a review of Tomb Raider Underworld
a videogame developed by crystal dynamics
and published by eidos
for Microsoft Windows, mobile phones, the microsoft xbox 360, the nintendo DS, the nintendo wii, the nokia n-gage 2.0, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by action button dot net
Forget that the original Tomb Raider started it all, and in such classy, subtle, brain-teasing fashion: Tomb Raider: Underworld arrives as Another Game About Climbing Shit.
Does anyone in the audience here have the upper body strength to do one pull-up? It’s really hard, isn’t it? Now imagine doing a pull-up and then, at the end of the pull-up, pulling down so hard with your biceps that you launch your entire body six feet into the air, then grabbing a ledge and doing another pull-up and launching yourself six feet into the air. It takes roughly six hundred times the upper body strength* (*these figures have not been evaluated by the Olympic gymnastics committee) to launch yourself six feet in the air after a pull-up as it does to do a single pull-up in general. Now imagine a wispy girl doing it, fourteen times in two minutes, and with two sub-machineguns on her back (about eight pounds each, we reckon), with a pair of D-cup breasts pressed uncomfortably against the rock.
We say, the better the graphics get in these games (current status of game graphics: “Prettttttttty! Good!”) the more ridiculous these things look. You might as well just make the hero of this game a super-hero. Iron Woman, maybe. As-is, you’re kind of giving impressionable young people the wrong . . . impression.
Upon climbing to the top of a superfluous rockstack jutting up from the ocean in the middle of “Southern Thailand”, we are rewarded by finding a health pack lying on the ground. Lara stands over it, and a “Y” button icon appears in the center of the screen. Press the Y button, and Lara does a light-speed squat, places her hands on the item, and then explodes back upward with nitrous-oxide-abusing-like agility. She has the item in her hands; her arms swing backward, sending the item on a supersonic collision course with the two crossed guns on her back. Upon touching the guns, the item disappears with nary a graphical effect. It has been assimilated.
It’s likely that the game designers behind Tomb Raider: Underworld aren’t fitness freaks. In fact, we’re going to go ahead and say this is the case, because the intense flutter of Lara’s feet when she swims could not have been authorized by anyone who’d ever smelled chlorine. We’re kind of sure that the game designers of Tomb Raider: Underworld also aren’t very experienced players of videogames, because though they decide to have a tutorial level right at the beginning, they commit the slack-jawed, bone-headed error of giving the player two possible paths from the top of the first climbing jaunt. So if you go the wrong way — the way with the item — it’s highly possible that you’re going to try to make an impossible jump, sending Lara screaming into the ocean a hundred feet below, only to then immediately make her climb right back up, going left this time. Like she’s a cyborg or something. If you don’t see why this is wrong, you might have had a cold muffin sitting in the microwave, growing mold, for a couple of months now.
Then you run into land-bats — some form of flip-flopping rat-thing, and you see a big “Y” button icon at coincidentally the same time that Lara starts moaning and squealing pseudo-orgasmically and you start to think that maybe you should press the Y button. You press the button and she stomps the rat things. (Editor’s note: they’re actually spiders.) Sometimes there are so many rat things (Editor’s note again: he means spiders) that you’re pressing the Action Button a whole bunch, and a computer algorithm of Hello-Kitty-like cuteness, somewhere deep inside that DVD disc in your Xbox 360, gets the idea to mix up the “attack” animations that you’re seeing, and there you have it: Lara Croft doing spinning high side-kicks in her Heavy Boots, assaulting the air at lip-level while the pest on the floor simultaneously explodes into green goo. Minutes later, you’re running through big brushy-looking violently green plants with real-time collision. Every so often as you run through these bushes Lara thrusts her hands out at the plants with such speed ferocity you’d imagine she’s attempting to implode the lungs of imaginary grizzly bears. All that’s missing is a voice-sample: “Get away! Get away! Get away, grizzly bears!”
Eventually you’re shooting Siberian tigers whilst backflipping, occasionally stopping to be mauled by their mere and unavoidable touch. Then you shoot people, and sometimes there are puzzles where you have to push big rocks or stand on top of a block and look around by moving the camera, assessing the lay of the land, and maybe getting an idea of what you’re supposed to do to keep moving forward. Usually it involves looking for the little white lips in rock surfaces, and jumping toward them. If you run out of ideas and don’t know where you’re supposed to jump, just press the analog stick in a random direction, press the A button, and see if Lara jumps; if she doesn’t, that’s probably not the right direction. If she jumps and you die, then that’s definitely not the right direction. To think that some people will be compelled to “speed run” this. That’d be like speed-running a bowl of cereal. (Protip: put it in the blender.)
All that said, the pace is nice; afternoon-like, maybe; the environments look pretty; the ocean bobs up and down realistic-ish. Only you don’t get carried by the current; there’s no wind or weight. Just pristine rocks and a woman who is so rich in stamina that she (or the player) might actually be on PCP. She approaches an old clay pot in ancient untouched ruins, and her immediate reaction is to Press the Action Button and kick it so hard it instantly turns into dust and vanishes. There is nothing inside the pot. When you do find items, you press that Y button and you pick them up without stopping to wonder what they actually are.
Anyway, Tomb Raider: Underworld apparently isn’t a game about surfing detectives solving murder mysteries; it’s about a bland character initially imagined as a blend between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Girl, who eventually managed to become a character in a movie that so didn’t suck they made another one. If you’re in a movie that Did Not Suck enough so that they quasi-accidentally made another one, if you’re played by a woman who we quite frankly envy because she has seen Brad Pitt’s penis and possibly also his scrotum, game designers, of all the people of all the vocations on the earth, are going to balk at making you “do” “something” “interesting”. Tomb Raider: Underworld is not clever, it is not tongue-in-cheek; it is dead-serious fun-having business that capitalizes every other second on its little nonsenses — beginning with a search for a Viking artifact in Southern Thailand, of all the wacky places! Oh man, We Smell Adventure! Or maybe that’s just the name of Lara Croft’s perfume!
What we’re saying is that the game is dumb and serious and you might accidentally play through it without heaving a sigh or groaning more than three times (though you might get a sore neck from all the virtual-reality-like craning and peering you’ll be doing as you wrestle with the camera during many climbing scenes). It’s got all the requisite logic hiccups of a modern multi-million-dollar game and shows symptoms of being Scotch-taped together by men who might have “Walked neighbor’s dog” written on their resume (key example: early in the first stage, before you’ve ever met a human opponent, apropos of nothing comes a tutorial text box: “When the adrenaline meter is full, headshots can be triggered”) though hey, it’s not nearly as bullshit-crammed as something like Bioshock. It’s much too popcorn-friendly for that: all you get here is a cute little grappling hook, sheer rock faces to climb, cute little interjecting moments where you have to keep your balance on narrow footings, user-friendly lock-on firing so that the flying bats aren’t even a problem (sometimes the lock-on sticks with a dead enemy though (sad face)) and a whole lot of escalating (if bland) landmark-based (we applaud the minimaplessness; the little sonar map accessible from the menu is goldenly useless) level design. That’s good enough to save it from sucking. If someone drops it in your lap and you have five hours to kill, like maybe if your wife is giving natural childbirth in the next room and has threatened to bite through your carotid artery if you so much as look at her cross-eyed, why the hell not? Like, seriously. It’s got nice enough production values. And:
In closing — we realize this is a trite thing to say, especially in this day and age of more than two pornography equivalents of YouTube — forget the breasts: holy hell Lara has a nice ass. They really poured some serious graphical muscle into that. That’s something you can stare at for literally hours as she runs, grunts, and climbs friskily and it pulses hypnotically. If this game were a fast-food joint, workers in the drive-thru window would be required to say “Welcome to Tomb Raider: Underworld: Home of the Ass (TM)” to every customer. It’s too bad there aren’t more opportunities for Lara to, like, straddle things. You know, like, really ride them. Game designer dudes: officially consider that a “highly demanded feature” for the sequel. If you do not do this, we will probably end up kicked out of our local gym (again) for loitering too long behind the lateral pulldown machine (oh lord frisky yoga girls (please continue toning those lats (you will need them for yoga (yes five kilograms is so heavy)))), and you seriously don’t want that on your conscience.