Land of the Dead — A Research Expedition to Tomb Raider: Underworld on PS2

This polygonally challenged adventure is quite different from its high-definition sibling.

The following post contains spoilers.

Whim (noun): A sudden desire of change of mind, especially one that is unusual or unexplained.

There may have been some long-repressed desire deep down in the very core of my soul to try this game, but, ultimately, I bought it on the above: a whim — one that was inspired by a discussion with @TombRaiderArch about the possibility that the last-gen release of Rise of the Tomb Raider will be a hideously limited version of its current-gen sibling, which is exactly what the then-last-gen verson of Tomb Raider: Underworld was.

Is.

On PlayStation 2, Tomb Raider: Underworld is a very different game to its PS3 counterpart. Whole sections are unrecognisable, or just plain missing. I knew this to be the case before I played it. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to. I may have known exactly what was going to happen story-wise, but I felt like I was missing out.

No longer, though.

After popping in the disc and taking care not to trip over the controller’s wire — a wire! How quaint — on my way back to my seat, I watched as Underworld booted to a start screen showing Lara’s yacht floating in the Mediterranean Sea. I was very impressed. For a PS2 game, the water looked absolutely gorgeous. Barring the obvious drop in resolution, it is, in fact, identical to that of the game’s next-gen sibling.

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Before showing us the explosion of Croft Manor that serves as the starting point for the next-gen version of Underworld, the PS2 game treats us to the Previously on Tomb Raider… recap video available as an extra in the former.

Afterwards, when Lara finds herself beneath the stricken Croft Manor, the graphical downgrade is immediately apparent. Lara looks as though she’s paid an unfortunate visit to a particularly clumsy plastic surgeon, and the environment around her is very, very bare. Still, there’s something of a minimalist charm to it all — until you start to move, that is. The frame rate, which I knew wasn’t going to be quite as smooth as that of the next-gen version, is hideous. Absolutely hideous — distractingly so.

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Largely, the game’s prologue plays out as I remember, with the exception of Lara having to shoot her way through, rather than grapple, one of the doors, and the fact that she must use another as a bridge, where, before, it fell into the fiery chasm beneath, forcing her to jump the gap. Initially, I thought the soundtrack for the prologue stage was absent, but it kicked in as I climbed through the burning corridors. Better late than never.

When the prologue ends, we find ourselves almost immediately in the Mediterranean. The title sequence present in the next-gen version of the game is entirely absent. And that thing I said about the water being very impressive for a PS2 game… ignore that. The opening cinematic of Lara’s Mediterranean Sea expedition reveals in the in-game water to be atrocious — worse, in all its bright blue glory, than that of Legend and Anniversary. A little further into the game, I discovered that this was only the case for seawater. The rest of the stuff looks fine.

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After the cinematic that sets up Underworld’s story — which, hilariously, features static pictures of Zip and Alister on Lara’s laptop screen as opposed to the video feed present in the next-gen game — we don’t get to execute Lara’s dive into the sea. Instead, she is teleported straight to the bottom — and what a barren bottom it is. Gone are the undulating clusters of seaweed and other marine flora, and just as absent are the sharks. It’s the first real hint of how dead this version of Underworld feels.

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The game’s first puzzle, which was already quite simple, is rendered mind-numbingly straightforward by the fact that the rotating sections of the entrance are colour-coded. Upon completion of said puzzle — if it can even be called one — the soundtrack cue that plays as the entrance is revealed in the next-gen version of the game is missing. A shame, because I liked it quite a bit. It’s part of a recurring theme heard at key moments throughout Underworld as it goes on.

We arrive in the area with the runes identifying the ruins as Niflheim about twice as quickly as I remember. It’s been a while since I played through the PS3 version of Underworld, but I think I’m safe in saying that there seems to be a climbing section missing. The cutscene here is triggered immediately upon arrival, rather than after the completion of the gate-opening puzzle. Again, a musical cue is absent — again, I miss it.

As I made my way through Niflheim, I was surprised to find that most — if not all — of Lara’s animations seem to be the same as those in the PS3 version of the hame. I was genuinely impressed by this, given that Lara’s movements were touted as one of the main benefits of the next-gen hardware prior to the game’s release. There are, though, some features missing. Lara can’t sprint in this version of the game, and we don’t have control over her Personal Light Source (PLS) — not that it’s needed much here, though; the game is exceedingly bright.

Also conspicuous only by their absence are the dynamic, free-climbing walls. Instead, Lara must traverse standard ledges. I must admit, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Somehow, this abundance of ledges makes this version of Underworld feel, to me, like more of a successor to Legend and Anniversary than its innovation-attempting, though often misguided, sibling.

Kraken dispatched, Lara must swim — rather than free-climb — her way to the room containing the first of Thor’s gauntlets, where the rest of the action plays out pretty much identically to that of the next-gen Underworld.

Given their absence from the Kraken room, I’d assumed that this version of the game just couldn’t do columns, but it turns out that they play the usual part in helping Lara make her escape from Niflheim after the Attack of the Goons. (They just had to be Irish, didn’t they?) The free-climbing walls, however, are definitely a no-show.

Unlike the next-gen version of the game, the treasures strewn throughout the world are all identical. They seem, in fact, to be the Midas statue-created gold bars from Anniversary — which serves to underscore how much of an afterthought this version of Underworld is. Reusing assets is a complete cop-out.

Much like her journey to the bottom of the Mediterranean, Lara’s journey back to the surface is truncated in this version of the game. Quite abruptly, she’s back on her yacht — and then, just as abruptly, she’s on Amanda’s ship, kicking off a level replete with the single most atrocious skybox I have ever had the misfortune to lay eyes upon. It’s truly, irredeemably hideous.

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Interestingly, Lara’s health regenerates when she takes damage in this version of the game. It’s quite a progressive feature, and particularly surprising given that the next-gen game resorts to the standard medipacks to provide health.

After discovering — or, more appropriately, re-discovering — the true villain of the tale, escaping the burning, seafloor-bound ship, and retrieving Thor’s gauntlet for the second time that day, Lara heads off to the seventh parallel north, and the west coast of Thailand.

Unfortunately forgetting that you had to save your game manually back in the days of yore, I decided to take a break before setting out again. With much self-loathing, I found myself having to start the game again.

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The opening of the Thailand expedition, one of Underworld’s most visually arresting areas on PS3, is nowhere near as pleasing to the eyes in this version of the game. Also missing from the beginning of the level, and all those that follow, is the ability to choose Lara’s costume and secondary weapon.

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Starting the journey inland, which is, again, one of many ledges, it’s clear just what the power of the then-next-gen consoles brought to Underworld. Like the floor of the Mediterranean Sea before it, Thailand is incredibly bare. The differences here are not just limited to the visuals, though — the journey to the temple is different, and so too is the Shiva-Kāli puzzle.

It is, to put it bluntly, ridiculously simple — a matter of simply pulling levers and running along corridors.

Gone is the sense of the temple’s scale, along with the vast majority of the Nāga. The ‘snake people’ are reserved for a single appearance in a sort of boss battle in a room beneath the Shiva-Kāli statue, completely new to the players of the next-gen Underworld. It’s simply not there in that version of the game.

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Following the battle, Lara moves on to the Niflheim-like architecture, reaching it, it feels, much quicker than usual. The reason for this is revealed a few steps further: a huge section of the level is missing, allowing Lara to reach the ‘Thor’ door much sooner than she would normally have done.

At this point, the game suffered what can only be described as the digital equivalent of a panic attack. When Thor’s gauntlet started to glow, the on-screen action slowed to a crawl, giving the game a feeling of being played in slow motion.

After the cutscene in which Lara finds the message to Natla, the puzzle to exit the room is largely identical to that of the next-gen game, barring the absence of the grapple rings on the sides of the bridge which, here, have been replaced by poles for Lara to swing on. (One does marvel at the foresight of ancient architects.)

The musical cue heard as you begin to solve the puzzle is totally absent from this version of the game. While I missed the smaller cues earlier-on, I was genuinely gutted by this omission. That particular piece of Underworld’s soundtrack is a strong contender for my favourite piece of game soundtrack ever. Given that Lara has just made quite a major discovery, guiding her back to her yacht with that score filling your ears feels nothing short of epic. Thankfully, the blow is somewhat softened by the fact that the soundtrack for the Thai expedition’s final cutscene — which is one of my personal favourites — is just as present as ever.

Building on the theme of this game being different from the next-gen version, the section of the story set in the catacombs beneath Croft Manor is virtually unrecognisable. It’s concluding puzzle is still present, albeit in a slightly altered state. You can appreciate the fact that that particular puzzle was designed with next-gen lighting in mind — here, it feels out of place. Inappropriate.

Puzzle solved and Gauntlet #2 attained, we are finally treated to the full version of the game’s opening, where, ‘Drop it, Zip, or I’ll drop you!’ remains just as badass as ever. I must admit, part of me wishes that Lara had been forced to ‘drop’ Zip at this point. It may seem cruel, but I liked Zip in Legend, yet, here, he comes across as… well, a bit of an asshole. I’d much rather he had got the chop than Alister — whose death genuinely took me aback when I first watched it unfold all those years ago. I really didn’t see it coming.

Strangely, the cutscene following said demise — home of the fantastic, ‘I need Thor’s belt to get his hammer, and I need the hammer to kill a god!’ — seems to be taken directly from the next-gen game. It is, however, blurred and choppy. The youth of today might wonder if it was filmed with a potato.

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And so we continue on to Mexico, the opening of which is a triumphant return to form for the game’s lacklustre visuals. ‘Land of the Dead’, indeed. Like Thailand, the path along which Lara rides her bike — pictured above — is almost offensively barren.

The level differs in a technical level, too, with some climbing I don’t remember having done in the PS3 version. Past that, though, Lara comes to an area that I do remember from before. Here, though, the game’s controls — consistently choppy though they are — really started to get on my nerves. I cannot count the number of times Lara leapt off in random directions, or simply dropped off ledges for reasons known only to herself — and the final, diagonal lump from beam-like outcrop to beam-like outcrop proved near impossible. In the end, I resorted to consulting YouTube to figure out if I was doing something wrong. I wasn’t. Lara simply refused to make the jump.

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However, I must point out that there is something of a caveat to this — and, I suppose, all my complaints about the game’s controls. I wasn’t using an official DualShock 2 controller, but one purchase for a fraction of the price many, many years ago. It certainly feels cheaper than the DualShock it attempts to emulate, and so I can’t be sure whether the controls are quite as responsive. Part of me hopes the controller was at fault, because I can’t imagine how this version of Underworld made it through quality control otherwise.

Beyond that nightmare of a jump — finally — Lara comes to an unfamiliar system of caves, which themselves lead to an incredibly dark area where I was surprised, thinking it absent from the game, to find Lara’s PLS activate of its own accord. It’s strange that you don’t have control over it in this version of the game, but its a welcome development all the same.

An issue throughout the game, but prevalent in Mexico, is that switch-based doors take an obnoxiously long time to open. Presumably, this is because whatever lies beyond said doors needs time to load, but it’s still rather unpleasant.

A few unfamiliar bike puzzles — if they can even be called such — and just the one Mayan Calendar puzzle later, the entrance to Xibalba is revealed. There is no timer here, which is very fortunate. I doubt it would be possible to make it to the entrance in time with this game’s control issues — again, whether they are the fault of the game or not.

Narrowly avoiding being impaled in a nasty-looking, spike-filled pit, Lara begins her descent into the Place of Fear. A very apt name that — given what I’d experienced of the game thus far, I was terrified.

Interestingly, the Lords of Xibalba throne room comes replete with an eitr-fall and pool of the stuff. It’s a significant departure from the next-gen version of this area, which is considerably less colourful, and makes, in my opinion, for a more visually pleasing experience. Had it been present, this area would have been gorgeous on PS3.

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Continuing with the adventure, the first trap room I send Lara into takes me completely by surprise. Entirely different than anything to be found in the next-gen game, it takes the form of a frozen, icy series of chambers, which go on for quite some time. It’s utterly bizarre, this, and yet, given the abundance of climbing to be found within, very satisfying for the classic Tomb Raider fan in me.

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Upon emerging from it, the reason for the extraordinary length of the frozen trap room becomes apparent. It’s the only one. Multiple rooms, each with different hazards, were present on PS3. I can’t help but wonder if these considerably less complex areas are a direct consequence of how poorly the game handles. The original throne room, I remember, featured quite a lot of tricky manoeuvring — I can’t imagine it being possible in this version.

Given that they aren’t arranged around a table, here, the path forward is different. To reveal it, Lara stops the flow of the eitr-fall before travelling down a passage revealed at the bottom of the subsequently drained pool. Simplistic puzzle aside, I think I prefer this. The infinitely more pleasing visuals more than make up for the relative lack of complexity.

A little way along the tunnel beneath, Lara comes across a Mayan thrall not present in the next-gen Underworld, and considerably more terrifying-looking than any of the reanimated dead found there.

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Following another relatively simplistic descent — one that is, owing to the clunkiness of the controls, rendered hideously tricky — Lara finally arrives at the room containing Thor’s belt. Again, the puzzle here is vastly more straightforward. Like the throne room, I remember the next-gen incarnation of this area being notoriously tricky. Again, I can’t help but wonder if the dodgy controls influenced this lack of complexity.

Additionally — and I’m more than aware of what a fussy point this is to make — it’s odd that one of the Mayan-style switches found throughout the temple above is present here, in the Norse ruins beneath. I suppose the Norse architects were just using some more of that incredible foresight they displayed in Thailand.

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Megingjörd obtained, Lara Xi-bails on Xibalba — taking a different route than the one seen in the next-gen game — and heads off to Jan Mayen Island.

Here, an unfamiliar, Legend-esque bike section follows the opening cutscene. It leads, of course, to Valgrind, the opening of which, at first glance, looks to be identical to the next-gen version, but is, in reality, pathetically simplified. In fact, that might be considered something of an understatement. Solving the puzzle is a matter of rotating the base of the structure — that, and nothing more.

‘Old is that gate, and how to unbolt it, few now know…’

Yeah… just push that thing over there! Sorted.

The labyrinth of Valhalla is reduced to a series of corridors and pits which Lara must negotiate on her bike. It can be tricky, owing to the jerkiness of the bike’s handling, but still takes little more than a minute to get through.

The Hall of Mjölnir and its swinging hammers suffers in this version of the game, too, though not as much as you might expect. There’s simply less for Lara to do — although what is there is very familiar. Familiarity aside, the areas feels, mechanically, like a bad, bad joke. Navigating it is the stuff of nightmares, and when, finally, you manage to best it, the final cutscene — featuring Lara’s retrieval of Mjölnir — feels a lot less epic than its next-gen counterpart. It does try, but the lack of swirling mist and the absence of most of the lightning makes for a rather flat spectacle.

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Nevertheless, Lara has the hammer, and, as before, it’s time to pay Natla a visit.

In the next-gen Underworld, the ship sequence with Mjölnir took place on a rainy, windswept night. In this version, however, the designers completely reuse the setting for the earlier level set on the ship’s now-slowly-rusting-at-the-bottom-of-the-Mediterranean sister, horrible skybox and all.

Downgraded graphics or no, however, the climactic cinematic in which Lara totally loses control and destroys Natla’s cell is just as epic as ever. It’s one of the best moments Crystal’s games have to offer.

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Arriving, at last, in the Arctic, our polygonally challenged Lara has a much, much easier time of getting to Helheim than her HD counterpart. She simply swims on in, bypassing the giant statues that form part of a lengthy puzzle in the next-gen Underworld. Half-a-corridor later, she arrives in the Ritual Chamber, which is near-identical to the one I remember, and which — after the comparative lack of enemies throughout this version of the game — I was surprised to find still houses a Yeti thrall to deal with (though, admittedly, just the one).

It’s not long before Lara discovers, finally, the truth of her mother’s fate. I still love that there is no corny reunion scene here, that, as Amelia falls, there is no last-moment glint of recognition in her empty, dead eyes. It’s a cold, heartless resolution to the central mystery of Legend, Anniversary and Underworld, and, in my opinion, one of the story team’s best moves. However, I do think that the scene should have been interactive — after all that build-up, it would have been just that bit more devastating to be forced to deal the killing blow ourselves.

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And so, with the main storyline of Crystal’s trilogy having at last reached its conclusion, Lara sets out to exact revenge upon that winged bitch, Natla.

Reaching the Jörmungandr device, the game once again has a panic attack and shifts into slow-motion. It simply doesn’t seem able to handle the sudden shift in visuals. Thankfully, though, it soon rights itself, and the final battle ensues. It feels a lot shorter than before — which may be because I knew, this time, exactly what Lara needs to do — and features and incredible oversight on the part of the developers. Every now and then, the game shifts into slow-motion — deliberate, this time — as Natla hurls a fiery ball of death in Lara’s direction. It wouldn’t be bothersome at all, if it weren’t for the fact that the image blurs to the point of insanity each time it happens. Very nearly rendering the section unplayable, this, above all else, reeks of incompetence.

When all is said and done, and Lara and Amanda have managed to make their escape, the game once again features a cutscene taken straight from the next-gen version. I suppose the developers wanted to end the game on a visual high. God knows it needed it.

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Complete at last, PS2 Underworld throws one final ‘WTF?!’ in our direction by featuring music from Anniversary over the credits. And that, as they say, is that.

I must admit, despite its outright hideousness in places, the Tomb Raider fan in me had a lot of fun with this game. It really was, as I had hoped, like playing a different version of Underworld, one that, mechanically at least, feels closer to its predecessors.

While I do feel that certain bits and pieces of it would have made the next-gen Underworld a fuller, more enjoyable game, though, I really cannot, in good conscience, refute the fact that then-last-gen players were given the short end of the stick with Underworld — the stick itself little more than a collection of splinters, having been walked on, run over by several large vehicles, and chewed within an inch of existence by several overzealous canines. This version of the game feels like an afterthought. There’s simply no getting around its inferiority.

In the end, though, you might, like me, enjoy it if you’re a Tomb Raider fan in search of some nostalgia with a twist, but the casual player should, unfortunately, avoid this version of Underworld. Like the plague.

Fin.


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