Tomb Raider Underperform

My newest Gamefly mailing was Tomb Raider Underworld, one of the only games on my queue that isn’t new and low in availability. I figured that if the last two Crystal Dynamics led TR games were solid, that they’d follow it up with another winner. Boy was I wrong.

It isn’t that Underworld is terrible. Just incredibly mundane, and in some ways a step back from Legend. Whereas that game was much more linear and straightforward than Tomb Raider usually is, Underworld edges back toward the large, mazelike environments of the old games, where you aren’t always sure of where to go (especially when backtracking), and sometimes the next route pops up in a place you could have swore was blocked off earlier. It isn’t quite as bad as it used to be, but it was nice to play Legend and know you didn’t have to climb up several floors because you missed a jump. The game is also incredibly dark, which makes sense considering the setting, but it also makes it more difficult to determine areas you can access and where you should jump (again, just like the old days). Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had plenty of its own dark caverns, and it still managed to point you in the right direction.

Insert joke about Lara slipping away riiiiight here

Even more jarring are the leaps in logic that are made for the sake of creating a “cinematic”, film like story. In the very first level, Lara is unable to walk up the stairs towards the captain’s seat of her boat. Instead, she uses her old “run into a wall” animation on the invisible barrier covering the steps. She can’t climb up the ladder to the top deck either. Neither of these things are necessary to play the level, but I don’t like being told I cannot execute a common human task because it isn’t where the game wants me to go (especially considering she later climbs ladders with ease when the game wants her to). A bit further into the level, bad guys manage to knock her out, and Lara not only escapes the temple, but gets back to her boat and drives it toward the mercenaries’ transport tanker. If you consider the nature of these enemies, it makes a hell of a lot of sense to put a bullet in her head, or at the very least scuttle her ship (don’t tell me they couldn’t find/see it). Neither happens, of course, because that would prevent the story from progressing, but it is a bit hard to care about fighting back when you’re up against a crew of morons.

To be fair, I should have seen this coming. As good as Legend and the Anniversary remake were, Eidos painted themselves into a corner with their modern Tomb Raider reboot. From a story perspective, Legend didn’t really fit in with either the films or the old games, and while the new controls and linearity were a welcome change of pace, it still didn’t feel like Tomb Raider proper. This was reinforced by Anniversary, which reminded us that its twisty caverns are still incredibly engaging if done properly. In other words, Legend was a quick and temporary fix, and Anniversary was a nice little bonus that could stand on its own two feet. Going forward, I figured that Crystal Dynamics would have to spend some time figuring out if they were going to try and integrate their game into the old canon, or start something new entirely, and they also needed to figure out which of the two game styles they were going to follow. Unfortunately, Eidos didn’t give them the time and budget to do either, and so Underworld was forced to continue a plot that had no proper grounding in anything, while trying to reconcile two different schools of platforming.

In the end, we all got careless. Eidos neglected to learn from their past mistakes, and tried to milk the franchise too quickly like they did before. Meanwhile gamers were so happy to have a playable adventure with Lara Croft that they failed to see that they were playing a bandage rather than a complete makeover. It looks like Tomb Raider may see yet another, more significant reboot, but it may be too little too late. The franchise has struggled for a long time now to prove that Lara is more than a footnote from the young and horny Playstation Generation, and the adventures of Nathan Drake in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games have been a more than worthy replacement. The future of Tomb Raider looks as grim as ever, and there’s no telling if it will improve.

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14 years ago

Hey Christian, I saw this post in my Google alerts for Uncharted, heh.

Being a huge fan of the Tomb Raider franchise since it started, I also had the same thoughts about ‘Underworld’ that you have, and perhaps it is indeed a result of the amount of games they have under the title and the time they’re given to produce them.

A while back, there was talk that they were going to spin-off one of the characters from ‘Angel of Darkness’ (Kurtis Trent), which may have been the replacement for what became the need for Nathan Drake in Uncharted. I mean — Uncharted might not have been a need in the gaming world if ‘Kurtis Trent: Tomb Raider’ was produced.

However, it seemed that the issue is that Eidos/Crystal Dynamics is more focused on what you should do that the game feels as if there is truly only one way to go about things.

With Uncharted, we see that while the gameplay is still linear, there’s still a number of options you have when faced in situations that net the same result. It’s not entirely free-form, but it provides a good amount of replay (as I’m playing it again for the 3rd time).

I’m honestly not so certain I want to see another Tomb Raider game any time soon, not if it’s /just/ another sequel to an aging franchise. For a new game to truly hit the mark, they need to seriously re-think the storytelling AND gameplay together.

@AllUNCHARTED / @chrisfullman

14 years ago

Thanks for the comment Chris. Much obliged. I too would be curious as to what would have happened if that TR was created.

Can’t say I had any urge to replay the first Uncharted, but I don’t mind playing through a game just once if the experience is solid. The one thing the game did incredibly well was to make the different platforming areas easy to determine while still making the settings feel naturally overgrown and dilapidated. It manages to feel less artificial and yet more intuitive at the same time, and a lot of that is going to come down to craftsmanship.

As for the future of TR, the more I think about it, the more I realize how many characters and settings they have obtained over the years. I’m sure there’s a way to take those characters and spin them in another direction. the problem is even if it ended up being good, selling the concept to fans and people who gave up on the franchise is easier said than done.

14 years ago

i have given up on the franchise. bought and enjoyed the first few; bought and didnt enjoy the next few, and now i monitor the releases(the way i do with most games) but havent played one since the days of the original playstation.

14 years ago

I think in my mind Tomb Raider has had it’s moment. I loved the original games on the Playstation and happily bought recently efforts such as Legend and Anniversary, but it doesn’t hold a lot of that excitement that it did for me back in 1996 – that powerful sense of adventure with a female as the lead.

And the trouble is Tomb Raider is having a tough job to inspire those who who should be inspired, weaning young people off the often childish generation of party games we have now and gently nudging them into something more mature – I think other IPs have a monopoly on this sense of excitement now.