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Scary, eh? Face to face with a yeti (good job these brutes aren't as dangerous as they look)
Secrets and extras
Given the emphasis on exploration, though, one thing I found disappointing was the loss of emphasis on secrets. The secrets in earlier games in the series were always one of the real attractions. They could be well hidden and really difficult to find; they could be fairly easy to find but extremely difficult to collect; or they could be just plain fun. Hunting for and collecting them all was always a goal in itself, and sometimes led to rewards of worthwhile extra game content.
Underworld does still have secrets (comprising treasures to collect and one relic artefact per area), but sadly they struck me as seeming much more half-hearted than in previous games. In most cases you can just pick up the treasures without any real effort; the relics are indeed more demanding to acquire, and you have to work harder to discover how to get those, but most of the time it's easy to spot where the various collectibles (secret or otherwise) are going to be. Of all the games in the series, the secrets seem least interesting in this one.
Another related disappointment is the number of unlockables in the game. Anniversary (perhaps by its special commemorative nature) had almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of unlockable content, cheat modes and the like. Underworld has some too (various types of concept artwork, mainly), but looks miserly by comparison, sadly.
When I reviewed Anniversary, I considered it a terrific game overall but felt it was let down by the fact that it contained a few sections of grinding, hair-tearing difficulty that would be likely to kill progress (not to mention enthusiasm) for many players. I also said that I wasn't a fan of boss battles.
Well, I'd like to think that someone out there was listening. Heck, I might even believe that they were, if only it weren't for the fact that development on Underworld was already well advanced when I wrote my Anniversary review. Anyway, if Underworld proves one thing, it's that I wasn't alone in my dislike of the excessively hard sections in Anniversary, because if anything it goes too far the other way. If you play Underworld, and persevere with it to any extent at all, you will beat the game. It's massively easier than Anniversary. There are no boss battles at all. (Technically, there's a confrontation with Natla at the very end, but you don't actually fight her; she just flaps around and makes an occasional nuisance of herself while you get on with what you're doing, destroying her handiwork.) The puzzles in the game are mostly very easy. There are some tricky sections, but nothing that will give the average player more than a moderate challenge at best, and the levels themselves generally present fewer pitfalls than the ones in Anniversary. And as for the obtaining of secrets, that's mostly very easy in Underworld, whereas Anniversary had some terrible toughies to face.
Is Underworld too easy? Is there cause for me to complain because the designers have over-compensated? Perhaps, yes: for some players, the relatively low level of challenge may be a disappointment. For me personally, being of a fairly lethargic and uncompetitive nature, I was actually very happy with the difficulty level. I enjoyed the exploration aspects, liked the fact that I wasn't required to overcome fiendishly difficult obstacles all the time, and was pleased to discover that the goals were all realistically achievable within a few attempts. I managed to achieve all the goals in Anniversary too, eventually, but some of them were so difficult that I can't claim to have enjoyed the process. With Underworld, nothing felt impossible; some of the challenges were reasonably tricky and took a few attempts, but I was able to do them all without ever feeling that they were unfair. So for my own tastes, the difficulty level is refreshingly accessible, and creates an enjoyable experience rather than a frustrating one. I feel confident in claiming that Underworld is by far the easiest Tomb Raider game ever; but at the same time, for me, it also proved to be one of the most enjoyable.
There was one aspect that caused me repeated annoyance, however. One word: Bike.
Maybe some players will really enjoy riding Lara's bike. If so, I'm not one of them. And unfortunately for me, the bike features in a pretty sizeable portion of the game. It's not that there's anything wrong with the bike as such; it looks good, it sounds the part, and it has a nice, bright headlamp. The problem is that it's too darned fast for the restricted spaces in which Lara has to ride it. It's bad enough trying to ride it outdoors in Mexico, where there are some fairly large open spaces. Even then, it's hard to control. But when Lara rides it down narrow underground passageways, things just become tedious, because it's almost impossible to avoid ramming it into the wall at every corner and getting it jammed in an awkward position. The only way to avoid that is to try to ride so slowly that running would be quicker. So I simply left the bike behind, as often as I could, and went back for it when forced to do so.