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CVG
16 Reviews

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Lara Croft unearths classic gameplay from series' troubled past

Since its 'reboot' in 2006, the Tomb Raider series has been edging closer to its core values - raiding tombs and solving puzzles - but making too many concessions to the imagined, or not, limitations of a mainstream audience, with scripted action sequences, facile puzzles and idiotic slow motion combat.

But with Underworld, Crystal Dynamics are the closest they've ever been to recreating the thoughtful magic of Lara's early adventures; the game is chock full of labyrinthine catacombs and bewilderingly complex puzzles.

Of course, there's still plenty of combat, and it's awful. The AI is abysmal. Often enemies will stand completely still as you unload clips of ammunition into them. And that's another problem; it takes 30 seconds of sustained fire to drop a single goon, while Lara's health can be completely drained in half that time.

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There's also no cover system to speak of, and her melee attacks are spectacularly useless. Nine times out of ten she'll clumsily fly-kick straight through an enemy, leaving you open to a volley of health-shredding gunfire. So our advice is this: ignore the combat. Go to the Options menu, then Game Tailoring, and set enemy health to Low. Think of the shooting bits as an inconvenient, but necessary, distraction.

Jumped up
There. Now we can focus on what makes the game so compelling: the level design. The environments are genuinely point-at-the-screen evocative, like the rain-lashed Mayan temples of Mexico and the foggy, atmopsheric depths of the catacombs beneath them. We've been to so many exotic locales in video games that we've become desensitised to it, but Underworld's tombs and temples feel genuinely authentic and mysterious.

Unlike previous Raider games, grabbable surfaces aren't clearly signposted, which means finding your way around the world is a real test of skill. You'll often find yourself teetering on the edge of a rocky outcrop 300 feet up, convinced there's nowhere else to go - then, after spinning the camera around for a bit, notice a ledge that's just within reach.

It's almost like a puzzle game, and you have to consider every possibility before you make the next leap. It's less forgiving than Uncharted, but the platforming is much more satisfying. In a way, it's the exact opposite of Sony's game; dodgy combat and complex climbing to Drake's excellent cover-to-cover shooting and limited platforming.

The controls aren't perfect, though. The collision detection is occasionally dreadful and Lara will sometimes miss a ledge entirely and fall to her doom, even though you threw her directly at it. But it doesn't happen often, and it's usually because you weren't in precisely the right spot to make the jump - something that really should've been ironed out before release.

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There are also camera issues. Get too close to a wall in a cramped space and it'll twitch uncontrollably, obscuring your view. Not particularly helpful when you're trying to hop between tiny slivers of rock above a bottomless pit.

Under control
Underworld lacks polish, but whenever you find a reason to hate it, you come across something that makes you instantly forgive its shortcomings. Like the sundial puzzle in Mexico (which takes nearly an hour to complete) that unlocks the entrance to Xiabalba, the Mayan underworld. Or scaling cliffs on the Thai coast as sunlight dances across the Indian Ocean below you. Or discovering an ancient, dusty tomb beneath Croft Manor. The game's full of surprises and memorable moments.

As for new features, the sonar map's probably the most notable. When activated, Lara receives a rough 3D model of her immediate surroundings, which you can then move the camera freely around. It's a great idea and good for finding hidden nooks, but in larger areas we did find ourselves yearning for a full map.

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