plates, messing with light sources, or finding various keys of all shapes and sizes.

Lara is definitely fit for the job because in her youth she was apparently a gold medal gymnast and her parents were great archealogists. Not only does she have that whole pressure plate stuff mastered but she can jump reasonably well, swing gracefully from the inexplicably large number of bars placed everywhere, and grab a hold of crevices that have conveniently made paths for her to easily figure out.

3D platforming has always been rather problematic and this game suffers at times from it. Early on the platforming is fluid and well put together. This is handled by using a sort of forced system where as long as Lara is facing the right way and/or is in the right position she will successfully make every jump. In a way there are no mistakes only miscalculations so as long as the player pays attention to the environment they can survive the most precarious of platforms. This is important because Lara is a bit on the fragile side and falling for more than 10 feet is usually fatal. Later on however the restrictions are eased to the point where the safe path isn't so obvious and I felt like at times what feels like the natural way to progress comes off as un-natural. This is a bit hard to describe so bear with me here. Late in the game I have to escape from a pit. There are some platforms I can't reach so to get to them I end up crawling on a statue to reach them. I'm not sure if this was how it was supposed to work or I cheated a little. All the same it felt very strange.

To help Lara along she has various pieces of equipment. There's the always handy flashlight but Lara will frequently make use of a grappling hook. This little number is necessary cause there are quite a few huge gold rings placed over chasms or nearby cliffs so Lara can swing across or rapple down. More than slightly useless are various other tools like cameras, sonar, and so on. The camera would be one thing if there was stuff worth getting a picture of and the sonar would help if the game wasn't almost completely linear and thus near impossible to get lost in.

Speaking of useless Lara also has access to a large variety of flips and rolls. I think these are done purely for style as I've tried using them for what might be their intended purpose(like dodging traps or avoiding enemy attacks) and ended up getting killed for my trouble. They are fun to watch and very well animated though. If the intended purpose was to show off well that's cool too.

Lara also really wouldn't be herself without her trademark guns. Yes of course I'm talking about her dual pistols that she takes with her on every adventure. These are handy for capping the various bats, bugs, giant spiders, humans, and whatever other nasties that happen to bother her. Before each new area she can even decide what secondary weapon to carry along(like a shotgun, a pair of uzis, a speargun, and so on). Thankfully there are no bosses to fight or anything because I'm not sure I'd be able to stand it. The combat in this game is pretty terrible. Every enemy takes several bullets to cap and they frequently like to double-team Lara. Her melee attack actually tends to be more useful than anything as it keeps enemies on the ground and unable to react.

Worse still is Lara's motorcycle. I'm not sure when the developers gave her one of these but it is one horrid piece of work. It also makes very little sense from a design perspective because some of the stages have ancient ruins designed around driving a motorcycle inside. Boy if those thousands of years old Ancient Civilizations didn't have ramps for Lara to drive her motorcycle over I'm not sure what she'd do.

Like any other higher power the camera in this game dictates the success and failure of the player. Unfortunately in this game's case it's more failure than anything. It's actually not too bad at first since some camera swinging is necessary to find the best way to reach the next area. At times the camera will even point out areas that Lara can traverse. Before all is said and done however expect countless moments where the camera is focused on her feet or some other location that probably won't save Lara from a horrible death.

In a way I'm thankful and also confused by the way Underworld handles death. The checkpoint system is extremely generous and I think the most progress I ever lost due to becoming a corpse was less than three minutes. What confuses me though is that there are medkits and health vials that can be used to restore Lara's health. I find this weird because Lara's health is restored when she dies. Now I know what you're saying, the healthkits are for the players who don't want to die. To this I respond with "why bother?"

The biggest problem with this game is that quite simply it's rushed. The first couple areas are great in that they feature beautiful locales, solid mechanics, and are fun to play through. Before long however the locales are dull, the level designs have become pedestrian, and worse still the mechanics simply start to fall apart. Towards the end of the game you will die and it won't be your fault.

The most unfortunate aspect of all is that for me at least the game never becomes truly terrible. The worst bits of the game are thankfully very brief(they all involve blue kool-aid that kills instantly) and the ending focuses on Lara's platforming rather than some terrible shoot-out. This disappoints me because I can't make up a bunch of clever analogies like "Wow she's great for the first couple dates but before long she sets fire to your bed and strangles the cat." This game turns into a pure mediocrity instead of a pure piece of crap. I guess something like "style over substance" would be more fitting but that's such a boring phrase. For that matter it doesn't quite fit as her style really isn't all that great either.

Still I think I might give Tomb Raider: 15th Anniversary a chance anyway. I've heard a lot of great things about it and apparently it's a remake of one of the few great games in the series. I can see where they're coming from here cause Underworld has its moments but that's all they really are...just moments.

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