Ash & Shadow — Tomb Raider: Underworld Revisited

A look back at the game that brought Crystal Dynamics' first Tomb Raider trilogy to a close.

This post contains significant spoilers for Tomb Raider: Underworld, Beneath the Ashes, and Lara’s Shadow.

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

Tomb Raider: Underworld is not the most refined of the games Crystal Dynamics brought to the series; that title belongs, I think, to Anniversary. Neither can it match the sheer nostalgia of its predecessor, Legend. Yet it remains, despite this, my favourite of the trilogy those games form.

Underworld was the first Tomb Raider game for which I was truly, can’t-stop-thinking-about-this excited. Even though I’d dabbled in one or two of the early games, Legend was my real introduction to the series, and though I’d looked forward to — and thoroughly enjoyed — Anniversary, Underworld stood apart; it was the definitive continuation of the story.

A more serious affair than either of its predecessors, it brought a genuinely unexpected twist or two, and delivered a masterful conclusion to Lara’s search for her mother. There wasn’t some heartfelt reunion; there wasn’t some momentary glimpse of recognition in Amelia’s eyes before she fell to her doom in that cold ruin at the top of the world; and Avalon itself proved to be something decidedly different from the Celtic paradise we might’ve gone in expecting.

Of course, story isn’t the only area in which Underworld excelled. Being Lara’s first truly next-gen adventure, it was gorgeous, and features (in its cutscenes, at least, because the gameplay model was undeniably a little strange) what I consider to be the best representation of Lara yet, brought to life by the actress I consider to have provided Lara’s best voice yet, Keeley Hawes.

And the soundtrack was great, too.

In fact, the only area in which Underworld fell short was its gameplay — and when I say fell short, I mean tripped, stumbled and plummeted off a proverbial cliff, mountainside, skyscraper (whichever your imagination prefers…) into the oblivion below.

It certainly can’t be faulted for its ambition, embracing the concept of ‘What Could Lara Do?’ to bring a greater breadth of realism to her abilities and introducing motion capture in an effort to bring a similar realism to their execution. The result, unfortunately, was a bit of a mess.

Underworld feels a good deal more fidgety than its predecessors, almost as if it’s running too fast. Jumping between the various ledges Lara must negotiate looks ridiculous; she’ll launch herself off in the wrong direction with frustrating regularity — and we won’t even talk about that complete abomination of a swan dive.

Still, it’s Underworld’s positives rather than it’s negatives that have, for me, stood the test of time. Those things it does well, it does wonderfully, which is why it’s been my favourite Tomb Raider game since the moment its credits began to roll back in 2008.

As those familiar with the series will be aware, of course, those credits didn’t represent the end of the story…

LARA’S FORESHADOW

In the months following its release, Underworld received two far from inconsequential pieces of DLC, Beneath the Ashes and Lara’s Shadow. However, in what we can now look back on as a significant bit of foreshadowing for what was to transpire with 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, both were exclusive to Microsoft’s Xbox platform. Unlike the situation with Rise, though, their exclusivity proved permanent, leaving a significant portion of the Tomb Raider fanbase — myself included — out in the cold.

We were approached by Microsoft, said creative director Eric Lindstrom, speaking to VideoGamer.com, who asked us if we could make some downloadable content for them. It was a great opportunity, it was a great deal and we’re happy to do it. The DLC that we’re making for Microsoft is especially made. It’s not part of the main game that we saved — we put all the game out there that we were going to put out there. Now we’re going to the trouble of adding on spaces were they logically make sense, telling parts of the story.

I want to draw attention those final words in particular — telling parts of the story — because when I say Ashes and Shadow were far from being inconsequential additions, I’m not exaggerating. I’m shitting you not, you might say. Taking place after the events of Underworld, they provide an element of closure to the game’s narrative that elevates them beyond being standard pieces of DLC. They are, in fact, the epilogue, made all the more significant by Underworld having turned out to be the final game in that particular series.

Whatever the story behind their development (and there have certainly been additions to it…), the situation with Ashes and Shadow was thoroughly shitty, and though it continues to be so for those who play on PC and PlayStation, there has come to be some light at the end of the tunnel for owners of Microsoft’s latest console.

Towards the end of July, Underworld was made available for Xbox One via backwards compatibility. Thanks, ironically enough to the latest Tomb Raider title, Rise, I own an Xbox One, and I’m sure you can imagine my reaction when I saw the announcement:

As it happens, the DLC is indeed available. And finally, almost a decade after their release, I’ve played Underworld’s final chapters.

BENEATH THE ASHES

The first of the two finds Lara returning to the bowels of the ruined Croft Manor, sometime after the events of Underworld, in search of an artefact of her father’s that can, he claims, create Thralls of the type Lara encountered during her quest to find her mother.

Not only that, but a word carved into the artefact can be used to control the things.

It’s a relatively brief affair, taking around forty minutes to complete when you know what you’re doing, not much more when you don’t, and, upon giving the player control of Lara, immediately dispels any hopes that its additional development time might have resulted in a gameplay experience less fidgety than Underworld’s main course. Ashes opens with a collapsing bridge and a grapple ring that seems to operate on sheer luck, and closes with an extended platforming section — involving rotating columns replete with climbable ledges and deadly blades — that’s like a Greatest Hits of the game’s myriad control woes.

If you can look past these issues, though, there’s a very decent Tomb Raider experience to be had, one that, though you will encounter various enemies to be fought along the way, provides a satisfying dose of good old platforming, and that features, I was pleased to find, a few trap corridors of a more traditional variety than those found throughout Underworld itself.

More than anything, though, the simple joy of being on a ‘new’ adventure with my favourite version of Lara was what I most enjoyed about Ashes. And, yes, I know this version technically featured in Guardian of Light, Temple of Osiris and Lara Croft GO, but there’s quite a difference between the classic third-person experience and the distant, isometric presentation of those games. It feels more intimate, the former, more personal.

In Ashes’ final moments, after negotiating the various hazards strewn throughout the Manor’s catacombs, Lara does indeed manage to find her father’s artefact, and, after a hell of a close call, uses the word it bears to subdue an old friend — leading us nicely into…

LARA’S SHADOW

The opening of Underworld’s second expansion takes us back to Helheim at some point after Lara managed to thwart Natla’s latest efforts to bring about that Seventh Age she keeps banging on about, and though our usual heroine has long since vacated the area, her shadow remains. The doppelgänger survived her encounter with Amanda’s Wraith Stone, and it’s she who the camera settles behind as the game hands control over to the player.

Right from the off, it’s clear that Shadow is a different beast.

As evidenced by the barrage of game-interrupting hints you’ll be presented with during your first few minutes, it features various tweaks to Underworld’s gameplay.

Despite the increasingly frustrating nature of the aforementioned hints, however, it’s these tweaks that really make Shadow shine. Whereas Lara makes her way through the environment with a speed limited by her being human, the doppelgänger is subject to no such constraints.

She can zip up certain walls, along all ledges, and through the environment in general with a supernatural speed governed by a stamina meter that doesn’t seem to exist to be needlessly restrictive — though it can certainly feel that way — but to make those various platforming sections that call for her unique abilities that bit more challenging.

NATLA’S NEW LOOK

After returning to the scene of her apparent demise, the doppelgänger heads off in search of her master, finding the former Atlantean Queen slumped by the dais Lara and Amanda used to make their escape, before carrying her off to a machine that will undo the damage inflicted by the Eitr.

It’s the doppelgänger’s efforts to restore — and subsequently destroy — this machine that form the bulk of Shadow’s gameplay, and while the raw fun of the updated traversal is undeniably satisfying, there’s a real shame to be found in the fact that there could’ve been so much more of it.

Upon getting the machine back on its proverbial feet, the doppelgänger sets out to find Lara, with orders to end her own life after Lara’s has been taken care of. This leads directly to the confrontation witnessed at the end of Beneath the Ashes. Thing is, we’re taken there by a simple ‘Four Days Later…’ screen.

Eh?

I can’t help but feel that it would’ve been infinitely better — would’ve tied Shadow and Ashes together more intimately than they already are — if we’d had to follow in Lara’s (and, therefore, our own) footsteps by guiding the doppelgänger through the catacombs after her. Would it be repetitive? A little, perhaps, but I’m sure that the doppelgänger’s revised traversal would’ve breathed new life into areas we’d already been through, and it would’ve served to break things up nicely, too — after all, upon returning to Natla’s lair, we’re tasked with doing pretty much exactly what we did the first time we visited, in reverse.

Oxymoronic though it is, a little location-based repetition would’ve brought some welcome variety to proceedings. Unfortunately, though, it wouldn’t have done much to alleviate Shadow’s main drawback: the combat.

Thankfully, you can simply run past most of the enemies you’ll encounter, but there are a few instances in which taking down Thrall after Thrall after Thrall is required to progress, and they’re anything but ‘fun.’ True, the doppelgänger can punch and kick her way through her foes with superhuman strength, but it becomes boring after the first few take-downs and it’s clear, looking back on it, that Shadow would’ve been just fine — and perhaps more enjoyable — without any combat whatsoever.

A SLAVE TO NO ONE

Shadow wraps up with the doppelgänger putting an end to Natla’s recovery. Set free by Lara, she watches with cold — and thoroughly enjoyable — satisfaction as the fallen god is consumed by Eitr, her own creation the instrument of her demise.

Though it does, I think, leave something to be desired as the overall ending of the story begun in Legend, it is, as the conclusion of Underworld’s tale, a great ending, and after having waited almost a decade to play it, I bore a similar expression to the doppelgänger’s as the credits began to roll.

At long last, the story was complete.

That completion, however, wasn’t the only benefit to playing the 360 version of the game. Said version includes a visual motion blur absent from the PS3 that, though it comes at the expense of a slightly lower resolution, goes a long way towards smoothing out some of Underworld’s jerky-looking movement.

And there are quite a few more outfits to choose from, too, some of which are bikinis that have no business being an option, but one of which is an outfit that, if you ask me, should’ve been Lara’s default get-up for the whole game: Casual Explorer. The DLC might have been the main course of revisiting Underworld on Xbox, but being able to run through the whole game in that outfit was a none-too-disappointing appetiser.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, Tomb Raider: Underworld is not the most accomplished of the games Crystal brought to the table. I’d never try to convince you otherwise, and am fully able to admit that it’s something of a buggy mess. But it is, you might say, my buggy mess. I love it just as much after finishing it for the tenth, eleventh, twelfth — frankly, I’ve lost count — time as I did the first. It’s my favourite Tomb Raider, and unless the current Lara’s third adventure proves to be a complete revelation, I can’t see that changing any time soon.


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