Lara's all new adventure is finally here so it's time to give you my first impression of Tomb Raider: Underworld, which will be joined by the indispensable first 10 minutes of the game. Remember the article is not a review though.
Let's get things straight, this article will obviously be tainted with more subjectivity than usual because of the long love affair I have had for so long with Lara. Indeed, I played all the episodes of the franchise on Playstation, Dreamcast, Playstation 2 and Xbox 360 and I had different emotions every time: joy, disappointment or even annoyance for that matter. It seemed natural to me to try to give you my first impressions on the new iteration that is supposed to pursue all the goodness Crystal Dynamics has brought to the series since Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary.
For those of you who discovered the Tomb Raider franchise on Playstation or Saturn, the hope to find everything that made the first game such a great game was huge. Big levels with numerous puzzles, spooky and dangerous ruins and of course acrobatics, that's what all the fans expect from a good Tomb Raider game. Unfortunately, the many sequels developed by Core Design soon forgot the very roots of the game and yielded to the trend of the time - from a high tech matrix-style game to making more and more action packed games or even a failed attempt to deliver an adventure game with The Angel of Darkness. Eventually you won't argue with me when I say they actually turned their back on the origins of the franchise, what a shame... Thankfully when everyone thought that Lara was dead and gone, Crystal Dynamics took over in 2006 and the dark veil that had been on Lara's games for so long, got lifted.
So what's with this new episode? Well you can all be relieved as the queen has returned to what made so many gamers dive into her world. If you played Tomb Raider Anniversary, you must have noticed that the game was more about exploration and acrobatics and had a really inspired level design. Well, that's exactly what Tomb Raider: Underworld is all about. So expect some great puzzles, a lot of jumping and falling and fewer combat situations though they are still there.
It doesn't necessarily mean that it's a perfect underworld. Because it's a Tomb Raider game, you'll still have to deal with a few bugs here and there, a few problems with the camera - though it's easily manageable with a little practice - especially in the diving sequences - when the environment is a bit confined - and of course the messy combat, that requires no real strategy - though again you can learn to do some pretty cool things. That being said, the game is a lot of fun to play but you have to be aware that Lara still wears the scars of her past.
Graphically speaking, the game looks great with very detailed textures and some impressive lighting, a real piece of eye-candy to say the least. The game is a lot darker - literally - than the previous ones so you're forced to use your torchlight a lot but you can admire how excellent the shadowing system is. I was a little concerned with the aliasing every time you're in a well-lit environment like in the very beginning when Miss Croft is still aboard her boat. But as soon as you dive into the deep blue sea you'll be relieved to see that the game looks stunning. The first level will definitely have you remember the great atmosphere of the first two games and it might even give you goosebumps, if you're the sensitive kind that is.
One of the key features Eidos was proud of during the development was the quality of the new animations thanks to the participation of the English gymnast Alison Carroll. In the end, they look really similar to what we saw in the other games and newcomers will probably have a hard time noticing the differences - except maybe the new dash run that looks more realistic and some of the new moves Lara has learnt. It doesn't mean the animations are disappointing but I find that motion capture is not that obvious in the gameplay sequences. In a way, it's probably for the best as Lara still has her cartoony look and having her move around too realistically might be odd after all. One thing I did not really like though is how fast the animations are at times. I can see why Crystal Dynamics wanted to give more rhythm and flow to their game but I liked the fact that you could feel Lara's weight and efforts when she pulled herself on to a ledge. Now it's all more Steve Austin like, especially when she swims or worse climbs up a pole using the Y button to do it faster. It sure is more exhilarating but it's also less realistic. Not a big deal but I had to mention it anyway.
The game's sound design is great too with a soundtrack that can be either mysterious and bewitching or rhythmic and exciting. It does sound very Hollywood like and it makes the game feel more like a movie than before. Keeley Hawes returns as Lara Croft just like in the two previous games and from what I can tell she's doing a very good job. Overall, the voice acting is great and you'll probably be happy to hear that nice British accent throughout the game.
Let's now go to the most important part and talk about the gameplay and the game's experience in itself. Apart from the camera problems I mentioned earlier, Lara is pretty docile and will execute your commands smoothly - no there's nothing naughty here - which makes progression easy and pleasant. However, some jumps can be trickier - when jumping from one pole to another for example - and at times Lara's reactions can be unpredictable - girls will be girls? In such cases the "ange joli" - French pun - will maybe make you say things you should not say in front of kids but rest assured that when you master the game a little you won't fall to your death all the time.
The game obviously asks you to solve a great number of puzzles, requiring to use Lara's agility and acrobatic prowess. Even in the very beginning of the adventure, you'll easily spend a few hours to complete a level - and even more if you start looking for hidden artifacts and treasures. I guess then that it's pretty safe to say that the over length of the game will be longer than in Tomb Raider Legend - which was way too short. It'll be even longer to finish it if you don't use one of Lara's new gadget, some sort of 3D sonar that can more or less point you in the right direction when you're lost. It will come with a price if you decide to use it though as you won't be able to unlock one of the game's achievements - well, that's what was said during the development. I'm pretty sure the real hardcore fans won't need it but it's a great idea for those who have no real sense of direction.
Talking about adjustable gameplay, the guys at Crystal Dynamics have had a nice idea by allowing players to actually create their own difficulty level. Say you're a platforming enthusiast but you hate combat, you can tweak the game's options to your liking and make the enemies less - or Lara more - resistant and lower down the necessary timing for the platforming sequences - so it requires more skills on your part. I don't know if players will use this function but it's an interesting idea and it might be imitated in the future, who knows?
I won't say more as I think part of the whole 3D Indiana Jane experience is to discover things on one's own. I think I made myself pretty clear: though the game does not come with a lot of new features and is merely an evolution of Legend and Anniversary, I am completely under Lara's spell and I simply advise anyone who's fond of ancient ruins and vicious traps to jump in. I didn't say much about the story on purpose, suffice to say there's a direct link with both the first Tomb Raider game and Legend, Underworld being its direct sequel. There's some kind of "previously on" video in the option menu of the game for those of you who need a heads up but it's really short. The story seems pretty standard but it works well enough to justify all the traveling Lara will have to do so it's fine with me. It's worth noting that Xbox 360 owners will now be able to install the game - it takes about 10 long minutes - to play in a quiet environment and enjoy some shorter loading times - though it's not that obvious. Anyway, that's another great game to add to the list of wonders that have been released so far. No need to mention that the financial crisis is upon us players too...