Tomb Raider: Underworld, box art, Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, guns

Review: Tomb Raider: Underworld

Lara’s mother is in Avalon? Or is it Helheim? Or maybe it’s another one? Whatever the case, contributor Kevin tries to find her and get some answers in Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Kevin, contributorKevin a geek who plays Dungeons & Dragons and any role-playing game that pops in his path; as well as a video-gamer who likes anime, reads manga, watches cartoons and buys tens of novels a year. Take a look at his blog The Mental Attic where he invites readers to ‘Think Better, Think Bigger!’.

Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Tomb Raider: Underworld
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos Interactive and Feral Interactive
Release date: November 2008
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: DS, Mac, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

Tomb Raider: Underworld is the third instalment in what is now referred to as the LAU Tomb Raider trilogy (Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary and Underworld itself), developed by Crystal Dynamics after Eidos Interactive transferred the rights to them from the series creator Core Design. Unlike its predecessors, it featured a completely new engine developed specifically for the game, which would later be used for Deus Ex: Human Revolution after Square Enix acquired Eidos.

I played and loved Legend, finding the new quest for truth exactly what the series and character needed to evolve. Anniversary added a few more questions but as a remake of the original Tomb Raider, it couldn’t do much in terms of moving the storyline forward. When Underworld was finally released and I knew it would be the end of the trilogy, I jumped at the chance to play it; and more recently, I started a Let’s Play series of all the classic Lara Croft games but in reverse order, making this one the first I revisited.

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Underworld picks up after the events of Legend and Lara knows her mother is in Avalon, so with her trusty crew and with her father’s journals, she sets out to find clues that will lead her to this mystical land. The first location is a sunken ruin in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea covered in what our heroine describes as ‘Proto-Norse runes’. Inside she finds a giant squid, traps and most importantly, one of Thor’s Gauntlets — yes, that Thor, the bloke with the massive hammer. On the way out mercenaries surround her, take the gauntlet and leave her to die with a bomb in the room; but Lara’s nothing if not resourceful. She escapes the collapsing ruins and fights her way through the ship to discover that the baddies work for Amanda, one of Legend’s main villains, and Jacqueline Natla, the main villain in Anniversary and former queen of Atlantis — yes, that Atlantis.

As heart-rending as the cutscene between the protagonist and her mother is, it’s over so quickly it lacks the proper emotional impact.

The title’s plot offers answers to the questions that the first instalment in the series left open, addresses a few holes in its predecessor’s storyline and manages to complete what is a very personal quest for Lara. Sadly though, it ends up feeling more like an afterthought in the second half, when Natla’s doomsday plans take centre stage. As heart-rending as the cutscene between the protagonist and her mother is, it’s over so quickly it lacks the proper emotional impact. Considering that this quest was the one thing showing us other sides of Lara – more of the woman she is behind the mask of snarky remarks and the joy of adventure – the way it’s handled feels as if it’s almost disrespectful to the character.

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If you’ve played any Tomb Raider title in the past, you know the basic gameplay: you control Lara in third-person perspective. The default movement is running although you can hit a button and make her move slowly, useful when you need to carefully set up a jump or don’t want to fall down a ledge. She’s extremely athletic and can jump long distances, climb ledges and walls, as well as swimming so well that she could make Olympic athletes jealous. But if she’s too slow for you, then you can tap the action button to make her climb faster or the sprint button for running and swimming. But be careful if it’s raining: the weather system can make surfaces more slippery, or at least that’s what Crystal Dynamics intended. I never noticed a significant difference.

In addition to movement there’s combat. This is the first title in the series in which Lara is a competent hand-to-hand fighter and you can disable many of the enemies with punches, kicks and grapples. But it’s more likely you’ll be using her trusty twin-guns with unlimited ammo, because… unlimited ammo. Returning from Legend are grenades as well though the ability to pick up enemy weapons didn’t make it in, which is a damn shame. When using her guns, players can take advantage of the new dual-target implemented by the developer which allows the protagonist to fire at two baddies at the same time as long as they’re both in her line of sight. Combat is challenging and fun until you acquire this game’s relic weapon — I’ll give you a clue, it’s a massive hammer — after which it’s a joke. In the process of empowering the player, they removed all difficulty and challenge from the title and as such, the hordes of enemies feel unnecessary.

Most of the outfits fall into the skimpy territory Lara has lived in for most of her career, but there are some logical options.

At the start of each mission, players can choose Lara’s secondary weapon and her costume. The former adds a powerful but limited piece of kit to her arsenal and the latter is just a skin for the character. Most of the outfits fall into the skimpy territory she has lived in for most of her career, but there are some logical options such as winter clothes for the Snowy Mountain mission. As for the weapons, well, just pick the shotgun – the others are rather pointless compared to it.

Underworld has the best vehicle sequences in any Tomb Raider game to date: it’s still buggy and tends to get you killed, but it has the tightest controls. This statement in fact applies to most other mechanics, from combat to platforming; there are frequent glitches and bugs but it’s their best iteration. One particular area of buggy frustration is the zip-cord. Our heroine has an extensible cord she can throw and attach to grapple points to hang from, swing, rapel or pull things. You mostly need to be jumping for the zip to properly attach and more often than not fails to do so, leading to increasingly-annoying deaths.

Puzzles follow the classical formula of ‘box-pushing’ for ingenious mechanisms. While there is a good amount of switch-pressing and lever-pulling, these challenges form a minority compared to some of the more complex ones in which you need to combine the actions with pulleys, timed jumps and the zip-cord (with all its faults) to trigger an impossibly ancient contraption. One puzzle in particular – the Shiva and Kali statues – is my favourite of the entire series and you need to use all your skills to solve it.

It feels like a wasted opportunity: this game treats important events dismissively.

One thing Underworld lacks compared to previous titles is boss fights. Even the final battle with Natla is just a giant puzzle-platforming room in which you need to dismantle her doomsday device. The only challenge present comes from the tricky platforming and environmental hazards, with the villain just flying around and flinging innocuous fireballs while remaining untouchable. When you finish the sequence Lara disposes of her in a cutscene, without a heated and significant final battle. It feels like a wasted opportunity but matches what I mentioned in the plot section: this game treats important events dismissively.

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Visuals and audio

Underworld is the best Lara Croft, the original character, ever looked. With fluent motion-capture body animations and wonderful facial expressions, this was the definite protagonist when the game released. This same level of quality and beauty extends to the rest of the cast, from poor old Winston to the evil Natla. I have to say that for a seven-year-old game it has aged quite well, and the graphics still look very good.

As Tomb Raider deals with ancient ruins and stone edifices, it gets away quite easily with using blocky structures, so in these titles you look for quality in the little details: the crumbling sections of a pillar or a faded mural for example. Sadly however, the Norse underworlds all look the same and not in a good way – each decrepit, bland, grey rooms with very few interesting details beyond the insta-kill blue goo. The aforementioned weather effects add subtle changes to the environment, such as vehicles and characters tracking mud and leaving footprints.

One particular point of note is that whatever Lara destroys or kills stays there. There is no de-spawning in this game, making you feel as if your actions had an impact.

There’s more than one leap of faith, where you can’t see where you’re jumping but hope there is something to hang onto when you do.

The camera will always be the bane of the series and it makes certain sequences extraordinarily painful. Climbs and platforming in particular suffer from dodgy angles and more than one leap of faith, where you can’t see where you’re jumping but hope there is something to hang onto when you do. There are numerous texture and graphical glitches and our heroine can sometimes get caught in surfaces and make it impossible to advance without reloading. My biggest gripe came from the faulty collision boxes and physics during weight-switch puzzles; you need to pick up stone blocks and place them on top of pressure plates, but once you do the 3D-model pushes the boxes off – or worse still, contact with Lara’s feet sends them flying across the stage.

Voice-acting is superb and Keeley Hawes does an amazing job as the protagonist, adding some humanity, character depth and vulnerability to the her. Natla’s voice actor makes her deliciously evil, and you can almost feel how much fun she’s having while acting the part.

Music has always been a strong point in the Tomb Raider series and Underworld continues this tradition. Environmental pieces help you get into the tomb-raiding mood and each tune carries a sense of wonder and adventure; and a few lower notes add some foreboding to the score, keeping you on edge for whatever’s going to come after you push that switch. When things turn sour or Lara is fighting for her life the music turns to reflect that, becoming more dramatic and even epic at times.

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Replay and innovation

This is the best the classic series has to offer in terms of game mechanics, but it’s not the most innovative title.

Legend reinvented what Tomb Raider was but Underworld refined those ideas. Despite its problems, this is the best the classic series has to offer in terms of game mechanics. But it’s not the most innovative.

Yet it’s not purely derivative either. While the weather system was ambitious and does have interesting effects on the environment and visuals, the mechanical effects of it are barely perceptible so I don’t know if I was as groundbreaking as the developer had hoped. The dual-target system on the other hand was a phenomenal addition to the gameplay. The chimney jump was new to the series also, but not to the gaming world, having been present in many titles before – just called ‘wall jump’.

Like the other two titles in the trilogy, this one has hundreds of collectible relics and items and those should be enough to bring back players for another go as collecting them unlocks concept art and other bonus features. By finishing the title you unlock the Treasure Hunter mode, created just for making that collection easier, and you can always replay the game in higher difficulties.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

This game is a fun ride but it also has some glaring flaws that bring it down.

As I mentioned above, Underworld is the best the classic Tomb Raider series has to offer in terms of visuals and gameplay mechanics. It refined all concepts and made them as tight as possible, even if it still was buggy and prone to frustrating moments. It has my favourite puzzle of the entire series, and it’s one of the few titles in which we see the gaps in Lara’s armour. It’s a fun ride but it also has some glaring flaws that bring it down.

All being said and done, should this game be part of a 1001 list? Not really. It’s a good release – don’t get me wrong – but as the end of very strong trilogy it drops the ball too much, particularly in the storytelling. It’s a fun ride, a hell of a ride in fact, but it’s just not good enough.

But if you’ve played Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, I urge you to play it to finish the trilogy. And if like me, you wish to go through every classic Lara Croft title out there, this should be near the top of your list!

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game from Steam for £6.99
Positive: The best that classic Lara Croft ever looked and played
Negative: The main plot is emotionally unsatisfying
Score: 35 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Tomb Raider: Underworld, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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