|Min OS X: 10.6|
Mac OS X: 10.6.8 | CPU: 1.8 GHz Intel | RAM: 3 GB | HD Space: 8 GB | Graphics: 128 MB | Not Supported: ATI X1xxx series, NVIDIA 7xxx series, Intel GMA series, The Intel GMA HD3000 is only supported using Mac OS X 10.7.3 Lion
Another four years, another Tomb Raider. I can hardly credit that it's so long since I reviewed Tomb Raider: Anniversary; nor that it was four years before that when I reviewed Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. But the IMG review dates don't lie.
Mac-owning fans of the series will have been awaiting the latest instalment, Tomb Raider: Underworld, with increasing impatience, as the delay has been painful to say the least: that magic four years again! Yes, this game first came out on most other platforms in late 2008. Mac users have come to expect delays of a year or so for the better games to migrate from the PC world, but in this case we could have been forgiven for thinking it wasn't coming at all. Such a long delay is disheartening even for Mac users.
Luckily, it's definitely a case of "better late than never"; especially considering that it really was "never" with Tomb Raider: Legend, the first Tomb Raider game from Crystal Dynamics. Legend is the only Tomb Raider title not to have made it to the Mac and it's a pity, because Crystal Dynamics has really breathed new life into the series. Moreover, Tomb Raider: Underworld is a direct sequel to Legend in terms of its story, so playing it is a little like skipping a few chapters in a book you've been reading: it's all familiar material, but disjointed because you're not sure quite how you ended up where you are.
But actually, that doesn't really matter very much. Tomb Raider has never been exactly strong on plausible storylines, no matter how much it might like to pretend that it is. The games' underlying stories are always deeply far-fetched, and I don't think it'll spoil anything for anyone if I mention that the villain of Underworld is Natla once again. She flies around on her incongruous pair of wings and burbles on about revenge and destroying the world. Same old cataclysmic nonsense as always.
At least the story's overall plan is pretty well structured and easy to follow. It also has an unusually involving teaser at the outset, with the destruction of Croft Manor, apparently at Lara's own hands. Indeed, what passes for the training level in Underworld involves Lara escaping for her own burning home: a section that actually has to be played twice, as it's a preview of part of a level from later in the game. All is not as it seems, however, as the agent of destruction is a doppelgänger who looks almost identical to Lara (but with red hair), whose abilities are just slightly better than Lara's.
Anyway, the plot of the game follows Lara's quest to discover what happened to her mother, and during the course of these investigations she finds out more about her father's last moments, too. Much of the story revolves around locations and artefacts from Norse mythology, as well as Avalon, and Lara embarks on a quest to find Thor's Gauntlets and Hammer, which she will need to open the Norse underworld where her mother may be located.
So, that's the premise; pretty standard Tomb Raider fare, really. At least it takes you through an interesting variety of locations: a couple of underwater sessions in the Mediterranean and Arctic Seas, a further exploration of Croft Manor in England (this time involving an implausibly huge hidden underground chapel), a couple of cargo ships, the very attractively tropical Coastal Thailand, the very unpleasantly rainy Southern Mexico, and the distinctly chilly Jan Mayen Island. But not necessarily in that order.
Gameplay: The same as before, but different
My last experience of playing Tomb Raider 'properly' (discounting a brief trip down memory lane when Tomb Raider II arrived in the Mac App Store…) was Tomb Raider: Anniversary, four years ago. And that was quite a shock to the system because of the very different approach it took to controlling Lara. Readers unfamiliar with Anniversary might like to look back to my review (specifically, the section on 'keyboard gymnastics'); as the most recent previous game in the series, it might be expected that its control system would set the tone for any game that followed (i.e. Underworld).
Such is not the case. Although Anniversary's control scheme actually worked well once you'd got used to it, learning it did take some time, and Anniversary contained the most mammoth tutorial level of any game in the series (an entire mini-game in itself, in effect), partly to allow players to master the control scheme before embarking on the game proper.
Underworld takes a step back from that approach. The 'cat on a hot tin keyboard' method of playing is a thing of the past. No longer do you have to peck at the keys as though they were coated in acid, or play complex tattoos with the keyboard virtuosity of Lang Lang to coax a subtle movement from Lara. We're back to the much more straightforward 'press X to do Y' approach of earlier games. I can quite see that some players found Anniversary's control scheme rather excessively demanding; you could master it without too much effort, but it did require a certain amount of dedication in order to really get into the game. With the less subtle but much easier controls of Underworld, it's certainly easier just to dive right in and play. I'm not criticising one game over the other here, because each game's controls are well thought out; but on balance, the simplified approach of Underworld is probably an improvement, and certainly makes playing the game easier at the outset. The number of keys you have to press with your left hand is actually pretty similar for both games; it's just that Underworld takes the 'push to do' approach rather than the 'kitten on the keycaps' repeated tapping of Anniversary.