Tomb Raider:Underworld (PS2) – a short review (‘If I had a hammer…’)

So, I played the latest Tomb Raider title over the weekend. And I mean played it – as in from start to finish – and I also mean weekend – as in I started the game on Friday night, and finished it on Sunday lunchtime.

Part of the reason for this very rapid runthrough might be that I was playing Underworld on the PS2, rather than the 360 or PS2, which are presumably the ‘lead’ platforms for the game, from which all other iterations are but ports and shadows. Aside from the fact that I’d played the demo on the 360, and could therefore spot the odd deviation and shrinkage of the Thailand level, there’s some dead giveaways in the use of FMV – not only do the cutscenes have the fuzzy look of footage sourced from a different, more graphically advanced system altogether as straight video (see also the PS2 Resident Evil 4), but some of the unplayable cutscenes looked suspiciously like a recording of gameplay from those snazzier next-gen versions.* Oh, and they feel brutally spliced into the PS2 game, with horrible jumps in the music and a mismatch between the environments, character positioning and so-forth.

It’s interesting, the first Tomb Raider game I’ve played in a ‘secondary’ iteration, rather than on it’s host platform. I’m always slightly fascinated by the DS versions of home console games, a throwback to the days when software companies felt the need to do conversions of arcade titles and major 16-bit releases for the clunky Spectrum or C64.

I will get around to playing either the 360 or PS3 version of Underworld at some point, at least partially to compare, as I suspect I can see some of the tricks used to squeeze a current gen game on to next-gen tech – Lara spends a lot of time running around windy, empty stairwells, which create a sense of space without ever having particularly open environments, and there are some bits where the same rooms and physics are replicated a few times in a row. The motorbike sections – which are a pain in the arse – are more open but incredibly sparse, turning the game into a long episode of Junior Kickstart. I imagine the game would be an even shorter experience without these padding techniques, but all the same they’re a bit tedious.

There are some technical compromises which are less ideal as well, with some chronic slowdown at particularly active moments, with gameplay coming to an actual halt now and again, which is pretty much inexcusable. However, in spite of this sluggishness, and the odd bit of clipping here and there, this isn’t a botched or unplayable port, and although compromised it’s far from unprofessional.

In fact, it’s either a testament to the skill of the codeshop or a damning indictment of how little the new consoles have done to advance the exploratory platformer that I didn’t feel like, graphical and space compromises aside, I was missing much playing this on the more ‘primitive’ console. The core Tomb Raider gameplay is here – the running, the jumping, the pushed blocks and levers which open big stone doors. The combat is, as it should be, a matter of bouncing around like a tit in a kind of acrobatic circle strafe until the enemy drops dead.

There are a couple of decent innovations here, as well – healthpacks are gone, replaced with an FPS style replenishing health bar, so the trick is to back off from a hazardous situation and recover rather than pause and dip into your items menu. Ammo shortages are gone, and weapons selection is largely replaced – in every stage you have a secondary weapon to accompany your pistols, which differ from level to level for no clear reason, and these have infinite ammo. I’m not sure whether this streamlining is dumbing down by taking out inventory choices, or just stripping away a lot of irrelevant crap that just got in the way of the core game (if long time TR players will excuse the pun).

Locations are diverse, with a nice sense of design and some decent puzzles and a couple of the kind of set-pieces that the series used to come up with in it’s early days – the game opens with a run through a burning building, and includes a similarly hectic escape from a sinking ship. Without going into spoilers, Lara also gets some fun temporary abilities and weapons which add a twist to existing gameplay – minor twists, for sure, but in a series of this vintage then minor twists are pretty big deals. The storyline is both convoluted and oddly stiff, and relies very heavily on plot elements from Crystal Dynamics’ TR debut Legend as well as their excellent remake of the original game, Anniversary.

Underworld, at least in this conversion, isn’t a brilliant game. It’s short, and in this version if in none of the flashier ones there are plot elements which you never get to have any in-game contact with, with them only appearing in cutscenes. However, if the PS2 is still your platform of choice (or you’re presented with a large price difference between this and the flashier versions), and you’re a big Lara fan, then this is still a pretty solid entry in the series with plenty to enjoy.

Mark

* My presumption that this is a secondary version of the game is compounded, incidentally, by the fact that a quick google search didn’t throw up any obvious reviews of the PS2 version of the game, so even people who write about these titles don’t think the PS2 version matters. Hence the fussily precise title of this post, so it might actually, possibly, be useful to some poor sod.

Update! I’ve now got around to playing Underworld on the 360, and talk about it here. 12/6/09

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February 2, 2009. Tags: , , . Uncategorized.

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