After the terrible mess that was TR: Legend, I've been curious to see how Crystal Dynamics handled Underworld and whether they would be able to not only learn from the myriad mistakes that marred Legend, but to finally bring Tomb Raider back towards its spiritual roots - ie an experience involving mostly solitary exploring, cunning platforming and emotive spectacle. Remember when you first reached the aquaduct in the Palace of Midas in the original Tomb Raider? A wonderful moment accompanied by a perfect orchestral sting - Tomb Raider was always about the thrill of discovery and the wonder of exploration filled with the satisfaction at having negotiated a seemingly impossible and vertiginous level. Combat was always terrible, but was kept to the absolute minimum, something which every TR game since has tried and failed to improve on with combat gradually taking over for the attention deficit generation to enjoy at the expense of the actual Tomb Raiding.
So its a relief to see that Underworld gets things mostly right. Theres been a definite return to the roots of the game, with the first level (beyond the introductory tutorial level) being classic tomb raider with some astounding visuals and suitably epic and involving platforming, all centred around a visually superb Kraken. Visually underworld is lovely, with some well put together levels, lighting and textures which all create a very believable world to run around in. Standing in the Thai jungle gazing out at a massive unexplored temple after a taxing ascent is pure Tomb Raider and its in these moments that Crystal Dynamics have absolutely nailed it.
And then the combat starts, and as ever its a total mess requiring neither skill nor thrill to negotiate. Hold the target button. Hold the fire button. Bang away until your enemy eventually (after 27 bullets in the case of some bad guys) falls over dead. Animals are poorly animated and far too frequent - standing in a gorgeous jungle river admiring the way the light filters through the foliage trying to work out the best way up the sheer stone wall in front of you is promptly ruined by the arrival of many tigers, which take a long boring minute or two to kill involving much jumping about and picking yourself up off the floor. All animal enemies feature a near unavoidable charge move which knocks you over. Combined with the sometimes awful camera which often conspires to make life as hard as possible during combat, the experience is sullied somewhat.
Generally the camera behaves itself, but often it flips off on a trip of its own, or gets snagged on scenery or zooms in to show a close up on Lara's bum rather than the tricky leap she's about to attempt. Its frustrating stuff, but overall is not a game breaking problem. Often lara doesn't react correctly to an obstacle, getting stuck trying to climb, or refusing to grab ledges which can frustrate.
The wonderful levels are interspersed with terrible levels - the Cargo ship is a fine example of the utter dross that sits alongside the sublime. The use of the motorbike cuts into the immersion level a bit, reducing what could have been a fine level to a linear corridor trawl.
The story, as with legend, is not particularly well told and is generally peripheral to the action. TR has never been particularly about story, but if you have to put some justification in for the globe trotting, then it needs to be conveyed better than this.
When Crystal Dynamics are able to return to what Tomb Raider is all about, they create some amazing experiences, but until they learn to focus on that, Tomb Raider will always be an 'almost' game. TR Anniversary is still the better game, ruled as it was by the levels and design of the original.