Frustration didn’t always come with beauty

30Mar09

Beautiful but deadly works as a good way to describe the seductive and witty Lara Croft; as fans of the series know, “beautiful but frustrating” fits much better.

I’ve been playing Tomb Raider since my childhood. Although many times my “experience” consisted of merely watched the rest of my family play the games—which probably accounts for my prior lack of appreciation for the agony it caused players everywhere—I’ve been a fan for years. As a family, we own all the major games except Legend (don’t ask me why, it beats me), but only lately have I endured the angst that so often accompanies Tomb Raider on a new, mature level. And I have reached one conclusion:

We fans are a masochistic bunch.

Story

Lara’s latest adventures take her from the Mediterranean to coastal Thailand, back to Croft Manor and then to Southern Mexico; finally, to Jan Mayen Island, the Andaman Sea, and the Arctic—where the underworld (Helheim) awaits. Throughout the game you recover Thor’s magical gauntlets, belt, and hammer.

No, you don't have to climb it, but you do get to mess with it.

The story continues where Legend left off, evidently; fans of the first Tomb Raider will recognize names like Jacqueline Natla (the bitch with demon wings). Told by Amanda Evert that her mother lies in Avalon, Lara cannot resist the temptation to find her and achieve inner peace or something. When she finally “meets” her mother, she’s basically a zombie (the correct term here is thrall, but hey, zombies are more fun); instead of crying and hugging over the family reunion, Lara becomes driven to stop Natla from evoking Ragnarok (which I’m guessing is apocalypse-bad).

The story utterly lacks believability. Lara’s mother was the trigger that prompted Lara to embark on her underworld adventure; what did she expect to find in the underworld, seriously? It’s more like a half-assed excuse to go participate in some life-threatening action, dress scantily, and steal cool artifacts before anyone else can. Which, we all know, Lara does best.

Interestingly, Underworld twists the idea of the Lara doppelganger briefly encountered in the first Tomb Raider by bringing Evil Lara back with a mind of her own. She’s deadly and fucking awesome, but she serves no legitimate purpose. I was looking forward to fighting her at least once, if not more, but in Helheim she suddenly drops off the radar. What’s worse, you don’t even get a decent challenge out of Natla. I wanted to kick her ass, too, but the “final showdown” was more dodgy-sprinty with a side of puzzles than a shooty-kicky cat fight. Whaaat?! I mean, what happened to the days of battling fucking dragons with pistols and Uzis, for Chrissake?!

No baddie makes Lara quake in her stylish hiking boots.

Visuals

Graphics-wise, this game doesn’t skimp on the gorgeous. Lara even gets dirty—shut up, you—after trudging through the jungle and mud, etc. Adventuring Croft-style has never been so crisp, clear, or eye-poppingly lush.

Gameplay

The gameplay presents better than previous Tomb Raider games, that’s for sure, but it still hasn’t reached perfection. I love dual-shooting—a feature that was left out in earlier games, for reasons beyond all of us—with the pistols, and swimming has become a breeze. Not to mention wielding Thor’s hammer fuels you with a giddy euphoria of power that probably shouldn’t be in the hands of our sexy archaeologist—especially since she chucks the weapon at the end, that stupid, stupid girl.

Climbing can be a pain, though, particularly because Lara feels the need to seize (or something else … ahem) on top of rocks every time you try to ascend one. Riding Lara’s bike can be fun, but I wish there would have been more than one vehicle in the game. God knows how unearthly convenient it was, carting that thing through tombs and mud without losing it or blowing it to hunks of metal.

Why the hell is that chandelier even there (and why is it spiky)?!

Bosses are pretty … nonexistent. The only boss I actually remember fighting was the kraken from the beginning, and even then all you had to do was drop a chandelier on its slimy head. The thing didn’t move! What a waste of pixels. Other than that, you’re bombarded with annoying but virtually non-threatening baddies, like creatures that reanimate unless you stomp on them and random guys who feel the need to shoot you (“Ooh, look, pretty girl!” bang, bang, bang). The game lacks real challenge, simply put. I actually kind of miss those crazy old monks from a past Tomb Raider who were just looking for an excuse to gang up on you like murder-happy punks (okay, no, I don’t). I thought I’d never crave desperately running around and shooting while minotaurs shot paralyzing eye beams at me, but I do. At least it was something. Lions, tigers, and bears? Not so much “oh my.” In fact, I never used anything but the pistols and Thor’s hammer for the entire game, which is just sad.

There also remains the whole issue of general frustration over puzzles. I have no idea why I continue to subject myself to such pointless and mundane torture that often involves going back and forth across a level for no good reason. Granted, I’ve went along with worse puzzles that made me really want to pull my hair out (where the fuck is the leee-vah?!), but after awhile it seemed any ounce of elation over finally figuring out what to do in this game was beat down into the ground and violently thrashed upon. Instead of a reward, I found myself bogged down by yet another head bashing-encouraged mind game that tended to involve some kind of ridiculous labor. And speaking of rewards, didn’t secret items used to be, well, secret?

Lifespan

When I finished playing through the game, I wasn’t exactly itching to undergo that pain again. The game runs short pretty short—that is, when you’re not stuck on a puzzle like Lara gets stuck on rocks. After you beat the game, you can play through again—without puzzles or baddies—and find all those secrets you never managed to acquire in “Treasure Hunt.” Oh, yeah. Because we all know that is what we looked forward to the whole time.

Kicking ass is what we live for.

Recommendation

Tomb Raider: Underworld doesn’t really suck; in fact, the visually amazing levels breathe a whole new life into the franchise, and the game is actually fun when it’s not being annoying. Unfortunately, the adventuring doesn’t last a long time, and soon the series’ typical frustration plagues the experience. But believe it or not, the pain stings less compared to what Tomb Raider used to be. I imagine the second play-through would go down more smoothly, so exploring the game later on could be a worthy option—but it probably won’t yield new fruit.

Underworld seems to be endeavoring to take things in a better direction. However, there are still aches, and the biggest for me was the ending. The game truly missed out by skipping brawls with Natla and Evil Lara—who was totally badass, by the way. Overall, Underworld warrants a rent if you’re up for the task, but be prepared for some annoyances.

Rating: 7/10

Tomb Raider: Underworld
Systems: Everything under the sun
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos



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3 Responses to “Frustration didn’t always come with beauty”

  1. 1 Jaym

    You put me in the “purchase” column at “scantily clad”.

    Oh, ok, I jest, I jest. (Partly.)

    I’m torn on getting this one or not. I know I really, really liked the last one I played, which I *think* was Legend.

    The last one I played, the puzzles were fun but not annoying, the focus was back to Tombs again, and it just felt really well done. I keep hearing mixed things about this one.

    I’m not a diehard Tomb Raider fan- I mean, I like the series, but I’ve only liked some of the offerings- when it gets too platformer-like I shy away… not a platforming fan.

    I hear though that they may reboot her for the next offering- meaning reducing her breast size and make other alterations to make her more “realistic” a persona. Interesting, that will be to see- she’s known for her two

    guns! (What’d you think I was going to say?)

  2. 2 WITA

    Haha, maybe if I play Legend I’ll be able to say how they compare, but at least try Underworld out. Get it used or rent, I’d say.

    The puzzles weren’t impossibly hard like old Tomb Raider games, but they kept that element of frustration from them in which the puzzles are so stupidly prissy … LOL.

  3. 3 Matt

    Wow look at you review another game, some might call that the start of a habit, 😉

    Sounds like a let down of a game, must not be a great year for 3rd person shooters, RE5 and it’s astronomical plot and “Come On!” game play anyone?

    Evil Laura, sounds like somebody took a page from Dark Link?

    @ Jaym, what no love for Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando?


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