underworldThis is a review of the XB360 version of the game.

Crystal Dynamics and Eidos did something that is nearly impossible for the fast-moving world of video games, where top-notch production and great story, gameplay, and innovation don’t secure success. That said, it’s harder to start a franchise and keep the quality up – which accounts for the declining quality of the Tomb Raider during the late 1990s/early 2000s. The “high low” of this decline produced Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (2003), one of the worst games to grace the gaming world in terms of the disparity between money spent and the product itself.  With the franchise flatlining, there were only two options: let the series go down in disgrace, or reinvent Lara and her tomb raiding adventures.

Crystal Dynamics took over the series and released Tomb Raider: Legend (2006).  The game was not perfect, but nearly.  It was a fantastic return to the root of what made Tomb Raider so much fun in the first place, but it updated and upgraded in the places that matter – replacing clunky grid movement for free form movement, expanding Lara’s capabilities and arsenal, and developing new story lines that could keep gamers involved.  In short, CD brought Lara into this century and gave her a much-needed makeover (quite literally).  The developers continued this trend with a remake/reintroduction of the very first Tomb Raider game with Tomb Raider: Anniversary. (2007)  It gave people like me a chance to go back and play the first game with current generation graphics and without the frustration that comes from relearning the mechanics of a PlayStation game.  At the same time, it gave faithful Tomb Raider fans a chance to fall in love all over again with Lara’s original adventure.  The newest installment, Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008), held much promise and pressure, as it would hold the culmination of regained trust and faith in the series.  Sadly, Underworld is lacking, but it is certainly nothing the series can’t recover from.

The official teaser trailer for Underworld (below) starts out with an explosion, and we are thrust right in the middle of it – on the inside. While trying to get out with the mansion burning down around her head, the immediate question is

not why, but who? The game designers cleverly leave you to ponder this question as they throw you a week into the past.  Suddenly, Lara is back on the trail of her once-thought-dead mother, a continuation of Legend‘s story, and is about to go diving into some ruins in the Mediterranean Sea. Soon enough, Lara runs into an old-friend-turned-enemy and an ancient foe. Realizing that she has to recover all of Norse god Thor’s weapons to find her mother, it becomes a race against her enemies to find the pieces and solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.

Underworld’s story is engrossing. Tying together the seemingly unrelated stories of Legend and Anniversary, Underworld throws us in a dark downward spiral with Lara. The narrative, along with the journal entries that are unlocked with each new development, reveal Lara’s desperation to finally know what happened to her mother and if she’s still alive and what Lara is willing to do – and compromise – to have closure. Out of all of the previous storylines that I’ve experienced, Underworld’s is the first to really delve into the anguish and pain of the otherwise tough and cold Lara Croft.

Without a doubt, Underworld has some of the most beautiful and expansive level environments to be found on any current system. Explore the beauty of an underwater temple, grandiose and awe-inspiring and size; find a hidden temple in Thailand; uncover a hidden city in Mexico. The world is Lara’s to travel to find the sources of the afterlife myths and discover the artifacts and ancients that inspired them.

Gorgeous level design aside, Underworld skips the details in unexpected ways. This game is, very unfortunately, not glitch-free. The physical glitches in the game are weird, but mostly harmless (Lara appears and reappears sometimes when activating mechanisms, and enemies often get stuck behind objects). Lara’s controls aren’t as responsive as they should be, and this leads to quite a few frustrating deaths. Probably most confusing, though not necessarily frustrating, of all is the save system. Autosaves and checkpoints are great in a game like Tomb Raider, but they are integrated oddly and haphazardly. On some levels, the checkpoints, indicated by a tiny high-pitched chime, were less than a few feet from one another, with no obvious reason as to why this was the case. These checkpoints end up glitching a lot, albeit often in the gamer’s favor (for example, if Lara jumps across a chasm and doesn’t get enough air but still triggers the checkpoint, she will restart at the checkpoint rather than where she jumped). The autosave system is a memory hog, and saves a different file for each level, instead of saving on top of one autosave file. By the end of the game, I had around fifteen different autosave files and only one of my own save files.

While the checkpoints and autosaves are bizarre but nonlethal, the camera is simply awful and, while not fatal to the game, can cause quite a few deaths for poor Lara. Many times I was not able to scope out a jump because the camera wouldn’t allow me to see one side or another or to train on an enemy that I could not follow as it ran around me. This led to more frustrated yells than the rest of the game combined.

In Legend, gameplay and replay value was stretched with “relics” and “artifacts,” hidden across each level. While not necessarily the best way to squeeze more time out of the game, the hidden items were actually an interesting addition to the experience because some of them actually had descriptions of what Lara had found – location specific items that were fascinating to read about in all their fiction-with-a-dash-of-fact. In Underworld (which is the true sequel to Legend), the relics and artifacts have been replaced with shiny diamond-type items that are the same everywhere Lara goes. Perhaps this won’t annoy others, but it smacks of the same off-handed afterthought that led to the “collect the generic flags for no reason other than the achievement” activity in Ubisoft’s bland action/adventure game, Assassin’s Creed.

Regardless of all the negative aspects and nit-picking, Underworld is engrossing and full of discovery and wonder. It’s worth wading through comparably inferior mechanics to experience the hidden worlds and fantastic story. It’s worth a good rent to jump into the abyss with Lara Croft and find the answers to her burning questions – which, before the end, will become your burning questions, too.