Demo Driver 8: Tomb Raider: Underworld (#148)
I have said in the past that prior to the reboot, I’ve never had much interest in tombs or the raiding thereof. I’m aware that a lot of people do like the franchise and it has things to recommend it; I’m also aware that it tends to be buggy and filled with somewhat dodgy play control, coupled with a lead character that’s long jumped back and forth between cheesecake titillation and being a remarkably confident and self-assured lady in charge. It was, as a whole, something I could live without.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is sort of the immediate precursor to the reboot, so in some ways it’s kind of similar and in others it’s completely different. It’s an interesting peak at what was the apex of the original design progression (even if it was itself part of a rebooted series), as well as a look at why the franchise needed to be rebooted again a few scant years later. As an actual game… well, that’s another story.
The actual plot is only sketched in the barest fashion by the demo, aside from the fact that there is a tomb of some variety and Lara Croft is raiding it. There’s also a great deal of discussion of the underworld, which seems in line with the series and its usual pseudo-mythical approach to everything, like a version of Indiana Jones with a snarky British lady instead of Harrison Ford. You don’t know the story, but the game makes it very clear that it’s more interested in showing off its gameplay than its narrative chops, so we’ll let it slide.
So what does that gameplay consist of? A lot of jumping about hither and yon trying to figure out where you’re heading next.
On a macro level, that sounds pretty unenjoyable. The idea of having no idea where you’re supposed to go next, coupled with wide-open spaces to explore, seems like a great way to get lost. In practice, though, it’s mostly a matter of figuring out the sequence to get from one point to another, just assembling a sequence of jumps and then making them happen. The open nature of the areas isn’t a lie, precisely, but there’s plenty of bits of empty space that serve largely to make it a bit less obvious at a glance where you need to start jumping.
Despite what I had feared, the controls are generally responsive and reliable, although some elements of dismounting from ledges felt a bit dodgy and the camera occasionally ran into “flipping out” mode rather than doing anything useful. There are also about two dozen different sorts of context-sensitive jumps that easily forget the current context if Lara is nudged in the wrong direction, leading to a few irritating moments in which my thumb lightly grazed the left analog stick and Lara took that as a cue to jump into a pit rather than directly up to the ledge. Not abhorrent, but it could have been a bit better.
After a fair bit of initial jumping, I was thrown into my first real combat situation against a group of tigers. And it’s here that things kind of went downhill.
One of the additions to the game was the dual-target system, which is meant to take advantage of the fact that Lara has two guns and thus should be able to aim at two different targets. Never mind that this should, logically, result in her just blindly aiming with two separate guns, the real problem here is that your guns are about as effective at slowing down the tigers as harsh language. They’re also far faster and stronger than Lara – being, you know, enormous fucking tigers – and so combat winds up being an exercise in futilely plinking away while trying to minimize how many times they smack you with their paws, because they most certainly will do just that.
You have some dodge moves, yes, but they’re not terribly worthwhile against groups of circling tigers. It’s kind of like watching a game fighting with its own mechanics, like the game wants action-packed combat without giving you the tools to actually partake in that. I can’t be too mad when the game did allow me to kick a tiger in the head until it tied, that was kind of novel, but even that was less about nifty combat and more about kicks being the only thing that sent the now-lone tiger into any sort of stun animation so I could stop being knocked down.
By contrast, combat in Tomb Raider – the reboot, that is – winds up being fast, brutal, and tense. Take a couple of solid hits and you’re nearly out of the fight, enemies recoil at being shot quite believably, and Lara has a variety of maneuvers at her disposal to put distance between herself and her enemies when it becomes necessary. Maybe I just wasn’t using the proper tiger-hunting gun this time around, I don’t know.
Unfortunately, the demo doesn’t really end on a cliffhanger or anything, it just sort of stops mid-exploration. There’s nothing to hook you in, but then, the demo hadn’t bothered with any story up to this point, so it’s at least consistent.
Is it any good? It’s kind of hard to say. It’s definitely not as good as the reboot, which nicely trims up several of the issues found in this particular game, but at the same time it’s not a bad game. There’s a fair bit more “cheesecake action hero” going on than I’d like and more loving shots of Lara’s body than seem appropriate, but at least she’s not being used as a hostage or a victim. The combat is dicey, but it’s not a major feature of the demo and may well be similarly marginal in the full game.
When you get right down to it, if you liked the reboot, this will serve as decent methadone. If you always have liked tombs and what can be found in the process of raiding them, you’ll enjoy this. Otherwise, I’d recommend the reboot first, or at least downloading the demo and giving it a spin. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it boring, but there’s a bit too many things that make me leery to declare it a total triumph.