Joystiq E3 hands-on: Tomb Raider: Underworld

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Joystiq E3 hands-on: Tomb Raider: Underworld

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The room is stuffed with a handful of game journalists. It's dark. Drifting from the (very nice) speaker system are the sounds of ocean waves lapping against a boat. On screen, Lara Croft stands on the wooden deck wearing scuba gear. Thrifty girl that she is, it looks like Lara didn't want to spring for a wetsuit with legs in it. Apparently not worried by the deep cold of the ocean, she dives into the water. It's time for me to play Tomb Raider Underworld.
The underwater world is wide and open. Sharks are swimming nearby. One of them charges Lara, no doubt drawn in by the tasty proposition of her svelte, uncovered legs. Thankfully, Lara's packing. A few shots with a harpoon gun and the shark is dispatched. For those who don't want to kill the exotic animals (and humans) in Tomb Raider: Underworld, assistant producer Adam Phillips tells me that players can also use a tranquilizer gun. And then, there it is, the reason for this briny adventure, a stone ruin.

Naturally, the entrance to the ruin is closed. Blocked, to be more precise, by a giant gate comprised of three golden wheels, each adorned with several eye glyphs. A puzzle! The solution looks simple enough, just align the three open eye glyphs in the center. Of course, only one of the wheels has the axle needed to turn it, so I have to go find the other two. The first one is in a cave directly outside the ruin's entrance. Easy. The other one isn't as obvious.

Thankfully, Lara has a new trick to help her find them. Bringing up the pause menu, I activate a 3D map. Acting like sonar, I ping the local area and the map assembles itself around Lara. It turns out there is another cave, though it is obscured by seaweed, which explains why I couldn't see it before. I go nab the third axle and bring it back to the golden wheels, align them, and watch the ancient machinery grind the door open. It's all very spectacular.

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Inside, Lara finally finds dry land. Pulling out of the water, she emerges into a cavernous chamber with a giant doorway at the end. One problem: the doorway is blocked by a humongous Kraken. There is a large spiked platform hanging above the Kraken. That looks like it will come in handy later. There are two bridges extending to the platform from either side, holding it in place. They will have to be retracted before I can make use of it.

Assistant producer Adam Phillips explains that each level in Tomb Raider: Underworld contains one large, overarching puzzle that is composed of several smaller puzzles. The small puzzles can be solved in any order, giving the game a certain degree of non-linearity. In this case I have to decide which bridge I want to retract first. I opt for the right one.

I start climbing a stone wall, making my way to the top of the chamber. I direct Lara to some hanging stalactites and leap to grab one. The leap to the next stalactite misses by a mile, sending Lara sprawling to the chamber floor. I expected Lara to more or less home in on the next one, but no. No matter though, as I find another entrance to the gear chamber that works the right bridge. Phillips explains that there are multiple routes to the puzzles in Tomb Raider: Underworld. Oh, good.

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He also takes a moment to explain that Lara grows progressively dirtier as she gallivants about in the game's eponymous tombs. This is plainly evident as Lara's legs, arms, and face are streaked with dirt and grit. So yeah, um, Lara gets dirty now.

Anyway, I was solving a puzzle. The Kraken, it turns out, is strangling the machinery that runs the bridges, so I whip out the magnetic grapple to pull out a support ring in a stone column. The column tumbles, crushing the Kraken's tentacle, forcing it to withdraw. I set the gears in motion and make my way to the other gear chamber.

Before arriving at the gear chamber, the Kraken assaults Lara with whip of its tentacle. At this point, Lara's "adrenaline" kicks in, which slows down the gameplay, allowing players to focus on the action and make a quick decision. Phillips explains that this is a way to implement the fast thinking gameplay of a quick time event that still keeps control in the hands of the player. A deft leap and the tentacle misses Lara's legs by inches and subsequently destroys the platform I was standing on. Once in the opposite gear chamber, I solve a similar puzzle and am finally free to release the spiky platform and drop it on the Kraken.

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Of course, once Lara flips the switch, the Kraken decides it would rather live and gums up the platform's counterweight chains with its tentacles. No matter, as Lara is capable of taking out the chains with her trusty pistols. The platform crashes down on the Kraken, crushing it and clearing the way forward. On that climactic note, my demo is over.

Improving on and adding to the already solid foundation in Tomb Raider: Legend, Underworld looks to be another great entry in the recently revitalized franchise. Look for it on 360, PS3, PC, Wii, PS2 and DS starting November. 18.
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