Stop! Hammer Time! (Tomb Raider Underworld again, this time for 360, and some other stuff)

I’m kind of rubbish at summer. While I don’t exactly fear the daystar, I do find the heat a nuisance and nowhere near the unalloyed, positive force that tabloid newspapers and their readers declaim every heatwave to be.

As such, I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors. A brief bout of Acheivement Fever*, and a renewed taste for the Tomb Raider franchise following completion of the rather good Anniverary on PS2 led me to finally complete Legend on 360, and while I was on a roll revisit Underworld for the 360 as well. Legend is notable for having most of its peaks in the second half of the game, unusual for the TR series which tends to pack its big moments up front and then descend into a bit of a slog later on. Instead, Legend has some great later stages – the very concept of the Cornwall level is witty and well-thought through, a nice spin on the series, especially when Lara gets in a forklift and demolishes a corridor of traps with it.

Underworld plays a hell of a lot better on this, it’s lead (along with PS3) format as opposed to the cut down PS2 version I reviewed a while back. It’s actually not as different in terms of level layouts as I would have thought, and the extra enemy types are not that big a deal. Aside from the big changes – some of the PS2’s interminable motorbike sequences replace cleverer sequences in the big boy’s version, like a wonderful underwater section in the arctic, for instance – it’s really a question of execution. What were dull grey corridors on PS2 are, with the souped up engine of a current-gen console, sinister and spectral environments dripping with moisture, the dim light barely illuminating the lost realm of the ancients. Tomb Raider has always thrived on isolation – its why Legend is undermined by its chatty supporting characters always blathering over Lara’s headset – but Underworld, at least in this form, is the first to be actually spooky in places. There’s a dash of the Mountains of Madness in the ancient, desolate ruins Lara finds, and a bit of Clive Barker in those echoing corridors. It’s a lot better game in this version, and I’m quite tempted by the two DLC levels. Eidos are promising a full scale revamp for the next one, but here’s hoping they don’t leave it too long.

Elsewhere, I’ve been continuing my catch-up with PS2 titles I missed first time around. Cold Fear got a bit of a slating on its release in 2005 for being a Resident Evil 4 knock-off with repetitive enemies and environments, but as far as I’m concerned Capcom haven’t capitalised on the strength of Resi 4‘s over-the-shoulder survival horror formula, so it’s good to see someone stepped in there.** Survival horror is a tricky genre to do without an AAA level budget, and even big franchises like Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill have been fumbled in recent years. As such, it’s good to see smaller teams trying the genre and getting things right. Darkworks, who most recently worked on the forthcoming I Am Alive, clearly approached Cold Fear with an intelligent sense of economy, with a tight storyline that sees you as a gun-toting coast guard exploring a mutant-infested Russian whaling ship and, later on, a mining rig.

Cold Fear doesn’t have the sweep and scale of a big budget game, but makes up for it by making you weave through the two main environments in different directions, opening different doors along the way. Thanks to tough enemies and some well-spaced savepoints, it’s also a bit of a challenge compared to more leisurely games in the genre. Most importantly of all, the mechanics are solid – the over the shoulder camera means enemies are occasionally difficult to see, but otherwise the controls work well, and the various water and weather dynamics are impressive even four years on. Trying not to get washed overboard as you attempt to shoot savage mutants, in a three way battle with gun toting Russian mercenaries, is the kind of challenging, scary experience that I look for in a survival horror game.

It’s not mind-blowing, but Cold Fear is a solid entry in the genre with enough unique qualities to be worth seeking out, especially now PS2 titles are so damned cheap. It’s not Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil: Nemesis, but bloody hell, what is?

Mark

* Sufferers of Acheivement Fever will have occasional periods where they concentrate on playing games with steady progression and gamerpoint rewards, piling up a few hundred points per game until they pass some arbitrary milestone or otherwise snap the fuck out of it.
** Besides, its highly unlikely the resemblance is more than coincedence – the two titles were in parallel development, and the similar control system doesn’t feel like a last-minute bolt-on.

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July 12, 2009. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized.

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