Tomb Raider: Underworld concludes the trilogy that began with Legend and Anniversery. Aside from a new studio and systems, this trilogy did a lot to bring the series up to date with many of the series it influenced. Underworld was recently released on the App Store, so Mac gamers have a chance at the globetrotting adventure. It is a fun game, but not without its faults.

Isolation and beauty

Tomb Raider is one of a handful of games from the Playstation era that redefined games. Though most people remember the titillating character design of Lara Croft, what was really notable about the game was that it brought the mechanics of Mario games into the real world.

One of the defining facets of the gameplay in Tomb Raider: Underworld is isolation. There are enemies, but they are few and far between. So instead of waves of faceless enemies, your main adversary is gravity. The creative level designs create unique challenges. However, the isolation also lends for a great atmospheric effect, making for a real sense of immersion. The score fades in and out, meaning that long stretches of climbing and navigation are almost silent. Eerily silent.

The designers at Crystal Dynamics really went all out on the picturesque backgrounds to some levels. Bright, vivid colors and sweeping landscapes give a good sense of breadth to Lara’s adventures. At the same time, when you travel to more ethereal ruins later in the game, they get the same amount of design attention. All of the levels have an insane amount of detail; something to really show off that 27-inch iMac or Thunderbolt/Cinema Display.

Bugs and not the creepy crawlers

This game may have bugs as enemies, but they aren’t what I’m talking about. Underworld is a pretty game with a lot of visual polish, but that polish never translated into the deeper levels of the design. This game has some pretty big bugs, some of which can set you back several hours.

The game does have the usual visual and physics glitches you see with modern games. There are places you can fall through walls and just odd visual effects, some of which create surreal moments. A good example is where you leap for a ledge and successfully complete the sequence, but Lara is submerged halfway into the rock-face. This doesn’t stop anything, but it really breaks the mood.

The real problem bugs are those that stop all forward progress in the game. In the second level you have to retrieve two gems, then solve a quick puzzle to get a statue to reveal spots for those two gems. This shouldn’t be too hard, unless the game decides that you only found one of those gems. Then you backtrack for like two hours, convinced that you had to have missed something, only to give up in frustration. The main walkthrough for this game lists a ton of game breaking bugs, all of which were in the PC version as well. This means that a patch isn’t likely to come along anytime soon for these types of errors.

Controls

Playing a third person action game with a keyboard and mouse is going to take a bit of getting used to, as is expected. Once you’ve played the game for a few hours, you should have adapted to the controls. I think that the extended learning curve has a lot to do with the buggy camera control. It doesn’t appear that the camera was mapped out with the rest of the environments very well. You run into a lot of places where the camera jerks wildly or zooms in a way that doesn’t allow you a clear view of where to go next.

Underworld does support controllers, but you’ll be left out if you don’t have one of the devices in this list. It doesn’t do a lot for the camera smoothness, and it doesn’t do much to increase the sensitivity. Personal preference is likely your best guide, but mouse and keyboard do seem to have an edge.

However you control the game, there are still some issues with the controls. Most of these issues are with the context and mapping of actions. As all of the various actions are context sensitive, the game missing these cues can cause a lot of frustration. There are visual cues to map the context, but even so the game often chooses something else entirely. This leads to a lot of sections of the game where you’re inching Lara along beams and ledges to find the sweet spot where the game will let you do what you want. Considering that most of the game is based on this central play mechanic, it should play better.

Oddly enough, combat seems to be the place where the bulk of the attention went in the control department. You can aim manually, lock on, and melee. There are a variety of dodges and acrobatic moves you can do in combat as well. This variety seems comical because of how little combat there is in the game. There are some boss fights as well as a smattering of enemies, but they’re never really the focus of the game. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Story: Indiana Croft and the Temple of WTF ?!

Video Games with a “previously in” video are either going to be convoluted or classic. Underworld falls into the former category, relying on twists and long speeches to cover up the fact that the plot’s from somewhere on deep cable’s Saturday afternoon lineup. There’s some longwinded attempt to combine Norse mythology with every other dead culture, and a mixture of magic and myth to create machinery in dead tombs far more complex than anything in sci-fi. The cut scenes might be pretty, but everything out of their mouth is gibberish.

Conclusion

This game has a lot of problems, but for some reason it still manages to be fun. However, there are enough serious bugs in this game that it doesn’t make sense to pick it up. Unless you want to keep the walkthrough handy while you play through, it doesn’t make sense to chance hitting a wall without any warning. This isn’t a cheap game either; at $24.99 this should work. It’s a shame too, as there is a lot to like here, but broken is broken.

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