Video-game review: 'Tomb Raider Underworld'
"Tomb Raider Underworld"
SYSTEMS: PC, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360 (available in January for PlayStation 2)
DEVELOPER: Eidos Interactive
WEB SITE: www.tombraider.com
RATING: T (Teen) for blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes and violence
STARS: Three (out of five)
Val Kilmer's Doc Holiday had what might be the best breakup line ever in the movie "Tombstone." After he's told that continued fast living will kill him, he takes one look at his best girl, Big Nose Kate, and says "Darlin', I'm afraid we must redefine the nature of our association."
Lara Croft, if you were any other videogame girl, I'd have to tell you the same thing.
If I hadn't invested hour upon hour playing the early bar-setting "Tomb Raider" games and kept up with more recent ones; if I hadn't become so enamored with Lara's impossibly curvy comic-book heroine form; if her new game offered anything less than the continuance of a storyline cut short in the previous one...
We'd be through.
The dialogue is cheesy, almost as cheesy as the dialogue in the recent "Indiana Jones" debacle. Lara goes back and forth with a pair of female antagonists (one of them a demigod) throughout the game, and each time it feels as though a slap flight might break out instead of the traditional "Tomb Raider" gunplay.
Overall, Lara's new adventure rivals Indy's best (the story easily surpasses that of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"), but developers haven't offered much of anything new in terms of gameplay over the past few titles. As in the previous game, "Tomb Raider: Legend," Lara can slip into slow-motion time to inflict more damage with her firearms. And she has a grappling tool that lets her climb up and rappel down walls and swing across chasms, Indy style. That's about it in terms of innovation, and the grappling tool is almost too buggy to be any fun. But we'll get to that.
In "Underworld," Lara does her usual globe hopping to the ruins of ancient civilizations. Her main goal is to find the artifacts that will help her open the door to Avalon, once thought to be a mythical afterlife destination. Lara believes Avalon might be a real place, and that she might find her long lost mother there.
The "Underworld" of the title refers to a substrata of ruins found at some of the locations Lara visits. Beneath ruins at sites in the Mediterranean Sea, Mexico and Thailand, Lara finds signs of a much older civilization. And, more importantly, she finds artifacts from Norse mythology that she hopes will lead her to the legendary hammer of Thor, the key to Avalon.
The camera in "Tomb Raider" games has never been great, but even after 12 years there haven't been many refinements. You'll still frequently find Lara hanging from a ledge and needing to jump to another nearby ledge but with no way to see the target ledge. Too many blind leaps result in too many deaths and too many "do overs." The game's flow is interrupted this way all too frequently.
The lousy game camera is exacerbated by twitchy controls, especially when using that grapple tool. Often you'll be tasked with "wall running" while hanging from the grappling line, and then you'll have to leap from the wall to a ledge or platform. Getting the camera to cooperate is an exercise in futility.
Despite its flaws, "Underworld" offers some first-rate level and puzzle design. Often, in breathtaking fashion, players can manipulate huge chunks of the game's geography to open the path forward. Art direction is top notch. At one gorgeous tropical location, I spent half an hour just climbing cliffs and diving into the ocean. It's a shame the camera and controls don't work better.
Lara, honey, I really want to make this relationship work. We've been through so much together. So I'll play the downloadable follow-up content that will be available in the next few months. But you've got to make some changes in the long term, or we might need to part ways.
It's not me. It's you.
Contact writer Bill Hutchens at firstname.lastname@example.org.