Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tomb Raider: Underworld

I'm not sure how I would have reacted to this game when it came out a few years ago. The game would have still been extremely glitchy, but it's hard to say if it would have been as unacceptable then as it is now. Were the two Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games from the previous generation as buggy as this? They were still fresh in my mind back then. They probably couldn't be, because the fact that they were actually totally playable is what saved the series from getting completely buried. Bringing the series to a new, higher standard of hardware should have resulted in a more polished experience, not severely less. The graphics are technically superior and the grappling physics are better, but that's about the only improvement they made on the last couple games. Lara constantly clips through pieces of the environment and fails to leap in the direction you're pointing with alarming frequency. The camera is easily the worst I've had to use in a game this generation, and the game's concept of falling damage is amazingly silly.

It's like they're going for a certain level of realism with the series (physically, anyway, because the plot is filled with winged demon ladies and magic spells), and Lara can't fall even 20 feet without taking damage and probably dying, bouncing off the floor in hilarious fashion. They're not consistent enough to make this work, though. Lara can get shot multiple times and feel fine after using a health item, but she can't safely drop from distances other game characters can without a hitch? While clinging to a wall, she can leap straight up and clear a distance greater than her own height. No human alive can do this, yet she gets killed when she drops a couple stories. The combat isn't any good, either. It's a great example of the kind of combat that exists only because the developers thought they needed to break up the platforming and puzzles once in a while. Lara's pretty acrobatic, but there's no real thrill to the act of fighting. You stay away from enemies and hold down the fire button until they're dead. They didn't even bother making any boss fights like they did in previous games. When the best feature of your combat is a meter which when fully charged allows you to make it go by faster, maybe you don't need combat at all.

Despite these issues, and they are big ones, I don't hate the game. It takes you to some nice looking locations and let's you explore complicated temples filled with elaborate but logical puzzles. Climbing and jumping is still innately pleasurable, even if Lara can't jump straight and seems to have terrible balance for someone so athletic. The plot has a mildly intriguing crazier-Indiana Jones thing going on. It delves deeply into Norse mythology and how it has impacted religion throughout history, which is kind of neat if a bit arbitrary (Okay, so the Mayans were totally just biting on Viking stuff they found?), and it also wraps up threads from the two previous games, forming a sort of trilogy. I don't know if they're rebooting the series again now just because they want to or because of some reaction to this game, but I guess I'd believe either one. My experience with the game was much more up and down than it was with the first two, mostly because of the technical issues. But it does naturally extend from them, and adhere to a lot of the same ideas that made the franchise interesting in the first place, and influence modern AAA games like the Uncharted series. Of course, Tomb Raider was itself influenced by other previous games, but that's the incestuous nature of game design.

The game does have two downloadable episodes that continue the plot, which I have no access to due to them being exclusive to the Xbox 360. Hiding the ending of the game behind additional paid content and making paid content exclusive to a subset of your user base both seem like bad ideas to me, and combining the two is even worse. I watched video of the episodes online though, and I have to say I don't mind the results here terribly. They do take place after the ending of the game, but they feel more like epilogues than the real ending of the game. The ending that was already there feels properly climactic, and these episodes are just a bit more content to finally put a couple threads to rest. It still seems poorly thought out, but I don't really feel cheated. If this is the last we see of this continuity (I don't really know where Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light fits in), then it ends on a fine note, if a bit of an odd and clunky one.

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