Brainthoughts – Tomb Raider: Underworld

Despite appearances, there's actually a gigantic chasm in between Lara and that door. If I was her, I'd turn around and go home.

It seems to be bug season here in sunny (rainy) Kildare. My house has come under attack: I’m constantly beset by new and frightening sizes of spiders, crawling around in the dark undergrowth that is my bedroom. Inevitably, they end up crawling along my arm, which means, for the next hour or so, any slight breeze or sensation that causes my arm hairs to tingle even remotely becomes an embarrassing ordeal of flailing arms as I attempt to brusquely slap away the invisible spider that’s eating my skin. Earlier this week, myself and Coyote Trax observed a spider methodically wrapping a tiny fly up in its macabre web-o-death – I wasn’t sure which of the insects repulsed me more (I eventually decided it was Coyote Trax, natch). All of this pertains to this one unflappable truth: bugs are awful.

And another truth: Tomb Raider: Underworld is a mostly wonderful game, partially crippled by bugs.

But before we get into that, let’s talk of the positives. Because there’s an awful lot to love about this game, not least how utterly ravishing it is. A shallow note to start on, yes, but it’s true: this game is beautiful. And not just Lara Croft – although the developers, Crystal Dynamics, have,  over the course of Legend, Anniversary and now Underworld, managed to turn her from a cartoon adolescent fantasy into an attractive, recognisably human lady. But no, the beauty in this game extends far further than Lara. Huge, amazing landscapes are presented to you on a regular basis; picture postcard-worthy visions that leave you awestruck for a few moments. A temple in coastal Thailand, slowly being overgrown by the paradisiacal jungle it inhabits. A vast, sprawling stone structure, entirely submerged in ocean water, flanked by a half-dozen giant stone warriors. This is a game that operates on a large scale. And as you first spot each of these locations, you have the wonderful realisation that soon, you’ll be hopping from rock to rock and from pillar to flagpost, working your way up, down and around the area before you.

Yes, the temple's nice. But look! Lara's bum!

The story, while complete bunkum, and ridiculous on many levels, at least furthers the work CD did in Legend to give Lara a meaningful reason to go around robbing graves and shooting up endangered species (although, splendidly, this game gives you the friendlier option of merely tranquilising the tigers. Soon: “If only we could talk to the tigers!”) Something silly about a Lara doppelganger and an Atlantean god named Natla, an explosion at Croft Manor and a subsequent race to find Thor’s Hammer and the mythological land of Helheim – it all adds up to confusingly told, limp story. Disappointing… But it’s Tomb Raider. Legend gave us a nice bit of characterisation, but the series as a whole is hardly at the forefront of gaming’s push into storytelling maturity.

So, now that we’re discussing the disappointments, that truth I mentioned at the start – that the game is spoiled by bugs? Let me explain forthwith.

The word “bug” has two meanings to every gamer, and neither of them are very appealing. The first is the obvious meaning – insects and spiders and other such horrible beasts. I’m sure some gamers are of the insect-loving variety, and keep ant farms and pet ladybirds and such, but these people are clearly damaged and should be attended to a qualified professional. The other meaning is far more gamer-specific: “bugs” in this case referring to broken pieces of software. Underworld achieves the dubious honour of being infested by both kinds of bugs.

The game is swimming in a sea of collision detection bugs. Here, Lara symbolises the game, and the sea symbolises the sea.

Firstly, the insect kind. The game constantly pits you against spiders, which you’re repeatedly force to shoot, instead of getting on with the far more interesting, far less frustrating task of platforming. Here’s the thing – spiders have always been a really crap enemy in games. DOOM‘s Arachnotron and Spider Mastermind are the exception, rather than the rule. Every game that’s had bug-hunting as a feature has suffered for it – it almost killed Dark Messiah of Might and Magic midway through it’s campaign. Underworld is no different: the bits with spiders are unfailingly rubbish. The kicker? Not only does the game throw little creepy-crawly spiders at you – it also sends giant, mutant spiders after you. It’s doubly cussed, and it makes otherwise great sections of the game a chore to get through. Can’t we call a moratorium on spiders (and bats, which Underworld also features) in games yet?

This is linked to another common complaint about the Tomb Raider series: why is there still combat in these games at all? It’s never been anything more than perfunctory, and is often simply awful. It distracts from the main selling point of the game, which is clearly Lara’s struggle against her environment, rather than her struggle to aim an assault rifle straight.

It’s also a very bugged game technologically. I’m not even talking about the woeful camera controls, which have always been a problem in 3D platformers (with some exceptions – UbiSoft, for all the other complaints you can level at their Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed games, seem to have the camera controls pretty much sussed). No, Underworld suffers from an equally large problem for a 3D platformer: broken collision detection. At least a few dozen times throughout the game, I’d make a jump, and the game would simply fail to register the fact that there was a handhold for Lara to grab on to, and thus, she would plummet to her death. For all the game’s ostensible splendour, there are some very iffy dynamics underneath: it’s last year’s graphics, coating last decade’s gameplay problems.

Lara is like an Arctic Fox in this very specific way: her winter coat is wonderfully shiny.

So it stands as a testament to the talent of Crystal Dynamics’ level designers that the platforming remains an absolute joy, when it works. The levels themselves are magnificently crafted, striking just the right balance between “credible setting” and “series of platforms to jump between”. Some places falter – notably when Lara has to work her way around a boat, which situates her in some cramped interiors and some awful crate-climbing sections – but overall, the game retains remarkably consistent standard of design. And adding to the brilliance of the environments are the puzzles contained within.

I’ll go on record as saying I’m a sucker for a good environmental puzzle, especially the ever-reliable mirror puzzle. My very favourite piece of the outstanding Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (which stands as an obvious and sensible influence on the Crystal Dynamics-made Tomb Raider games) was the Hall of Learning, which forced you to swing about huge bookshelves, organising a way to cast a beam of light onto a crystal to open a gate. It’s demented game-logic at its finest, and I adore it. So when Underworld gave me a mirror puzzle – set at the foot of an enormous statue of Shiva and Kali, requring me to scale the statue to manipulate Shiva’s arms to focus some light beams – you can imagine my delight.

It’s just one example of the fruits of the best decision Crystal Dynamics will ever make: replacing boss battles with terrifically huge puzzles. Bye bye, softly-softly-shooty-Tyrannosaurus; hello, softly-softly-scaley-tower, using a series of rotating poles and handholds to direct four shafts of light at a floor pattern. Fantastic. These sections embody everything you could want a Tomb Raider game to be, and for that, Underworld should be loudly commended. It’s enough to make you forgive some of the more infuriating motorcycle sections, or the frustration of shooting your 12,000th spider, or the blinding rage that follows Lara’s fifteenth unfairly missed jump.

Forgive, but not forget.

This is what the end of the game looks like: fancy.

2008 ended up being the year of likable, but flawed, platform games. Assassin’s Creed was beautiful and atmospheric, but was derailed by some stupefyingly misguided sci-fi nonsense, and some took issue with the “win-button” nature of its simplified free-running, and the very easy swordfighting. Prince of Persia (the latest reboot, rather than Sands of Time), was – and there’s a pattern emerging – astonishingly pretty, but that hid a platforming dynamic that some likened to an extended quicktime event, coupled to a checkpointing system that arguably removed any kind of tension from the game. Not to mention the deeply broken combat. Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying both games immensely as I played them, and only reflecting on their flaws after the fact.

Tomb Raider: Underworld fits snugly into that small category. It is at times insanely broken, and some gameplay decisions are to be mocked and derided and cast into some ridiculously huge vat of doom, but the sheer, unbridled joy of the platforming puzzles overcome any problems I have with the game.

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One Response to Brainthoughts – Tomb Raider: Underworld

  1. tower 200 says:

    Do you have to be a certain age to use this?

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