Like many other of gaming’s most iconic franchises, “Tomb Raider,” with its universally recognizable bombshell heroine Lara Croft, has occasionally struggled to find footing as tech and tastes evolve. Developer Crystal Dynamics proves for the third time in as many years that she’s back on firm footing with “Tomb Raider: Underworld,” a new entry that preserves the series’ appealing combination of intellectual, puzzle-solving gameplay and perilous action. An opaque plot, tacked-on combat and distracting camera issues prevent it from competing with the top-tier holiday titles, but “Underworld” gets enough right to make for a modest success.
Even veteran players may find themselves faced with a vexing question as this ninth series entry hits the market: “What does Lara Croft do, exactly?” Contrary to the title, she doesn’t seem to spend much time in tombs. Whatever her work entails, it’s brought her an enormous mansion, a fancy boat and no shortage of Bond-like gadgets, all of which she uses to launch her latest escapade into ancient ruins, undersea caverns, deserted temples and the like.
This time around, Lara’s tale begins with the classic Croft Manor in flames, and the gameplay flashes players back through the series of events that led up to the destruction. The plot is an incohesive mishmash of various mythological influences, mainly delivered when Lara pauses in cut scenes to opine aloud in her High English accent to no one in particular about artifacts, Norse gods, hidden lands and minor characters no one can possibly keep track of. The gist of it, though, is that she’s on a trail of clues that may lead to her vanished mother.
New reading material is continually added to the player’s menu for those who really want to keep track, but since it has virtually no connection to the gameplay, there’s little point. Rather than the plot, it’s environment that’s the star here. As Lara investigates diverse settings including caves, jungles and ruins, the world around her acts as a subtle puzzle. The player must navigate her across dizzying heights, precarious ledges and just-made-it leaps. Although it’s old hat for cucumber-cool Lara, awesome visuals married to tight design make it appropriately thrilling for the couch jockey. A grand-scale orchestral soundtrack admirably supports the drama of hanging from a tree branch thousands of feet over a chasm or the majesty of entering an awesome Thai jungle lush with vivid greenery, sparkling turquoise shallows and temple ruins.
Given the scope of the visual immersion it’s all the more striking that the occasional combat feels like an afterthought. Why should Lara have to suddenly shoot down three mauling tigers, frustrated players will wonder, and why does every guard on a perilous enemy warship look precisely the same?
Fortunately, the menu options allow dynamic difficulty level adjustments throughout the game. At any time, players can tweak Lara’s health relative to that of her enemies — how much ammo she has and how easily she can avoid being grabbed. That level of precision is unusual and helps make “Underworld” a more inviting experience for casual players.
Lara Croft is, and has, one of the industry’s most recognizable figures, and her latest outing maintains her decidedly titillating look while keeping a focus on her athleticism. More impressive than Lara’s physique, though, is her physicality. The feats of fitness on display in “Underworld” are more believable than ever, just as the frequent plunges the player will take to rocky cliff sides and dark cavern floors evoke a genuine wince.
That’s why it’s a shame that, more than a decade after the “Tomb Raider” franchise started, it’s still plagued by camera issues, especially in tight areas. How are players supposed to gauge the next perilous leap when the camera keeps getting wedged between the wall and her butt?