This is the true next gen installment of Lara Croft, bringing back the game of mythic exploration to new heights.

User Rating: 8.5 | Tomb Raider: Underworld X360
It's been 13 years since the most controversially provocative female protagonist entered the game scene on the PS1, capturing the hearts of many a wide eyed gamer. And now she makes her 1st true next gen debut in Underworld. Although Legend had already come out on Xbox 360 (but in the systems first year, and also Xbox and PS2) , this is the game that really takes advantage of this current generation of hardware (both in 360 and PS3).

And let me say right here and now, speaking as someone who's played the first series from the first back in 1995 (although I missed Angel of Darkness on PS2) to Legend, this latest installment is without contest, THE best game ever made of the adventures of Lara Croft. I mean it. No game before compares to this.

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Visuals

This of course is the most obvious upgrade to the game. The outdoor landscapes are just gorgeous vistas, with lush foliage that bends and folds as Lara pushes her way through it. The temples and ruins seen from the outside are picturesque, conveying a hint of mystery of what lies beneath their serene surface, with the interiors being richly detailed, and all of this being greatly enhanced by the new lighting engine CD has incorporated. Much of the scenery will give you cause for breathless admiration and wonder, a testament to beautifully executed art direction. The wildlife that is also a staple of the franchise is also more vivid and truly a beauty of nature. The tigers have really come to life with fluid animation giving them beautiful ferocity.

Naturally, mention has to be given to the graphical upgrade Lara herself has received with this next gen overhaul. She has never looked better. And I'm not just talking about her hotness, which there is no denying is as present as ever, in her athletic physique, piercing eyes, long toned legs, her confident swagger, and those full round… errr… ahhh… sorry, got side tracked :grins sheepishly: So ahem ahem… as I was saying. This is the best looking Lara Croft, not just in the "babe" sense of the word, but also in that this is the most realistic rendition of the iconic character. This is a more naturalistic human looking person. Yes, she's still well endowed but much more realistically well endowed, with the accurate proportions of what real women with large breasts actually look like. In fact when you compare this model to the original from 1995 (even going by the CGI render), that one takes on a more caricature appearance of "the hot babe" ideal where all the features are exaggerated.

More than ever, the art direction gives the illusion (and hope) that Lara Croft could be a real person. And it's this more natural and human approach to her appearance that really enhances the beauty and appeal of the leading lady. The look of Lara is further augmented by the motion capture incorporated into the animations (a first for the series) that really breath's life into the character, especially in the cut scenes.

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Gameplay

It goes without saying that the platforming is as enjoyable as ever. Carrying the tradition of environmental puzzle solving that Tomb Raider began, you'll experience the challenge of figuring out which of Lara's many acrobatic skills (swinging, climbing, chimney jumping, balance walking, pole vaulting, shimmying, etc…) to use in what areas of the environment, where your goal is to decipher your route to get from point A to point B of the intricate structures. Then of course there's solving the riddles of ancient mechanisms and how to activate them so you can proceed.

The environments and puzzles are on a massive scale, made majestic by the detail and beautiful rendering of the art. Southern Mexico in particular covers a vast expanse of territory as you'll race through the jungle on your cycle to not one, but a few temples, exploring them to recover the pieces you'll need to solve the even greater puzzle leading into the next grand secret chamber – with even more puzzles to solve. There's a reason that mission gains you a 100 point achievement for completing.

The challenge in some areas will be quite high; stemming from the size of the environments that leaves much guess work as to the correct path and order you need to take multiple routes in, which adds to the complexity of the puzzles. While some puzzles will be easy to navigate and solve, be prepared to do some wandering as you stumble along looking for the solution to some others. Thinking will be required here. :)

What I always found to be the charm of the Tomb Raider series is the sense of wonder and discovery. These were games where I felt I wasn't just having an adventure in some fantasy world, but really delving deep into the mysteries of our own world. Uncovering remnants of long perished civilizations that still seemed connected to our own modern world fostered a fascination I rarely found in other games. These are the roots of what made the series so great in the old days, which Crystal Dynamics has so successfully resurrected and enhanced in modern gaming form. This is also where the brilliant visuals augment the experience lending authenticity to the cultural exoticness of the ruins, where you'll really feel like you're in a genuine recreation. This is a game of exploration, and not just of old structures, but also of ancient legends and mythologies. Where Legend took it's rendition of the "reality" behind the myths of Excalibur, Underworld does the same, with a unique approach to Norse mythology, uncovering the secrets of Thor's hammer, the World Serpent, and the prophesy of Ragnarok.

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Feature Upgrades

When Crystal Dynamics took the reigns of this beloved franchise, they didn't stop at taking the game back to its roots of what made it great. They also looked to see where tweaks could be made to the game mechanics, by eliminating limitations Lara had in past games that she really shouldn't have today. Being able to target two enemies simultaneously as well as being able to shoot (just one pistol) while hanging from a ledge is a very welcome addition, and about time too. But there's two new enhancements in particular that are the real stars of the show;

First is the addition of the Adrenaline Head Shot. This fantastic combat maneuver is both cinematic and remains interactive, where you still control the aiming during the slow motion action. It gives you the feeling of controlling a powerful character, more skilled in marksmanship than the average mercenary she encounters, albeit in more of a hollywood action movie enhanced by special effects, than in the traditional FPS player based skill manner. And when it comes right down to it, it just looks frakkin COOL. This is one of those play mechanics that I can say never gets old.

Second is the new and improved method of special action sequences. Gone is the tired old Quick Time mechanic. This has become an all too common feature and having button icons pop on screen, really breaks the immersion quality of a game, and pulls you away from the fluid game play, where it becomes a segment where you're riding the rails. Basically it smacks of hand holding where the game is telling you what to do and you have to follow on queue. Instead, during critical moments, the action simply slows down, allowing you to execute the appropriate maneuvers from Lara's repertoire, whether that's a jump, grab, roll, or shooting of the grapple line. Without the icons appearing on screen, and the fact that your actions are still fully in your hands, relying on your knowledge of the built in control scheme (basically you're controlling the same way you normally are throughout the game), the immersion is never broken and it blends much more seamlessly with the standard game play.

It is now my firm held position that this, THIS is how special action sequences would be done in all games, to completely replace on screen icon pop-ups. The era of Quick Time must be brought to an end.

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The Downside

Yeah, need to get to this part. And how unfortunate it is that after all these years, Tomb Raider is still struggling with the camera. While most of the time the game control is solid in executing Lara's acrobatic maneuvers, it can get hampered in those cases the camera refuses to give you the proper viewing angle of your environment, leading analog stick direction confusion, that in turn cause you to jump in the wrong direction - like towards a chasm instead of the opposing ledge which is where you (in your mind at least) was aiming towards. Considering it's been 13 years, you'd think this would be resolved by now. Even if Crystal Dynamics has only had tenancy of the series recently, still this is an issue that has been dealt with by games since the 3D era 1st began. To Crystal Dynamics I sentence them to mandatory lessons from Ubisoft :P

It's this persistent shortcoming that prevents me from giving Tomb Raider Underworld a higher score, and believe me I would like to, as I rank this is the best of all the Tomb Raider games. Another smaller complaint I have of this game is far fewer costume options than Legend. It seems silly, but did add replay value, and was just fun to give you the player the choice to see Lara how you wanted.

So my final score for Underworld is 8.5

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On a Final Note

OK, so this doesn't really have any bearing on the game itself. But I'm going to include it anyway, because hell, it's MY review :P I just have to say... Alison Carroll is THE best Lara Croft there has ever been (Angelina Jolie included). She really looks the part, with a face both friendly and determined, has the stance, the confidence, the cIass and best of all, genuine British poise. In all respects that matter most, she comes across as the embodiment of the polygons come right out of the screen and taken flesh. Alison is undeniably beautiful, confident, and exemplifies unwavering perseverance – all the qualities that we have come to love about Lara herself. Oh yeah... and she's an actual GYMNAST!!! How much more perfect could any lady be to carry the mantle? Alison, you're doing a fantastic job so far and I hope you'll be the face of Tomb Raider for a long time to come :):)