Crystal Dynamics seem determined to prove something with the new Tomb Raider, we think. It’s why the game opens with the destruction of Croft Manor and then jumps neatly on to the one thing that all Tomb Raider games have been universally bad at handling; swimming.
Thankfully though, the new control system makes handling Lara in the water roughly about as much fun as handling her in the water might really be. It's something you'll also get plenty of practice in as there are now several rather massive levels set totally underwater.
Lara moves fluidly and capably in all directions, both at speed and at regular pace. Picking items up and hitting underwater levers is no problem whatsoever and most of the time you don’t need to worry about running out of air thanks to her scuba gear too.
The controls work well on land too, with Crystal Dynamics using fundamentally the same system as it did for Legend and Anniversary, but with a few extra moves getting thrown into the mix.
The main addition to Lara’s skill-set is her ability to climb up almost any surface, free-climbing around jutting stones and recessed pits in tomb walls. The free-climbing itself is often an awkward affair as you have to learn to direct Lara to the next hand-hold and not just the general direction you want to go, but it’s a forgivable annoyance for the most part.
Too often in Lara’s past has her ability to climb things been governed by whether or not it has a certain texture and this neatly and realistically sidesteps that issue.
Lara’s other major skill this time around is how she interacts with her environment. Tomb Raider: Underworld isn’t a very long game and is roughly the same as Legend in longevity, but the levels are much bigger and less linear. There’s plenty of back and forth using the motorcycle, collecting cogs and sticks and bringing them to the right place.
The most thoughtful improvements on the game though aren’t new moves or abilities, but technology. Lara’s inventory and gear is now all handled through her PDA, which she also uses to contact her support team and to record her thoughts she ventures deeper into the titular underworlds.
Cleverly though, Crystal Dynamics has also provided some tools in the PDA to help players along. Not only can the PDA be used to give players hints (in cryptic and blatant-telling flavours), but it can also give off a sonar pulse that generates a 3D map so that Lara can analyse her immediate environment. Why don’t our phones do that?
The unfortunate thing about these player-aiding tools (which are complemented by some detail settings to tweak the difficulty of the game) is that they are needed so badly. Going in to Underworld, we expected to reach areas that would stump us. How would we get on top of that temple, or down that well? Puzzles along the lines of ‘Where do I go next?’ are an essential part of the truly explorative sensation that Tomb Raider: Underworld delivers.
All too often though, we found ourselves getting stuck at far baser and more fundamental areas. It’s not always entirely clear that you’re supposed to backtrack through half the level to find the Stone Jaguar Head to put on the lever that controls the second Mayan calendar so that you can set it to a specific period and open the gate to hell underneath the football court.
We’re ashamed to say that at one or two points we had to use a visual walkthrough, because the puzzles weren’t introduced properly and the hint system was too vague. Does that make us evil?