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Genre: Action
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Tomb Raider: Underworld
September 3, 2012 | Richard Hallas
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Lara's boat off Coastal Thailand
In fact, the reduction in demands on the player's keyboard skills is very much in keeping with the rest of the game's pitching of difficulty level. That's to say, everything's quite a lot easier than in the last game. The first evidence of this is the fact that Underworld has essentially no tutorial level. Tomb Raider players are used to having a fairly extensive (or, in Anniversary's case, enormous) tutorial level set in Croft Manor. Underworld does maintain this tradition, but only in the form of the 'teaser' mentioned previously: a small section of a mid-game level (with added tutorial instructions) that you'll have to play again later, when you get to the appropriate point in the story. What it amounts to is 'escape from the burning shell of your once-glorious home'. And when you've completed it, you're then straight into the game. It's the shortest and most insubstantial tutorial level of any game in the series so far.

Once you're in the game proper, it's hard not to be impressed by its apparently vast size, relatively swift loading times and lack of apparent level transitions. Although you see loading screens between major game areas (that is, unconnected geographical areas), there are no pauses to load within any overall level. And some of the levels are really pretty huge.

Lara starts off in the Mediterranean Sea, taking a dive into the water from her own personal boat. I liked the boat, and regretted that it suffered from 'invisible wall syndrome' inside, in that you can't get Lara to walk into the control area at the front or climb up the ladder to the top deck. The game is generally commendably free of such artificial restrictions to movement, so it was a little incongruous to find them here. Anyway, the key in this initial section is to dive and explore. The area seems vast and somewhat disorientating, so it may take a little time to discover how to progress. The first puzzle of the game lies in discovering how to open a large underwater stone door; but it isn't a challenging problem. Later in the same level, having discovered a huge underground temple, Lara must defeat an enormous octopus-like Kraken and discourage it from blocking a large door that she needs to pass through. It's the usual Tomb Raider formula of switches, levers and pulleys reached by much running, jumping, climbing and rope-work. The game features quite a lot of underwater exploration (swimming is a major part of two levels and a lesser element elsewhere), but without the previous worry of running out of air, as Lara almost always has breathing apparatus.

A more natural environment

One of the aims of the developers was apparently to present Lara in a more convincingly natural environment than ever before, make her more realistic than in earlier games in her appearance and abilities, and make the game less linear than previously.

In most of these aims they were successful. Tomb Raider has always been very clearly block-based, but this instalment is the least visibly so to date (though, to be fair, not much more so than was Anniversary). There's a good deal of freedom of movement of objects and in terms of Lara being able to explore her environment. Also, levels are vast, and things that you move or break stay moved or broken, so Lara seems to have a more lasting effect on her surroundings than has been the case previously. The level of involvement is sufficient, in fact, to make the game environment really pretty immersive: the absence of long waits for level loads, and the speed of saving and reloading game positions, is a big deal and allows the player to become quite lost in the game-world. Perhaps the worst disturbance to the feeling of immersion is the game's camera, as this seems to be an insoluble bugbear of the series: no Tomb Raider game has yet managed to make the camera system entirely unobtrusive, and it can be as much of a nuisance in Underworld at times as in any previous game. But for the most part it doesn't hamper the game in any significant way.

Lara may have, in some ways, a more restricted range of controls and movements than previously, but this is balanced by the fact that her behaviour is more convincing than ever before. Apparently, motion-capture of a real human athlete (an Olympic gymnast, no less) was used to create all of Lara's animations in this game (reputedly more than 2000 of them), and it certainly shows: she moves more convincingly than ever before.

So, the environments look great and so does Lara; what about the whole non-linear idea? Sorry; I don't buy that one. It's true that the environments are pretty open, and you can explore a lot, but that was always basically true of Tomb Raider. It's just more true of this instalment, given the vast size of some of the levels. Also, the level set in Southern Mexico consists of multiple subsections that can be completed in a fairly arbitrary order, so within the space of that one level, yes, the game is non-linear (if you choose not to do things in the order in which they present themselves to you). But apart from that, forget it. This is no less linear than any other Tomb Raider game. The levels appear in a set order, as part of telling a linear story, and the only flexibility is in how much running around you choose to do within any given level.

Actually, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, released way back in 1999, is the only game in the series so far to have made a serious attempt at being non-linear; and it just ended up being rather confusing. Indeed, even the most non-linear part of Underworld (the Mexican level) is pretty easy to get lost in. I see no great harm in Tomb Raider being a fairly linear game; it's just part of what it is, and Underworld's ability to let you do lots of exploration within the framework of a rigid, sequential set of levels seems to work very well to me.



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