Tomb Raider: Underworld

A first rate entry in a franchise that is as beloved (for me) as it is old and creaky. The level design was for the most part excellent, with complex and clever traversal puzzles woven through environments that achieved both grand spectacle and gratifying detail. The Coastal Thailand level was the best. Standing on a jungle plateau and looking down at overgrown temple ruins, I felt like the series was finally redeemed for its terrible attempt at an opening jungle level in the third game, which looked like the set for a half-hearted elementary school play made out of construction paper and cardboard boxes.

I didn't detect (nor do I demand) many new gameplay elements, but there were a few. Most impressive: you can now wrap your grapple line around objects to achieve cool and physically intuitive effects. This technique opens up a whole class of fresh and interesting puzzles. In fact, given the amount of work they must've put into it, I was disappointed they didn't make even more use of it. I was also glad to see that they abandoned the quick-time events from Legend and replaced them with much more organic (although usually trivial) bullet-time scenes where you must use one of your standard abilities to dodge slow-motion death.

It wasn't a big deal for me, but the controls did feel just a tad stiff and awkward. Overall I had the impression that Lara hasn't entirely freed herself from the cuboid grid that used to dominate her life. And, as is so often the case in games, there were some enticing non-rectilinear nooks and crannies that turned out to be encased in invisible and impenetrable lucite. I don't mind pretty-but-inaccessible areas in a level, but their inaccessibility should at least make sense within the context of the game world; I shouldn't feel like I'm bumping my nose on the wall of the Holodeck.

Also a little distracting were Lara's faintly odd and gawky movements. It was disturbing to see her naked legs flopping around at unnatural angles. I mean damn it, I don't want to feel like I'm playing with some kind of creepy life-size doll. That impression was only aggravated by the laughably bad ragdoll effects when she falls to her death. With all the money they spent on this game they couldn't afford to buy a few med-school cadavers and push them off the roof to see what it looks like? Half the time Lara never even seemed to reach the surface she was falling toward, instead careening randomly off invisible geometry. It was embarrassing.

As if to further the doll metaphor and make me feel more like a weirdo, they had to entice me to play dress-up at the beginning of each level. This may seem like a throwaway feature, but in fact it's subtly diabolical.  Like any healthy adult I've always rolled my eyes at preposterously under-dressed female characters in video games, but this game had to go and make me morally complicit in exposing poor Lara to frostbite from the waist down. God help me, I sent her into the Arctic without even giving her shoes.

Here's something else I noticed. There comes a point in raiding any tomb when you've finally reached the deepest, most inaccessible chamber to find the one-fifth-of-whatever-it-is hovering over its stone pedestal in sparkly golden light. A cut scene plays of Lara slowly and expressionlessly approaching the artifact. Then one of two annoying things usually happens:
  1. A squad of armed goons and their smarmy leader show up to take the whatever-it-is away from her. It's not that I care about losing the whatever-it-was; I know I'll get it back eventually. But the arrival of these idiots is an insult to both Lara herself and the ingenious Norse-Aztec-Atlantean ancient astronauts who constructed the place. After she sweats blood for hours and hours fighting and climbing and long-jumping and nearly dying dozens of times in order to infiltrate this most remote and secret of rooms, a bunch of meat-head yahoos can just breeze right in? I sense that Lara, like me, is a bit of a misanthrope. Part of the reason she raids tombs is to get far, far away from other people. Here she finds the loneliest place imaginable, an ancient crypt miles underground where the dust hasn't been disturbed for five thousand years, and almost immediately it starts to fill up with braying frat-boys.  
  2. As soon as Lara stows the treasure in her backpack, we cut to her safely outside the tomb on her way to the opposite corner of the world. This isn't as bad as #1, but it still make light of the effort she spent reaching that innermost chamber. The way most of these tombs are laid out, it should be just as difficult and dangerous getting out as it was getting in. In some cases the route she came in by seems like it should be irreversible. But apparently escaping the equivalent of a maximum security prison was no big deal, because the game doesn't even bother to show us how it happened.
I understand there are pacing issues to consider, for both the gameplay and the narrative. It might be boring to retread the same long series of rooms in reverse. And since the discovery of the ultimate prize is the narrative climax of the level, a tedious denouement where Lara has to climb back out of the hole could be a storytelling disaster. Still, I've always felt there had to be a better way.

If I'm not mistaken, Underworld uses the above cheats exactly once each. But I bring all this up in order to praise the game for the occasions where it doesn't use either. In most cases, you do need to make your way back out of the tomb. The game makes this interesting by requiring that you take a different route to escape, or by adding combat challenges. And there are far fewer human encounters overall than there were in Legend; more often than not you have the place to yourself. This was a very welcome change.

Not welcome at all, on the other hand, was the damn motorcycle. Do game designers get beaten up on the playground if they don't put vehicles in their games? It felt like every time I got on the motorcycle I drove it about fifty feet before I had to get off and smash some pots or activate some switch. On several occasions I parked my motorcycle at the front door of some tomb and ran about a half a mile inside before realizing oh crap I was supposed to bring the f*cking motorcycle. It's an irritating burden, and I suspect it was included only for vague titillation and to enhance Lara's badass credibility. As if my favorite misanthropic billionaire warrior acrobat historian needed any more cred.

Surprisingly, the game's shooting element has been radically simplified. It's arguably simpler even than the very first Tomb Raider game. There are no boss battles at all. It's really a slap in the face to anyone who appreciates a deep, sophisticated combat system. Now if only I could be present to see those people slapped in the face. I was delighted by the change. The developers had the wisdom to place the focus of the game exactly where it should be: exploration, traversal, and puzzle solving.

On the other hand, combat has been simplified somuch that you never pick up either weapons or ammo. This limits severely the types of rewards the designers are able to offer the player for non-essential exploration. In this game, the primary rewards are "treasures," which are just meaningless gleamy silver things. You can gain some satisfaction from seeing that you found all of them (which you probably didn't), but they have no intrinsic value to the player. I find this less than satisfying. I can see the problem: how do you reward the player for optional exploration in a way that's meaningful but doesn't unbalance the rest of the game? I'd actually argue that it's okay if extra exploration is rewarded with enough ammo or health to make combat trivial; you're essentially allowing the player to choose exploration as an alternative to combat. But then the problem becomes the declining marginal value of resources to a player who's already overloaded. I think the best approach of all is to provide an optional secondary objective for the game as a whole. Here's a very poor example off the top of my head: in addition to searching for Thor's Hammer and trying to prevent Ragnorok, Lara has a very sick pony back home. Instead of finding "treasures" lying around, she finds "pony pills". It takes1000 pills to cure her pony. If you find them all before winning the game, the final scene is of Lara brushing her pony's healthy, silky mane while she tells him all about how she saved the world. If you don't find them all you still save the world, but Lara has to tell the story to the pony's grave.