Thursday, January 08, 2009

First impressions of Tomb Raider: Underworld (PS3)

A few first impressions after playing Tomb Raider: Underworld for an hour or two. The graphics are pretty nice, they capture the feeling of scale pretty well, frame rates however aren't so great. Animations feel pretty broken in this one, some things such as diving into the water just look plain wrong and looked much better in previous parts. In addition collision detection is pretty wonky, you clip through other objects quite frequently and it just feels pretty buggy overall and not as smooth as in previous entries into the series. Level design is a little different again, the levels are much bigger this time around, which looks nice and gives the game an old-school kind of feel, but makes hunting for objects also quite a bit more complicated. The menu structure got changed to a radial menu, instead of the classical rectangular ones in the previous, not a deal breaker, but it seems like an unnecessary change. The story starts this time with one of those 'start in the future where things are broken, then flash back to two weeks earlier' things, which I don't really like. It doesn't add anything, but starts the player straight into confusion territory instead of letting the adventure start in an easily accessible straight forward manner. The treasures are pretty badly placed so far, just randomly standing around without interesting hiding spots.

Update: I have now finished the game and while the feeling of playing a rather buggy game never completly vanished I still enjoyed it quite a lot. The thing that this Tomb Raider does notably better then the previous ones is the size of the levels and the focus on exploration. Its pretty much a "here is your level, go explore" with much less of a structure that pushes you in a specific direction or combat to distract you. In case you get lost the game provides a two level hint system, going to the PDA gives you one hint and pressing a button gives you a second hint, which helps quite a bit when you are lost without giving the solution away completly. The new sonar map on the other side isn't all that helpful, while it give you a full freely movable 3d map, its all in the same texture without structural hints, so finding a wall you can climp doesn't get any easier via that map. One thing missing in this game, again, is the radio talk, Legend had a constant voice over while playing the levels, in Underworld that is limited to cutscenes, which is sad, since I consider that voice over one of the most interesting things that Legend brought to the table.

The Croft Manner level is missing as well in Underworld, while you do visit the Croft Manner, you do it in a normal in-game level, not in the advenutre kind of way you did in previous games. Other stuff that is missing is the ability to rewatch cutscenes and to replay levels, which is pretty stupid. You however can revisit levels for puzzle hunting in a special mode that removes some puzzles and fighting from the level that you have already done, which is pretty nice change.

The rope is much more flexible in Underworld then in previous games, it will now bend around objects and you can use it for proper roping, which gives the game quite an additional vertical range. You also get a bike in a few levels, one that you can use pretty much like the horse in a Zelda or Shadow of the Collosus, so its much more flexible and fun, and not annoying like the bike levels in Legend. Instead of Excalibur you get a Hammer this time, which in terms of animation and gameplay behaves pretty much exactly the same, weird case of recycling.

An interesting addition is the way quick time events are handled, instead of having a cutscenes with special button presses, the game goes into slow motion and keeps the normal game mechanics up and running. So QTEs aren't as disruptive.

The story in Underworld continues and concludes the ones started in Legend and Anniversary and is for most part good enough, it however lacks quite a bit of exposition and jumps from start to finish a little to quickly without really much of a middle ground.

Overall, Underworld has plenty of obvious, weird and unnecessary flaws that feel like they could have been easily avoided would the game have spend another few month in development, but even with all its faults its still a pretty damn good game. And seriously, in a time were almost every other game follows the same boring over-the-shoulder shooting mechanics (Uncharted, I am looking at you...), I am more then happy to play a game that does do something different, even when what it doesn't isn't something fundamentally new either and a little flawed in implemnetation.

Update2: I now (a year after the first play through) finished up the game and collected all treasures, relicts and PS3 trophies. One big issue with the trophies, which only came as a later game patch, was that they didn't take into account the things you already achieved before the patch, so you could get the "100 treasures collected trophy", while the "50 treasures collected trophy" was still missing. To get around that I had to delete my game save and start from scratch. On top of that the main game save is copy-protected, so you can't back it up, which is a hugely annoying new trend with modern consoles. Anyway, with the save game gone I had again plenty of good fun with the game. Collecting the relicts was quite interesting, as there are only a few and mostly well placed, while collecting the treasures not so much. With up to 50 treasures per level its just impossible to not overlook one, especially given the size of the levels. Having the levels broken up into subsections would have helped a lot. To get around that I had a Youtube video walkthrough playing on my OLPC while going through that game to see where the treasures are.

My final conclusion from the previous playthrough still stands, plenty of brokeness in this game, but if you can look past that, there is a lot of fun to be had if you like some climbing and exploring. I especially love the new rope, which aside from Worms and a few other 2D games, I haven't really seen outside of Underworld.

The main game aside the game also has two add-ons, which are however Xbox360 exclusive, so I had to watch them on Youtube, instead of playing them myself. From what I can tell, the second add-on is kind of neat, as you play as evil-Lara and get a few new moves. The first add-on on the other side seems like its recycling from unused Croft Manor material, which was a level that was noticeably shorter then other levels in the game. In terms of story, the add-ons don't really add anything significant, as they play after the main games storyline, and they are overpriced for those two hours of gameplay they offer together.

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