Chalk it up as yet another game from E3 with mega-potential that ultimately disappointed for all the wrong reasons. Tomb Raider: Underworld had all the makings of a proper resurrection for the franchise, but it ultimately stagnates, falling ill to sophomorsh flaws that have crippled many third-person games in the past. You'd think that Crystal Dynamics would make it a point to avoid the genre's biggest gripes, but they seemed to have overlooked these issues, perhaps in order to make the game's holiday launch.
A few days ago, I reviewed the newest Sonic game, and found myself rather bothered at how little Sega cares about the Sonic fanbase. The Tomb Raider franchise has endured much of that same heat that the most recent Sonic games have, as both franchises fell from grace considerably over the past decade. Crystal Dynamics have been doing a better job handling Lara Croft than Core did, but it's still nowhere near a great job.
Back at E3, when I first laid my hands on Tomb Raider: Underworld, I remarked that it felt like a proper return to form for the franchise. And, for the most part, it is. You see, for the first time in a long time, the 'tomb raider' name is actually apt for this iteration, and you'll find that out almost as soon as you start the game. As is status quo for the series, the game will take you through a training mission of sorts through the Croft Manor, but there's a bit of a twist here – someone has triggered a bunch of explosives in Lara's house and now you'll have to escape before the manor turns into ruins.
The training stage is relatively quick, and when you're done, a little cut-scene will trigger (which I won't spoil), and shortly after you find yourself traveling a week back in time to recap. You find yourself on Lara's boat in the middle of an ocean where another cut-scene greets you. Once that's done, it's time to explore. What immediately impressed me about Underworld was how eager it is to tell you that traditional Tomb Raider game design is here, as you'll quickly find yourself in a cavern buried deep below the sea, after swimming a bit and unlocking it. For this Tomb Raider game, swimming no longer has an air-gauge, so worry not about your time, you've got all of it.
The environments convey that classic Tomb Raider look, but unfortunately, they feel way too confusing and convoluted to be considered enjoyable. The guys at Crystal should've taken some cues from Uncharted, which we can all unanimously agree is the better 'raider.' Again, going back to complexity, I find myself throwing the camera around in every direction possible just to find what my next move could possibly be. When I think I've found an object, for example, to help me gain ground, the game won't let me utilize that object. Instead, I'm forced to find the specifically laid out route that was planned for the game.
This goes against Eidos' claims that progression in the game is much more open to non-linear paths. Sure, this somewhat forced direction makes for a truer puzzle-solving experience, but it also feels like it's oppressing me of natural intuition where I can look around and say "okay, let's go to that platform and see if it leads me to another one to progress." Even if I'm chosing a dead-end that'll lead me nowhere, I still want to be able to explore it, that's what adventure games are for. There are certain bits in the game where there is more than one way to progress, but it still isn't nearly diverse enough.
Playing through Underworld, can feel hollow. But believe it or not, that's actually not my biggest gripe with this game. I can get over some linearity and things like that, but what I absolutely cannot stand in an adventure game are poor controls or a poor camera. And Underworld has them both. The ultimate crippling factor with Underworld is that its poor controls lead to a frustrating experience. On top of that, collision detection issues will frequently have you missing jumps that'll leave you to start all over at the bottom somewhere, or dead.
Add to all of this a camera that just can't stop and give you some decent angles to work with, without you having to constantly adjust it with the analog stick, and you've got a disaster on your hands. And don't get me wrong, I don't mind adjusting a game's camera manually, but I do mind adjusting the jumpy and jittery camera in Underworld, which serves as nothing more than just a bulimic's wet-dream. I don't understand how we're this far into the three-dimensional videogame cycle, and high-profile developers are still making sophomoric mistakes like this.
I find it unfortunate that the immediate aspects of player interaction are the broken pieces of the game, because had it been something else, I'd be more inclined to call TR: Underworld a good game. It's a shame, because there are a ton of redeemable aspects here, as the gun play is pretty good, the atmosphere feels welcoming, the story is engaging, and some of the puzzles do feel rewarding to complete. But ultimately, when you have the three dreaded Cs (control, collision detection, camera) as your biggest problems, none of those aforementioned pros matter.
As far as the graphics go, Underworld has made a number of improvements between the first images we've seen of the game, and the final product. The game looks great, from the moment you see the scorching fires around you, to the insides of each location. Each area in the game boasts fantastic lighting cues, a very worn and torn look, complete with a brown-ish setting, and an overall look that is unmistakably Tomb Raider. All of it felt so true to the original two games that it really made the pain of acknowledging the problems in the gameplay that much worse. A cool visual touch I liked is how dirty Lara would get as she made her way around the stages, and how it washed away if you jumped into some water. The overall visual package is nice, but there are some framerate issues, which make manually controlling the camera jittery, as I mentioned earlier.
Audio here does a solid job of capturing the environment you're in, be it water or an ancient ruin. Crystal Dynamics have done a splendid job of utilizing surround sound features, and also a great job of creating tension through the use of a sound cue. Voice acting is good for the most part, as you might expect, which also helps make the the story a bit more enjoyable.
I came into Tomb Raider: Underworld with very high hopes, I wanted to love it. Unfortunately, my hopes were quickly met with Underworld's most glaring problems, and within the first half hour, I found myself frustrated. The more I played the game, the more frustrated I got with the camera, controls, and collision detection. Had those technical issues been resolved, Eidos would've had a great game on their hands. But as it stands now, Tomb Raider: Underworld is an acceptable game that only the biggest of fans should take a look at.