Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii, PC - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
For anyone who has followed Lara's exploits since the original Tomb Raider made its debut, Underworld is going to be a bit of a rollercoaster ride. We've had the initial climb. At the moment, Ms. Croft's reputation is higher than it's been at any time since her late 90s heyday. With a few reservations, most of us saw Tomb Raider: Legend as a welcome return to form, while Tomb Raider: Anniversary - though intensely frustrating at times - proved that the team at Crystal Dynamics fully understood what made the series tick, and had what it took to take Lara forward.
Well, as with any good rollercoaster, the biggest, scariest drop is right at the start. The opening hours of Tomb Raider: Underworld contain stretches that leave you wondering whether Lara's fortunes really are in capable hands, or whether the game has been rushed out for release. The opening tutorial is clumsy and the following underwater sequence in the Med unexciting. What follows in an undersea temple is solid Tomb Raider fare, but hardly incredible. The levels that come after - particularly a combat heavy section pitting Lara up against a crew of poorly modelled, pitifully stupid henchmen - are downright awful. This hideous thought springs up: they brought Lara back, only to blow it all now.
Then the action moves to Thailand and things perk up considerably. Subsequent levels are among the biggest, best and most ambitious in the series and that old Tomb Raider feeling is back in spades. The game still has its peaks and valleys in the hours that follow, but give it time and this is another fine adventure for our heroine.
Visually, Underworld is a confident step on from Legend and Anniversary. Crystal Dynamics seems to have abandoned earlier efforts to make Lara look more realistic and gone instead for a style that brings the unfeasibly breasted model of old up to date. Where there has been effort to make Lara more lifelike, it's all in the details and animation. It's easy to believe that the team motion-captured an Olympic gymnast for Lara's movements; every motion looks impressively natural and the animation seems to crib from Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in that her interaction with the environment, down to little trips and stumbles, seems more real. This is also reflected in small, surface details, like the way Lara's clothes and skin get covered with grime as she adventures in dirty or muddy places, or get wet when there's rain or water involved. This isn't photorealism in the Crysis style, but it is a thoroughly convincing fantasy.