It’s easy to write Lara Croft off as just a sleazy centrefold for gaming boys in high need of a social life and actual human contact. But gamers are a notoriously picky bunch, and no number of sexy protagonists will keep a series alive if the games aren’t up to much. Fool them once, shame on you. Fool them twice and they will kick your pathetic franchise to the curb, slinging insults and threats with aplomb. No, to keep a series selling, the games actually need to be good – and that’s exactly why Tomb Raider refuses to die.
OK, looks do have a lot to do with it. Lara will always be an impossibly attractive, athletic woman, and the games will always tease its players with lush environments, mind-boggling, ancient structures and out-of-this-world plots that would leave Indiana Jones salivating. But the real raison d’être for the Tomb Raider games is the sense of exploration and adventure (nicely amplified by Lara’s own wild character), the lure of ancient civilisations’ monolithic temples and the challenge of finding your way around crumbling ruins. Tomb Raider is, at its heart, a game of puzzles. But instead of solving a sequence of numbers or some fancy riddle, the puzzle is the environment itself. Clambering across the walls, swinging from poles and kicking against surfaces to launch towards precarious ledges that seem so close – yet so far – is at the heart of the Tomb Raider experience. Holding your breath is a prerequisite and a warm moment of satisfaction when you conquer a series of climbs is the reward. If Lara can’t deliver these two things, her game fails.
Underworld is the proper sequel to 2006’s Tomb Raider Legend (2007’s Tomb Raider Anniversary was a remake of the first Tomb Raider game) and doesn’t fail in that regard. In fact, it ups the ante in quite a few ways, adding new moves and challenges into the mix. The levels are epic, as is the story, and the ultimate feeling of satisfaction is only rivalled by how often you’ll scream at Lara as she falls to her frequent deaths.
Controllers will be thrown, curse words will be amplified – and then you’ll try again. There is some kind of masochism that comes with Tomb Raider that is equally frustrating and enjoyable. Underworld gets the balance right. It’s also really damn pretty and one of the best games of the past year. There is clearly still a lot of life left in gaming’s biggest centerfold star. James Francis. Available in stores
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
1/7 (PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360)
No matter what PETA might think, there’s something hugely satisfying about making Darth Vader rampage though a wookiee village, literally causing fur to fly as he lobs the hairy warriors off bridges and parapets. Sadly you only play Vader at the start Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. After the first level, control switches to his apprentice, Starkiller, in a story that (under the dubious supervision of George Lucas) looks to bridge the gap between the latest Star Wars films and the original ’70s flicks.
The PS3, PC and Xbox 360 versions are all graphically impressive, with lovely touches like doors buckling under the power of the force, and the scenery looks like it could have come directly from the films. But graphics aren’t everything, and you’ll soon find yourself resenting the rest of it. For a start, it’s disappointingly linear, when a more free-roaming sandbox approach would have fitted the point of the game – hunting down Jedi for Vader – far more comfortable. The only concession to choice occurs towards the finish, when you are given the choice between two endings, one of which leads nicely into the first Star Wars film, while the other sees Darth Vader killed and continuity thoroughly knackered. Still, the story is one of the few highlights of the game, and probably the only thing that will keep you going.
Less impressive is the variety, or lack thereof: The Force Unleashed is horribly samey. And as we all know, sameness leads to repetition, repetition leads to boredom and boredom leads to the dark side. Most enemies are burdened with artificial stupidity rather than artificial intelligence, and even your Jedi prey never put up much of a fight – mindlessly hacking away with your lightsaber and throwing a bit of lightning around will deal with most of them.
Wii owners, of course, will have all of these problems without the benefit of great graphics. But the one trump card they were holding on to – the use of the Wii remote to manipulate the lightsaber (who didn’t wave their controller about, making ‘whvumm, whvumm’ noises the first time they got it?) – has also turned out to be a disappointment. Yep, the Wii controls are unintuitive and fiddly, and another example of the way that The Force Unleashed has missed almost every opportunity thrown at it.
George Lucas will no doubt continue to (ab)use the force and wring as much from his franchise as he can, but while this is a nice addition to the canon of the Star Wars universe, it’s not a great game. Much like the film prequels, it looks great but is massively lacking in substance. A real shame. Matt Pomroy. Available in stores