Tomb Raider Underworld – “Welcome Home, Dear Lara”
The road was long and arduous, filled with unexpected traps and murky terrains, but today, Lara is finally back. Most of you won’t recognize her, for the long road has left many scars and broken ribs, and her face is not as it once was. You’ll probably even dismiss her for being old or unappealing for the XXIst century, but she was the first love of an entire generation that hasn’t forgotten her, and that generation can now finally rejoice. Welcome home, dear Lara. Time has flown by, as she went from explorer to action seductress, constantly misinterpreted by her fans and authors, desperately seeking to keep up with her unexpected pop-icon status. She became hollow and shallow, her figure reduced to that of her own hyper-sexual body, her mind a female replica of a noble Indiana Jones. Her curse lasted several years, and with each passing incarnation robbing her of one more relic, each interpretation became another stab at the core of her inner sanctuary. But all that changed when she went back to her origins, returning to that same place which made her Lara, the tombs.
There was a sprout of hope in the future of “Legend”, a welcome sense of nostalgia over the forgotten path in “Anniversary” and in “Underworld”, future meets past, and Lara is once again a real “Tomb Raider”. No more action movie stunts, spy movie thrills or sightseeing in Venice, London, or Tokyo; Lara is back at doing what she does best: exploring tombs in the far reaches of the world. Venturing into the cavernous depths of the past is once again the treasure which drives the player, as Lara delves into large ruins of ancient civilizations in search of ancient secrets. Gently paced by the somber and melancholic ambiance, you’ll delve into the monuments of yore, sinking in the idyllic landscape that serves as background for these gorgeous tombs, gazing at the sumptuous architectonic details, crafted with such artistic and historic merit that they could belong to a real museum. Exploring them is like entering a misty realm of fiction and fantasy; your eyes transformed into a dim flashlight uncovering the darkness which laid such wondrous secrets unfettered by men. A sense of exploration overwhelms you, trumped only by the amazement at the aesthetic beauty that feasts your senses. Silence encompasses everything, arresting your thoughts in a reflexive state of mind, punctuated only by the glorious moments of archeological discovery, their tingling sound transformed into delectable orchestral compositions by Troels Brun Folmann and Colin O’Malley (“Legend” and “Anniversary”).
“Underworld” is darker, moodier, and in almost everything similar to the first “Tomb Raider” and its remake. And yet, it isn’t quite like its original, minimalist outing, as it tries, without compromising its conceptual nature, to incorporate the history of that which has passed in the 12 years that have gone by. There’s a little bit of the action tempos of “Legend”, the gunfights of “Uncharted” and the cartoony animations of “Sands of Time” in “Underworld”. Lara is easier to control, slicker, more agile and realistic, and it helps the game feel more fluid and entertaining. The level design, as always, makes exploration a true delight. By leading and rewarding the player in subtle ways, mostly through the smart layout of tombs’ architecture, the player is engaged to feel like an amazing explorer, without any obtuse thought process. Simply sinking in the environment, through careful observation and reflection, leads to the solution of all puzzles and contraptions. The awe-inspiring scale and complexity of each environment guarantees the notion of a great deed when you get to crack a puzzle, while the stunning level design thoroughly hints at the solutions, unconsciously leading you into the fulfillment of an apparently glorious achievement.
Also in keeping with times, Lara’s more often provoked into using her guns, and though none of this actually helps the game, because it betrays its true focus, it does keep things more dynamic for less patient players. But in all honesty, this particular Lara will never win their hearts, for the more cerebral, introspective component of the experience will shun them, and Lara never was, and never will be, a Nathan Drake. Gunplay is obnoxiously flashy and too straightforward, action sequences are dull and seem like an afterthought of the exploration scenes, and when it comes to narrative, Lara’s story is still a worn-out cliche filled with pseudo archaeological babble, written by an imaginative teenager at heart (Toby Gard). Of all the elements that serve to build up tension, only the substitute for QTE’s is worthy of note. Instead of flashing buttons on screen for you to press as a mindless drone, delivering some stylish cutscene in the process, the game opts to let you discover what Lara should do in moments of crisis. Let’s say a giant blade approaches Lara, should she jump or duck? The game poses these options by slowing down time, and giving you chance for one single action, selected by a press of the same button that corresponds to the action during normal play. It’s simple, more dynamic and much more rewarding than QTE’s, and it accomplishes the same goal: a thrilling, cinematic experience, that heightens your reflexes and gives a proper climax to action sequences.
But this is not an action epic, and despite the odd attempts at capturing modern audiences, more favorable to mindless action games, Lara is still the old, intelligent and charming woman that captured our hearts so many years ago. But as in all great personalities, it comes with a price. She definitely won’t garner any new fans, mostly because of the old-school nature of the game, with all its inherent design quirks (let’s just say you’ll see Lara die a couple of times). The technical implementation could also need some more work, coming from such a high production as this, expect glitchy animations (the transitions are still a mess) and some awkward bugs. But those are small details, and Lara is finally back, so who cares? She’s aged, but she’s also matured and is all the more sexy for it. If you remember the wondrous times spent exploring the mysterious realms of the original “Tomb Raider” (or it’s stunning remake), then “Underworld” will be a captivating experience down some truly wonderful vistas. Welcome back, Lara.