Monday, July 28, 2014

Underworld: A Brief(er) Review

Tomb Raider: Underworld is perhaps a less ambitious game. History lesson first; the Tomb Raider series was showing weaker and weaker returns, and the two live action movies didn't help as much as had been hoped. After some odd floundering and experiments the next authorized games released came from the Crystal Dynamics group. They revised the backstory, and stayed more-or-less within that rebooted continuity for three games. Then they tried to go in a new direction with another reboot, this being the much-discussed 2013 game.

The three middle games show a lot of floundering around in a search for a coherent style. One is a re-make of the very first Tomb Raider, only done with more modern graphics. Legend, the first of the Crystal Dynamics games, is graphically quite primitive, and really plays up (with a tongue-in-cheek opening movie) the James Bond aspect of the character. It is also combat-heavy, interspersing pure-combat levels (and a driving-combat level) with more traditional platforming-and-puzzle levels.

Underworld, the last of the series before the second reboot, presents itself more like a big-budget action movie. It is somewhat darker, with a more serious flavor to it. The stakes are huge, combining a save-the-world plot involving, basically, Ragnarok, with Lara finally reaching some answers about the disappearance of her mother (an incident first introduced in Legend.) The graphics are superb, the new motion-captured Lara moves in a way that makes the story feel much more real and (ahem) grounded, and the music -- largely orchestral -- is epic.

What else did they do right? Well, outfits are unlockable via ordinary game play. Not that you get all choices all the time; the game gently leads you to semi-appropriate clothing for the extreme conditions (above the Arctic Circle, for one).

The epic scale of the places and sequences makes significant parts of the platforming into white-knuckle play. Even though the threat is actually fairly small. The slow-time is used sparingly and is fairly effective when it happens. Death By Camera, however, does happen -- particularly in the slow-time events, where half the challenge is waiting out the moment you can finally swivel the camera to the jump you already know you need to make.

On the sort of downside, the odd thing about the platforming in Tomb Raider games is that it isn't actually very difficult. It is rare you have timed events, and most of the jumps are static. Which means that if you position yourself right, you make the jump every time.

Underworld adds a variety of new movement options, including a free-climbing surfaces, shimmying up pillars, balancing on beams. But as much as this extends the variety, most of the climbing is basically holding down movement keys, with a jump here and there. The only difference between traversing on a ledge, and shimmying up a pillar, is the direction of travel and what the animation looks like.

Combat is simplistic. With auto-aim, and infinite ammunition for the signature pistols, there's little point in doing anything else other than strafe-moving while hosing. Hitting the "precision aim" key locks you in place, opening you up for attack, which makes it hardly worthwhile to mess with any of the exploding barrels (which, refreshingly, are not that prominent nor frequent anyhow).

Another nice touch; beside the fact that you can melee opponents that get too close, you are also not prevented from fighting back when you are in the middle of a climb. Lara is allowed to cling to a wall one-handed and shoot back. It might not be that effective, and you can't use any of the more advanced weapons, but it beats what feels like an artificial imposition of vulnerability.

Oh, and since you are a bullet sponge and the bad guys all attended Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy anyhow, you will only take a little more damage if you chose to close to melee range. And there is something rather satisfying about doing a flying leap-kick over a crate to take down the guy that was shooting at you.

The puzzles are relatively simple. The hardest part of them is the ways they break ordinary intuition about how the real world works. For instance, one place where you need two weights to start a machine going, the trick is to use your grapple line on the head of a statue. Which breaks off and falls in exactly the right place. The very first puzzle in the game, I wasted a while on because I thought there was some nice trick in how to use all three disks to rotate the images you wanted into the center. No, it turns out you are supposed to swim around until you find a second wheel, after that it takes no time at all to line up.

At least in a couple places, what you think would work does work; in a similar weight-and-platform setup you arrive at by motorbike, it works just fine to park the motorbike on one of the platforms. And the game also recognizes that a motorbike is a pretty good weapon against melee opponents, too.

The characters are a little more uneven. Your companions are broad caricatures but fortunately get little screen time. Between the lack of the headset chatter from Legend and your more grim demeanor (you are going to hell to kill a god, okay?) there's not a lot of dialog from Lara, either.

On the other hand, both Natla and Amanda are seen a lot, and their entire presentation is grating. Both come off as C-movie female villains, with horrible dialog, slutty wardrobes, and expressions limited to scowls and pouting. Rob Liefeld could have written these two. Your encounters with both have all the wit and integrity of a typical scene from a Women In Prison movie.

All of the relics and other artifacts, outside of the big plot-important bits (Thor's gauntlets, etc.) are presented, well, not at all. They just sort of pop across the screen in a little flash of score points. After a point, I stopped bothering to kick every earthenware jug I found, and only collected the open bowls of magic healing potion.

There are mercifully few cut scenes, and those agree quite well with the actual surrounding game play. You don't suddenly turn into a wimp or a gun nut, and you don't get conveniently captured by mooks you could take out with a rusty spatula. The cut scenes, in short, show you doing pretty much what you were doing without the special camera angles and animation.

Save points are executed automatically, and fall at an almost perfect frequency; far enough apart to make you careful about getting killed, but not so far apart that you get bored replaying a long sequence of easy stuff just to get up to where you got killed.

In summation, the only really negative thing I can say about the game (besides the absolutely horrible presentation of the other female characters) is that it sets up unfair expectations of the other games. So far, all the other ones I have played have failed to live up to this one in epic feel and sheer playability.

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