James Bond aside, can there be any modern action hero that's had more adventures than Lara Croft? With two movies and nine games to her name (not to mention ports and spin-offs) she's certainly been put through her paces. And like Bond she's had a renaissance of late, especially since Crystal Dynamics took over development duties after a bit of a duff period.
So unless you've been in a hippy commune since the 70s you know exactly what to expect from a Tomb Raider title: platform acrobatics, rope swinging, artefact collecting and lever pulling all dashed off with a touch of gunplay. It's a proven formula and one that's been (mostly) delighting fans for over ten years.
Frankly, you're not going to find anything radically fresh or innovative in Tomb Raider: Underworld. We can't point to any cool snowboard sections, stunt mini-games or RPG mechanics to make the content sound different to any reviews written about Tomb Raider since 1996. But what you do get is a very polished, if not totally inspiring Lara outing.
But let's focus on the positives to begin with. Visually this is a fine piece of work with backgrounds, characters and cut-scenes crafted to a very high standard. The animation is particularly splendid and when you marry this to a very tight control scheme there's pleasure to be had from just making Lara swing and leap from one platform to another like a flea with a specialism in trapeze.
The games locations are also atmospheric and intriguing. Much of Underworld takes place in the lost world of Atlantis, though there are excursions to Mexico, Thailand and the Arctic. So it has the wonderful sense of adventure originally inspired by Indiana Jones, rather than more mundane modern locations which began to creep into the series a few years ago.
I loved the fact levels are short and sweet rather than long and rambling. Most take less than four minutes to complete and this gives the game a tremendous sense of pace as you unlock more features and locations very rapidly. Indeed, special golden artefacts litter the caves and tombs you raid, unlocking artwork and bonus material as you collect them. There are even special chests to find, opened by completing fun puzzles which we can best be described as Tetris jigsaw.
And a Lara adventure wouldn't be the same without a few gadgets. Along with guns and weapons players can move heavy objects with mystical gauntlets, pull down draw bridges with a grappling hook and lob grenades at enemies. The gunplay is workable without being exciting, consisting mainly of locking onto enemies with the R button and leaping behind them while firing your main weapon.
A few DS exclusive features are introduced to spice things up but while these are a welcome distraction they're not integrated into the fabric of the game enough. Find an ancient relic and you might have to blow dust away from it (by blowing into the microphone slot) or chisel it out of a stone plinth (by scraping away at your touchscreen).
The underwater sections are also disappointing. You get to propel Lara through the water but you can tell they've been tagged on because there's generally only one route to your destination and the underwater combat is about as basic as an Atari VCS shoot-'em-up.
But what does Tomb Raider: Underworld actually feel like to play? Well, it delivers everything you'd hope for and expect but for the experienced gamer it never really stimulates or excites. The challenges are just too simplistic and you rarely feel any tension or peril. Dedicated players will breeze through this in a couple of days and other than going back to collect more artefacts there's little replay value.
The harsh truth is that while Underworld looks great it's just a bit too bland to generate anything more than mild enthusiasm, even from die-hard Tomb Raider fans. Sure, it would make a great stocking filler for someone who only plays games occasionally, but don't expect it to illuminate your Christmas lights if you're a more experienced campaigner. It's a game that's likely to leave you more stirred than shaken.
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