Underworld thoughts

Posted June 17th 2012

Introduction

Most of my gameplaying time is dedicated to Halo, but I have been known to play other games on occasion. I've had a few tentative dealings with the Tomb Raider series before, going right back to enjoying a demo of Tomb Raider 1 on a Mac, but I never quite got into it. I was pretty much put off the series entirely for a good few years, due to the sheer ugliness of the Lara Croft modelling. I kept seeing her with this giant puppet-head and a ridiculous chest, and she'd be in a bikini holding some Lucozade or something. Not good.

Well, the years went by, game consoles advanced, and fortunately the character modelling took a distinct turn for the better. More realistic, I should say. I attempted to get into things with Legend for the Xbox 360 but soon became exasperated with control issues and other shortcomings, and returned it to the shop. Now a few years later, I've had a serious go with Tomb Raider Underworld for the 360 (UK PAL version) and this rather late article gives my detailed thoughts on it, including a close look at Lara's modelling, animation and control.

If you want a quick synopsis to get the flavour of what's coming up, I'd say Underworld is a potentially super game with some very impressive aspects, sadly let down by some serious control issues (notably the over-sensitivity of directional control), poor combat, jerky camera, assorted regular annoyances, and a slew of bugs, some potentially game-wrecking. So, there's good but also quite a lot of bad.

Lara modelling

One of the game's most impressive aspects for me is the way Lara looks. The first thing is, her physique is quite fantastic. Aside from having legs that probably go on a bit longer than a real woman's would, it appears to be pretty closely based on actual human anatomy rather than some weird distorted vision of it. I'm all in favour of that. Her figure is nigh on perfect and she looks toned within an inch of her life, ready for anything. Add her terrific 'jungle shorts' outfit and you've got a character that not only looks the part but is also sexy as hell - something else I'm all in favour of. Things were already going nicely that way with Legend and I'm really pleased to see this continuation in Underworld.

Facial features

Lara's facial appearance is quite appealing too, though not to such a degree as her physique. She's certainly good-looking, but when you get a little closer things don't look quite so natural. For one thing her eyes and lips have been enlarged a fair bit. It's not the gross and unappealing enlargement seen in some earlier Tomb Raider games, but it starts to give her a doll-like appearance close up, an impression compounded by her seemingly flawless skin. I was expecting something more realistic, but I later found some explanation from the game's Creative Director, Eric Lindstrom. In the interesting Ask Eric forum thread started after he and twenty-nine other Crystal Dynamics staff lost their jobs, he explained that "we did move Lara into a less cartoony realm, but she is not really realistic enough of a character, or the world she explores, to go too real", and also "we didn't want to make Lara look perfectly lifelike, because the Lara we love is larger than life". I guess I can understand the idea there but I'm wondering how long that idealism can last, even if future directors happen to share it. I think realism sells, and commercial pressure may become too strong to resist. Plus I don't really see much conflict anyway.

She also has some facial animation. When you get the camera close enough you can see that her eyes look around. There are also some expressions involving her eyebrows and also a furrowed brow, but while I commend the effort, I didn't find those terribly convincing or recognizable, and the brow wrinkling actually seems a little ugly. Pre-publicity boasted of of mouth movement, but outside cutscenes you're unlikely to see any in normal play. For a long while I thought there wasn't any at all, but I eventually glimpsed an open-mouthed scream when Lara was dying in a fight against thralls I think. Later I found some ways of seeing some mouth animation; see my page on Viewing Lara. But normally her mouth just has a rigid look with lips barely parted. In later games it would be good to see some work on this, with mouth movements sychronized to her breathing, especially when breathing heavily after getting exhausted. I'm picking out relatively small things here though, which only really notice when the camera's close. Her face seems pretty good work overall.

Skin effects - dirt, sweat and water

Lara's slightly doll-like skin can take on a dirtied appearance when she does a bit of rolling around or climbing. I didn't actually realize it was meant to be dirt at first; I just thought the skin texture was off, and it kind of looked like the outbreak of some nasty exotic disease. However, that was when the dirtiness was at a relatively low level. The effect is more convincing when it's stronger. Intriguingly, one area of rainy Southern Mexico seems to give a notably heavier effect in which she really looks like she's got slimy wet mud on her skin. I found that effect quite impressive. Go and have her roll around to see if you can find this special muddy zone! All in all, it's great to see this dirtying feature, though it's obviously inconsistent that her clothes remain dirt free.

Dirt normally disappears as Lara covers ground, like it's gradually shaking off. However, there are places where Lara gets triggered to perspire heavily, which you'll see from her glossy skin and potentially also some damp-looking clothing, and in this case dirt seems to disappear gradually within about thirty seconds, even if she's just standing still. I guess the idea is that the sweat is washing things off. A bit simplistic, but ok. Mind you, if you instead get her perspiring from a lot of sprinting, that sort of perspiration doesn't cause any dirt removal. Dirt washes off even quicker in the rain of Southern Mexico (where again she'll have a glistening look), disappearing in about twenty seconds. But it can be a bit fickle, as if you have to make sure you're standing in a nice rainy spot. A further way to get rid of dirt is to go for a spot of swimming, and I notice that if she merely goes wading in a pool, only leg dirt gets washed off - quite clever! The glistening from water residue or perspiration isn't very realistic, I have to say. Rather than obvious droplets or suchlike, it's just like a uniform coat of gloss varnish. So that could do with improvement.

Hair

Lara has an attractive hairstyle featuring a cute pony-tail which flicks about in a realistic manner as she moves around, sometimes settling over the front of a shoulder. In the right environments it blows gently in the wind. All very nicely done. It doesn't avoid the gun slung on her back however; it clips through it (two objects appearing to blend) as if the gun wasn't there. As her hair and guns are both darkish however (aside from the spear gun), that tends not to notice much so I don't think it's much of a deal - just something that could do with improvement. Occasionally you can also see Lara's fringe clip through her skin, including in at least one cutscene.

Lara's traditional hairstyle was a long braid and I know some fans are quite attached to that, but to myself as someone not rooted in past games, the switch to a pony-tail - as of Legend it seems - was a good move. With a softer and cuter look, it's way more attractive than a braid could ever be. In view of the serious clipping issues in the game engine, I'm wondering if the developer's main reason for the switch was actually to make those issues less obvious with the hair. The clipping isn't too noticeable with the wispy pony-tail, but with a rope-like braid it could've seemed too obvious.

Although Lara's skin glistens when she's been for a dip, her hair shows no sign of being wet at all, a glaring inconsistency. It's not really something I mind - just an observation. I suspect the developers would've implemented this if they'd had more time, and I imagine we'll see it sometime in the future.

Breathing

Aside from when she's just been horribly killed, Lara is visibly breathing all the time. If you get the camera close enough you'll hear that she's audibly breathing too. It's the sort of breathing you might expect from someone who's just leapt from ledge to ledge and swung around on a few poles; and there's body motion too as you'd expect. It's really well done and makes her look very alive, full of life. However, the breathing sounds are not in sync with the rise and fall of her chest. In fact they're occurring rather slower, and you also don't really get the impression that the sound is coming from Lara. I timed things at the start of Croft Manor and found that while Lara's chest rises and falls 36 times per minute, you hear only 25.5 breaths per minute. It seems strange that the rates are different, and it would be interesting to know why things got done that way. Obviously it would be good to get things in sync in later games, to add to the realism when you've got the camera close enough to hear the breaths.

In some climbing poses Lara's visible breathing rate goes up. Hanging with feet dangling, it goes up to about 60. When holding onto a ledge and with an arm outstretched ready to make a jump, it's about 74, around twice her normal rate. I suppose you might attribute that to adrenaline and the possibility of imminent death.

Other things

One other aspect of her modelling is that she has - how can I put it - boob jiggle. It's thankfully nothing ridiculous, and I didn't even notice it until starting to take a close look at her modelling. Was there someone at Crystal Dynamics with the title Lead Boob Jiggler? I'd like to think so.

Outfits

Lara initially has eight outfits. That might sound plenty, but once you take account of the limitations on which levels you can use them in, there's disappointingly little variation available. One additional outfit becomes available when you've completed the game, but that can only be used in Treasure Hunt, a mode which I think a lot of people might not even be very interested in.

Taking a closer look at things, the 'jungle shorts' outfit is easily the pick of the bunch for me. Shorts and skimpy top is pretty much the classic look of course, and Lara looks quite fantastic in this version. It's just perfect, and I'd say she's never looked better. I'm especially a fan of the bare midriff look, which also spiced things up in Legend. The 'Jungle Pants' and 'Jungle Heavy' outfits make things progressively more covered up while maintaining the dark greenish look. Sadly however, these are the only non-specialized outfits aside from the 'Casual' outfit available for Croft Manor. So if you're taking Lara for a jaunt into Coastal Thailand or Southern Mexico, she's always going to be in some form of green. Well, I have no trouble decking her out in the shorts again and again, but some significant variation would have been nice. And would it really have been that hard? Couldn't they have thrown in a few extra versions of the shorts look, with a few alternate colours? There's so much possibility there and I feel it's such a waste of potential.

There are likewise severe limitations on the other levels. A couple of wetsuit options for watery outings, and two snug-looking outfits for the cold of Jan Mayen Island. All very nice, but again I would've liked more variation. More outfits would also help with replay value I think.

Although Lara's clothes never get dirty, they can look damp, either from a dip in the water or because she's perspiring. Even her wetsuit can take on a damp look due to perspiration, something surely wrong as I think wetsuits are generally waterproof!

Lara's shadow

Lara casts a shadow, and although this isn't truly part of her, it's something you're seeing with her most of the time so I thought I'd include mention of it in this fundamental section. The thing about this shadow is, it's extremely blocky or patchy, often causing obvious and distracting flickering as areas of the shadow blink on and off. I'm surprised it's that bad, given how much you see it. The patchiness of shadows extends to other objects too, but it's Lara's which is by far the most important. You sometimes also see glitchy dark markings on her skin (e.g. when you first see her in the opening cutscene of Coastal Thailand). I'm not completely sure, but I suspect that's actually some shadowing effect gone bad.

Control and movement

In this section I'll talk about the control of Lara and the way she responds (including the quality of her animation), outside the specific realm of combat. Obviously a big and important topic.

Poor directional control

Lara's movement has some great aspects I'll get to shortly, but I have to start off with what for me is the game's biggest frustration, namely the matter of pointing her in the desired direction. A big part of this is the wild over-sensitivity of the directional joystick, which was also present in Legend and which was one of the main reasons I rejected that game. The slightest nudge tends to cause Lara to rotate a lot, very suddenly. If she's stationary at the time, this makes it quite a pain to get her facing in a particular direction (e.g. for a jump), and you're likely to need a succession of delicate tweaks before you get lucky and find her facing more or less the right way. In the case where she's running forwards you can instead use the camera joystick to alter her course, as she'll follow the camera direction. However, that joystick is pretty sensitive too. In practice I use a combination of the two, and the bottom line is that she'll often be doing a lot of weaving about as I try to make course corrections to make her go where I want. Directional control is too sensitive, and for me this one massive omnipresent flaw knocks the enjoyability factor down a great deal. It applies to when she's on her motorbike too, but I'll get to the bike in a later section.

The really frustrating thing is, it was surely so easily avoidable. We could've been given a setting to specify the sensitivity of directional control. It would apply to both joysticks I guess. The way things are now would be like having the slider at the top of the scale, giving extreme twitchiness. I'd want things dialled way down, so I can get Lara moving more smoothly and predictably. Such a facility seems quite sensible to me, as directional sensitivity is doubtless quite a matter of personal preference.

Walking and running

Getting into more positive territory, Lara has some great animations for walking and running about. As you ease the motion joystick forward you'll see that she can gradually progress from a slow walk to a full run in pretty convincing manner. Sometimes I'll have her just walk around a bit, just because it can look so good. She does a very sexy saunter I have to say! Most of the time she'll be running of course, and the animation for that is great. Crucially, she doesn't noticeably suffer from 'slippy feet' in these basic movements. That's when feet slide across the ground as a character moves. It wrecks any realism and has been a pet hate of mine for years; in fact I'm unlikely to play a game with that flaw. Lara does have some noticeable slippiness when rotating or negotiating an uneven surface, so there's room for improvement, but basically I'm very happy that they paid attention to this fundamental matter.

But wait, it gets better! Lara doesn't just run, she can sprint! Holding down the left bumper accelerates her into a beautifully animated sprint, which for me is the most striking animation in the game. She really looks so alive. After about ten seconds she gets exhausted and it's vividly reflected in her animation as her gait becomes uneven and her arms flail somewhat. Really superb work and I'm full of admiration for it.

Negotiating uneven terrain

When it comes to moving over uneven terrain, Lara's movements are a mixture of good and bad. Some of her animation when ascending or descending stairs can be very good. I'm especially thinking of the slightly sideways manner in which she can descend steps. Very realistic. In general though, the nature of the steps seems to make quite a difference to the success of any animation, as does her speed. When she's only moving slowly her movement can be a bit of a disaster, very bobbly or jerky. Her step animation on the longish steps before the Midgard Serpent pool (before having to leave the bike behind) is poor, especially going downwards. Lots of sliding and jerkiness.

Another type of unevenness is slopes. When running up or down an incline, her hand height varies in reaction - a subtlety that impresses me. Clearly there was a lot of thought going on with this movement business.

Turning on the spot - a visual disaster

When talking about the over-sensitivity of the directional joystick, there was something I didn't mention. When Lara is stationary in normal stance (feet slightly apart), the turning occurs without any significant step movement. There's a little shuffling perhaps, but basically she just rotates on the spot like a shop dummy. This is awful, and completely inconsistent with the apparent mantra of realism applied to most of her other motions. Perhaps it's because of the near-instant turning itself. Proper leg movements would have looked too fast and silly, so they just dispensed with them? If so, you can guess my response there. The turning should never have been so fast as to make that a problem. Sadly, the lack of proper leg motion brings things down quite a lot, combining with the near-instant turning to wreck the otherwise admirable realism on a regular basis.

No side-stepping

Something you soon realize is that Lara can't side-step; so her movements in going from A to B are often not as natural as they could be. It's a pity things weren't made more flexible somehow. For example, when not climbing or in combat mode, she could've switched to some sort of 'free' movement by holding down RB (currently RB makes her take out a grenade if available, but that could be something which only happens when she has guns out or target lock engaged). She'd keep her back to the camera and would do side-stepping or back-stepping when appropriate, depending on the direction you send her with the left joystick. I think this sort of free movement could be big improvement, adding to the overall realism of Lara's behaviour when used well.

Acrobatics

Lara has a lot of nifty acrobatic moves, even including some she can use in combat. I'm glad she has this dimension, which I think has always been part of her character. Some of her moves are relatively functional, such as a forward roll she can use to pass through a low opening in fluid and speedy fashion (better than crouching), while others are more showy. I find that you can have quite a bit of fun just having her run around doing acrobatics - combination moves in particular. She's really quite the gymnast! Be warned however that the manual won't be a great help here. Unleashing Lara's full athletic potential will require plenty of experimentation with the controller, or searching around on the web.

Climbing and leaping

Lara just wouldn't be Lara without her death-defying climbing and leaping abilities, and she has a great repertoire in this game. One of the things that impresses me most - and I'm writing as someone who's pretty fussy about naturalistic dynamics - is that I very rarely feel like her leaps are 'fixed'. The dynamics generally look fine, with no obvious 'magnetism' (that seems to be the term) to ensure that she makes it. So that's a big plus for me. As for initiating such leaps, I like how she can turn her head and hang an arm out when she senses a jump she can make. It's a great way of letting you know when it's ok to hit the jump button. Or so you'd hope. In fact it's not foolproof and sometimes she can end up hitting the ground hard. Oops! Also, she quite often gives no indication of whether or not she can make a jump. So I think there should be more work on this sort of subtle bodily feedback, to make it something which is more pervasive and completely reliable.

Lara has an enjoyable free climbing ability in which she moves across vertical surfaces which have the necessary handholds and footholds - such as on the soaring column she swims to at the start of Coastal Thailand. In terms of the animation however, her leg and arm movements are much too sudden, snapping out almost instantly. There's a kind of robotic look, like she's a climbing machine. Which she is, but not literally! So I'd really like to see that smoothed out and made more naturalistic.

Grappling

Lara can use her ever handy grapple to swing across gaps, abseil down, hoist herself up, and suchlike - all depending on the presence of a suitable spot for latching it onto of course. For the most part it works quite nicely, but in a few spots where she has to get across unusually large gaps, I've had severe trouble. I remember one place in particular where she died over and over again, and it was driving me nuts. Judging when to release the grapple to let her sail the rest of the way to safety can be problematic, perhaps because the game dynamics don't mirror real-life physics well enough for your natural instincts to help much. That's the impression I got at least.

Edge concerns

I have a few frustrations about Lara's behaviour near edges. When you make her head for an edge to a significant drop, she does an automatic panic-stop animation, as if she's seen the danger at the last second. That may be ok if she was running, but if you were just trying to saunter her up a bit closer to the edge, something I often want to do, she still does the panic-stop and it's wildly inappropriate. Things need to be a lot more subtle. It's questionable whether she should even do an automatic stop when only at low speed. But even if that's what the developer wants, it shouldn't be the dramatic wild arm-fling; it should be little more than a simple halt.

My other frustration comes when I want her to drop down. Originally I thought you were obliged to make her run off so she'd do her automatic desperate grab; hardly satisfactory. But I eventually realized that the B button is what I wanted (it wasn't clearly signalled in the manual). However, her drop animation is way too fast and the camera whizzes around in a flash, so it's all very jarring. I want a more realistic animation there.

Balancing

When it comes to moving along a beam, this seems needlessly frustrating. No matter how slowly she goes, Lara seems to want to teeter and fall off. Keeping the directional joystick as steady as possible just doesn't seem to help. Perversely, she actually seems much better at traversing a beam by either doing it fast (keeping the left bumper down) or by doing a series of front walkovers; so that's what I usually do. There's also the option of dropping to grab on, then doing fast traversing. Something needs fixing there. Simply walking along while balancing is a pure frustration. Oddly, she's much more stable traversing a horizontal pole (with rapid tippy-toe steps), even though it's much narrower than your average beam!

Lara has a great pose for balancing on top of a pole - for example at the start of Croft Manor. And here's something I found really interesting. Note how the directional control isn't wildly over-sensitive in this case! When you rotate her, her feet shuffle in a decently convincing manner and her motion isn't sudden. It's a darned shame normal turning didn't have such realism!

I find it annoying that when Lara pulls herself up onto a horizontal pole, she's in a crouched position. It seems like you have to make her start moving along before she'll stand up. I'm not sure what the rationale behind the crouched position was. Perhaps because it's a more appropriate pose before she makes a leap to something else?

Swimming

Even before Lara gets wet, there's a graceful swan dive she can do to enter the water - always a pleasure. Thereafter she's able to swim on the surface or underwater, and in each case she has multiple swimming actions according to speed. On the surface she can go slow with a breast stroke or speed things up with a front crawl. If you hold down the left bumper which would be 'sprint' on land, she'll speed up that crawl considerably - until she runs out of puff. Underwater her slowest stroke involves just kicking her feet while her arms rest along her sides. Speed things up and her arms come into play, breast stroke fashion. 'Sprint' and she carves through the water like an eel! She has various other abilities including treading water and a great flip turn, plus a really nice exit animation complete with water splashes. All in all, great work.

Autonomous actions

Lara has various inessential actions she performs of her own accord, which potentially add to the realism and make her more lifelike. Such actions might not be terribly welcome to players who like to identify with Lara when playing (i.e. consider themselves as Lara), because she's doing something the player didn't initiate - which could weaken the sense of identification. I don't have that concern though. I feel external to Lara, something I find almost unavoidable due to the third-person perspective. I micro-manage her and she kindly lets me, but she's got her own character and ultimately her own mind. That's how I see it anyway, even if it may seem a bit nonsensical. So I'm happy to have such autonomous actions, despite a few shortcomings. I'll say a few words about the various types.

Idle actions

When Lara is just standing idle and the camera isn't too close, she'll randomly do 'idle actions' (I'll call them that to make the distinction from the basic idle animation of breathing). I'd expect this behaviour in any reasonably thoughtful modern game and it's rather nicely and generously implemented here, primarily with eighteen free-standing actions. These include stance adjustment, exercises, item adjustment or checking, dusting off, being spooked, and - when wet or perspiring - moisture removal. Some are a lot more frequent than others. At the top end of the scale you've got her 'left shift' stance adjustment, in which she shifts her weight to her left foot and puts her arms on her hips. You've probably seen that one quite often because it normally has a frequency of around 81 times per hour, based on my painstaking research (hey, someone's gotta do it!). A more subtle 'right shift' adjustment occurs rather less often. A very cute 'arm fold' action occurs even less frequently - about 7 times per hour - and her six exercise actions are at a similar sort of level. Among the rarest actions are an earpiece check (seemingly an errant carry-over from Legend, as she has no visible earpiece here) and an amusing 'butt dust' in which she slaps the dirt off her right butt check twice - complete with sound effects! Well worth waiting for I'd say.

Some aspects of these actions could do with refinement (the transitions to and from certain actions are unnaturally abrupt for example), but overall these are a really nice bit of fun which I've enjoyed spending quite a bit of time watching. She also has a few idle actions for when she's on her motorbike or climbing, and there's a fanning action for when sufficiently exhausted from sprinting. For details on all this see my separate article, Lara's idle actions.

Looking at things

Lara quite often turns her head to look at certain things. Significant objects, dead panthers, lots of stuff. It's a nice idea but has been rather carelessly implemented because she even does it in situations she definitely shouldn't. When in combat, you naturally want Lara to be paying attention to her enemies. Unfortunately she may keep turning her head to look at something in a distracted way, which somewhat ruins the moment. For example, when fighting the four thralls at the bottom of the spiral path at the start of Jan Mayen Island, she often glances at the power stones on the ground. She also happily does it when balanced precariously or climbing. That's hardly appropriate and looks bad. For example, have her run past the second group of tigers in Coastal Thailand and leap onto the first beam. At this point she's got some tricky jumping work ahead, yet she'll have her head turned to watch any pursuing kitty-cats, and she'll even watch dead tigers (that's if the bodies don't just disappear). Basically then, the game needs to suspend her looking behaviour when she ought to be concentrating on something else.

Brushing aside foliage

When Lara runs through some reasonably tall foliage, she sometimes does an animation of brushing it aside with one or both hands, which is nice. The foliage isn't really brushed aside - she basically clips through any foliage - but at least it tends to sway a little from her presence, which helps to make things convincing if you don't look too close. On the minus side however, she sometimes does the brushing animation with foliage which is really too short, not even coming up to her waist; so that's a bit careless. Also, there's no brushing when she's only walking.

Shielding herself

Lara also shields herself from flames or steam, but her transition to and from that arms-up pose is practically instant. So on the one hand you've got the realistic pose, but on the other you've got realism-wrecking transitions. Not a complete success then.

Camera issues

So far I've talked a lot about how Lara looks and acts. At this point I'd like to take a step back to comment on another fundamental element of the game: the camera, giving us our view into Lara's world.

Annoying viewpoints

After reading quite a bit about the game before going ahead and spending money on it, I was a bit nervous about how aggravating the camera would be for giving bad viewpoints, making it hard to see where to jump and suchlike. As it turned out, the camera wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Yes there are times when it verges between 'unhelpful' and 'infuriating' - with the occasional 'please just kill me now' moment thrown in for good measure - but that doesn't happen in too many places.

That said, it is a bit vexing as to why we have these problems at all, after so many Tomb Raider games. I'm guessing that the camera works according to some general principles, but those principles just don't have enough intelligence in them, which sometimes leads to bad views. I'd really be fascinated to hear from the programmers about the problems. I'm sure the problems must be pretty darned hard to've remained unsolved this long, so I'm not about to be too critical of their efforts, but couldn't some sort of special behaviour be tacked on in problem spots, to try and make the camera do better? Those spots are fairly easy to identify just by playing the game a bit. I don't know enough about the programming structure to know if that's a viable way of fixing things, and it wouldn't be an elegant fix either. We really just need more intelligence in the general workings. But as long as it did the job, it would make us players happy.

The camera actually exhibits some pretty bad behaviour even in the prologue, which is perhaps surprising, given that this is your introduction to the game! At one point when Lara is edging along a wall, the camera can easily end up going above the broken floor above, so you can't even see her!

Jerkiness

As it turned out, there's a quite different shortcoming of the camera which I'm not even sure I saw any complaints about, yet which is far more detrimental to the game in my opinion. Namely, it's way too jerky. It needs to have its dynamics intelligently smoothed so you don't have all these visually uncomfortable jerks as Lara moves about. It's too rigidly slaved to her. You can see some typical jerkiness at the start of Croft Manor when she goes up three big steps. With each step, the camera jerks up to follow instantly. A properly smooth camera would ease up. It's not like you're going to lose track of her. On the contrary, things would be easier to follow and you'd be better able to appreciate her dynamics. In combat, sometimes the camera can jerk around so fast from target to target that you can easily lose track of what she's even shooting at - especially with smaller foe such as bats. Things would be far more friendly to the eye with a smoother camera.

I can imagine some Tomb Raider fans thinking things are fine, but to them I'd say, you've got so used to things that you don't realize how bad they are. Have another look. Start up Croft Manor maybe, and take Lara up those steps and beyond. Notice all the jerking. Would you see camerawork like that in a film? No, and for good reasons, which apply just as well here. Imagine how things would be with a smooth camera. It would be such a change for the better.

Get me closer!

Something I'd like just as much as camera smoothing is to have the camera closer to Lara. In relatively open surroundings the default position for the camera is quite a way off, making her a disappointingly small figure on the screen. Yes it shows me a wider view of the nice scenery - some parts of which I may need to see for navigation purposes - but I'd like to be closer in so Lara takes up more of the screen. It's not just a matter of seeing her better, it's a matter of feeling closer to the action, so to speak. Giving her a greater presence and intimacy. Besides, I think that the more used you get to the surroundings, the less important it becomes to have a wide view of them. So I wish there had been a setting you could adjust, giving your preference for general camera intimacy. A slider perhaps, or just a choice between 'Normal', 'Closer', and 'Closest'.

I remember this issue being one of the reasons I gave up on Legend. Lara was mostly a relatively indistinct figure on the screen, with things not helped by the fact that I was only playing on a standard definition TV (and I'm still on standard definition by the way). I just felt too distant a lot of the time. If I could've been maybe 20% closer, perhaps I would've stuck with that game, who knows.

Don't fight me

One more camera issue, then I'll call it quits, honest. When you try to adjust the default camera view and move it around or something, what you often find is that after letting you have your 'manual view' for a while, the camera starts trying to pull away to where it wants to go, and you have to fight it - which is sometimes practically impossible. Isn't this wrong? I'm not sure about the ramifications here, but if the user is trying to assert their own preference for what view they're seeing, shouldn't the camera have the good sense to let them? This isn't just an issue which relates to the business of the camera giving you annoying viewpoints (viewpoints you'd like to be able to manually override). It's also relevant if you simply want a different view - perhaps just for some aesthetic reason. It's something fundamental and could do with some consideration I think.

Combat

Although the game's combat has a few saving graces in its enjoyable slo-mo abilities and a spot of kicking, it leaves a great deal to be desired, so most of what I say here and in the subsequent related section on enemies is going to be negative. Sorry, but that's the way it's got to be! I'll start out with what for me are the two worst aspects.

Whizzy robotic arms

The absolute worst aspect for me is the way Lara's arms flick about instantaneously from target to target, ruining any semblance of reality and giving things a sort of kiddie-game look and feel. Things are extra bad when she has pistols or SMGs because then she's liable also to fire on two enemies at once (her 'dual targeting' ability, which is tactically poor against major enemies), and you've got both arms independently whizzing about with instantaneous robotic movements. With fast-moving bats and spiders coming at you from all angles it's hard to even follow, and makes me feel like just an uninvolved spectator, waiting for it to end. Because of all this, I generally avoid using pistols or SMGs in multi-enemy situations, but especially against those minor enemies, on whom I'd usually use melee or a shotgun instead. Basically then, those whizzy arms need to go! I want much more naturalistic movements, in keeping with the great work already done on much of her general movement.

Lack of targeting control

The second most worst aspect is that you don't really have much control over what Lara targets. Her targeting is automatic, and if there are multiple enemies nearby it's likely to flick around from one to another which, as with firing on two enemies at once, is tactically poor and therefore frustrating. It's very annoying that you can't always get her to stay focused on a particular enemy. She can keep getting distracted by another (even one posing no immediate threat), which is fundamentally bad.

It would be nice if target lock kept Lara's fire on a single target like I thought it would, but it doesn't. Her fire continues to flick around and she'll potentially be firing on two enemies at once. What target lock does do is make her keep her weapons out, which I certainly want because it looks silly when she keeps putting them away every time you ease off the firing trigger. It also makes her control differently, so she's now able to move around - potentially with acrobatic jumps - while still pointing her weaponry at the enemy. That's nice, except that when moving sideways relative to the enemy, she's somewhat unnaturally rotated at the waist rather than facing them and doing side-stepping.

With Lara's auto-targeting doing all the work for me, I decided that there really wasn't much point to having reticles, so nowadays I've got them switched them off in favour of having a cleaner view. It's at least nice that you can turn off reticles like that, though you still get the annoying sonar 'ping' when she picks up a new target, which goes against realism.

In terms of combat satisfaction, auto-targeting is never going to be able to compete against the manual aim offered by 'serious' combat games, where you're truly in control of things and can even pick out certain parts of an enemy's body. I'm not saying Tomb Raider needs to introduce manual aiming - though I'd certainly like that if it could be done well - but at the very least, the auto-targeting could do with some refinement to reduce the frustrations I've mentioned. In particular, I want to be able to keep her focused on a single enemy.

Secondary weapons

Lara has quite a few secondary weapons to choose from to go with her pistols, but my preference and playing style has become shaped in part by the game's shortcomings. Because of how much I dislike Lara's whizzy arms, I usually avoid the SMGs and try to restrict her pistol use to situations where she'll only be firing on one target at a time. For her secondary I pack the shotgun whenever possible. It gives by far the most satisfaction, and because it's a close-range weapon it fits in well with my liking for doing as much kicking as possible, something she's quite handy at and which is relatively glitch-free. Not that the assault rifle isn't a decent weapon, but the game's auto-targeting doesn't really allow you any sense of precise aiming with it, so I may as well stick with the brutal scatter-firing shotty.

At the start of a level the game lets you choose Lara's secondary, carried on her back. But this turns out to be somewhat misleading because amazingly, Lara is able to change it at any time by accessing her PDA and using a selection option there. Yep, it's that kind of PDA. It's nonsense of course, but perhaps the developer made weapon selection free to avoid complaints from people who like to be able to use whatever weapon they want, whenever they want. But if Halo taught the combat gaming fraternity one thing, it's that having a realistic limitation on the number of weapons you carry is a positive thing for gameplay, not a negative one. Quite aside from helping to keep things believable, it makes you think about tactics for what's coming up, and it keeps you better immersed in the game (not stepping out of the action to flick through a weapon selection screen or whatever). In Underworld it's bad enough that you can select from the whole bunch of secondaries at any time, but to do it by using a PDA is just bonkers! It's the sort of thing you really ought to keep quiet about, to avoid having people openly laughing at your game. However, at least I'm free to imagine that the option isn't there; so I suppose it does no harm.

One other thing. Unless I'm missing something here, it seems to me that you never know how much ammo is left for your secondary! There doesn't seem to be any indication of that on the HUD at top left. That's going to make it rather hard to plan things and ration yourself, if you feel you need to.

Reloading

One shortcoming of the combat system is that there's no manual reload control. With clip-based weapons or the shotgun, you just have to wait for Lara to do an automatic reload once she's run dry. So, you have no ability to do an intelligent reload at a good 'quiet' moment - something which is part of your combat skill in any good shooter game.

Actually, there's sort of a manual reload, but it's only a cheat really. If Lara puts a gun away, it'll magically be fully loaded when she brings it out again! Very cheap. I'm not going to exploit that as a way of manual reloading or fast reloading as I prefer to maintain a degree of believability as best I can, but I dare say a lot of players will exploit it. Sometimes I get the 'benefit' of a magic reload regardless. Like, if I put weapons away deliberately or by accident, then want to quickly bring them out again, they're magically reloaded. I don't want that. I'm not sure whether the magic reload is a glitch in the programming or something the developer actually intended (I suspect the latter), but either way, it's a negative for me. Even if we don't get a manual reload option next time, I at least hope they'll eliminate the inexplicable magic reload.

Another point on reloading is that if Lara puts a weapon away while reloading it, the reloading sound continues to play until completed. That's quite a long time if we're talking about the shotgun. Not good. Possibly there's a weakness in the game engine here; perhaps an inability to curtail sound effects once they start playing?

Precision aiming

Lara has a 'precision aiming' mode which you engage and disengage by clicking the right joystick, but to engage it she has to be holding no weapon (the right click being used for something else when holding weaponry), which makes things feel pretty silly. You potentially get a small circular reticle, and it'll be red if you're close enough. You'd think this mode might help you shoot from further away than normal, but I tested the assault rifle on an idiotically stationary poacher in Southern Mexico and found things to be the other way around! By the time you're close enough for the precision reticle to go red, you could already have been getting a red lock-on for effective normal firing! So I really fail to see the point of this mode.

Besides which, Lara can't move as normal. Her speed is slowed to an absolute crawl making her an easy target, and she'll snap out of precision mode if she gets hit by a bullet. Bearing in mind how close you have to be to use precision mode, that's not good news. You also can't do headshots incidentally. For combat I'd say forget this mode; it's a pointless liability. The only thing I might use it for is to shoot pots, to save Lara having to kick the darned things.

Adrenaline headshot and more

When Lara's adrenaline meter is full she can do a special 'adrenaline headshot' move during which things are in picturesque slow motion. She jumps off the enemy to do a back somersault, and you have to line up a reticle with a target circle on the enemy to take them out in one shot. It looks spectacular and it's pretty good fun as well as being highly effective. Definitely one of the saving graces of Underworld combat.

There's another slowdown feature which the manual perhaps misleadingly calls 'concentrated fire', but which I've been calling 'adrenaline time'. When Lara has some adrenaline on the meter, clicking the right joystick with target lock on causes thing to go into slo-mo (adrenaline time), which effectively gives you longer to react to things, as if Lara were able to think extra quickly. It doesn't mean you can suddenly fire at a higher rate, as far as I can tell. Her rate of firing is slowed down as part of the slo-mo, and I can't see that she's doing any greater damage than normal. One thing you could use this ability for is when one or more enemies are getting within striking range. You could engage adrenaline time and deliver a kick or two to repel them before they connect. I've also used it to make grenade throws on approaching enemies. It's a tactically interesting feature which can be quite useful in helping to keep Lara breathing.

Sticky grenades

As a Halo player I'm no stranger to sticky grenades. The Halo series features that concept to great effect, and the fluid implementation of grenade throwing is one of its most enjoyable aspects. In Underworld there's scope for some enjoyable use and it's nice that you can set them off early with gunfire, a handy tactic against advancing thralls. You can also tag an enemy closer up, then sprint clear of the bang. However, things need some serious refining before grenading can become a real joy. Lara's throw is often an unnaturally high lob, even against quite close enemies, so I get little sense of efficiently targeting anything. Moreover, the grenade doesn't arc according to the laws of gravity. The trajectory is speeded up, perhaps the sort of thing you might get in a game for kids. She also has unrealistically short throwing range except when in precision aiming mode, a mode I dislike to engage due to the motion impediment.

When used on a thrall, the grenade often appears to stick to something invisible around him, so that as he approaches, you see an orange trace orbiting around him. That's hopeless. You at least want it to look properly stuck to him, right? Throwing a grenade against a wall or suchlike will likewise reveal grave shortcomings in the game's workings. Typically you'll see the grenade stopped in mid-air, well away from any surface. We're not just talking a few inches, we can be talking a few feet! Other times, the grenade actually goes right through the wall, never to be heard from again (e.g. try the corner where the first tigers attack from in Coastal Thailand). Underworld surfaces are like a law unto themselves!

One other thing. Sometimes you might change your mind about throwing, so it would be nice to be able to put a grenade away again. I found that if Lara is free-standing and motionless, and not in precision aiming mode, you can actually do that by hitting B. But in various other circumstances that won't work. Hitting B ought to make her return the grenade in all cases.

Melee

Lara has some decent melee ability via the Y button, which normally makes her kick, but which instead makes her swing if she's holding something. It can be quite satisfying when she does a roundhouse kick and knocks down a couple of thralls at once - something she can even do in slow motion if you've engaged adrenaline time first. Her repertoire includes a couple of excellent spinning kicks on the spot, and also a running jumping kick. I've used melee quite a bit, especially against thralls, and she's getting to be quite the martial arts dynamo. It gets darned amusing when she's knocking thralls about, and she looks cute as hell doing those moves. Melee also comes in handy against nuisance enemies and you can even kick bats out of the air. I much prefer it to using her wild-firing pistols, which have such a life of their own. One limitation is that she can't melee on a slope however.

If Lara is holding anything - such as a short pole for sticking into a wall somewhere - the melee button makes her swing with it rather than kick. I've tried this in a few places but have to say I prefer kicks. Partly that's because I find the animation better and more varied, but also, a drawback of swinging is that she'll drop what she's holding if knocked down. However, swinging can be quite amusing. At the bottom of the path at the start of Jan Mayen Island, have you tried swinging with a power stone? I assumed she wouldn't be able to melee with that, but she does and it gives a thrall a right old thump. Funniest thing in the whole game!

I also appreciate Lara's enemy vault, in which she kicks up off an enemy, pushing it back in the process. I don't think that does any damage but it gives you some distance.

Concentrate Lara!

When in combat, you naturally want Lara to be paying attention to her enemies. But something I've already mentioned in the section on autonomous actions is that she may keep turning her head to look at something (an object or body), which somewhat ruins the moment. She shouldn't be looking elsewhere when she's busy fending off attackers. Needs fixing.

Enemies

This section is pretty much a continuation of the combat theme. In the earlier material I focused on Lara's combat abilities in general, but here I'll put the focus on enemies and related aspects.

Thrall battling goodness - and defects

Thrall battling gives the most enjoyable combat in the game for me. Ok their AI isn't too hot and you'll see them running around in circles every now and again, but they're visually interesting and have some good animation effects in the way they sink to the ground, die, or reanimate. I also love how Viking thralls get blasted off their feet by a shotgun. Very satisfying. The death animations are good fun and so is Lara's somersaulting finish-off move, though it has a bit too much of a cartoonishly speeded-up look for me, and there's a glitch (in the Yggdrasil section at least) whereby you don't always get the satisfying thrall death cry.

Unfortunately, Lara's auto-targeting foolishly targets thralls when they're down on the ground waiting to be smashed - even if she's got active ones coming her way! That's a regular annoyance to me when battling multiple thralls. It makes Lara seem dumb and can lead to her getting damaged or killed by the ones she should've been targeting. Another annoyance is that when you hit Y hoping to melee a nearby threat, she may instead do a finish-off move on a downed thrall. Again, that can lead to damage or death. The game needed to be more intelligent and make melee the priority in such control-conflict situations.

Idiotic goons

I'm trying to think of a term for the human enemy AI in Underworld. 'Primitive' springs to mind but I'm not sure I want to be that complimentary. The human AI is dire. Poachers and mercenaries happily stand around taking Lara's fire, maybe bumbling about the place a bit in a poorly implemented approximation of running. They readily lose track of her or forget about her entirely, even though she's JUST OVER THERE! The angry winged assailant in Out Of Time has a few problems too, sometimes dumbly raining fireballs down at nothing, Lara having clearly long gone. It's all a bit embarrassing and makes it seem like the developer really wasn't too interested in putting much time into this side of things, despite surely knowing that AI is a key aspect in providing satisfactory combat, and one which people will always focus on in reviews and suchlike.

Another shortcoming relating to goons with guns is that sometimes they can be shooting at you through an apparently solid object. In Southern Mexico I had a poacher shooting through a solid stone block Lara needed to move into place to jump up to a lever, and aboard a ship I've had goons shooting through the corners of containers. Part of the defect here is that they're trying to shoot through a supposedly solid object (that's the AI aspect), and part of it is that the bullets are allowed to actually pass through the object. Needless to say, it's pretty annoying and makes a nonsense of things.

When a goon gets up close to Lara, he may try to do a spot of melee or may just continue firing. Either way, it can be quite an embarrassment to see. If you care to leave Lara just standing around, you can easily get a situation in which the attacker's body becomes pretty much merged with Lara's as he tries to do damage.

The visual appearance of goons is another problem. When Lara boards a ship in the God of Thunder section, and later an identical ship in Andaman Sea, she encounters the same two character models again and again; face, clothes and all. It's just ridiculous.

Cats and other beasties

When it comes to tigers or panthers, on the one hand I can admire the achievement in getting them to move about with some semblance of reality. I imagine it must be rather hard to get those four feet working together properly. But on the other hand you'd have to say that they move very crudely. Their paws slide about the place and overall they seem quite jerky. On top of this they have an air of running about the place mindlessly, like they've been injected with crazy-juice. I'm not quite sure what crazy-juice is by the way, but it's definitely not the sort of thing that calms you down. I would've liked more smoothness and subtlety in their motion, and more refinement in the AI. The lack of smoothness has a detrimental knock-on effect in combat, making it harder to anticipate their paths and react accordingly. Similar criticism goes for the giant spiders.

The giant lizards are perhaps more successful, but if you've ever tried grenading them in the Bhogavati part of Coastal Thailand, you've probably seen a bizarre effect in which a lizard flies up in the air a short way and comes down headfirst, ending up frozen in a vertical posture, usually with head buried in the ground. Good for comedy but it's hardly what I want, and it means I have to avoid using grenades on those guys if I want things to stay serious. I assume it's a bug.

Sharks

Lara meets up with quite a few sharks along the way. They look pretty good but their animation is not always smooth, which is a pity. They can be glitchy in Coastal Thailand, e.g. jerking around while Lara treads water on the surface.

For Shark combat you're not limited to the spear gun. Amusingly enough, Lara's pistols also shoot underwater! I have my doubts about whether a real pistol would do that without seizing up or exploding, but ok let's go with it. I don't much enjoy getting attacked from behind, but if you see a shark coming Lara can dodge clear quite nicely if you time it well. However, the best shark combat fun arises from grenades. If you release a grenade just before a shark arrives, the grenade tends to attach to the shark as it passes, and the subsequent bang will kill it. I had quite a lot of fun with this shark tagging once I realized it was possible.

Nuisance enemies

As well as the serious large threats, Lara regularly gets accosted by swarms of bats or spiders. Apparently she just has that effect on them. They hate her, and I'm pretty sure they're lying in wait sometimes, having received word that she was heading their way. "Hey guys, here she comes. Charge!" Because of my dislike for Lara's whizzy arms and dual targeting, I prefer to use melee to eliminate such nuisance enemies. Kicking bats out of the air is quite enjoyable. Stomping spiders can bring a certain satisfaction, but she can visibly miss by a good few feet and the target still dies, which isn't so good. Also, those little guys move too fast to get any real sense of being able to target them precisely. It's a case of "melee and hope", when they're near. Not ideal. If the spiders moved in a smoother and slower way, rather than being something you can barely follow with your eyes, there'd be greater potential for targeting them and timing your stomps. It would be easier to anticipate their leaps too, leading to better ability to meet them with a kick. That's all part of a general principal: better enemy animation makes for more satisfactory combat.

So there's plenty of room for improvement there. One other defect is that bats often emerge one after another from the same place, and it's so mind-numbingly regular and predictable that it's embarrassing. Things need proper variation.

Disappearing and insubstantial bodies

Something general now. A major negative for me is is that enemy bodies can disappear before your eyes. Not just bats and small spiders, but sometimes entire tigers and yeti thralls. Also, bits of exploded enemies fade away quickly which is painfully obvious to see. In this day and age and with a console as powerful as the 360, it's quite depressing to see such behaviour, which continually breaks the illusion of reality. It's primitive and needless. In Halo CE, things only got removed when you weren't looking. That at least meant that you didn't see things blink out, even if they did disappear behind your back. It's a far better policy. The odd thing about this ugly glitch is that in the pre-publicity, Crystal Dynamics seem to've advertised how things would be fully persistent, with bodies and debris remaining in place. I wonder how that ended up falling through.

One other issue with bodies is that they seem to have no substance. You can readily see Lara standing knee-deep in dead panther for example. Again, this weakens the reality.

Yay! No annoying boss fights!

In forums, I've seen a few opinions bemoaning the lack of boss fights. It's a matter of taste of course, but I've generally found boss fights to be pretty hateful affairs in which normal rules go out the window and you're obliged to get killed again and again until you finally manage to fluke a victory - or else (more likely) you throw the controller down in disgust and viciously jab the power-off switch on the console. So I'm very happy that there's no such old-school annoyance here. An intelligent boss battle would've been ok with me, but I think it would need a lot of care to avoid making it a game-wrecking irritation.

The amount of combat

Something else I've seen in forums is people saying they want less combat, while others are saying they want more. Frankly I could enjoy the game both ways. The current combat feels quite sparse to me, with only one encounter providing any prolonged challenge, namely in the Yggdrasil section where you get attacked by a whole lot of thralls in a corridor - easily the best encounter in the game (at least for a Halo freak like myself), and something you can really get your teeth into if you forbid yourself the hammer. How about giving the user an option to control the amount of combat they're in for? Folk who want the combat to be more frequent and with greater enemy numbers could be catered for, and likewise folk who want things combat-light. There could even be a control for whether to use auto-targeting, or whether to use a new manual aim system - which many of the combat-heavy brigade would probably like. Such controls would be a way to finally deal with the question of what part combat plays in Tomb Raider.

The motorbike

Paused with one foot down, Lara looks great sitting on her massive black motorbike with its weird chunky back tyre. The trouble comes when I try to make her go anywhere on it! Because of the crazy over-sensitivity of directional control via the left joystick, it's extremely hard to steer; and I'm saying that as someone who can get Halo's jeep-like 'Warthog' zipping all over the place with ease and accuracy, so don't think I'm just a driving klutz. The crippled steering means that I really can't get any proper enjoyment from this machine, which is a major downer since it features heavily in the middle area of the game. An additional flaw lies in the acceleration via the right trigger. Things seem to work very strangely and it takes real effort to limit the speed and keep it constant - something I generally want to do because going at top speed is usually going to end up with a prang against a wall or something. Put these two defects together and basically you've got something which, to be blunt, handles like a pig.

As far as I'm concerned then, the bike is one of the worst aspects of the game. I really wish I could leave it behind and just have Lara go on foot, but unfortunately she needs it for certain things such as crossing big gaps. Actually, even if it was properly drivable I still would've liked her to be able to go on foot when I want. I don't mind at all that it would mean a lot of running for her. There's scenery to enjoy, and I like the feeling of going on a long journey.

Power slide and other features

One reasonably nice aspect of the bike's control is that Lara can do a power slide, which is handy for making abrupt course corrections or turning on the spot - and for killing attackers! It's very abrupt though, which can easily cause you to change direction too far. I feel like it would be easier to use if the turning effect came on a bit more gradually. Lara can also back up and has a really nice body animation for it, looking back over her shoulder. She can also shoot from the bike, but I've never bothered with that because I've already got my hands full trying to keep it from smashing into anything!

Environments

The environments look and sound great and are full of atmosphere - and I appreciate that the HUD is removed when not in combat, letting you get an unencumbered view. All sorts of things impress and it's hard to know where to begin in trying to do them justice.

Sweltering Thailand

Coastal Thailand is one of my two favourite places in terms of scenery. When I first played that it felt like perfect raiding territory. Right from the off you've got some very good looking sea with a dynamic surface, rising and falling against the cliffs in realistic manner. Once on land you're into a world of lush greenery, fantastic ancient ruins, conveniently situated poles to swing from, and so forth. Real handy how all those poles, beams and pillars are in just the right place eh? You get some really gorgeous views along the way and I can easily spend time just having Lara saunter around, letting me soak up the atmosphere and admire things.

You encounter a number of exotic birds along the way, but it's disappointing to find that they're completely unreactive aside from being scripted to fly off when Lara gets sufficiently close - which to be honest gets rather repetitive. Trying to grenade them or shoot them is useless; those birdies will just laugh at you.

Rainy Mexico

My other visual favourite is the outdoor section of Southern Mexico with its superbly atmospheric thunderstorm - once you get the rain going. Amazingly, the game was shipped with a bug which means that the rain visuals are actually missing to begin with. You hear rain but you don't see it, and it only finally gets triggered when you reach a tunnel later. That's a real shame and I can't imagine how something so obvious could've been missed or allowed to remain. Still, once you've got the rain, it looks great as it pours down.

There's a bit of a shortcoming with the attractive ripple effects on the ground though. In the area where three poachers get attacked by a few panthers, kill a panther or poacher. The ripple effects can now be seen over the body. It's like the game has decided that the body is part of the ground, and is just layering the ripple graphics on top of that.

Other places

Quite a lot of the game takes place in rather dark and dingy underground areas. I much prefer brighter warmer environments, particularly outdoor ones, but I can still admire those other places for being very well done. Lara also does a fair bit of underwater swimming of course, and that too is atmospheric, despite being my least favourite type of environment. I prefer Lara on land. She also spends time slaying mercenaries aboard two identical ships, and while the ship is excellently rendered, it's hard to actually enjoy things there because of the absurd near-identical appearances of the goons, and their generally dumb behaviour. Plus, I'd just rather be in a jungle or something.

Sound work

As well as all the visuals, you've got a myriad of excellent sound effects adding to the atmosphere. Not just sounds such as dripping water in a tunnel, but also more abstract distant sounds. The ones in the spiral path area of Jan Mayen Island are particularly eerie and interesting. On top of this there's also the music of course, if you've got it on. Initially I played with the music on and had no complaints at all, aside from it getting a bit loud and repetitive in a lizard infested area of Coastal Thailand I got held up in. After getting through the game however, I found the music volume control and changed to playing with music off. I generally like to do that for a greater sense of realism, and I wish all games had the sense to allow the player to switch music off, so we can enjoy things the way we like best. I'll probably still play with it on sometimes though, for a change.

Glitchy gulls and more

I've already mentioned some birds in Coastal Thailand. At the start of Mediterranean Sea there are distant flocks of seagulls circling around. These ones are badly glitchy however, moving in a sometimes erratic fashion and plainly blinking in and out of existence. I was really surprised at how bad and obvious that was, considering this was the start of the first level. An even earlier bad aspect is the very first few seconds of the level, when you see Lara apparently landing on the deck of her boat like she's just materialized a foot off the floor - which she possibly has! That's not to do with the environment of course, but I had to give it a mention. It's a bizarrely clumsy way for Crystal Dynamics to start their first level, and kind of sets the tone for things to come, in terms of lack of polish. She materializes that way in other levels too. Another early glitch here is when you see the gas cylinder roll under Lara's feet, lifting her up off the ground as if riding a wave. Possibly that points to some sort of fundamental shortcoming in the game engine, I'm not sure.

Feature pop and lighting changes

Sometimes you can see a tree or some other vegetation disappear as the camera gets sufficiently far from it, even though the disappearance is glaringly obvious. And conversely, it'll pop back into existence if the camera moves closer again. I forget whether this also happen with things other than vegetation, but perhaps the glitchy gulls I just mentioned are an example of the same programming flaw.

There's another jarring discontinuity effect which is quite different. In certain places - notably along the muddy trails of Southern Mexico - it's as if the lighting changes along the route ahead, resulting in a radically different new pattern of shadowing (or imitation-shadow texturing in some cases, I think). It's especially noticeable if Lara's on foot, rather than speeding along on her bike.

Clipping and other flaws

Although the environments look good, there are serious drawbacks in regard to Lara's interaction with them. I've already mentioned a few aspects in other sections, such as how a grenade thrown at a wall might stop and stick well short of it or might pass through it, but I'll add more here, starting with the most basic aspect.

Clipping and floating

A fundamental shortcoming is how easily Lara can be seen either clipping into the scenery (i.e. partially merging with it) or floating above it. All along the muddy trails of Southern Mexico for example, you can find Lara either with feet embedded in the ground or with feet clearly off the ground - like ten centimetres or so. I'm not even talking about areas well off to the side there, I'm talking about the main width of the path. If you do take her off to the side, clipping can get way more severe. There are places where she can be up to her shins in the ground or up to her waist in solid rock! It's as if Crystal Dynamics just decided that if you go off the main track, anything goes. It's a shockingly poor standard. To give just a few examples in other levels, you can see her feet embedded in the floor up to her ankles near the junction box in Croft Manor, and also down near the two moveable statues in the Bhogavati section of Coastal Thailand.

Her feet clip into small rocks on the ground, and as mentioned earlier, she also clips into foliage. Some of it sways slightly when she moves through it (even if only at walking speed), but she still clips through it. Other foliage doesn't sway at all, so things look especially bad when she goes through it. When climbing, sometimes her hands can be seen clipping into a ledge she's gripping.

Can't do it!

Lara often can't get up onto things it looks like she should be able to. Often she's blocked by invisible walls. One particularly bad area for this is the 'ball court' in Southern Mexico. It looks a trivial matter to jump up onto one of the low sloping paved surfaces, but they're blocked off.

She can also be blocked by an invisible wall when simply moving along the ground. One strange example is in the part of Southern Mexico where poachers get attacked by panthers. There are a bunch of square pillars, three of which come no higher than Lara's shoulder. With any of those three, if she tries to run close past it clockwise she gets stopped by surfaces that seem to extend from each face. But running past anticlockwise there's no trouble.

Puzzles and progressing

With Underworld being my first proper foray into the Tomb Raider series (I'm not counting the aborted aggravation of Legend), I wasn't at all used to the sorts of things a good raider ought to be doing to progress through a level. To begin with I often ended up wondering where I was meant to go and what I had to do, and I also had concerns about running into any of the game-wrecking bugs I'd read about, which together with my Legend experience had minimized my expectations of the game's intelligence. As a result, I made heavy use of walkthroughs to get through the first time on the easiest difficulty - which I really don't mind saying. I was never confident that the game would be 'fair' to me, and my main initial goal was just to get the overall picture of things. I imagine some fans would say I missed out on all the fun of figuring out things for myself - especially the puzzles - but you have to bear in mind that to a newcomer, those things can easily become annoying obstacles getting in the way of moving on. Probably in the next game (if any), I'd try to do things without aid, now I've got a better idea of things.

In regard specifically to puzzles, I'm aware that some fans view things as having been made a lot simpler than in the older games. Well, I never got into any of the older games aside from playing demos for TR1 and TR2 - the puzzle aspects of which now escape me - so I'm not sure quite what things were like. But I'm really not too interested in puzzle solving and I definitely don't want to be getting frustrated with it, so I'm happy with things as they are.

Field assistance

As well as walkthroughs, I occasionally tried the 'field assistance' available via Lara's PDA. This is a commendable feature I think - plus it gives me the chance to hear more of Lara's exquisite voice. Sometime I really must go through the game listening to all the tips.

Treasure and relics

Each level has a bunch of treasures and relics to collect - very often by breaking a pot containing the item. Kicking the pot would be the normal way, though I later realized that you can can also break pots by shooting them. These items aren't essential but they do have some effects, as follows.

The rewards, such as they are

Treasures unlock some concept artwork accessible from the main menu later, though I have to say that as someone playing the game on only a standard definition TV, I found the images quite pointless to look at (just as I expected) because of the lack of clarity.

Apparently treasures also unlock some Xbox 'Achievements', but I've never had the slightest interest in those. I seem to remember getting something like 'Master Treasure Hunter' at one point, but that was idiotic. I was on my first playthrough and Lara was leaping to her death on a depressingly regular basis. I was in no way a master treasure hunter. This sort of thing is part of why I have so much disdain for Achievements. They're usually trivial nonsense and the whole idea seems childish anyway. I don't need doggie biscuits as encouragement; I get my reward in the actual gameplay! But I digress.

A further way in which item collection affects things is that the much rarer 'relics' actually heal Lara and increase her health, making her more resilient in subsequent enemy attacks. Not that you'd know that from the manual. Like most game manuals I think, this one omits a lot of relevant facts and leaves you to maybe come across them on the web or whatever, if you're lucky. This one I found at Stella's Tomb Raider Site. Anyway, having Lara's health increase is certainly handy, giving you a good reason to actually bother with relics, even if it is something of a nonsense that they should have this effect.

Pot Kicker - Underworld

I've been a little negative in this section so far, and I'm afraid it doesn't get any better. I need to talk more about pots now. I badly need to point out that this pot-kicking business is somewhat crazy, highly repetitive, and tediously implemented. Let me elaborate.

My first significant exposure to Underworld was in watching some gameplay videos on YouTube, to see what things looked like. One particular thing stood out. Time after time, Lara was going up to pots and kicking them, and it soon got to look very silly. Comical even. I started thinking of the game not so much as Tomb Raider, but Pot Kicker. Yep, she's raided all the tombs she could find, so now she just goes around kicking pots instead. Hey, it passes the time and she's got the boots for it, y' know? I trust you're getting a sense of where I'm coming from by now. Too many damn pots! Somebody on the development team went pot crazy, and apparently nobody noticed.

Also, most of these pots are completely useless, with nothing inside. You can actually recognize them because of their design, so you know there's no point kicking them. All they actually do is potentially get in the way of you kicking the pot you want to kick. They should've either been scrapped or thinned out a lot. Trying to kick a pot is already fiddly enough without others getting in the way. You wouldn't think kicking a pot was hard, but in my experience Lara's had to take a good few swipes on occasion, and I've got an idea some outwitted her entirely. Special ninja pots, those were. Our gal is well trained, but even Lara has her limits.

There's a further annoyance. After kicking a pot with something inside, you then have to hit the Interact button (Y) again to pick the item up. This is not only tedious, it also makes Lara look very unrealistic - the way she returns to a somewhat dumb upright posture after kicking, and then does a little animation in which she moves into position (like it's going to be some sort of tricky operation) and finally picks it up to pop into her backpack. It surely would've been much better if she picked up any revealed item automatically. She could do the kick and pick-up in one relatively smooth movement. It would not only look better, it would also remove the annoyance of having to hit Interact twice for each item.

Treasure Hunt mode

When you've been through the game, a 'Treasure Hunt' save is created, within which you can access any level and go through it to get any treasures or relics you missed. It's not the same as going through the level 'normally', because things you killed will already be dead, and likewise you may not have to re-open doors and suchlike (though it's a while since I used it so I forget the details). It's quite a nice idea I think, but I had some serious trouble at least once when there was no way to proceed; so don't be surprised if you get encounter trouble. Also, I was never sure how to actually save my progress. You can't manually save in the autosaved slot, so are you meant to save elsewhere? It wasn't clear what you were meant to do, and I seem to recall just giving up in frustration after things I'd collected got lost again.

Story and associated cutscenes

I'm sure Tomb Raider storylines are important for many long-time fans who've followed the franchise, but even if I had played all the games, this aspect would probably still be quite low on my list of concerns. My main game - Halo - has a very strong storyline with a lot of background depth you can get into if you want, but I play Halo primarily for the thrill and enjoyment of combat. The background details aren't too important to me, and so it is with Underworld - except even more so because I'm a relative newcomer.

As such, I'm obviously at a disadvantage here. There are various characters either appearing or being mentioned in Underworld, and I knew nothing about them before, but that's ok. The game seems to make a good effort at giving things some explanation, and perhaps some of it will actually sink in if I replay the game enough times. But I'm mainly playing for the enjoyment of having Lara do athletic deeds in a lot of enjoyably exotic locations, so I'm not about to pay much attention to the finer aspects of the storyline, much less try and critique them. I have some vague sense of what's going on, and for me that's enough.

I do kind of wonder about the lady with the wings though. The way she looks with her fancy white trouser suit, I figure she's an exec with Estee Lauder or something, and they slapped a pair of wings on her for good measure. Some kind of status thing. Maybe it was a promotion, I don't know. Near the end of the game she seems to be babbling about having lived for aeons, but I'm not buying it. Possibly she got a bit bored with the office work and started freelancing as an arch-nemesis, just for kicks. Well, if you've got the wings, you might as well use 'em, right?

I make light of things here, but actually the game sort of makes me want to read about Norse mythology and suchlike. And hey, maybe go searching for a few tombs myself - as long as they don't have giant spiders jumping around the place.

Storyline cutscenes

The storyline cutscenes are rendered in real-time with the game engine, which means that Lara will be wearing the outfit you chose for her - something I consider essential for maintaining your immersion in the proceedings. Yes these scenes could've been fancier if pre-rendered, but I wouldn't have liked to see Lara undergoing an inexplicable costume change for them, or see her with the wrong secondary weapon slung on her back. I hate discontinuity like that. Besides which, the game engine does a perfectly good job. Frankly, I think I prefer things to be rendered like this, because it keeps the scene looking pretty much as you're seeing it in normal play.

I enjoy the cutscenes, not just for seeing Lara closer than normal, but also for hearing her voiced so gorgeously. Lara enunciates her English so beautifully it's enough to make you melt inside. The motion-capture for her movements is another rather sexy aspect, and I find her character appealing. I also appreciate that the cutscenes aren't too drawn out. I don't like games that try too hard to be like films. For the most part I want only minimal cutscenes so I can get back to the real stuff soon, i.e. the gameplay. For me, Underworld got things just right in this regard.

I also like that cutscenes are skippable, though it's annoying that you have to wait a while before you can skip, and have to answer a confirmation dialog before it's done. Much better behaviour would've been if a single press of the B button would cancel any cutscene immediately. Moreover, you should be able to cancel even before it properly starts up - so you needn't see any of it.

Gameplay cutscenes and adrenaline moments

As well as the storyline cutscenes, the game has what I'll call 'gameplay cutscenes' (I'm not sure if there's a proper name for them). These are brief dramatic sequences in which you lose control while the camera cuts away to show you something, such as a bunch of approaching tigers or the consequences of something Lara did. They're of a quite different nature to the storyline cutscenes of course, so I'm treating them separately here, and I'll also talk about the interactive 'adrenaline moments'.

Clumsy launching

The trouble with some of the gameplay cutscenes is that you sometimes get them very abruptly, so they feel like they've clumsily taken away your control. As an example, shortly after the start of Southern Mexico you're riding along and then a cutscene rudely starts up as you approach the first temple. That's bad - and it's especially bad if you're really speeding along, perhaps concentrating on rounding the corner nicely. It would be better if the game at least waited until you got off or something - and ideally the scene would be rendered starting from where you got off. I realize that could be problematic, but imagine how much more seamless the experience would be with behaviour such as that. The bottom line is, cutscenes should not feel like an abrupt interruption of your control. It's ok when they occur after Lara has just pulled a lever or suchlike. In that case it's not so much like an interruption because you know the action will trigger a cutscene.

Things are definitely less aggravating than Legend however, a game which seemed obsessed with giving you little cutscenes - even for such trivialities as walking into a room. That constantly interrupted my control and immersion, and was another reason I gave that game the boot.

Attack annoyance - fixed

There was something that quite annoyed me about a few of the cutscenes which introduce attacking enemies. The worse one was the first tiger attack in Coastal Thailand. By the time the cutscene ends, the tigers are practically upon Lara, which made for a really cheap and false attack. I mean, she's not going to get surprised like that, right? She would've noticed them and reacted long before. Later on however, by accident I realized that you can actually escape the cutscene via the B button, allowing more reaction time. So nowadays my Lara now has time to get clear of those pussycats. But it was annoying that I only found this out by chance.

Rendering glitches

With these cutscenes being rendered in real-time by the game engine, you'd think everything would be fine, but there's a serious defect in at least one case. In Out Of Time when you start pushing a carved panel to expose a power node, you get a pull-back cutscene showing what's going on. Except, if there were any yeti thralls bearing down on you, they're strangely absent from the view, which rather wrecks the moment. So if you want to avoid seeing that glitch, you'd better be sure to kill any nearby nasties before starting the push!

Adrenaline moments

The so-called 'adrenaline moments' are like gameplay cutscenes in which things go into slow-motion. The camera gives a dramatic view of things and you're still able to control Lara, and you have to do something to escape death. This is certainly preferable to the aggravating and hateful 'quick time events' of Legend. There, it basically seemed like you had to press a button at the exact right moment to survive. It was like a lottery. You'd die a few dozen times then maybe fluke a success without even feeling like you did anything different. That's not my idea of involving gameplay, and I remember having to turn the sound off as the repetition was getting so nauseating. Underworld's adrenaline moments are a distinct improvement as you've got more proper control and the window of success seems to be significantly larger. I was relieved to find that I was usually able to evade danger.

All the same, they are a bit of an interruption, suddenly distancing you from Lara. They slightly break my immersion in the gameplay and I'd sooner do without them.

Some gameplay annoyances

Here are a few things I find annoying within the gameplay, which I haven't already covered.

Extreme bugginess

The game is very buggy and in particular it's frozen on me many times (including once near the culmination of my first play-through, completely ruining things). I encountered a few new bugs even when doing a final bit of gameplay for this article. In Southern Mexico the motorbike got into a jam and Lara couldn't get off or do anything. All I could do was reload the save and start over. Also, in Coastal Thailand I killed a tiger and it fell through some solid stone steps. I've even had times when Lara has gone invisible! Bugs pervade the experience, sad to say.

Tedious restart after death

When Lara dies, you get a really tedious screen which lasts quite a while. It's basically the level's load screen minus some of the writing. Compare that to Halo where, if you die, the camera just lingers on you a while then you get put back into the game.

Bogus resets after death or cutscene

When Lara dies, the game seems to return her currently selected weapon to the default - the pistols - and also switches her utility light off if it was on. As such, she's not always returned to the correct state (the state she was in at the last checkpoint). That first fault was not just annoying to me, it was sometimes life threatening. In situations where I had her secondary selected and she got killed, I'd get unexpectedly restarted with pistols and have to scrabble to change quick, or be killed again quick by closing enemies. This became particularly annoying when things got a bit deadly towards the end and I kept finding myself shooting pistols instead of using the hammer. Meanwhile, the second fault meant that I was forever having to turn the utility light back on, which got very tedious. You can also get some or all of this bogus resetting after a cutscene.

More bogus switching to pistols

Bogus switching to pistols can occur with other events too. It can happen when Lara picks something up, and I think it always happens when she boards her motorbike. Of course, none of this makes any sense.

Motorbike moved by cutscene

After the first cutscene in Jan Mayen Island, the motorbike is found in a scripted place rather than where you actually left it. Possibly there's a similar adjustment with some other cutscenes too, but I'm not sure.

Premature checkpoints

Sometimes when Lara dies, the game restarts her further ahead than she'd been, effectively cutting out a bit of gameplay. In particular, sometimes you get a checkpoint before completing a tricky leap or something, yet if Lara subsequently dies you'll get restarted as if she succeeded. It's like the game is thinking "Ok, she got close enough, that'll do". That's terrible, and extremely dumb.

Speed isn't additive?

In Valhalla when you need to fall from a hammer onto a narrow walkway, my natural inclination was to let go shortly before being over the walkway, because my forward motion would move me over the walkway as I fell. But if you do this, you fall to your death! You have to let go when actually over the walkway; and then you fall straight down, with no lateral speed. Aside from being unrealistic, this sort of thing removes your ability to judge things in a natural way. Instead you have to work within the unintuitive game laws of motion.

Some operational annoyances

Here are some things I find annoying outside gameplay.

Tedious launch procedure

When you first load the game, it makes you press the Start button, then you select a storage device using the A button, then you have to press Start again. My first remark here is; why the heck do games make you push the Start button, when it's obvious you want to start playing? Why else would you have put the disc in the tray? Having to push Start is like saying "Yes, I really do want to play the game thanks!". But Underworld makes you press it twice even! It seems so mind-numbingly pointless. And in any case why not at least use the A button instead? The Start button is fiddly! This whole aggravating three-button launch procedure could surely have just been a one-button affair for selecting your storage device.

No level selection

Amazingly, there's no way to select a particular level to play from the start, including making outfit and weapon choice. All you can do (aside from starting a new game) is load a previous save. That won't allow you to choose an outfit for the level you enter though, and any weapon change would have to be done with the PDA. If you want to start a given level and be able to choose an outfit, the best you can do is load a save for somewhere in the previous level (ideally as late as possible) and play though to the end, at which point you'll be able to make the outfit choice for the next level, i.e. the one you really want. Really dumb system.

Poor interface for outfit and weapon selection

With the outfit selection, I can barely even see the outfits. The pictures are tiny and rubbish. Why not a lovely big revolving model of Lara, so you can actually see what you're choosing, and so things are far more graphically appealing? Also, it's annoying that once you've chosen an outfit and/or weapons, there's no going back if you change your mind.

Trouble with preferences

There are various preferences you can set in the main menu, including game options such as whether to show helper buttons or training text, and audio/visual options preferences such as music volume and image brightness. However, if you adjust these, the game apparently forgets about that when you load a save. Instead, it seems to use the preferences which were in force when the save was made (which implies that preferences were actually part of the save). This is crazy, and not at all what the user would expect. It gave me a lot of frustration. After playing through the game with the default settings, I took the time to customize my preferences (e.g. helper buttons off, training text off). But I kept on having to make those adjustments afresh, because each time I loaded one of the old saves, the game switched to the old preferences. Quite maddening. At the time I assumed it was yet another bug, but eventually I did some experimenting and realized how things were working (if I've got it right). At least that means I know how to fix things now. Basically I have to start a new game and play through everything in sequence, after making my preferred settings. But it's a crazy system and must've annoyed countless players.

Tedious slider adjustment

When adjusting a slider such as the ones for music volume and image brightness, you have to click once for each notch. Holding down a button doesn't cause auto-shifting. Tedious and annoying!

Confusing save system

The save system is so opaque that when I started the game, I actually couldn't figure out how I was meant to save it, even after consulting the manual and trying to do what it said. Frustratingly, my progress was lost a number of times before I eventually cracked it. At the very least, the manual should've done a better job of explaining things.

Conclusion

Lara is looking pretty great in this game. Not so much her face which is a bit dollish looking and which could really do with some mouth animation for breathing, but her figure is superb and she looks both sexy and lethal, especially in that great 'jungle shorts' outfit. She has some wonderfully natural-looking movements too, so it's a real frustration that she also has various speeded-up movements which run counter to that realism. I would've thought that for consistency's sake if nothing else, the mantra of realism would've been applied to all her movements as best as possible. But it's like Crystal Dynamics ignored it for certain things, such as in the way Lara can about-face or draw and return her weapons in the blink of an eye.

That aspect of near instantaneous turning is part of a more general shortcoming, namely the wild over-sensitivity of directional control. That's the biggest frustration for me, reducing my enjoyment considerably. Getting Lara to face or go the way you want is needlessly hard and can easily lead to weaving about in a succession of course corrections, whether she's on foot or on her motorbike. The bike in particular is a pain to control, and unfortunately she has to use it quite a lot.

Among multiple shortcomings with the camera, perhaps the worst is how jerky it can be in following her around. I doubt it would've been very hard to smooth out the camera dynamics, and I think it would've made things much more agreeable.

When it comes to combat, I see promise here but I really dislike the way Lara's arms can flick around almost instantly at different targets. To minimize my exposure to such sprite-like crudity, I tend to avoid SMGs and limit her use of pistols to single-enemy encounters. Most often I'll have her using a shotgun, kicking, and grenades. Within these limitations I can manage to have some decent combat fun, though it's only really satisfactory against thralls. Human enemies are an embarrassment due to their idiotic AI, clumsy movements, and the fact that aboard a ship (which happens twice), you get the same few goons over and over, which is borderline insulting. The quality of combat is not high, but there are some decently enjoyable aspects such as the adrenaline headshot and Lara's kicking ability.

The level design is great, with a lot of really impressive environments, and atmospheric sound-work to match. Lara's interaction with the levels is not so good however, and in particular she can readily be seen clipping into the scenery or floating off the ground. That sort of thing does rather break the illusion.

That leads me into my final words. Sadly, one of the biggest impressions left on me is of the overwhelming glitchiness of the game. You can learn to avoid some of this, but it's a real shame the game wasn't held back for at least a month's attention to such matters, because the bugs and glitches really bring things down a lot, and at times I've felt like the game is something more akin to beta-ware than an actual releasable product. Overall then, I'm left viewing Underworld with a mixture of admiration and frustration. Admiration for various good aspects, but frustration for what the game might have been with more care and polish.