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Tomb Raider Underworld once again casts the player in the role of the world’s most well-endowed treasure hunter, Lara Croft. And when I say “well-endowed” I am, of course, referring to Lara’s massive knowledge of ancient civilizations, relics and the mythology and occult that go along with them. Hit the clicky thingie for the full review…

In this outing, Lara will be reunited with some familiar faces, including Winston, Zip, Alister, Amanda, Natla aaaaand…Lara. Huh? Well, you’ll just have to play to find out, but it’s largely the same cast of characters that starred in the last “new” Tomb Raider game, 2006’s Legend.

Underworld is also the third Tomb Raider game created by Crystal Dynamics, who developed not only Legend, but the original Tomb Raider redux Anniversary, back in 2007.

This time around, you’ll guide Lara as she runs, jumps, dives, climbs, swims, shimmies, rides, swings and STRUTS her way through a total of 20 levels spread out over 8 chapters, taking you to such exotic locations as the Mediterranean, Thailand, Mexico, the Arctic Sea and, and of course, Croft Manor – although this may be the last time you see Lara there. Hmm…I wonder what THAT means?

The Tomb Raider games have always been about exploration, discovery, puzzle solving and, increasingly over the years, a bit of gunfire.  Although I’d heard that there was much more emphasis on combat tactics in Underworld, I’m happy to say that if combat isn’t your thing, you needn’t worry, as there really isn’t all that much of it. More happy news for people who’d rather spend their time jumping across chasms than putting a bullet in a Yeti’s head is the fact that whatever special combat moves are available in Underworld are entirely optional and unnecessary to complete the game.

There are some special baddies that you’ll have to deal with through the course of the game that I won’t mention so as not to ruin the surprise, but those aside, you’ll see the old Tomb Raider staples: spiders, bats, sharks and, much to the chagrin of PETA, tigers. Which could also explain the falloff in sales shipping to the Sigfried and Roy residence.

Most of Lara’s moves will be familiar, although there are no zip lines in Underworld. Something new, though, is that Lara can now carry certain special objects. In a number of places, you have to carry – and even throw – stone blocks on to pressure plates on the floor. It’s kind of cool to do this instead of sliding giant stone blocks over the plates (which could never be pushed over uneven terrain), but the game engine seems to have some weird physics issues with the blocks when you drop them, often resulting in some frustration as you have to place them on the floor a number of times before they stay where you put them.

By far the most frustrating thing about the game, though, is the horrible camera AI that will almost surely trap you in tight spaces from time to time, making it not only impossible to see anything around you, but probably even trapping you there for a few seconds, with no way to get out of the spot you’re in as the camera flips and swings around you.

On the plus side, though, the game’s locations are very nicely rendered and the puzzles are more fun than what I remember in Legend. I also like that the in-game menu uses the PDA paradigm again, but I’m not sure how much I like the way the weapons system has been revamped.

Gone are the days of finding weapons and ammo lying around for Lara to collect and use. Instead, Lara always has access to all of her weapons. Cool if you like to switch weapons a lot without having to find them first, but silly when you stop to think about where on earth this petite little heroine would store a pair of pistols, a spear gun, an assault rifle, a tranq gun, twin sub-machine guns and a shotgun all at the same time. Oh, and grenades. No…that’s not code, I mean actual grenades.

The way it works is that you can pick any weapon at any time to be able to quickly swap out with your pistols. The pistols still have unlimited ammo, but the other weapons each have a pre-set number of rounds per level. Once they’re gone, they’re gone and you need to pick a different weapon, or stick with the pistols.

If you’re into vehicles, you get only one in Underworld, which is Lara’s motorcycle. The bike actually plays into the exploration and puzzle solving more than it has in some of the previous games, which is a nice touch.

Of course along the way, there are many treasures and relics to find…little items that don’t affect the overall storyline gameplay but are extras to find as you explore. And once you finish the main storyline, you can go back into the game in Treasure Hunt mode to find anything missed the first time through.

Looks-wise, Crystal Dynamics have done a good job making Underworld look better than any Tomb Raider outing to date, with locations often looking much more realistic, lush and alive than in previous games. This is thanks, I would imagine, to a new engine and lighting methods.

Lara also looks better now than she ever has, with her figure a bit more realistic than in previous games, and with the old 3D character animations of former games giving way to full motion capture. Lara’s acrobatics were performed by gymnast Heidi Moneymaker…yes, that’s her real name and no, I don’t think she’s related to Miss Moneypenny…while Lara’s voice was performed by Keeley Hawes, who played Jason Statham’s wife in The Bank Job.

(I will say that Lara could look even better, considering how well humans are rendered in games these days, so hopefully if there’s another Tomb Raider forthcoming, Crystal Dynamics will spend some time updating the characters to be at least as good, visually, as those in games like Guild Wars or Left for Dead)

In all, I’d say that I had fun playing Tomb Raider Underworld. I thought the puzzles were challenging enough without having elements that were too obscure, and I thought the balance of exploration and puzzle solving to combat was almost dead on. I absolutely hated the camera AI, which frustrated me on more than one occasion, and, as with Legend, I thought that overall the game was too short (developers take note: this means I wished there was more to play). I still think that Tomb Raider 2 takes the cake as far as scope and size, but then again that was a game with a much suckier engine and likely gazillions-fewer polys to push around. Finally, I was annoyed that Underworld used save points, which you would think would’ve gone the way of the tiger…oops, I mean dodo…by now. Why on earth Crystal Dynamics chose to include them, especially on the PC version, is beyond me.

My final score for Tomb Raider Underworld is a 7.5 out of 10.