When Eidos Interactive decided to entrust the Tomb Raider series to Crystal Dynamics, known as the creators of four of the five Legacy of Kain titles, it was a moment that marked the rebirth of a franchise which was on life support after the failure named Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. The latter suffered partially from a disastrous, imprecise and chaotic control scheme, and partially due to the high number of bugs and overall unpolished feel of the game. These problems were further amplified by the camera, as well as the lack of a grid movement system, a first for the series.
Released in 2006, Tomb Raider: Legend was a test that Crystal Dynamics passed in the eyes of the fans, but not with flying colors. Barring the short duration, the simplified puzzles and the high number of action scenes put Legend in the action arcade category, not action adventure. 14 months later Tomb Raider: Anniversary sees the light of day, considered by most (including myself) to be the best Tomb Raider ever made.
As a remake of the first game of the series, Anniversary had a very good level design, even extraordinary sometimes. Moreover, the good gameplay elements from Legend were kept, and some of the mistakes from Legend weren’t repeated. On the other hand, the increased difficulty of some arcade sequences and camera positioning problems prevented Anniversary from becoming a classic.
Considering that through these two games Crystal Dynamics proved that they were on the right track, Tomb Raider: Underworld was expected by fans with certain interest. I couldn’t have been worse that Legend, but at the same time it’s hard to outdo yourself after you’ve created the marvel called Anniversary. Well, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The first thing that impresses you in Tomb Raider: Underworld is the greatness and the superb level design. Just like in Anniversary, here too we have areas which are downright huge, some of which completely submersed. Sometimes you simply don’t know what to do, what to explore first. And if you’re the type that wants to have all the Relics and Treasure, then you have to look in every nook and cranny, which will double the amount of time spent in the game (which is normally around 5-6 hours).
True, there’s the possibility of using the Sonar Map, a first innovation in the series, which helps you in this regard. I found it to be useless, and my Indiana Jones skills were based on experience, logic and… the Utility Light which I always had a hard time turning on. I say hard time because if Lara dies and you load the latest checkpoint, the Utility Light will be turned off, even if it was used when the checkpoint was created.
Speaking of checkpoints, there were things I did like as well. First off, they’re numerous and placed in such a way that the distance between them is small enough not to cause brain damage if you have to replay a certain part of a level. Anyway, unlike Anniversary, were sometimes you needed to have some hardcore agility, in Underworld the arcade side of the puzzles is less dominant. Secondly, when you save the game and load afterwards, the game will place you at the location of the latest checkpoint, not the location where you actually saved the game.
Thirdly, just like in the other two Tomb Raider games created by Crystal Dynamics, if you pass a checkpoint and you have, say, 50% health, when you die and reload you’ll be at 100% health. This is the reason why you can finish the game without using a single Health Pack. One thing to note is that if Lara’s health is close to 0, it will regenerate to 25%.
This intentionally created exploit manifests itself when it comes to Relics and Treasures too. Just like in Legend and Anniversary, when you find a relic or artifact, you don’t have to look for a checkpoint to save your progress, especially if it was hard enough reaching the damn thing in the first place. Once you collect them, you can safely reload from the last checkpoint, because the relics and artifacts will always remain in your inventory.
Each level has a relic which is tough to find, but getting it is well worth the effort. As you collect them, the health bar increases with 17%, so Lara’s life can double through finding all the relics.