Whole new world
Eight games in, and Lara Croft is still going strong.
With 2006's Tomb Raider: Legend, a team of new writers and developers helped revitalize a franchise that was pretty much dead after Angel of Darkness and that last Angelina Jolie film.
Tomb Raider: Underworld continues the story set up in Legend. As in the earliest games in the series, it opens with Croft Manor set up as the traditional tutorial level. But there's a slight twist - the ancestral home of Lara is mysteriously aflame. Players are asked to navigate the wreckage as they're introduced to the basic gameplay elements.
Next, you're thrust back in time as Lara dives into the depths of the Mediterranean in search of lost Avalon and clues to her dead mother's fate. Underworld leads Lara to an interesting variety of underground ruins littered with relics of some very mixed mythologies.
The Viking/Norse focus of many of the temples sits in contrast with the fantasy of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table and the mystical island of Avalon. How the Norse underworld of Niflheim ends up in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea is a question best left unconsidered - and unless you're an expert on the beliefs, it honestly doesn't matter.
The game continues Lara's long tradition of globetrotting after mystic relics and ancient clues. But one thing both Underworld and Legend have done well is making Lara an actual character, with a personality and motivations players can become attached to. Not merely a buxom, rich British noble with a fondness for artifacts, this Lara is a woman obsessed with the past and those relics because of the turmoil they've caused her family.
Controlling Lara while exploring the game's varied environments is smooth and responsive. Climbing walls, walking ledges and swinging are all graceful movements, and an abundance of puzzles keeps the game from being too much of a straight action title. Players expect gymnastic prowess alongside run-and-gun gameplay in a Tomb Raider title, and this game continues to deliver those expectations.
Though I occasionally experienced some frustratingly odd camera shifts during combat, anyone who has enjoyed previous games will find even these glitches easier to accept.
Players who know Lara only from her movies or the early game shouldn't be worried about jumping into the eighth game. Even though Underworld's not a completely stand-alone game in the story department, it's easy to pick up and play.
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"Tomb Raider: Underworld"
System: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii
Rated: T for Teen
Who Should Buy?: Diving Belles and Vikings
GameOn! Grade: B