Lara Croft is one of a dying breed of video game icons from the mid 90s. She was once seen as a pin-up for PlayStation and helped convince thousands (if not millions) of gamers that they needed to ditch their 16-bit consoles in favour of a shinier, more powerful 32-bit monster. Needless to say, the rest is history, with Tomb Raider now standing as one of the most popular video game series ever created. After the critically mauled Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, developer Crystal Dynamics took the reigns and has returned Lara to her glory days. With Underworld being the most ambitious title in the series to date, is it three for three for Lara's saviours?
Underworld centres on Lara's quest for Thor's hammer, the Norse god's hugely powerful weapon. After discovering proof of the Norse underworld at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, Lara starts an adventure that takes her all over the world and into her own family history. It's a truly epic journey (certainly one of the longer games to arrive in this busy release period), with the game offering the kind of adventuring Tomb Raider made its name from and some solid combat thrown in for good measure.
Anyone who has played either Legend or Anniversary will know roughly what to expect in terms of core gameplay. Lara is as nimble as ever, jumping from perilous ledge to crumbling platform as if she's still in her late teens, swinging from poles, balancing on beams and abseiling down walls without a second thought. It's all part of the job, and for the most part comes effortlessly. Lara seems a better mover all-round, and can now handily wall jump between two vertical surfaces - something you should bear in mind when a certain platform or pole seems tantalisingly out of reach.
Also new is Lara's ability to free-climb. It's not quite as amazing as it sounds (you can't climb up anything), but certain walls have a series of hand holds on them, allowing you to climb without leaping from one ledge to another. This adds a sense of realism to your exploration, at least visually, and again is something you need to be aware of. Just as the grappling hook, appearing in a third Tomb Raider, is only now becoming a tool you expect to use and are always aware of, you'll likely miss a few of these free-climb areas at first as they don't have the trademark Tomb Raider ledge appearance we've become so accustomed to.
Developer Crystal Dynamics has really gone to town with massive caves and underground worlds to explore. At times you'll enter an area with a lever, only to return to it hours later after finally managing to retrieve whatever missing artefact was needed to get it working. You'll walk into rooms so large you won't know where to begin, with part of the fun coming from figuring out what you need to do to get to the various key locations. There are puzzles in Underworld (with some requiring a fair amount of thought, the use of blocks, your grappling hook and cogs, to hint at just a few), but successfully jumping, shimmying, sliding, climbing and wall jumping your way to platforms often just out of reach is the real challenge.
At times you'll think you've done all you can, explored every nook and cranny, and leapt to your death numerous times in the search of that platform that might lead you to safety, only to catch a glimpse of a half-broken ledge on the hidden side of a pillar. With a potential way out spotted, you just have to navigate around the environment (easier said than done) and then make your way to safety. It's worth pointing out that you'll encounter a few annoying bugs (notably one that causes Lara to become immobile for a short time) and you'll occasionally accidentally leap off a ledge in the wrong direction - something that the camera often tries to make worse by refusing to allow you to get the desired shot of the action. Still, for the most part you'll be enjoying what are some of the most well designed levels we've seen in the Tomb Raider series.
Combat thankfully plays second fiddle to exploration. It's by no means bad, with Lara able to target and even focus shoot enemies in the head for instant kills, but she just doesn't seem at home doing somersaults while firing pistols. Also making a reappearance is the bike from Legend. Thankfully it handles far better here and is only used as a means to get from location to location rather than having levels dedicated to it. Later levels have an almost free-roaming feel to them, with Lara able to bike around the environment, leaving it behind when entering buildings. It's a nice touch and gives the game a great sense of scale.