For all the bruisings, beatings and impalings that Lara Croft endures in the recent rebooted trilogy, the real victim was Tomb Raider’s sense of scale. Everything became crushed down to deliver fidelity. There were temples, sure, but you viewed them from cramped tunnels as you scurried past guards, and towering structures were only seen from the extreme close-up of a climbing wall or the long-distance photo op as you were shepherded along ziplines. Yamatai, Siberia and Peru are vast landscapes you view from a thin corridor of interaction. And even then control is wrestled away with endless QTEs. Returning to Tomb Raider: Underworld’s gargantuan locations is like stepping off an EasyJet flight and feeling the blood rush back to your ankles.
The opening level has you diving to the seabed and watching a temple loom out of the murk. Later there’s a temple entrance so big you need to use a motorbike to navigate smaller temples around the outside of it. You are free to circle these warrens of nooks and crannies and poke around in them to find trinkets. They are worlds you can explore, with potential for missing entire parts. Back in modern Raider there are wind chimes attached to the doors of hidden tombs, in case they go accidentally unraided.
Inside Underworld’s seabed tomb you discover platforming that, while a little rigid after the lithe animation of new Lara, still has some give to it. It’s possible to leap and grab for grips that lead you to unhelpful places. Or maybe a place stuffed with treasure. As a result, you have to read the environment and plan a route around its handholds and platform edges. Post-2013, the challenge became about identifying the grips and holding a stick as Lara scrambles up them. Hint: the grips are the bits slathered in white paint. One is a test of platforming prowess, the other is a game of ‘can you identify paint’. I know which I prefer.
To be fair to it, Underworld definitely feels clunkier now. The camera struggles to frame its free-roaming Croft, the checkpoints are eons apart and the combat is dead on arrival. What I’d give for the polish and snap of new Raider, married to the level design of Underworld. I want to look up a giant, clanking contraptions and ponder how the hell I’m going to get Lara through them alive. I don’t want to die at the hands of a surprise Quick Time Event, but because my fumbling digits couldn’t guide her to safety. There’s a middle ground to be found, for sure; but until someone takes a punt on it, I’m setting up camp in the massive playgrounds of old.
Glub glub glub. (Note: this is the sound of me drowning, having set up camp on the seabed).