Thursday, 2 February 2012

Tomb Raider: Underworld [PS3]

Nearly gets the classic Raider formula spot-on. 
Underworld has gorgeous environments, novel puzzles, grappling rope fun - but in the end, terrible design choices made this a chore to finish.

Initial Buzz
You know what? 
If I based my review on the first level of this game, the conclusion would be: 
"Stunning and great fun - feels like the old Tomb Raider!"

Sadly, the game did not stop at the first level......

The game starts by throwing you in at the deep end (quite literally) when you dive into tropical seas in search of an underwater temple. Right from the start, there is much more of an open feel to the settings: you swim/run/jump around all over the place until you get the hint of a trail and then start to climb up a cliff face that looks promising. This sense of exploration, crossed with ancient ruins and local animals feels just how Lara's adventure is meant to.

The underwater sections are easily big enough for you to feel "out of your depth".

At the bottom of this giant underwater temple, 
you meet the first big bad - a giant octopus!

And the level works! The whole section feels natural - like you're playing around in a room until you figure out the secret that allows you to move on. The puzzles and climbing sections have a much more organic feel to them... that sounds weird, so I'll elaborate - the ledges and crumbled ruins look ancient, meaning that you spend your time searching for the gap in a wall or hand holds rather than have neon strips highlighting where you need to go (a-la Uncharted). 

There isn't some of the other modern additions to action/adventures either, like giant floating arrows telling you which way to go, or help messages reminding you that you've picked up the Skull-shaped key, which may go in the skull-shaped lock... 
(hint hint, nudge nudge, know what I mean?)

Although I'm happy for the game to let me find my own way through the levels, it could have made more of an effort guiding me through the storyline:
Someone who killed Lara's mum/dad has kidnapped an angel, who is evil, and they're all trying to get hold of Thor's hammer. We're all jetting across the globe to find Thor's gloves (hidden in Thailand) and then we'll use the gloves and hammer to get into Valhalla. Oh, and there's a Lara Croft clone in the mix too. Chuck Norris may or may not make an appearance.
Makes you miss the good old days of "Bad guys to the right - keep moving that way".

I can tell you this for free, Lara - that pistol ain't gonna' do jack to Monsieur Octo.

Tarzan, Eat Your Heart Out
One addition that really boosted the game's appeal for me was the grappling hook. Used in a variety of ways (some wonderfully clever), the grappling hook allows Lara to swing, climb and drag to progress through the levels.

I really can't emphasise this point enough: it really does work. The swinging, the physics of Lara and the rope, the applications of the grappling hook - all spot on.

So, after climbing to the top of the giant octopus chamber Lara then swings across a daunting gap to make her way out to freedom. I shamefully uttered little yelps as she slipped on the edge and struggled to climb up - 
"EEEEK! Shit I've missed! Oh no! She made it! Boy, do I hope no-one heard that!".

Lara is as athletic and gymnastic as ever - but still forgot to put a waterproof on.

Sleek, Shiny and Manageable
As I said before, the environments all look the stuff - ruins seem to crumble before you, water shimmers in the sunlight, and the trees trees. Each setting has a distinctive feel to it as well, with Thailand's jungle looking noticably different to Mexico's. 

As you complete puzzles, ancient mechanisms groan into life and open up to reveal new areas. The cutscenes that show these changes taking place often use wide, sweeping shots that show off the supreme shiny prettiness of Underworld. Getting to leap around them afterwards should be a massive bonus. Surely? You'd think, wouldn't you?

This area evolves as you progress through the level - finishing in the state shown below.
Maybe these captures don't do it justice, but the fire and rain do look amazing.

Poltergeists (or Invisible Walls)
OK so, after finishing that glorious introductory level it's time to get out of the sea and take the adventure on to dry land. Well, actually the next step is to get on a boat.

The boat section(s) are one of the main problems in the game, lasting for far too long and spending far too much time shooting at appalling AI characters. I'll talk a bit more about the shooting sections later on.

So anyway, the next climbing/adventure level is more of the same searching for a hand hold, climb, leap, grapple and so on. The issue arises when the environments get a bit more cluttered and the climbing/grappling sequences get more complicated. Climbing turns from fluid joy to plunging leap of death far too frequently - the game has a tendancy of aiming Lara towards a climbable ledge half the time, and jumping off into thin air the other half.

The next major grappling section involves swinging between two large boulders, and if Lara comes within 2 metres of either one - SPLAT - she collides with an invisible wall and plummets down into a spike pit (which is badly animated too, maybe trying to avoid showing any blood).

After trying some of these sections 3 or 4 times, and certain that my aim was fine, I became convinced that there was some sort of poltergeist at work, sabotaging my progress to loot ancient tombs (though for the life of me, I cannot think of any motive for this).

The final straw came at one of the final "puzzle rooms" in the game, where there was a leaping section necessary to move on that required both accuracy and timing to leap from a bar onto a moving chain. Lara then needed to climb along the chain, against the movement, to get over to a ledge. 

Would she carry out this simple set of instructions? Would she buggery!  

Hanging and climbing kept making her fall off. Leaping as far as she would go at the right time led to some long falls as Lara aimed at her old friend thin air. Trying to climb on the chain and walk along it and boosh - INVISIBLE WALL (slash POLTERGEIST). 

Something was in the way - Lara would walk halfway along and then just freeze, causing her to be pulled back by the chain until she fell off and died. I repeated this enfuriating chain of events in sequence, testing each one to find out what I was doing wrong, for nearly an hour. 

An hour of my life spent trapped in a room in the body of Lara Croft.... and I was having a horrible time.

Looooooong Way Down
The middle section of the game - Mexico - has a lot of time spent speeding around on a motorbike. After some really annoying grappling sections, I was in the mood for a change of pace (actually I was about to turn the game off once it had autosaved, but carried on once I saw Lara was on a big bike). 

So there's a few areas that you need to get between in this area, connected by long roads which have nasty spike pits. The best way around them? Going top speed on a motorcycle (obviously). Then you fight some bad blokes or vicious animals, and search around to find a puzzle piece to solve a main puzzle back at the centre of the map. You are therefore expected to speed backwards and forwards around this map for quite a long time, especially in the beginning while figuring out what exactly you are up to.

And I am sad to report that I got bored of this too - especially at the end when one of the already adjusted puzzle mechanisms "slipped back out of place", as the game smugly told me. "Waste a bit more racing around on a bike in the jungle", it should have said.

Thus far, Underworld has managed to take all the fun out of grappling physics and motorcycle stunts. What else can it ruin before the end?

I quite liked the puzzle shown here - until the second and then third time I had to do it

Pea Shooter Vs. Puma
During most of the levels, there is a large great thick shooting section. The targets on offer range from small animals, such as bats, to large animals, such as pumas. Now bats, I can just about accept... but pumas? Two of them at once? While wearing nothing but a tank top? Really? 

Later on, Lara takes on heavily-armed guards and undead demons - again with no body armour or any significant firepower. As if the ridiculous situation wasn't enough, the way the game handles the shooting sections is just crap. You lock onto targets with auto-aim, and the guns fire pathetically and do virtually no damage per hit. You have to shoot at the same enemy for several minutes, frantically firing weak-as-piss shots to eventually wear their health down.

With the undead enemies, you then have to smash their motionless corpse to bits by jumping on it once it has fallen to the ground. When three enemies swarm you while you are trying to do this, and the bastard just gets straight back up again, you get the joy of shooting him a few thousand times more. Lucky you.

Sufficed to say that I really didn't enjoy the shooting sections, and hated the fact that about half of my time in the game was spent drudging through them. So that's swinging on ropes, motorcycling and shooting ruined now - Arnold Schwarzenegger films are looking less  appealing by the minute....

The shooting sections are one of my biggest annoyances with Underworld - totally unnecessary filler.

So very nearly a return to triumphant form for Ms. Croft. 
All the elements are here - but the developers felt the need to pad the game out with shooting and bike sections that were laborious and unnecessary. 
Add to that climbing sections that are actually broken and the magic is lost. 
Nearly, Lara, very nearly....

Please note: I do not own the copyright to these images.

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