It's been something of a bumper year for fans of creaky, past-their-prime archaelogists. Not only have they been treated to an unbelievably rubbish return from arch treasure hunter Indiana Jones but now they also have an arthiritic showing from Lara Croft to keep them busy.
After many years of the doldrums, Lara's last two offerings (Legend and Anniversary) returned a little spring to the old gal's step. The former successfully took the franchise back to basics after the dismal Angel Of Darkness, while the latter skilfully remade the first, and best, game in the series. Alas, picking up directly where Legend left off, Underworld, is a bit of a mess - glitchy, unfinished and tired.
The plot sees Lara traversing the globe in search of Thor's Hammer while continuing to look into the fate of her parents. Naturally, she's pursued by the requisite ration of no-good goons, with a few old faces popping up along the way too.
Prior to release, Eidos some pretty bold claims that Underworld was really going to push the series forward, with the game going down a less linear, more free-roaming path, with context-sensitive environments and more realistic approach to puzzle-solving. Some of these promised innovations do indeed add to the formula. Lara moves beautifully and reacts to her environments more realistically than ever. For the first time, she's fully motion-captured, so she'll hop over logs without being prompted, duck under obstacles and even occasionally stumble when sprinting through a level.
Similarly, she has more freedom of movement than ever. She can now free climb up walls in eight directions, perform Mario-esque wall jumps and swing around environments with her grapple. Sure, this is all stuff that the Prince Of Persia franchise has been doing for the past five years or so but nevertheless, progress is progress.
The irritating button-mashing quick-time segments of old have been replaced with some reasonably successful 'adrenaline moments' where the game goes into slo-mo giving Lara time to perform lightning fast evasive manoeuvres, such as leaping out of the way of falling barrels or swinging off a collapsing platform.
That's where the positives end though. As soon as you dive off your boat into the Mediterranean and swim down into the first tomb, it becomes cleat that this is the same old Tomb Raider - linear, rather dated and a touch predictable. Shimmy up wall, jump from platform to platform, flick switch, swing off a pole, pick up item, go through door, shoot poor defenceless tiger, repeat.
There's nothing wrong with that per se. Sure, it's now the eighth time we've slogged through a Tomb Raider title but there was something warm and cosy about the old-school dynamics of Anniversary - it was like sliding your feet into pair of old slippers and sticking on an old re-run of Fawlty Towers. In Underworld though, the game is so glitchy and the camera so irredeemably gimped - it frequently gets stuck behind scenery or jammed in front of Lara's face - that traversing the tombs is often frustrating, with the game sometimes being rendered virtually unplayable.
Underworld reeks of a game that has been crudely shrunk down from its hi-def cousins on other systems and then hastily rushed out in time for Christmas before it can be properly patched up. There's some jarring pop-up, a grim frame-rate and some horrid textures to look forward to here. Occasionally, things come together and there's some fun to be had and hardcore Tomb Raider fans will no doubt derive enjoyment out of the sheer familiarity of it all. Unfortunately though, even the most die-hard Lara enthusiast can't ignore the fact that at times, this is shoddy, antique and hair-tearingly frustrating. It's a shame - Lara deserves much better than this.