Tomb Raider: Underworld

Content review for this game:
Pertaining to the ESRB rating.

Recommended age: While this game is too intense, suggestive and difficult for kids, it has negligible blood and language; the combat isn't nearly brutal or realistic; and although Lara is scantily clad, her doll-like appearance is too exaggerated to be overly offensive or really appealing. So, I recommend this game for ages 13+.

Pros & Cons:
Pertaining to My short list.

The overall graphics and framerate may not be the most technically impressive, and the characters' art direction is jarringly unlikable (they look like life-sized plastic dolls), but load times are brief, and the temple environments are stunningly grand in scale, with detailed textures, well-used moody lighting and fluid water effects; Lara has relatively smooth animations (including the subtle use of motion blur when she jumps around), and things like foliage bend and sway when she runs through it.

The controls are moderately smooth, intuitive and easy to use, with a great time-saving sprint button feature, which can be made to speed up Lara's otherwise painfully slow running, swimming and ledge shimmying; the temples and their puzzles are well designed and relatively fun; and Lara's multi-purpose grappling hook can do anything from pull down the many platform and puzzle objects or suspend Lara from walls, which then allows her to climb, rappel or swing from them--it's handy, fun to use and implemented quite well.

However, on the negative side, many animation transitions are very awkward, and the way Lara turns while running has a loose, unnatural feel, which puts a damper on navigation. This carries into platforming, and because of the sometimes unresponsive animation, Lara will often jump in the opposite direction you wished her to, resulting in her falling to her doom again and again. Add this, and the fact that many of the platforming portions are unnecessarily vague when it comes to knowing where to jump next, and you've got plenty of needless and frustrating trail and error.

While not broken or entirely unplayable, the combat system is moderately clumsy and annoying; it takes over a dozen shots--two dozen kicks--just to dispatch human enemies (who aren't even equipped with flak jackets), and although the enemy can (and will) take cover behind objects, you're forced to stay out in the open and repeatedly jump around to (unsucessfully) dodge their constant fire--it is puzzling, they could have added some sort of cover system.

Wildlife encounters don't fare any better, and other than finding something to stand on (so that they can't get to you) while you either pump dozens of bullets into them or toss a grenade (which will thankfully kill in one hit), there's no real strategy involved. With this, the outdated healthpack system (instead of a much needed regenerative system) and the clumsy wall catching camera, combat isn't really fun--it should be an intergral part of gameplay, not an objective blocking nuisance.

But, the worst offender (in my opinion) is the game's story; Lara talks in a somewhat grating (and a bit haughty) English accent, stating random trivia (to herself) about where she is and why, and the said subject matter tends to be contrived and quite pointless. Because of this and the equally uncompelling side-characters, the overall story is convoluted and honestly uninteresting--at least to non-Lara fans.

However, Tomb Raider fans have always put up with these nagging issues--and probably still will; casual fans will find the hint system and extensive difficulty select useful (allowing you to adjust Lara's and enemy health levels, ammo levels, etc.); and after beating it, you can go through previous levels to collect all the treasures in order to unlock concept art and storyboards. Otherwise, if you like this genre and have a PS3 (and unless you're a huge Lara fan), get Uncharted instead.

Blood: The blood effects puff in light, almost negligible amounts when you shoot an enemy. Spiders and lizards shed a similar amount of green and yellow goo when shot or--in smaller spiders' case--stepped on, and the Thrall (an undead enemy) shed very light amounts of a blue substance when shot. However, blood does not linger and Lara herself sheds no blood. Bodies do linger, and you see a couple dead, unbloodied mercenaries lying about, and later on, several skeletal corpses hung by spears on pillars. There is no option to turn blood off.

In addition, the Thrall--undead creatures in the form of animal and human corpses--have a slightly grotesque appearance, with their overall muscular and skeletal systems showing; at one point Lara uses a huge, spiked chandelier to defeat a giant kraken, by dropping it on its head, resulting in the kraken spurting streams of blood from the spike imbedded wounds; and later on, Lara comes across a once important human character, now Thrall, who's decomposed on one side--showing mildly grotesque detail.

Mild language: There are four uses of d*mn, three uses of hell, and one use of--the mildly rude English slang term--bloody.

Mild suggestive themes: Lara's waistline is impossibly tiny, and her hips and bustline--in conjunction with the rest of her body--are very exaggerated in size (though not quite as much as in earlier games); her movements are done in an overly sensuous and provocative fashion; and although nearly unnoticeable, there are some very subtle, mild breast physics.

Concerning Lara's dress; one of the early levels has Lara clad in a scant and skintight wet suit, revealing moderate cleavage and most of her bare behind; and her classic outfit (consisting of short shorts and a small top) also reveals some moderate cleavage--however, you can select more modest clothing later in, like pants and a jacket (but they, too, are skintight).

Violence: When she was just a little girl, Lara watched helplessly as her mother disappeared into a mysterious portal, which then sealed shut. Years later, she follows clues left by her dead father to locate this portal, and finds that to reach and open it, she'll have to retrieve Thor's legendary hammer. However, Lara's rival, Amanda, has haphazardly allied herself with the demigoddess and former queen of Atlantis, Natla, and it's their aim to get there before Lara does and awaken an ancient evil, all the while using their resources to hinder Lara's progress. Can Lara find Thor's Hammer, defeat both Natla and Amanda, reach the portal and find her long lost mother? We'll see...

The base gameplay consists of using Lara's weapon and combat skills to fight the enemies blocking her way, and her acrobatic abilities (later on, her motorcycle) to safely navigate the game's perilous temples, and its many traps, by jumping from platform to plaform; shimmying from ledges; climbing and swinging from poles; balancing on thin beams; using her grapple to latch onto rings and then climb, rappel or swing from walls; and her diving skills to progress the underwater areas. To solve puzzles, Lara will rotate and then line up objects; drag blocks onto pressure switches; use her grapple to pull down and rotate puzzle objects; and Thor's Gauntlets to move normally unmovable platforms to ultimately open the temples' doors, retrieve the targeted artifact and continue onto the next.

Enemies range from Amanda's mercenaries for hire to a variety of wildlife (tigers, panthers, killer bats, spiders, giant spiders/lizards, and sharks), and later on, the Thrall; ancient undead tiger, human and even giant Yeti corpses. Lara will be fighting these enemies with her primary weapons--dual handguns--and her secondary arsenal; a machine gun, assault rifle, shotgun, speargun, tranquilizer gun, and sticky grenades. The combat system is moderately hectic and intense, with Lara using her varied arsenal of weapons to pump dozens of shots into enemies before they finally fall; her close quarter kicks to knock them out; sticky grenades to dispatch multiple combatants in one go; and later, her motorcycle to (non-graphically) run them over.

When killed, mercenaries and animals lightly grunt/groan, slowly dropping to the ground; giant spiders and lizards will gurgle/twitch; the undead Thrall will disassemble into multiple skeletal parts; sharks will belly-up when killed with the speargun; and all enemies (other than sharks) will fly when grenades detonate. And nearer the end, Lara recieves Thor's Hammer, which she uses to bashes enemies (killing most in one hit), as it electrocutes them with bolts of lighting, resulting in them then flying dozens of feet to their deaths. But beyond this, all enemy (devoid Thrall) bodies stay intact, and the feel of combat is fantastical and very arcade-y.

The temples themselves--which range from underwater ruins to jungle sanctuaries and icy wastes--have a moody, isolated and somewhat spooky atmosphere, which is heightened by the often unexpected enemy encounters; tigers will jump out of nowhere and rush you in groups of two to three; killer bats attack from above; giant spiders and lizards crawl from walls and drop from ceilings, spitting venom as they speed toward you; and the re-animated Thrall fling themselves at you, claws out, which gives gameplay a thrilling and on-edge feel--you're never quite sure what will jump out next.

The cutscenes are packed with plenty of large explosions, gunfire and moderately intense situations, including a couple of deaths and some bizarre story elements involving ancient Norse mythology and archaic symbols--in other words, this is plainly too intense, suggestive and difficult for kids. But, the blood effects and language are negligible; combat is anything but brutal or realistic; and although Lara is scantily clad, her disproportionate features (along with her unnatural sheen) make her look more like an unappealing and inoffensive plastic doll than anything else--if they are Tomb Raider fans, I see no problem with younger teens playing it.

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