Written by Troy Benedict Tuesday, 25 January 2011 06:00
The mere mention of the Tomb Raider franchise can elicit a variety of responses from gamers. Some may think back to the early days of the franchise when Lara Croft helped pioneer a 3D style of action-adventure gaming. Others may think about how the franchise has run its course, and needs to be retired. It’s stating “The President sure is a swell guy!” in a room full of many different people, some are likely to agree, while others will think you’re absolutely crazy.
Tomb Raider: Underworld was released in 2008 to average reviews. Underworld certainly wasn’t the worst that the series has offered, and it wasn’t the best either. One of the biggest problems wasn’t the little-franchise-that-wouldn’t-die -- although I’m sure a lot of people would have been happy with Tomb Raider throwing in the towel several releases ago -- it’s that another game was released the year before and did what Tomb Raider did, but did it much, much better. That game was Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. In fact, Tomb Raider: Underworld, looking back in retrospect, was bookended by two of the best games of the decade, Uncharted and Uncharted 2.
So, how does Tomb Raider: Underworld hold up in a world where Uncharted is the new king? Tomb Raider: Underworld is a nice-looking game, even two years after its release. The characters and environments look great, albeit not quite to the caliber that other developers have pushed games over the last couple of years. The controls do feel a bit stiff, and at times controlling Lara was a bit unpredictable. Part of of the problem with the controls wasn’t, well, the controls, it was due to a lack of transitional animations between actions.
If there was one thing that a game like God of War taught the gaming development, is that animations from action to action to action needed to be immediate and responsive. If you’re in the middle of an action, and you push another direction, the animation should adjust immediately rather than follow through with a “canned” animation, get to the breaking point, and then perform that second action.
Another thing that I couldn’t get past was that Underworld sort of throws you into a somewhat open-world situation and says, “You figure it out.” There were no visual prompts, or glittery sparkles to show the location of hidden items, or directional queues. Buried in the menus are hints as to what you’re supposed to be doing. I kind of liked this, but I also disliked it at the same time. Part of it reminded me of the days when “games were tough.” I certainly liked those days, and finally figuring out the problem yourself, without help, was a great sense of accomplishment. However, I do like the handholding (aka “user friendliness”) that comes with today’s games. I’m a parent, I have limited time to game when I can, so the more I get out of a game in a shorter amount of time, the better off I like it.
I also thought the combat was not explained well, and when I could, I avoided it. Dodging gunfire and man-eating tigers was a lot more difficult than I thought that it should be, especially when compared to Uncharted, and at the same time, I remember springing around the levels and shooting people to be a lot easier back in Tomb Raider II.
The puzzle-solving is by far the strongest part of the whole Tomb Raider franchise. Sure, Lara looks good in short-shorts, shooting guys, while bouncing all over the place, but when it comes down to those Indiana Jones moments of exploration, I think that Tomb Raider will outshine the more action-oriented Uncharted series. While I avoided fighting enemies, I thoroughly enjoyed trying to figure out the levels by exploring the area.
I certainly didn’t dislike my time with Tomb Raider: Underworld, I did enjoy it. Even today, I still think it’s worthy of your time, especially if you’re looking for a budget title that delivers some fun puzzle solving with a nice-looking game. It doesn’t hold your hand and tell you what to do, like a lot of current games do, which is also it’s strength if you’re one of those do-it-yourself kind of gamer. While I, too, think that the Tomb Raider series should have ended a long time ago, I am always interested to see what the next games have in store. Perhaps this upcoming reboot of the franchise will get people excited for a return to the series again.