Up until recently, if anyone had asked me what I miss most about being a youngster, I would promptly answer that it was the pleasure of socially acceptable loafing off my parents. No worrying about what to have for supper, or worrying about what your friends think when they visit your room that looks like it was temporarily used as a secret atom bomb test site. (Best of all: no Kardashians, although this did not have anything much to do with my parents… we did have the boy band epidemic though…) Your only real concern was to rack your brain to find a way for finishing your maths homework as quickly and painlessly as possible IF you could even be bothered to do it at all.
Nowadays, however, I realise that my ultimate longing is for my childhood imagination. It’s not that I am in a severe lack of it at now (as enduring E! entertainment TV commercials would be virtually impossible). It’s just that, when I was a kid, my imagination was almost like my portal to another world. See I grew up on a farm, and while it was not exactly in the middle of nowhere, it was just far enough out of the nearest town to be a problem for seeing friends. On top of that, my parents were extremely hard-working people which meant that I could therefore rarely get me a lift in. I thus ended up spending hours upon hours playing by myself with the abundance of toys and action figures that I owned between the roots of a gigantic oak tree growing outside our house. Actually, I didn’t just play with my Biker Mice figurines, Power Rangers bots or my scale model trucks: I inhabited them. My small but vividly active childhood mind was absolutely spellbound by how these cool little characters sucked me into their worlds.
Then there was TV. O man… we had some stylish cartoons and shows in the 90’s, and some of the biggest fights I had with my dad was when the cricket and Goosebumps was on at the same time. I was particularly entranced with a series of computer animated shows which emerged mostly from the vision of Californian based director Owen Hurley. Remember them? They were Beast Wars: Transformers, Shadow Raiders: War Planets and, of course, Reboot and I spiral into nostalgia whenever my mind recalls the excitement of watching these shows. To my unspoilt, infant eyes they were awesome with their 3D graphics and special effects, so I decided to watch one or two episodes before writing this post and… horror. Yes I know that these shows saw the light of day for the first time nineteen years ago, but I could have sworn they were more visually detailed in my memory. I would bet serious cash that my girlfriend’s Asus tablet has the capacity to render these shows in more detail today. In real time. I mean the average iPhone can now reach the moon given a few thrusters and some rocket detachment phases right? I think I just found Apple’s next marketing stunt.
This brings us to Tomb Raider: Underworld. Here we encountered the third, second era Tomb Raider game by developer Crystal Dynamics which follows chronologically from the critically acclaimed Tomb Raider Anniversary, although I get the impression that Underworld is in fact closer to Legend with regards to plot and style. If you’d like to catch up on the history behind an IP that has crossed the Atlantic in terms of development studios, you cannot miss IGN’s ‘History of Tomb Raider’ article, or alternatively have a look at my previous Tomb Raider: Anniversary post for an extremely condensed version of what you need to know about Lara’s journey thus far.
In the plot there is a bit more than we have come to expect from tried and trusted recipe that has become the recurrent blueprint for a Tomb Raider adventure. Yet the novelty is practically inconsequential. In the end, you still assume the familiar role of a wealthy and acrobatic heiress who sets off to find a supernatural artifact by traversing very complex obstacle courses. In brief, upon finding an unexpected site at the bottom of the ocean, Lara must try to save her mother from the underworld by following a series of clues left by her father referring to Norse mythology. Sure enough, this game is the personification of ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ To me, more often than not, that’s not always a bad thing (which explains why The Force Awakens is viciously nipping at Avatar’s heels). Innovation has never really been Lara’s thing. Every outing with her feels, in actual fact, a bit more like a very slow but palpable process of refinement. Then why did it feel like something very different was unfurling here?
What we had with Underworld was, I think, a big leap for Lara (pun intended) in terms of both graphical maturity and technical achievement. It is no understatement to say that Underworld’s greatest achievement was not convincing gamers that Lara’s bodacious figure could scale any surface that is remotely verticle, but how it pulled together all its visual aesthetics. From dilapidated ruins that have been overrun with lush jungle, to the coral-crusted remnants of majestic underwater metropolises reposing on the ocean floor, there is everything in this game to suggest that you are playing one of the most beautiful true DirectX 9 titles you can find. Not only are you presented the most detailed video game character created up to that point in Lara (Guinness Book of Records’ claim, not mine), you are also gifted with a brand new Crystal Engine that sniffed out any extra graphic cards or cores and made them work as a team to produce realistic shadows and finely detailed textures. I love it when I can tell that a game engine is getting cosy with a PC system as it soothes my soul to know that there was once a time when the PC was still considered an important pillar in gaming for developers. Once. There are a few small clues when this happens: The game comes with its own SLI profile, presents quite a few options for tuning graphics settings and interacts with the player through a controller layout that does not feel like your fingers are challenging the keyboard in a game of Twister. Underworld ticked all these boxes with a flourish.
In terms of graphical maturity, Crystal Dynamics certainly attempted to give us a much darker and more sinister Tomb Raider this time round. Anniversary, with its ghostly moans and deserted locale already bestowed eeriness on the game, but true to its name, Underworld takes this one step further. The gigantic set pieces constantly oscillate from bright and sunny settings that give way to the dark and hidden realms lurking beneath the surface. Even Lara herself is confronted with her own ‘underworld’ in the form of her rather frightening doppelganger that makes a startling appearance in this game (as opposed to the elliptical and somewhat inexplicable appearance of the doppelganger in Atlantis). This time round Lara is entangled in apocalyptic Norse mythology and it makes sense that her environments reflect the somber tones of these kinds of sagas and legends. Good thing Lara was given a torch and a camcorder then.
The animation in this game also shows to players that with a dedicated band of artists, you can create some stunning results. Observe, if you will, the above video in which Crystal Dynamics employed actress/model/gymnast Allison Carroll to give a more embodied feel to Lara and thereby uprooting the notion that realistic characters in gaming need only a good texture model and a mocap studio. By having Carroll give a pre-development feel to Lara for this game, artists not only gained a much more vivid picture of what Lara should look like, but also a more holistic idea of what her movements could be based on this exact look. Carrol would also be the last, live-action model to promote the Tomb Raider games. Plus, they nabbed a mascot in the form of a beautiful and agile girl with a posh British accent – enough reason for most men to book a flight to England.
My apologies if you got the impression I was trying to say it was the perfect game. It’s not. For all its environmental and character beauty, Lara herself did look a bit… odd. Her weirdly big eyes were set a bit far apart and her lips look as if she got a bit intimate with a hoover. And while I had no problem getting Lara to take breath-taking swan dives off 200 ft. cliffs, or to jump on a tiger’s head while pulling off a stylish headshot, I got stuck behind a 2 foot tree root once. In one cut scene Lara’s arms glitched and went stiff, making her act out the scene looking like Moses parting the Red Sea, and I often fought with the camera to see where I needed to jump. I am still not entirely sure how her doppelganger fits into the story either. But these minor gripes actually struck me as adorable rather than anger inducing for some reason.
Above all, I think that Underworld represents the first game in which Crystal Dynamics really took some calculated risks both with Lara and the IP’s visual design. The game could deftly draw some sweat from some serious PC rigs (especially considering that it sometimes came bundled with the most powerful graphics card of the time – the GeForce GTX 295), and Lara herself is now a much more gritty and stronger character than in previous outings. The cut scenes do an excellent job at portraying how Lara derives strength from the love for her mother and father, and she clearly has little patience for her enemies that stand in her way (particularly with that poor old blind Kraken, man that was mean of you girl!). The NPC’s now regard her as a real threat rather than the vulnerable and sheltered little rich manor girl that she inadvertently portrayed in Anniversary for example.
So finally, what then has a game (that clearly stole my heart) got to do with my self-indulgent and tangential childhood narrative that I opened this post with? Quite simple actually. To me, this game raised the question of how something becomes timeless. As mentioned earlier, this series has perhaps become infamous for not really being partial to innovation. Once we peel back the layers of mip-mapping, particle effects and high-res texture effects, we will still see the same old Tomb Raider heart happily beating away. I like this. I inexplicably admire a development team that almost stubbornly cling to what was once the central game mechanic of their IP. Shows like Reboot remind us that we do not need something rendered spectacularly in DirectX 12 to stimulate our imagination. If a solid formula is still embedded deep down into a game’s code, we can overlook aesthetic flaws and allow our minds to be swept away in tales of exploration and Thor’s hammer.