With Tomb Raider: Legend, Crystal Dynamics had brought Lara Croft into the 21st century with a smoother, more cinematic experience. With its prequel Tomb Raider: Anniversary, they had given a fresh look and feel to the traditional gameplay from the series’ 90s heyday. With Tomb Raider: Underworld - which would prove to be the last game in the series prior to another reboot - the developers sought to combine the best aspects of the two previous releases. Built on a graphics engine written specifically for it and released on the new consoles of the time, Underworld aspired to be nothing less than the ultimate Lara Croft adventure.
The fact that the Tomb Raider series went for five years without another main game, and that the next instalment was a reboot, should indicate that Underworld did not accomplish all that it set out to do. However, the game is notable for a number of reasons. It represents a final outing for a particular vision of Lara Croft, one that was followed with a disheartening and predictably “gritty” take on the character. It is also an interesting test-case on what happens when a developer tries to fuse the best aspects of two radically different past instalments in a series.
While it has a number of frustrating issues, Underworld is a compelling finale to the second era of Tomb Raider games. It has the best visuals of any game seen in the series up to that point, and when its gameplay truly comes together it provides some genuinely gripping and memorable moments. While hardly the first Tomb Raider game to spring to the mind of fans today, Underworld is an intriguing experience and an effort by Crystal Dynamics to bring their first take on Lara Croft full circle.
Combining elements of both of the two previous games seems to have been one of the main underlying focuses of Underworld’s development. This is definitely evident in the game’s story. The villains of the two earlier games - Amanda Evert and Jacqueline Natla respectively - both return. Lara’s determination to find out what happened to her parents is again the driving force behind her efforts. Also, plot devices like Excalibur and Natla’s talk of the “Seventh Age” recur in this conclusion to the trilogy, and Lara’s friends Zip and Alastair make another appearance. Legend and Anniversary previously had relatively little to do with each other but Underworld makes an admirable effort to weave them into a real continuity.
The game also tries to strike a balance between the two methods of story presentation used in its predecessors. From Legend, it takes the idea of using numerous cinematic cutscenes but it borrows long, solitary segments from Anniversary. Like the first game, it makes the most of Keeley Hawes’ vocal performance, but like the second it gives Lara no-one to talk to except herself. The treatment of Zip and Alastair is one of the most striking decisions in the game. The characters are dealt with in incredibly dismissive terms, appearing only in cutscenes and only in the first third of the game. In a way, it’s funny - some fans found the pair annoying, and so suddenly Lara is too busy to talk to those nerds back at base. On another level, it’s sad that characters who were a big part of Legend are tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper.
One consequence of the sidelining of Zip and Alastair is that, remarkably, there are no major male roles at all in Underworld. This would be a big thing today, let alone in 2008. The story centres almost entirely around Lara, Amanda, and Natla and it’s a refreshing approach. Despite this though, and the callbacks to earlier games, the story is easily one of Underworld’s weakest elements. There’s little rhythm to the plot, and Natla’s evil scheme only becomes remotely coherent in the final minutes. While the focus on Norse mythology is welcome, not very much of interest is done with the concept. Happily, at least the game does have a fairly satisfying ending which wraps up a number of elements dating back to Legend.
The game is structured in a fairly similar way to Legend. Lara visits five main locations, which are the Mediterranean Sea, coastal Thailand, Southern Mexico, Jan Mayen Island, and the Arctic Sea. Between these there are three short intermission levels, two set in Croft Manor - appearing as part of the main storyline for the first and only time in the trilogy - and one aboard one of Amanda’s two ships, in the Andaman Sea near Thailand. This is a slightly awkwardly-paced structure, but one which provides some very varied locations.
Basic gameplay is one area where the focus isn’t on combining Legend and Anniversary - instead, it’s about continuity with what went before, while adding new elements. Lara’s moveset here is bigger than ever before. She can do all of the acrobatic moves that the ancients designed their previous temples and tombs around, as well as some extra ones like chimney jumps and the ability to shoot with one hand while holding something with the other. Some of the new abilities, such as picking up poles and inserting them into sockets in walls in order to reach new areas, feel under-used. There’s a sense that Crystal Dynamics felt obliged to include new moves, even if there was little need for them.
More positively, the combat was overhauled for Underworld is easily the best in the trilogy - admittedly, that’s a low bar. Lara is able to sate her bloodsoaked lust for killing by taking on a small variety of new enemies which mostly are not endangered species or human beings. The developers chose bats and spiders as the most common foes, presumably out of a belief that everyone hates them. The human enemies are made up of poachers and mercenaries, two of the most reprehensible kinds of people to use when Nazis wouldn’t make sense in your setting.
Tying into the Norse mythology theme, Lara also faces “thralls” - basically undead viking warriors who tend to leap out of pools of blue, glowing “eitr”, a substance which in Norse thought is the source of all life. The single best thing about the combat in Underworld is that, in answer to our prayers - or mine, at least - there are no boss battles at all. These painfully forced encounters were easily among the weakest aspects of the two previous games, particularly Anniversary, and their removal was a great decision which immediately cut a lot of potential frustration out of the game.
Taking its cues from Anniversary, this third game features longer and slightly more complex puzzles than are present in Legend. Thankfully, they’re a little more inventive than some past examples and aren’t overly reliant on having Lara use ledges to traverse the edges of rooms. One of the best examples is found on Jan Mayen Island, which has Lara climb a tall stone tower divided into multiple, rotating segments. It requires a mixture of dexterity and thought, and is also pleasing on the eye. Less successful are puzzles which require moving small blocks from place to place - the code that governs Lara putting these down onto special areas on the floor is inexplicably broken, and tends to result in them flying several feet away. Underworld has more awkward bugs than its predecessors, but this is the most likely to try the player’s patience.
One very welcome change from previous games is the role of Lara’s motorbike. In Legend, it was used for very linear chase sequences which are one of the most dated parts of that game; in Anniversary, the bike was glimpsed in cutscenes but played no role in gameplay. Crystal Dynamics chose to make the bike more significant than ever in the third instalment. In both the Southern Mexico and Jan Mayen Island chapters, the bike can be used to freely travel between locations in a somewhat open environment. Besides having a small role in puzzles and combat, the bike is just fun to ride, and Lara looks fantastic when riding it. If anything, it would have been good if Crystal Dynamics had gone even further, using a more open design to integrate the bike more fully throughout the game. As it is, extra freedom is also provided by two large underwater areas that bookend the game, and which free the player from having to worry about drowning.
Tomb Raider: Underworld represents the end of an era, and it’s fitting that Crystal Dynamics chose to combine elements from their previous games in the series. While there are some awkward elements, and the story and the treatment of characters are disappointing, there are moments with Lara which are some of the best in the series. By wrapping up the story begun in Legend, the game also brings Lara full circle. With the slightly more freeform bike sections, Underworld even hinted at a possible path for the series which ultimately was not taken.
Looking back at the three games of the first Crystal Dynamics series, it’s fair to say that each of them has their own unique appeal. Of the trilogy, it’s arguably Legend which is the most significant and perhaps the most consistent. Most notably, its compelling story is memorable and its depiction of an upbeat, personable, and fun Lara Croft is to which the series hopefully may one day return.