There are few video game titles that have had the success of the Tomb Raider series.
Having first graced the Sega Saturn in 1996, and shuffled quickly on to the immensely popular PlayStation platform (as well as PC) the iconic Lara Croft has been responsible for more than 35 million game sales worldwide.
Although the series has taken a dive of late, notably with the rather mediocre Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness - and even Angelina Jolie seems to be rather more preoccupied with raiding wombs, the series lives on in Tomb Raider: Underworld.
Developed by Crystal Dynamics (anyone remember Legacy of Kain?) Underworld follows the time honoured tradition inherent in any good Tomb Raider game; a breathlessly active and dangerously attractive heroine, scores of puzzles to solve, and spectacular scenery to impress the player. Unlike most Tomb Raider games, this one is actually pretty good.
Lara is back, of course, and voiced by the very able Keeley Hawes, and if staring at her for hours at a time isn't enough, you'll be treated to some of the largest and most detailed environments ever seen in any adventure game, period. There's something about walking into an area and not having the slightest clue of the scope of the challenge ahead of you - the caverns in Underworld are voluminous, the ambient sound is detailed and accurate, and coupled with Lara's enhanced freedom of movement (wall jumps are finally now possible) you're not going to tire of Underworld in a hurry.
One aspect that probably could have done with a bit more attention is the testing period. Namely, Underworld probably should have had one. It's not as if the bugs are necessarily game-breaking, rather that they're frustrating and detract from fluid enjoyment. You can get stuck in the environment, and some textures may appear to exist as solid platforms but instead offer you nothing but a long plunge (followed by a reload of your last checkpoint). The camera angles do little to assist here either, often following Lara instead of showing you the area you're traversing instead. Come to think of it, camera angles have always been somewhat dubious in the Tomb Raider series, so fans probably won't be put off, but casual gamers will lament silly bugs such as invisible walls that appear from time to time.
The storyline does an adequate job of carrying the gameplay - it's not intrusive, and without spoiling too much, there's Norse treasure to be found at the bottom of the Mediterranean Ocean, and through various twists and turns the outcome sets the series up for yet another sequel.
Lara is still chasing her mother, so everything is as you'd expect, and there aren't any major revelations likely to offend purists.
The character acting is superb however, probably the most polished so far, and although it's packed with Hollywood clichés, it just wouldn't be Tomb Raider without them, so deducting points for cheese would be unfair.
Sadly, combat is in need of some polish. The auto-aim feature feels like it was designed by Helen Keller, and the AI make some highly questionable decisions. I know that if my life were at risk, I'd hardly stand out in the open shooting when there's ample cover nearby. The incidental characters you'll come across haven't had anywhere near the level of developmental attention as Lara, and it shows. Same too for the monsters - they're just not as big, or as nasty as you'd expect, and despite one or two notable exceptions, aren't quite able to capture the feeling of previous titles.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Tomb Raider: Underworld therefore is somewhat of a disappointment. After all, Croft Manor doesn't even make an appearance. No, despite a number of faults, Crystal Dynamics have managed to created an enthralling game and inject a bit of life back into the franchise. The puzzles alone are brilliant - they're not mind-bendingly hard, yet allow you to progress without feeling patronised. The attention to detail - particularly with Lara's character animations and expressions - is fantastic, and it's all tied together with compelling cut scenes full of interesting history-related banter.
Tomb Raider: Underword manages to impress on so many levels. It's tremendous fun as a standalone title, and once you've factored in the Tomb Raider lore you can't go wrong. Although most will complete the story in around six hours, there's a great deal of time required to explore every part of the world, and therefore replayability rates highly.
We can only hope the Uncharted development team are paying attention.