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Retrospective: Tomb Raider: Underworld

Welcome back to Survivor Reborn. Today, we’re taking a look back at the explosive finale to Crystal Dynamics’ reboot trilogy – begun with Tomb Raider: Legend, fleshed-out by events in Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and concluded by Tomb Raider: Underworld.

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Tomb Raider: Underworld, the ninth title in the Tomb Raider franchise, debuted in November 2008 on the Xbox 360, Windows, and on the PlayStation 3 (the first Tomb Raider title ever to do so). It was the final title to be released under the publisher Eidos Interactive; in 2009, the rights were sold to Japanese-based Square Enix. The game concluded a story arc that had begun with 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, and tied up some loose plot elements that had been revealed in 2007’s Tomb Raider: Anniversary.

 

Underworld uncovered

Tomb Raider: Underworld picked up the story from where Legend left off. Following the revelations at the end of Legend, Lara Croft had become convinced that her mother, instead of dying years beforehand, had been transported to the – supposedly – mythical paradise of Avalon. To that end, Lara pored over her father’s research and met with one of his former colleagues – all of which led her to an isolated spot in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in search of a lost entrance to Avalon.

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The infamous Underpus – quite cuddly when you get to know him

Diving beneath the waves, Lara discovered the doorway to Niflheim, “not Avalon exactly, but the Norse equivalent,” guarded by a blind but deadly kraken. After defeating this hazard, she found a curious gauntlet-like artefact that fitted itself to her left hand. Her study of the chamber’s inscriptions suggested that the device was one of Thor’s gauntlets – a necessary component of his ability to wield Mjolnir, the Hammer of the Gods. She had certainly found something down here in Niflheim, but it was not her mother or Avalon.

Lara’s ruminations were interrupted by a gang of mercenaries who stole the gauntlet and used explosives to collapse the chamber. Lara escaped and tracked them back to a large ship anchored near to her own yacht. Once on board, Lara made her way down into the hold – getting into a fire-fight in the process. An explosion scuppered the ship, but before it sank Lara managed to glimpse Amanda Evert fuming because the gauntlet had bound itself to Lara and was useless to anyone else. Her conversational partner turned out to be none other than Natla – fully restored from the trauma Lara had inflicted upon her years beforehand, and now, apparently, Amanda’s prisoner and adviser.

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Cool as a cucumber, figuratively AND literally

Natla seemed to take grim delight in seeing Lara again, although the feeling was hardly mutual. Natla had been the one who told Amanda about Avalon, and the daises with their swords. Natla revealed to Lara that her mother had been sent, not to Avalon, but the Norse underworld of Helheim – the icy twin to Niflheim. Natla also told Lara that Richard Croft had concluded that only Thor’s legendary hammer, Mjolnir, could open the way to Helheim; he had spent his last days searching for the hammer, and the gauntlets and belt needed to wield it. Natla mused that Lara might have better luck finding the artefacts than he did, and suggested that she begin her search on the western coast of Thailand. Their conversation was suddenly cut short when Natla’s containment cell was airlifted to safety, and Lara rushed to escape the doomed ship. As she fled, she spotted Amanda making her own escape via helicopter; Lara’s rival promptly hurled the gauntlet into the sea to distract Lara from shooting her. Recovering the artefact, Lara resolved to follow Natla’s – and her father’s – trail to Thailand in search of the second gauntlet.

In Thailand, Lara discovered another forgotten underworld – the Hindu realm of Bhogavati – deep within a ruined temple complex. The gauntlet she now wore on her left hand came alive as she neared the heart of the complex, and allowed her to effortlessly manoeuvre massive stone pillars as she wished. She also discovered a partially-destroyed map and a plinth for the second of Thor’s gauntlets – but no gauntlet. Instead, she found an inscription etched by her father: “Natla. I see your goal and am your puppet no longer. R. J. C.” Realising that the inscription was a coded reference to Lara’s grandfather, Lara returned to Croft Manor in the knowledge that her father had indeed found the second gauntlet and the means to finding his hammer, but didn’t want Natla to know about it.

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Ever wonder where Lara got her penchant for destroying priceless archaeological sites? Wonder no more…

Back home, Lara descended into the crypts and catacombs beneath Croft Manor. There, she discovered her father’s secret stash of artefacts and information about Thor’s gauntlets and Mjolnir. She also found a photograph of the original map, showing that Thor’s belt was hidden in Southern Mexico, and his hammer was on Jan Mayan island. Whilst listening to a tape recording from her father, Lara activated the second gauntlet and placed it on her right hand. She also battled several thralls – reanimated guardians of the gauntlet – that her father had also shipped in from Thailand.

As Lara was making her way back to Zip and Alister, an explosion rocked the manor to its foundations. Horrified, Lara fought her way through the burning building and was almost shot dead by Zip. Barely held back by Winston, Zip angrily claimed that Lara – or someone with an identical retinal scan – had opened the vault containing Amanda’s Wraith Stone and then set off explosives. Having calmed but not convinced Zip of her innocence, Lara ventured into the tech room to check the security feed and to look for Alister. There, she was confronted by her Doppleganger – a leather-clad, preternaturally fast, and deadly copy of herself. The Doppleganger overcame Lara and shot a hapless Alister, before fleeing the manor grounds without a trace.

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She’s creepy and she’s kooky, mysterious and… oh-so badass

To Zip and Winston’s dismay, Lara resolved to go to Mexico to find Thor’s belt and continue the search for his hammer. Coldly, she explained that only by pursuing her quest to its end would she have the means to learn the truth about her mother, and the means to destroy Natla – the puppet-master who had created, and presumably controlled, the Doppleganger – for good.

In a rain-soaked Mexican jungle, Lara discovered the way down into yet another so-called mythical underworld – Xibalba. Deep beneath its devious trap rooms, Lara encountered more undead thralls guarding Thor’s belt. She also discovered bas-relief carvings depicting Ragnarok, the final battle at the end of the world, where Thor would slay Jörmungandr, the monstrous serpent who encircles the Earth, before dying from its venom. Dodging thralls and pools of Eitr – ‘the Midgard Serpent’s venom’ – Lara managed to secure Thor’s belt. She was now equipped to track down Thor’s hammer.

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Norse-rune blue is soooo your colour

Lara finally recovered Mjolnir from its icy, Jotun-haunted labyrinth on the island of Jan Mayan. Equipped with the power of the Thunder God, Lara stormed (ba-dum-tsss) Amanda’s new ship, anchored in the Andaman Sea, and confronted Natla – demanding to know the location of Avalon/Helheim. Natla, smug as always, pointed out that possessing Mjolnir was not enough to open the way – that Lara would need someone of a Natla-ish persuasion to also perform the opening ritual. Furious but with little choice, Lara accepted Natla’s offer and made her way to Helheim’s coordinates under the Arctic ice.

Having swum and fought her way down into its icy depths, Lara and Natla together managed to open the entrance to Helheim. On the other side, Lara was shocked to discover a distant figure who resembled her long-lost mother, Amelia Croft. However, Lara’s hope turned to heartbreak as she realised that the figure of her mother was actually an undead thrall. After dispatching Amelia’s remains, Lara was treated to Natla’s self-satisfied explanation of how she had deliberately played upon Richard Croft’s loss of his wife to get him to find Thor’s artefacts. When Richard betrayed her – and died for his treason – Natla turned to Lara, who fulfilled the quest to find Mjolnir and allowed Natla to access Helheim.

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Hold still, or you won’t get to hear my fiendishly cunning plan!

Lara overcame the Doppleganger with the help of, of all people, Amanda. Amanda was in no mood to help Lara, but only Thor’s hammer could stop the device that Natla was, even now, stirring into life. That device was Jörmungandr – the Midgard Serpent – or more precisely, the chain of undersea volcanoes and mid-ocean ridges that encircle the globe. When activated, Jörmungandr would split apart the very seams of the planet and spew poison and ash into the atmosphere. It would be Ragnarok, the end of the world.

Not, of course, if Lara had anything to say about it. Lara pursued Natla to the Jörmungandr chamber, where she managed to disable the device despite Natla’s relentless assaults. Just when it seemed Natla might still prevail, Lara struck her with Mjolnir and plunged her into the boiling Eitr.

Lara rendezvoused with Amanda, who pointed out that, “the good news is we saved the world. The bad news is now we’re gonna die here.” However, Lara realised that they could use the dais teleport-device that had brought her mother to Helheim in order to escape. The device was broken, and only by cooperating could Amanda and Lara make it work. After a tense moment, Amanda conceded and the two women were teleported back to the temple in Nepal. There, Lara and Amanda parted company, and Lara could finally lay her family’s past to rest.

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Seriously Amanda, you’re STILL pissed at the woman who just saved your life??

 

Alternate ending

PC and PlayStation 2 players were able to access an alternate, extended ending to the story. In this version, Lara and Amanda are shown walking away from the temple in a blizzard, only for Amanda to try and attack Lara from behind with a rock. Lara shoots her before she can strike, and leaves her injured and dying in the snow. It is a far colder (no pun intended) ending, which shows Lara’s utter lack of mercy for her treacherous former rival.

 

Beneath the Ashes and Lara’s Shadow

These two Xbox-exclusive chapters follow on from Underworld. In Beneath the Ashes, Lara was shown rooting through her father’s artefacts and documents under Croft Manor. After discovering hidden catacombs beneath the foundations, and battling their many hazards, Lara encountered an artefact whose inscriptions – when spoken aloud – could control thralls.

In Lara’s Shadow, we played as Lara’s Doppleganger after she was flung unceremoniously into a pit during her duel with Lara in Helheim. The Doppleganger is both stronger and swifter than Lara, with multiple new forms of attack and acrobatic skills. We followed her as Natla (surprise, surprise, she survived her dunk in the Eitr…) ordered her to restore power to a hibernation/regeneration chamber so she could metaphorically pull the covers over her head and wake up when human civilisation is a little less bothersome. After restoring power to the device, Natla ordered the Doppleganger to kill Lara – and then terminate her own existence.

The two chapters culminated under Croft Manor, where Lara found the thrall-controlling artefact. As the Doppleganger attacked, Lara uttered the words and gained control over her. Upon discovering that the Doppleganger was actually little more than a slave, Lara ordered her to ignore all future commands. The Doppleganger then returned to Helheim and sabotaged Natla’s hibernation chamber. Natla became trapped under the wreckage in a rising pool of boiling Eitr. The Doppleganger calmly looked on, refusing to help free her former mistress, even as Natla slowly drowned in the corrosive liquid. Immortality never looked so unappealing…

 

Rounding off a trilogy

The development of Tomb Raider: Underworld took two and a half years, and began while Tomb Raider: Legend was in its final submission phase. Writer and director Eric Lindstrom once described the project as a “juggernaut”, with many complications during preproduction that caused no end of headaches to the production team. However, the team was able to implement new features and improvements into what was fundamentally the same engine as that used in Tomb Raider: Legend. These new features included a more versatile grappling hook with real-world physics (like the ability to be pulled taut to move heavy objects), picks-ups with multiple uses (e.g. poles for climbing and combat), a melee system, duel targeting, and ‘adrenaline moments’ to replace QTEs.

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Dispatching two enemies at once with the new duel targeting system

Lara’s movements received a considerable upgrade, with motion-captured acrobatics courtesy of Olympic gymnast Heidi Moneymaker. She could chimney-jump, shoot whilst climbing, and perform adrenaline-fulled head-shots to instantly take down tough opponents. Tomb Raider: Underworld marked the final time that a Tomb Raider title made use of an official real-life Lara Croft as part of its marketing strategy. Professional gymnast Alison Carroll was the final real-life Lara model, and held the post from 2008 to 2010, when the publishers discontinued the practise.

Tomb Raider: Underworld also saw the welcome return of Lara’s motorbike; unlike the previous Crystal Dynamics’ use of vehicles, the motorbike that appeared in Underworld’s Southern Mexico and Jan Mayan island levels was completely under player control, and could be mounted or dismounted at will. Secrets now took the form of Treasures and once-per-level Relics – finding all six Relics resulted in a vastly-increased health bar.

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Environments and Lara’s movements had never looked so good

Actress Keeley Hawes returned to voice Lara, alongside Kath Soucie as Amanda, Grey Griffin as Natla, Alex Desert as Zip, Jonny Rees as Alister, and Alan Shearman as Winston. Amongst the rest of the crew, Toby Gard returned to assist with writing the story alongside Eric Lindstrom, and Colin O’Malley joined Troels Folmann to create the score and sound effects.

 

Reception and reviews

Reviews for Underworld were mixed. At one end of the scale was GameSpot with 5.5/10, with comments such as ‘”far too easy”, “forgettable story and simple characterisation”, “[a] competent but underwhelming platform game that has little to offer fans of the genre”. However, most reviews were positive, such as GamesRadar’s 4.5/5 stars, stating that the game was “doing what made the original great, and adding a considerable face-lift”.

Reviews of the game’s environments, motion-captured movements, and less-linear gameplay were generally highly praised, but combat and a rather dodgy camera system were less impressive. The most heavily-criticised versions were those made for the Wii and PS2, which were full of conversion errors and bugs. Despite initially sluggish sales, as of February 2009, Eidos reported sales of around 2.6 million units worldwide.

 

Controversies

Tomb Raider: Underworld, like many titles before and since, had its fair share of controversies. Apart from the flawed PS2 and Wii conversions, Eidos came under fire for a move to deliberately manipulate review scores prior to the game’s release. The aim had been to improve sales and not ‘put off’ potential buyers with low review scores. As detailed in this article from Ars Technica, Eidos attempted to block all advanced reviews that gave the game any rating lower than 8/10. However, this tactic backfired dramatically when GameSpot UK editor Guy Cocker mentioned Eidos’ decision on Twitter, which Eidos later admitted was true.

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Eidos’ PR department was never going to do well with these two in charge

Despite the problems, Tomb Raider: Underworld had many things going for it – not least its beautiful environments and refined movement system. Lara Croft had never been so athletic, and the inclusion of characters such as the Doppleganger and Natla – on top form as a smoldering super-villain – generated a lot of fan interest. The story arc begun in Legend finally found closure in Underworld, and it was now time for Crystal Dynamics to step back and decide where they could, and should, take the Tomb Raider franchise next.

What are your thoughts about Tomb Raider: Underworld? Do you have a favourite level, character, or plot twist? Let us know over on the Survivor Reborn forums!

 

Article written and images courtesy of J. R. Milward.

With huge thanks, as always, to Stella’s Tomb Raider site.

 

References


Retrospective: Tomb Raider: Underworld by J. R. Milward / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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About jrmilward (21 Articles)
Researcher, writer, editor, proofreader, voice actress, science graduate.

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