Tomb Raider Underworld
This looked stunning when we first saw it, so has Crystal Dynamics followed through?
PS3, (All Formats)
There's something I always look for when I break the ice on another Tomb Raider, a franchise touchstone if you will. It pops up for the ninth time in Tomb Raider Underworld, Lara Croft's latest jaunt through Indiana Jones' old stomping grounds.
When you grab the edge of a platform you can hit jump to heave yourself onto it, but press down the X button a little firmer and Lara will haul herself up into a death-defying handstand, glorious physique stretched to fullest extent, before righting herself in a flurry of limbs. Pointless though it may be, this little manoeuvre makes for a satisfying end to an arduous climb or series of jumps, the acrobatic equivalent of "That's all folks!"
It's not the only touchstone on offer: a few nips and tucks aside, Underworld is basically Tomb Raider: Legend running on a meatier engine. You'll still be jumping and clambering around some fabulous environments, ranging in this case from the temple-infested jungles of Thailand's coast to an Old Norse necropolis buried beneath Arctic ice, each populated by the usual strangely pugnacious bats, tigers and Mexicans. You can still jump blindly to your doom at the behest of the cramped viewpoint, fumble hopelessly at what in spite of all visual evidence is not a ledge, and yes, you can still face Lara into a corner and - by dint of much fiddling with the Y-axis - endeavour to stare down her cleavage.
The good once again outweighs the bad, thankfully, but it's high time the grandmother of the action adventure genre learnt some new tricks. Sooner or later, the sight of those Olympic swimmer's thighs unfolding to their full, inverted height will seem poor recompense for the ever-so-slightly wonky platforming mechanics, mildly broken camera and comprehensively bollocksed combat model. Sooner or later, in short, Eidos is going to have to work out what exactly it wants to do with this run-down take on athletic archaeology.
On the whole, though, I'm just about happy with later. Underworld makes a poor first impression, as such bread-and-butter tactics as the old "move-the-box-to-make-a-platform" ploy resolve themselves out of the chaos of a burning Croft manor, but once you crack the seal on your first tomb the hooks are well and truly in.
The storyline is rather good, perhaps surprisingly given the series' adolescent fantasy associations: it follows on directly from the events of Legend, with our heroine plumbing the depths of antiquity in search of Avalon, the Norse underworld of the title and last known resting place of Lara's mother. The writing is relatively brisk and refreshingly free of innuendo (albeit rather heavy on the B-Movie hocus pocus) and everything ties up nicely at the finale. Most impressively of all, Lara's cheerleading squad Zip and Alister are bearable this time round - even likeable - though that's as much down to the absence of their radio chatter during gameplay as the script. The intermittent, vaguely Batman-ish orchestral score is far better company on the hoof.